December 25, 2013

Ass-kickin' Chutzpah

Denny Neilson and his son Matt at The Winemaker
shop in Mevasseret Zion.
Going out to see Denny Neilson in Mevasseret Zion is a nostalgic trip.

My diploma.
I took Denny's beer-making course in 2008 and in all humility, that's when I went from beer-lover to beer aficionado.  Denny made it official by awarding me an MBA certificate (Master of Beer Appreciation).

Denny welcomed me in his little shop, "The Winemaker," at 99 Shimon Swissa Street.  "I'm afraid we have to talk here," he apologized, "because these are the hours that I have to man the store."

Denny is a true expert in what he calls the "fermentation arts."  He might have gotten in on the crest of the Israeli wine and beer boom -- or he might have helped create it.  At any rate, "The Winemaker" is today a very active enterprise, and is engaged in four distinct activities:

1) Teaching -- Wine-making, home-brewing, and, most recently, home-distillation.

2) Selling equipment and ingredients for making beer, wine and liquor at home.

3) Fermenting and marketing apple cider under the Buster's label.

4) Brewing and marketing Chutzpah IPA under the Isra-Ale label.  This is what got me out here -- but more later.

Buster's apple cider and Chutzpah IPA.
Denny has been teaching home brewing and wine-making for years.  He has provided the knowledge and wherewithal for a generation of home-fermenters.

He explains: "When we came on aliya ten years ago and I told people what I want to do, they said, 'Nobody drinks beer.'  But we believed there was a market for people who wanted to make their own beer and wine.  We wanted to provide a one-stop service for all of their needs.  Our motto is, 'If we don't have it, you don't need it.'"

In addition to continuing courses in beer- and wine-making, Denny is introducing classes in distillation next month.  "So many people applied," he says, "that we had to add on two additional groups."  During the course of six months, the classes will make their own single malt whiskey, "moonshine," vodka and fruit brandy.

Denny believes part of the interest in home distillation is due to the high tax on liquors.  "People can make their own hard drinks at a fraction of the cost," he says, "but distillation can be very dangerous -- the liquids are very flammable and can even explode.  And if you don't know what you're doing, you can end up with the poisonous methyl alcohol instead of the drinkable stuff, ethyl alcohol.

"We're starting the classes to teach people how to home-distill safely."

In the area of apple cider, Denny recently opened a fermenting plant in Beit Shemesh, and is now the third largest cider producer in Israel.  ("Don't get too excited," he admits. "There might only be three real cider producers in Israel anyway.")

If you've ever tried Buster's cider at a beer festival or pub, or bought it at a retail store, you know it's a delicious drink.  I'm not much a cider fancier, but for me, apple cider is intimately linked with the North American autumn: outdoor sports, powdered donuts, fireplaces.  But Buster's is definitely a year-round drink.  Denny said that the "kosher for Passover" apple cider is in high demand over Passover, when beer is forbidden.  Buster's is available in the sweet variety (4.8% alcohol) or the dry (6.7% alcohol).                    

Now it's time for a little Chutzpah, what you've all been waiting for.  This is the only beer currently being brewed at The Winemaker.  "We call it an 'ass-kickin' IPA,' a beer drinker's beer," says Denny.  "We make only 100 bottles a week, and most of the time, we're sold out in advance."

Denny poured me a glass of Chutzpah and, so help me, you can smell the hops as soon as he popped the cap.  Chutzpah is made with six different expensive hops, and in quantities five to seven times the amount used in most Israeli beers.  It is dry-hopped twice; once in a glass demijohn during regular fermentation, and then again seven days later in a different demijohn.

All told, it takes 3-4 weeks to prepare each batch of Chutzpah.  All the beer is then kegged before being bottled under pressure.  The carbonation is kept low by strictly controlling the level of CO2 introduced into the beer.  There is no second fermentation in the bottle so that there is no sediment on the bottom.  "We understand that customers want the beer to have a certain eye appeal," says Denny, "and we achieve that without giving up on quality."

There is no doubt that Chutzpah is not a beer for everybody. (Denny says that he always asks first-time drinkers, "Are you sure?" before he draws them a pint of Chutzpah.)  The intense aroma and taste of hops, the bitterness that floods over your tongue, the citrusy undertone -- all this will wallop the taste buds of anybody used to drinking tamer beers.

Because of the huge quantity of fresh hops used in making Chutzpah, it must be drunk fresh.  "After about two weeks, the taste of the hops begins the dissipate and the malt becomes dominant," says Denny.  "If we happen to have any Chutzpah in the shop which passes the two-week mark, I drink it myself."

That's the main reason you won't find Chutzpah in your local liquor store.  With a shelf-life of only two weeks, Denny will only sell it at his own shop in Mevasseret Zion.  The other reason is that Chutzpah doesn't fit into the commercial model for retail beers.  With the extra time and expense needed to brew it, and the extensive labor, Chutzpah would have to sell at a cost higher than most retailers will allow.  "Liquor stores don't really care about the quality or the ingredients of the beers they sell," Denny explains.  "They just want the price to be low enough for quick sales.  They don't think they could sell Chutzpah at the price we would need."

I respectfully disagreed with Denny, arguing that in my experience, there exists a niche market of Israelis who are willing to pay more for quality products, be it cars, clothing or alcohol.
 I don't think I convinced Denny about retail stores, but he did reveal that Chutzpah may soon be available in draught at selected pubs and restaurants, since kegs have to be finished anyway within a few days.

Denny also told me that, in addition to Buster's cider and Chutzpah beer, The Winemaker will be unveiling a third alcoholic beverage in the spring.  He would only call it "Product X," and promised that it would be special.  "Start getting thirsty," he said.

I will be sure to let all of my readers know about Product X; Denny promised to invite me to the inaugural event!  In the meantime, take it from this certified MBA that it is worth a trip to The Winemaker to bring home a six-pack (or more) of Chutzpah IPA.  You won't find its like anywhere else in Israel.     

December 18, 2013

Say it ain't so, Ben!

A little ways down on the right side of this web log, you will notice a famous quote by Benjamin Frankin, to wit,
"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
Beer blogs and websites, brewers large and small, and beer lovers everywhere are fond of that quote.  You can see it on posters, mugs and t-shirts and lots of other beer paraphernalia.  It's popular because it sums up our own feelings, especially those of us with some connection to American history and culture.  Ben Franklin's intellect, wit and personality helped shape the American revolution and the society that it built.  His sayings are as much a part of the American heritage as Bible quotations are of Israel's.  

Only, Ben never said that one about beer.

In the Urban Legends section of, the brewing historian (why don't I remember that  being a career option when I was in college?) Bob Skilnik, debunks the notion that Ben Franklin ever said that.  Skilnik says that the closest Ben came to that sentiment is in a letter he wrote to Andre Morellet, the French economist and philosopher, in 1779:
"Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy."
So there you have it.  Ben Franklin, that admirer of all things French, was writing about wine.

No matter.  I'm going to keep that beer quote on my blog, because even if Ben didn't say it, he could have.  And after all, no matter who said it first, we can still believe it's true.    

December 16, 2013

Snowy Jerusalem, strong beer -- epilogue

Shabbat (December 14) in Jerusalem was cold and snowy. People are calling it the worst storm in Israel in 150 years! Nothing moved. Walking along the icy streets was dangerous. Certain neighborhoods spent the day, and beyond, without electricity.

Fortunately, we had light and heat -- and a delicious lunch. Trudy made a winter-vegetable shepherd's pie which was scrumptious and just right for the stormy day. It was complemented by a 75 centiliter (25 1/2 ounce) bottle of Kasteel Cuvee du Chateau 2012, a strong Belgian ale, 11% alcohol by volume, and brewed only since 2010 by the famous Castle Brewery Van Honsebrouck in West Flanders, Belgium. 

Since this is not a beer to be quaffed ice-cold (especially on this kind of a day), I took it out of the refigerator a half-hour before we ate. This is a beer that not only has a printed vintage, but you open it like a bottle of champagne, with a wire net and a pop cork. That only added to the festivities.

Cuvee du Chateau pours out the darkest of browns and has a rich, creamy head like an egg cream (for those of you who remember such things). The taste is heavily roasted malt, that fills your mouth with flavor, leaving just a little room for the bitterness of the (British) hops.

Cuvee du Chateau can be classified as an English-style "barley wine," which simply refers to a dark and strong ale, not very hoppy, which has the same alcoholic content as wine, that is, 8% - 12% by volume. Barley wines are often sold with a vintage, as is Cuvee du Chateau, and may even be aged like fine wines.

I'm not one to tell you about the "nose" and the "finish" and the "hints" of blackberry or wet grass or kiwi or whatever. I'll leave that to the many beer rating and tasting sites. These make sense when you're tasting beer by itself, with nothing else in your mouth. But Cuvee du Chateau is a great beer whose taste and alcohol strength are perfect when part of a flavorful winter meal. One-on-one, I may prefer the hoppier, bitterer pale ales and IPAs, but Cuvee du Chateau is meant for food and should not be separated from what it adds to a meal.

Trudy, not a great beer drinker, didn't want her own glass, but couldn't resist reaching over and taking sips from mine.

All in all, it was a lovely and delicious Shabbat lunch, and I'm pleased to share it vicariously with all of you. Since my web log is primarily concerned with Israeli boutique beers, I will continue my search for the Israeli beers which can accompany a winter meal as perfectly as Cuvee du Chateau.

December 14, 2013

What makes a beer "kosher"?

Being neither a rabbi nor the son of a rabbi (hah!), I don't intend to tell people how they should approach the kashrut of beer; whether this or that beer, or any beer, needs a certification that it conforms to Jewish dietary laws before we can drink it.

However, by popular demand, I have spoken with some Orthodox rabbis, studied with them, and done some research on the internet. Although this is far from comprehensive, I hope that what I have learned will help clarify this situation.

Ancient beer ingredients included emmer
wheat, wild yeast, chamomile,
thyme and oregano.
To begin at the beginning, the Talmud (discussions which took place in Babylon over 1,500 years ago) actually relates to the kashrut of beer, specifically beer which is brewed by a non-Jew.  In the tractate of Avodah Zarah, 31B, the rabbis never question whether beer (shechar in Hebrew) is non-kosher because of its ingredients.  Rather, they ask whether Jews can drink the product of non-Jewish brewers.  The consensus is definitely yes, although some hold reservations about whether it should be drunk in the home, shop or pub of the non-Jew.  For example, Rav Papa, a famous Jewish beer brewer, would drink the beer of a non-Jew, but only when it was brought out to him to the door of the shop.  Rabbi Ahai went even further, insisting that the beer of the non-Jews be brought all the way to his home.  The problem here is not whether the beer is kosher, but whether such "socializing" will lead to intermarriage.

There is also a mention of hops (keeshoot in Hebrew), which I had no idea were present in the Middle East at that time.  I thought that other ingredients were added to ancient beers for flavor and bitterness, while hops I associated with more modern times and northern climes.  But the Talmud clearly says that hops were part of the brewing process, and the bitterness they produce protects the drinker from even snake venom which may be in the beer!  Health food addicts take note.

Elsewhere in the Talmud, Rabbi Zeira relates that when he grew weary from too much studying(!), he would take a pitcher of beer to the entrance of Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ami's yeshiva and pour a mug for each Torah scholar as he left the building.  That way, he said, even though he was not keeping the commandment of studying Torah, he was keeping the commandment of honoring Torah scholars.    

This has remained the decision of later Jewish legal commentators as well: beer does not present any problems of kashrut, but just don't drink it in social situations with non-Jews, or you'll end up marrying their daughters.  As the old joke says, if you drink enough beer, all women begin to look beautiful.

Moving into modern times, almost all of the internet sites which give rabbinic decisions agree that all un-flavored beer, made from the traditional ingredients of water, grain, hops and yeast, is generically kosher and does not need any certification.  For beer drinkers who care about such things, that's good news.  It puts the world of beer into our glasses.

There are no oysters in
Marston's Oyster Stout.

However, concerns arise when the beer has additives or flavorings.  These days, some brewers are adding anything and everything to beers -- fruits, herbs, honey, chocolate, coffee, tea, wine, spirits, chicken, oysters, clam juice, milk or cream, pizza, bacon, peanut butter -- you name it.  Although beer purists would probably forswear such indecencies, flavored beers are growing in popularity.  (As are flavored vodkas and, probably, flavored anything else.)

These additives and flavorings might cause kashrut problems, and therefore, kosher-only eaters and drinkers would want to look for certification on the bottle.  Many beers in the U.S. and Europe, and as far as I know, all Israeli beers, are certified kosher by some rabbinical authority, so finding good beers with kosher certification should be no problem.

One of my neighborhood rabbis, remembering like me the old days in New York, said that no observant Jew then even thought of the kashrut question when drinking beer.  Ditto for any booze except wine, which has its own more strict laws.  These days, he continued, there has been a shift towards more and more stringency among religious Jews, and this has led them to look for kosher certification even on beer.

Another neighborhood rabbi, a respected writer and scholar not only in the field of Talmud and Jewish law,  said very straightforward:        
"Although halachic [Jewish law] problems regarding beer are a possibility, they are rather rare. Therefore, beer doesn't need a hechsher [kosher certification]."
So there you have have it, my fellow beer lovers.  If you thought I would give you an easy answer, I'm sorry.  As with most things in life, the choice is yours.

I am perhaps not a good example of someone who listens to all rabbinical authority, but there is one decision that I refuse to even consider.  It is reported that the founder of Hassidic Judaism, Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer (born 1698), often called the Baal Shem Tov or the Besht, taught that one should not say "L'chaim" over beer.  Perhaps one of my readers could tell me the reason.

At any rate, I will continue to raise my beer glass with friends and family, over good food, bad food or no food, at quiet meetings or riotous celebrations, and say out loud, "L'chaim!"   

December 13, 2013

Snowy Jerusalem, strong beer

Snow began falling in Jerusalem yesterday, Thursday, December 12, and continued last night.  This morning we woke up to a city beautiful in white but at a standstill.  Few cars, no busses, no light rail, no newspapers, no school, most stores closed. We've heard reports that this is a record snowstorm for December, and perhaps for all time.      

View from my rear window, Friday, December 13, 7:30 a.m.

Yesterday, Trudy and I walked through the "blizzard" to the supermarket to buy ingredients for a winter vegetable shepherd's pie that she is now making for Shabbat.  I put one of the bottles of Belgian beer that I got as a birthday present from my children into the fridge for Shabbat lunch.  I have chosen Kasteel Cuvee du Chateau 2012, a beer with a vintage and 11% alcohol by volume, for this occasion.  I hope to write a review of it afterwards.  I have been saving these ales, strong in malt and alcohol, for such wintry days.  I'm sure there are Israeli beers with similar attributes and I will try to find them.  But for tomorrow, we're giving the Belgians a chance. 
Shabbat Shalom,

December 8, 2013

My problem with Taybeh Beer.

On the face of it, we should be happy that Taybeh Beer is sold in Israel.

You've got to hand it to them.  The spunky Khoury brothers, David and Nadim, returned to their West Bank village of Taybeh after the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords.  The Christian brothers had been businessmen in the U.S. for 35 years.  And what did they do?  They invested the family money and their considerable talents in opening a brewery in the heart of a Moslem population.  This is akin to opening a pork sausage factory in Mea Shearim!

Now as far as I know, Christians and Jews have been making arak and other distilled spirits in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Jordan for generations -- but I've never heard of any beer brewers.

So not only is the Khoury family a ground breaker in the Islamic world, but they were also the first craft brewery between the Mediterranean and the Jordan to challenge Israel's industrial beer makers.
Taybeh means "delicious" in Arabic.

And . . . they make good beer.  I remember tasting Taybeh shortly after they began brewing  in 1995, and licking my lips.  Today, the Taybeh brewery produces 600,000 liters of beer a year(!), selling half of that to Palestinians, 40% to Israelis, and 10% abroad, including  Europe and Japan.  The beer is also brewed and bottled under license in Germany. They are no longer a microbrewery.

Taybeh makes five beers, each labeled according to its color.  There's a Golden, a Dark, an Amber, a Light, and a non-alcoholic beer (something to keep religious Moslems happy, I guess).  There is nothing especially "Palestinian" or even Middle Eastern about these beers.  They are all brewed in the tried and true German traditional style.  But they are all very drinkable; excellent alternatives to our industrially brewed beer.  We should be celebrating.

But yet . . .

The Khoury family has chosen confrontation over fermentation.  Although the Taybeh website is free of politics (except for the press clippings), the Khourys never miss an opportunity to attack Israel, the "occupation," the "settlers" around Taybeh.  If their company isn't growing fast enough, its the fault of the Israeli security checks and bureaucracy.  If shipping their export beer takes too long, it's because Israel discriminates against them.  "Anti-Israel" has become as much a part of the Taybeh Beer brand as the "pure brewing" and "building Palestine" narratives.

"Drink Taybeh and taste the revolution" is one of their slogans.  Which "revolution" is that?  Is that the one that Yasser Arafat started out of the barrel of his gun?  Or is that the one that the Khourys started by brewing beer in a hostile Moslem environment?  "This is our resistance to occupation," is what Nadim Khoury says in one of their videos, while he takes part in another titled, "Palestine, Beer and Oktoberfest -- Under Occupation."

 His sister-in-law, Dr. Maria Khoury, the wife of David, is particularly vicious, blaming Israel not only for all the family's problems but also for the emigration of Christians from the West Bank, as if Islamic extremism plays no role.
Fermentation . . . or confrontation?

I understand the need for the Christian minority living under PLO rule to show that they are no less nationalistic than the Moslems.  They are a community under constant harrassment and attack.  Young Christians are leaving the West Bank as Moslem rule becomes less and less bearable.  The Palestinians who had come back to invest in their homeland following the Oslo Accords were caught by surprise when Arafat started his 2000 intifada.  Almost all of them fled back to where they came from.  But the Khourys had invested too much to flee.  They stayed and today feel beleaguered.  I understand.

But show some balance, some humility.  The Israeli security measures are not aimed at keeping the brewery business small, but at keeping Israelis alive.  Before Arafat's intifada there were no problems with security checks.  The Khoury brothers know this.              

The truth is that the Palestinian Authority frowns on all private initiative that it does not control, that does not stream money towards its corrupt officials.  [See:]

Another thing:  Since 2005, the Taybeh Brewery has been hosting a beer festival known as the Oktoberfest in Taybeh village.  (Since the only beer served is Taybeh, it's not much a beer festival, but that's another story.)  Thousands of people come from Israel, the West Bank and even foreign countries to drink beer, buy Palestinian handicrafts and eat felafel.

Oktoberfest: Kicked 
out of Taybeh.
This year, for the first time, the Taybeh city council refused to allow the festival to take place.  Nadim Khoury himself was shot at and his car was destroyed by a Molotov cocktail.  The council demanded an exorbitant sum from Khoury, but that's not the only reason he decided to relocate the Oktoberfest to a hotel in Ramallah.  The growing Islamic extremism in the Palestinian territories simply could not tolerate a festival where the sexes mingle and people drink alcohol in public.

The independent Palestinian state that the Khourys give lip service to, will not be tolerant and democratic, any more than the Palestinian Authority is today.  If Hamas and other Islamist parties take control, as many commentators say they might, the alcohol-marketing Khoury family may end up as the fifth ingredient in their beer kettles.      

After the Oktoberfest was cancelled in Taybeh, Nadim Khoury himself admitted  that Palestinian culture "is not one of working hard and making wealth.  The culture here is . . . one of jealousy, corruption and blackmail."  So maybe everything isn't Israel's fault after all.

I call on Nadim Khoury and his family to end the anti-Israel double talk, to get out of politics altogether and just brew beer.  Not for the glory of Palestine or for "resisting occupation," but for the taste and the pleasure it brings.  Chill out.  Sit back and pour a beer and try to dissipate some of the hate you harbor for those Jewish neighbors on the hill.  You'll find they may be important allies in your fight for religious tolerance, minority rights, private initiative and government reform in your homeland.  They may even turn out to be your best customers in all of Judea and Samaria -- even if it's one day called "Palestine."