April 19, 2012, Updated September 10, 2012

It’s hard to believe that Israel had no microbreweries only a couple of years ago. Now the country is practically awash with fine ales — more than 20 licensed “boutique” breweries, and a rapidly evolving drinking culture.

“Israeli beers are making a mark on the international beer circuit,” says Shachar Hertz of the Beer & Beyond, one of the country’s major suppliers of beer-making equipment and ingredients. “We have in Israel a cadre of passionate brewmasters who use only premium ingredients and offer a range of style and flavors.”

Unlike mass-produced commercial lagers such as the quintessentially Israeli brands Maccabee and Goldstar, these beers are sold in-house or at selected pubs and restaurants, rather than in the general market.

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Hertz notes that most of the microbreweries are boutique — meaning they produce less than 5,000 liters a year. “Only five or six years ago, you had to try really hard to find a decent beer in Israel,” he says. “Now there are hundreds of specialty beers on offer around the country.”

Of course, it’s all a matter of taste, but here is ISRAEL21c’s list of the best beers in Israel.

1. Dancing Camel

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The American-style Dancing Camel brewery in Tel Aviv starting the ball rolling when US émigré David Cohen opened Israel’s first licensed microbrewery in 2009. Based in the heart of Tel Aviv, this state-of-the art brewery produces a surprising variety of carefully crafted kosher brews. Notable are its Carobbean Stout, brewed with the ubiquitous Mediterranean carob; Six-Thirteen Pomegranate Ale, released for the High Holidays; the high-alcohol content Golem beer; Gordon Beach Blond, spiced with rosemary and mint; and Trog Wit, brewed with etrog (citron) for the Sukkot holiday. The Flying Camel also has its own pub which, unusual for Tel Aviv, is closed on Shabbat.

2. Jem’s Beer Factory

Jeremy Welfeld of Jem’s Beer says you have to understand the science in order to brew the perfect beer. He earned degrees in microbiology and the advanced sciences of brewing from the University of California, and brewing technology from Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology, before realizing his vision. His unique brewery in Petah Tikvah has become something of a shrine for local wannabe beer connoisseurs. His latest selection includes a clear gold Czech Pils lager; a dark German lager, a copper-colored English-style amber ale, a cloudy light gold Bavarian Wheat, a reddish Belgian ale and a black Irish stout.

3. Alexander

Ori Sagy, a former fighter pilot, runs Alexander in Emek Hefer, near the Alexander Stream. A beer hobbyist for 25 years, he studied beer-making at Siebel and brought in Dutch brewmaster Patrick Van Dam, who is responsible for the production process. The brewery is particular about making its brews with minimal impact on the environment. It produces small batches using traditional European techniques on modern equipment. Like all local brews, the hops, malt and yeast are imported from Europe, while the water is Israeli — treated by reverse osmosis.

Alexander specializes in ale-type beers: Alexander Black, a seasonal beer for the winter with aromas of dark chocolate and espresso; Alexander Ambree, a reddish French-style ale; Alexander Blonde, a low-alcohol Belgian-style ale with a floral and fruity aroma; and Alexander Green, a hoppy IPA with an Israeli twist — a fruity aroma of grapefruit, guava and mango.

4. LiBira

The LiBira brewery in Haifa boasts one of Israel’s few authentic beer cellars – a pub oozing warmth and intimacy, with a sparkling tap bridge hosting six freshly brewed, richly flavored, draft boutique beers fresh from the brewery. The brewery’s regular offerings include Weiss, a Bavarian-style wheat beer (Hefeweizen); Double Pils, a strong German-style lager; Porter, a traditional British-style dark ale with coffee and chocolate flavors; and Bitter, a traditional British-style amber ale with a subtle sweetness.

5. Malka

The Malka brewery, in the picturesque Western Galilee community of Klil, produces three bottled brews — an Irish stout, a pale ale and an English lager — whose rustic tastes and aromas hark back to forgotten times. The owner, Assaf Lavi, maintains a small-scale family-run brewery with a hands-on approach, using only natural ingredients and low-tech equipment (the community insists on not being linked to the national electricity grid, and its power source is sunlight). A visit to this tiny pearl of a brewery should be on every discerning tourist’s itinerary.

6. Yochai Kudler

Kudler, owner of this Negev brewery, learned to love beer in Alaska and learned the trade at a brewery in Boulder, Colorado. The brewery’s specialty is its light and fruity passion-fruit beer, while the smoked salmon variety has to be tasted to be believed.

7. Katzrin

This family-run Golan Heights brewery specializes in traditional Bavarian-style beers with a local twist: Its lines are named Golan beer, Galil beer and Emek beer.

8. Salara

The Salara brewery of Kibbutz Ginegar in the Jezreel Valley has earned a place of pride on the local beer scene. Its two flagship lines have a particularly good reputation among local beer aficionados: a smoked stout with rich flavor and dark chocolate-coffee aroma, and a dark bitter reminiscent of a typical British pub brew. At latest count, the brewery was producing five types: the latter two plus a lager, a pale ale and a wheat beer.

9. Art-Bar

Everyone in the Carmel range seems to know “Danny Bira,” US-born Danny Schlyfestone, who runs the funky Art-Bar in the picturesque artist’s colony of Ein Hod, where live bands play on weekends. Schlyfestone is a true home-brewer who is forever experimenting. He always stocks at least five different beers — all interesting and distinct.

10. Shapiro

The Shapiro brewery in Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem, is one of the latest arrivals on the local beer scene. It’s making quite a buzz, mainly thanks to a rather offbeat series of ads in which one of its beer bottles strikes a different character on the head in mid-sentence. It’s still too early to predict how the brand will overcome the ever-growing competition, but one thing is for certain — Jerusalemites are proud to have a beer they can call their own.

Special mention: In Taybeh, a town near Ramallah, Nadim Khoury makes Taybeh Beer, the only such business in the Palestinian Authority territories. Taybeh (“delicious” in Arabic) bills itself as “the finest beer in the Middle East.” Its German-style brews are becoming increasingly popular among Israelis. Maybe sharing a beer together will bring peace?