JERUSALEM – This is the land of milk and honey, not barley and hops.
But that hasn’t stopped me from scoping out the local beer scene.
Sad to say, it’s bad news, and not just because the people of this region drink even less alcohol than a Methodist in Ocean City. (Per capita annual consumption is 16 liters, or about the average per person intake in the Vet Stadium parking lot on an autumn Sunday afternoon. )
No, the truly awful thing about the beer here is that it confirms, once and for all, that war is hell.
For those of you who don’t make it past the sports section, they’ve been fighting here for a couple millennia, and it’s intensified again in the past year. The uprising – or intifada – has taken hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian lives, through assassination, bombings, random gunfire and army assaults.
In the past week, I’ve spoken with a couple of small craftbeer makers trying to make a go of it in savage times.
In the town of Taybeh, a small village outside Ramallah, just north of here, David Khoury and his family run Taybeh Brewing, the only microbrewery in Palestine. The facility is only a few kilometers from the school building where an Israeli tank attack killed a 10-year-old girl yesterday.
I had hoped to visit Khoury, but the uprising has made travel in and out of Ramallah a huge hassle. And it’s not just tough on visitors – when I reached Khoury by phone, he told me yesterday’s crackdown prevented his drivers from making any deliveries through the Palestinian territory or Jerusalem.
“We had really big hopes after the Oslo agreement was signed of building this business, of investing in Palestine and creating jobs,” said Khoury, who previously lived in Boston, where he ran a chain of liquor stores.
Inspired by the success of Samuel Adams, Khoury’s family thought the Middle East was ready for an all-malt, non-pasteurized hand-crafted beer. Never mind that, officially, Muslims – who are the majority of the region – are not permitted drink. The bigger obstacle was educating drinkers that there’s more to beer than mainstream lager.
Khoury’s brother, Nadim, trained at the University of California-Davis brewing program. The family pooled its cash and built their brewery. They bottled their first in 1995.
Taybeh Golden is the brewery’s flagship beer. It resembles a darker version of Sam Adams Boston Lager, with maybe a bit more hop character. The brewery also turns out a stout and a light.
By 2000, they had reached full capacity of about 2,800 cases a month. Though about 70 percent of their beer was distributed through the Palestinian territories, it could be found in most large bars in Israeli towns like Tel Aviv, Haifa, Netanya and here. It was even certified as kosher.
Taybeh began exporting to Germany, making it the first Palestinian product registered for international trade.
Business was booming.
Then came the intifada. The last year has been a bust.
“We’re now down to 25 percent of our capacity,” Khoury said. “We had 12 to 14 people working here, but now I’m down to three. This morning, my drivers told me they couldn’t get out of the Jerusalem/Bethlehem area because of roadblocks. We can’t get our beer to our customers.
“Thank God we’re well off financially. We built this building ourselves, and our equipment is paid for, so we don’t owe a lot of money.
“But the intifada has been a disaster for everyone on the West Bank. ”
Meanwhile in Tel Aviv, Itamar Hatsor is worried about the terror threat to his own customers. He and his partners run the only brewpub in Israel – Tel Aviv Brew House on Rothschild Blvd.
The 3-year-old joint is an oasis in a town where most of the brew is mainstream lager – Maccabee, Goldstar and the thoroughly ubiquitous Heineken. Hatsor insists it’s a restaurant, not a bar, but its polished brass and stained wood furniture offer a relaxing atmosphere for the thirsty visitor.
As long as you don’t mind the guy with the gun at the front door.
Until a couple of weeks ago, brewhouse patrons were welcomed at the door by an armed guard in a florescent orange vest. When they got their checks, the itemized bill included a one-shekel (about 25 cents) surcharge for security.
The guard was posted in the wake of a suicide bombing in which a radical Muslim killed 15 people at a Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem.
When I visited the brewhouse this week, the guard was gone, at least temporarily.
“Things are relatively quiet in regards to security,” Hatsor told me over a liter of his brewery’s Master’s dark (6 percent alcohol). “The situation has calmed down. I guess the terrorist groups didn’t want to be too terroristic and attack a brew house. ”
This was before a Palestinian hit man murdered an Israeli government minister on Wednesday, and the mood is swinging again throughout the country. Security guards in doorways are a common sight; there’s a guy with a Glock in front of the KFC.
So, if Hatsor has to bring back the guard, he knows his customers will understand.
“Security is a national problem,” he said. “People resented it – not the guard, but the fact that they had to pay for him. ”
Lost jobs, thirsty drinkers and now this: a lousy shekel just so you can drink without getting blown to smithereens.
Even if you’re only here for the beer, war is hell.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Maccabee.