Beer is almost as old as recorded history. The ancient Egyptians drank it, as did the Mesopotamians. Hammurabi’s code even regulated how it was made and where it was consumed. And though wine was the drink of choice of the ancient Israelites, modern Israelis have increasingly quenched their thirst with beer.
The modern history of beer in the Holy Land has been dominated by two industrial brands: Goldstar and Maccabee, brewed from 1950 and 1968 respectively. Tuborg and Carlsberg, which are brewed domestically, joined the scene in 1992. These are all light, easy-drinking beers — the stuff zayde might drink on a hot day.
But the beer story in Israel is changing.
International brands have proliferated on makolet (corner grocery) shelves and from barroom taps since the mid-1990s. And, more recently, Israeli craft brewers have begun offering a range of small-batch, artisanal beers. Israelis have developed a taste for the seasonal varieties and experimental flavors characteristic of craft beers, which they first encountered abroad. “People are now looking for better bread, better cheese, better chocolate, and the same thing is happening with beer,” said Ori Sagy, the founder of Alexander Brewery in Northern Israel. “We’re part of a small revolution.” Sagy, a retired fighter pilot, is characteristic of Israel’s new breed of craft brewers: He’s passionate about beer and found the offerings in the Israeli market wanting.
The local brewing scene’s trailblazer is considered by most to be Dancing Camel of Tel Aviv, which opened in 2006. While many Israelis love the deep, hoppy taste of their homegrown brews, what they often don’t know is that the origins of these craft beers lie in an American brewing tradition that was first brought to the region by a Palestinian brewer.
More than a decade before Dancing Camel opened, Nadim Khoury, an affable, middle-aged Palestinian Christian, opened Taybeh brewery on the outskirts of Ramallah. Taybeh was certified kosher and marketed to Israelis. But, with the onset of the second intifada, Taybeh lost its kosher certification and is now hard to find in Israel. However, its influence lives on. Israeli microbrews have followed Taybeh’s hoppy taste, which itself is strongly reminiscent of American craft brews such as Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada, the beers favored and emulated by Khoury.
For Khoury, brewing started as a dorm-room hobby at Boston College in the 1980s, and was carried home in a suitcase. “I would bring one or two home-brew kits and make beer for my family,” he said. “They were surprised that I was making good beer.” Khoury’s family encouraged him to study brewing back in the United States.
After Khoury moved back to the Middle East and set up his brewery, Taybeh sold its first batch at the height of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 1995. The beer proved extremely popular among Israelis. “When we opened we were selling 70% to Israel,” said Khoury. “There was no checkpoint; there was no wall. It was easy to get in.”
Then came the second intifada, and with it declining sales. Taybeh lost its kashrut certification, and today Khouri says he sells only 30% of his output to the Israeli market. Taybeh is now largely limited to the periphery, bars described by Israeli brewmaster Itzik Shapiro, of Shapiro Beer in Beit Shemesh, as “places where artists, leftists and hipsters hang out.”