We’re drinking cold cider on tap at Buster’s Beverage Company in Beit Shemesh, an Israeli city not far from the spot where David aimed his slingshot at the menacing Goliath.

If the notorious giant had sipped some of this alcoholic apple juice, maybe he would have been a mellower opponent.

But alas, nobody was in the cider industry here in 1025 BCE. Fermented apple juice was still unknown in Israel when Pam and Denny Neilson and family emigrated from Tennessee in 2003 and began a homebrewed beer and winemaking business.

As a mentor and supplier, Denny deserves much of the credit for the rise of Israeli microbreweries, and his own Isra-Ale proved to be an award-winner.

A few years ago, Denny and son Matt turned their attention to cider (called “hard cider” in the United States). “Alcoholic cider is an extremely popular drink across the world and most recently in America, to the point where there are 27 cider bars in Manhattan,” says Denny.

Matt and Denny Neilson. Photo: courtesy
Matt and Denny Neilson. Photo: courtesy

Indeed, the cider market in the UK has soared to about £1 billion annually, and in the US cider sales rose dramatically to $366 million in 2014.

It took the Neilsons three years to perfect their product, named in homage to their golden retriever, Buster.

They opened a visitors center at their Beit Shemesh facility in November 2013 and added Buster’s Hard Lemonade to the product line in summer 2014 following two years of development.

It’s about being cool

ISRAEL21c visited Buster’s Beverage Company on a Friday morning as Pam and Denny were relaxing on the hand-built deck, drinking a pink alcoholic concoction that they introduced on April 1 as Buster’s Cranberry Lemonade.

“Welcome to our little slice of America in the Judean Hills,” says Denny.

Buster's Cranberry Lemonade. Photo: courtesy
Buster’s Cranberry Lemonade. Photo: courtesy

We start with a sampling of Buster’s 67, the dry variety with 6.7 percent alcohol. It tastes similar to beer. “Technically we’re a winery, not a brewery,” says Denny. “Instead of crushing grapes to get wine, we crush apples to get apple wine, which most of the world calls cider.”

To be exact, the crushing is done at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel near Caesarea, where the green and yellow apples (sweeter than red, Denny learned from experience) are grown. “They do all the prep there antiseptically and send us the juice in barrels and bags.”

Denny Neilson in the Buster’s factory. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman
Denny Neilson in the Buster’s factory. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman

Pam’s favorite is what was originally called Buster’s 48, a sweeter cider with lower alcohol content and no added sugar. Lots of customers favor the honey, cinnamon and clove-spiced cider that the Neilsons introduced last Rosh Hashana, a holiday associated with apples and honey.

“We were only going to make 3,000 bottles but we ended up making 20,000 because people are clamoring for it,” says Denny. “It won’t be available all year long; only in colder months.”

Buster’s sells three varieties of cider and a hard lemonade. Photo: courtesy
Buster’s sells three varieties of cider and a hard lemonade. Photo: courtesy

While Israel now has one other brand of cider – Sideffect from Kibbutz El-Rom Winery in the Golan Heights – nobody else here makes alcoholic lemonade and probably no other commercial venture anywhere makes it from real lemons as the Neilsons do.

“It’s incredibly costly and lemons are very unstable, but the reward is when people drink it, they say ‘Wow.’ It’s just really special. It’s gotten so popular it’s now served on tap in all the little places on the beach in Tel Aviv.

“It ain’t about making money; it’s about being cool,” says Denny, who also launched a line of spirits under the Pioneer label.

After the tastings, we file past the “Shalom y’all” sign into the factory, where Denny explains the process that begins inside shiny 1,000-liter fermentation tanks.

Buster’s pasteurized and carbonated cider gets shipped to more than 100 retailers around Israel — mainly delis, cheese shops and smaller markets.

The recently opened Beer Bazaar in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda marketplace had Buster’s spiced apple cider on tap until switching to hard lemonade in the spring, owner Avi Moskowitz tells ISRAEL21c.

Buster’s and Sideffect bottled ciders provide a gluten-free, softer alternative to the 100 different styles of Israeli craft beers sold at Beer Bazaar.

“The response has been very positive,” says Moskowitz. “In general, Buster’s continues to come up with products of high quality that appeal to the market. They filled a vacuum and … it’s coming from a place that is passionate and is supporting the local economy.”

The Neilsons, who frequently host Birthright groups, want to further support the local economy by spreading the word about other places to visit in the Elah (Ella) Valley in which Beit Shemesh is located.

Shapiro Beer is right next door to Buster’s. “About half of Israel’s microbreweries are in the Elah Valley,” says Pam.

Some other nearby attractions are the Ella Valley Winery, cheese-making goat farms and the Biblical Natural History Museum.

Buster’s visitors center in the Nacham Industrial Park is open Fridays from 9 to 1 for tastings and tours; the storefront is open Monday to Thursday from 10 to 5 (054-638-1106).

The cider house at Kibbutz El-Rom does not have a visitors center or tour, but Sideffect is sold (among other places) in the kibbutz’s tourist center (04-683-8291).