March 18, 2008

Kibbutznik Yochai Kudler is helping spur the movement in Israel towards specialty beers with his own award-winning home brew.Every weekend Yochai Kudler busies himself around industrial size pots and giant plastic bins in a vacant room on Kibbutz Urin in the Negev Desert. His homemade beer brews along with his ambition as he prepares for this year’s Israel’s annual home brewers contest and the dream of opening his own microbrewery.

While the wine industry in Israel has exploded in recent years – with internationally recognized labels such as Yarden, Golan, and Gamla – the beer game is rather new. The land of milk of honey, it seems, may be on its way to becoming the land of hops and barley.

Kudler, 28, who recently coined his specialty beers ‘Negev Brewery,’ is among hundreds of hobbyists trying to break into Israel’s emerging local beer market and convince Israelis that there is more to a brewski than the generic Maccabi and Goldstar lagers.

Kudler, a student at Ben Gurion University, is already halfway there. His innovative smoked salmon porter won him “Best in Show” at last year’s home brewing contest, besting 100 other entries.

“In the beginning, everyone looked at me and sort of knew what I was doing, but once I was in the papers they were proud of me,” Kudler told ISRAEL21c, of the curious kibbutz members and friends that surrounded him when he first began cooking and preparing beer on the lawn outside his house four years ago.

Kudler’s love for beer originated, of all places, in Alaska, where he lived for two summers. There, he first flirted with the process of making beer. Drawing on the expertise of locals, he managed to win a first place prize for dark beers in an Alaskan contest.

“I learned there are beautiful places in the world,” Kudler, who was born on Kibbutz Urin, said of his time in Alaska. After returning to Israel in 2003, however, Kudler realized Israel wasn’t a beautiful place for making beer. Struggling to find the proper materials and tools, Kudler used ingredients from Alaska he had packed in his luggage, scavenged for materials at the flea market in Jaffa, and even made his own equipment in order to continue his dream.

To get started, he used pots intended for the army and 20-liter milk bottles to make and store the beer. His initial aim back in 2003, was to make his own small-scale specialty beers that weren’t available in Israel. Since then he’s specialized mostly in ales, particularly India Pale Ale, a style rarely found in Israel.

In 2004, Kudler returned to the US to perfect his craft at a brewery in Boulder, Colorado and last October, after winning the Israeli first-place prize, he travelled back to Colorado to attend the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

Home-brewed beers like Kudler’s are dwarfed in Israel by the Goldstar and Maccabi brands, and the many popular beers now imported from Europe. These mass-produced products are familiar to travelers and native Israelis, but lack the eccentricity of the locally brewed beers.

Tucked away in kibbutzim and private homes across the country, Israel’s beer enthusiasts are creating traditional products, but also many with a distinctly Israeli twist. These include beers with touches of date syrup, rose water, or passion fruit, and the occasional seasonal flavors created by the Dancing Camel Brewing Co. featuring pomegranate during the Jewish New Year and the citrus-flavored etrog around the Fall’s Jewish Succot festival.

“You can give the same products to different people and you’ll get completely different beers. That’s the soul of the beer,” Israeli beer connoisseur and importer, Gadi Deviri, told ISRAEL21c. He organizes industry events, and coordinates Israel’s Beer Parliament and the Beer Club of Israel, which co-sponsor the yearly home brewer contest Kudler won last year. Deviri also imports the necessary products to make beer in Israel, a task that has gotten easier in the last few years.

“The equipment and ingredients in Israel are much handier now,” Deviri said. “I’m also doing a lot of commercial and public relations to tell people they can do this.”

And the people are. As local interest has mounted, the new beer culture has cultivated hobbyists from Israel’s southernmost point of Eilat to it most northern in the Golan Heights. The yearly home brewer competition has grown from 40 entries to 100 in the three years since the competition began.

Today, there are between 200 and 300 home brewers, Deviri said. However, only a dogged three have moved beyond the confines of private property and pots and pans in the kitchen. The Israeli microbreweries that sell their beer commercially are The Dancing Camel Brewing Co., the Golan Brewery and The Art Bar in Ein Hod. Deviri said four or five more are on their way to reaching the commercial level.

But the remainder settle with dreaming daily of building and branding their own beer label. “They fantasize about commercialization,” Deviri said.

Kudler isn’t making the big bucks yet. He only brews about 160 liters a month, settling for small tastings for friends and presenting at festivals. But the increasing interest in his niche business has only increased his desire to establish a microbrewery somewhere in the Negev. In the meantime, he takes comfort in educating the next generation of Israel beer drinkers.

“There is a movement toward specialty beers. The contests have doubled in the people who make the beer and the people who come to drink it,” Kudler said. “People come to me and are starting to appreciate beer and understand the different tastes.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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