Sampling craft beers in the Holy Land

Sampling craft beers in the Holy Land

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By Nick Appleyard
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A sense of revolution is playing a central part in an unlikely craft beer scene currently thriving in the heart of the Middle East. Fearless beer-loving Yorkshireman Nick Appleyard set off in search of the best pint he could find on either side of Israel’s security barrier.

It’s fair to say the Holy Land hasn’t got a reputation for interesting beer: Palestinian porter and Israeli IPA sound more like modern weaponry than refreshing drinks. This is understandable because for generations the only beer you could drink in downtown Jerusalem or Tel Aviv came in the form of an imported, mass-produced pint of lager. For several decades, Western diplomats and war reporters had to brew beer in their own bathtub if they wanted it to taste of anything. This, however, is now changing.

Upon arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, I was faced with the prospect of hitching a ride to Jerusalem. It was Shabbat. For those of you unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Jewish faith (like I was), this is the day of rest and the entire country shuts down for 24 hours starting at sunset on a Friday. This means no public transport. I had unwittingly arrived in the country after dark and the train station bore an eerie resemblance to the apocalypse.

Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel, Middle East

Fortunately I managed to find a shared taxi – or sherut – heading to Jerusalem and within 40 minutes was dropped off at the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City. Israel is a small country – we had driven right across it in less than an hour.

Despite being just a stone’s throw from the Dome of the Rock, Western Wall and Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I had other things in mind and set out to find some local beer.

There are many non-Kosher bars in Jerusalem where the secular community ignores Shabbat and enjoys a Friday night like any other across the western world. I bar hopped along the lively Ben Sira Street before settling in to the Tel Aviv Kitchen & Bar. It was here I had my first taste of the Middle East’s exciting craft beer revolution. This was a bottle of Shapiro Pale Ale, brewed in nearby Beit Shemesh, which glowed a bright hazy orange and tasted of pine and fruits. It put my experience of drinking Goldstar (Israel’s big-brewery version of nondescript lager) right to the back of my mind. I was very grateful.

The following day I stood at the grave of Oscar Schindler, visited Temple Mount and countless other sacred sites before climbing the Tower of David. After an exhausting eight-hours of sightseeing in the searing heat, I headed to the much-hyped Chakra restaurant for some much-needed nourishment. This was on the recommendation of celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi so expectations were high.

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The menu offered deconstructed versions of classic Middle Eastern fare and I was not disappointed. The food was delicious and the service exemplary but it was Jerusalem’s very own Herzl microbrewery which stole the show. Chakra uses only the freshest local ingredients and this extends to the beer. At 7% ABV, Herzl’s American-style IPA was full of citrusy hops and packed a great punch.

IMG_0531Returning back to my hotel I passed the King David Hotel, the former military and administrative headquarters during British rule of Palestine some 70 years ago. The building was destroyed by Jewish paramilitaries prior to the declaration of the state of Israel. It has since been restored back to its former glory and is now the darling of wealthy tourists, visiting dignitaries and businessmen alike. There is a real sense of both history and conflict on every street in Jerusalem and there’s no shortage of people willing to tell you about it.

The following morning I took a bus ride through one of Israel’s infamous checkpoints into the West Bank. When I pictured this landlocked territory, the first thing that would spring to mind was militants, soldiers and protests. And it’s true; the occupation is very much in full swing. But there is no sense of immediate danger – either side of the barrier. Despite what the headlines might tell you.

Ramallah is currently booming. Its skyline resembles London’s – littered with cranes as the authorities rebuild the city that still bears the scars of recent wars. Lively impromptu street markets can be found on most corners, with vendors selling a range of fresh breads, oversized bunches of herbs and pots of buttery corn. Car horns and traffic jams provide a constant hectic backdrop.

The previous night somebody had told me about a Palestinian microbrewery in the village of Taybeh. So I took a sherut from the city’s bullet-pocked bus station in the direction of the brewery. Don’t be put off by this unlikely-looking transport hub, which resembles a dingy multi-story car park. The locals are more than happy to direct you towards the correct vehicle and journeys cost less than £3.

I was dropped off right outside the brewery. Founded by a Christian family in 1994 following the signing of the Oslo Accords peace treaty, it reflects an age when people were optimistic about the future of this region.

According to its founder, Nadim Khoury, the brewery was set up with the blessing of the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who agreed that if the people were to have their own country then they must have their own beer. Ironically, Tony Blair now drops in for a pint when he visits the region as part of his role as envoy to the Middle East.

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“Brewing in Palestine is unlike brewing anywhere else in the world,” Nadim concedes. “Moving our beer through the checkpoints causes problems, as does importing our ingredients through Israeli ports where we have to pay an agent to act as a go-between. We now have to synchronise our brew days with when water is available.”

Taybeh was the first microbrewery in the Middle East and now produces more than one million pints of beer a year, as well as holding an annual beer festival in October. It brews five beers using traditional German techniques. The dark beer, or porter, was my favourite by a long shot.

The brewery’s backdrop is as phenomenal as its short history. It is surrounded by olive groves and mountains in what is otherwise a sleepy village. This makes it well worth navigating military checkpoints and a bumpy taxi ride to pay a visit.

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The next day I found myself in a very different setting at Herzl Brewery back in the industrial suburbs of Jerusalem. Here I met Maor Helfman and Itai Gutman who told me of their own very different struggle.

Israel’s smallest and Jerusalem’s only brewery, Herzl opened in 2012 – the year tax on beer doubled. Maor and Itai’s distaste for the finance minister who introduced the tariff is evident as he stares back at me from a dartboard hanging on the wall.

“How can you take money from the people? They are killing a growing industry,” Maor stresses. “We must unite the breweries to fight them.”

Both keen homebrewers, they took separate internships at the BrewDog brewery in Scotland before ever meeting. This background is evident in their outlandish recipes involving ingredients such as dandelion, grit and honey. Herzl currently produces around 7,000 bottles a month and there are ambitions to export.

Itai urged me to visit the Beer Market in Jaffa before I left the country. This boutique-bottle-shop-cum-bar sits beside the Mediterranean Sea in a regenerated port, which plays host to dozens of food stalls. It was a great shout and I had the fortune to taste several more local beers before heading off to the airport.

IMG_0079All in all, the trip had been a revelation. From a defiant pair of young Israelis operating out of mankind’s most hotly-contested city to a Christian family making beer in a tiny Palestinian village under military occupation, a craft beer revolution is spreading right across the Middle East. To my great surprise both the Palestinian Porter and Israeli IPA actually existed … and they tasted pretty good too.

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