Monday, October 31, 2011

The future is now (but not here)

When you read homebrewing books that were published in the US, you can't but think that we are living in the golden age of home brewing. Material and tools that were previously only available in commercial applications have permeated the home brew market, and resulted in an explosion of styles and creativity. Yeast strains from commercial breweries are readily available; plumbing, fake bottoms, cam locks, and pre-made wort chillers can be easily purchased at reasonable prices; specialty malts and extracts, rice hulls, acids and sugars are stocked by any self-respecting HBS. Life is good.

And then you look at our local market in Israel. I recently found a challenging recipe for a beer from 100% wheat malt. If I were in the States this would not be a problem: I'd get my grain, mix in about half a kilo of rice hulls, and sparge as I always do. But in Israel you can not get rice hulls anywhere, and even if you could, you'd still be limited to the handful of dried yeast varieties we have. You could try to make the beer out of wheat extract instead - it would save you the potential for stuck sparge. But the chances of getting fresh wheat extract in this country depend on fostering a close relationship with your local brew store, and catching them at exactly the right time - the once or twice a year that they order wheat extract. A lot of extra effort, and besides, who wants to brew extract?

Actually, I would love to brew extract. More precisely: I would love to still be brewing extract, and looking forward to moving to All Grain in the future. It's a much gentler introduction to brewing than to jump right into AG from your second brew on like I did, simply because my local store didn't have extract in stock. I later learned that "local" HBS only applies if you live in the Tel Aviv metro area. For everyone else, there's a choice of car or shipping, or just dealing with the limited supplies and low turnover of "sales points".

Some of this deficiency in selection is understandable: Liquid yeast, for example, is hard to transport, expensive, and requires a kosher seal (though I'm not sure why. If you're not satisfied with the kashrut, don't buy it). So it is too much of a pain to import for such a small market as ours. But some of this is the result of a product Catch-22: Nobody imports rice hulls because there's no demand for them. And there's no demand for them because no one uses them in brewing (because no one imports them).

This is where the onus is on our local suppliers to introduce new products to the market even if they don't make money on them right away. Someone should import rice hulls, I will be the first to buy them, I promise you. And because I'm lazy, if I found one store that sales rice hulls I'd order my entire bill grain from there, even if they weren't my regular store. And I'm not alone in that: A store that introduces new products to the market regularly, even at a potential loss, will benefit from more clients and improved sales in the long run. We're not too good at taking the long view in this country, unfortunately, but I'm hoping someone will pick up the glove.

It's not all bad, though. The lack of certain products, tools, and aids forces us to be creative: Someone pointed out to me that BIAB doesn't suffer from stuck sparges. That is something I will keep in mind, and when the day comes when I decide to brew my all-wheat beer this is how I will do it. It's not the regular way I brew, but it is another tool in my brewing toolbox which I can use. When I get tired of using dry yeast, I will turn to culturing my own liquid yeast out of bottles and samples of liquid yeast hand delivered by friends from other countries. It's a lot more of a pain, but ultimately it will make me a better brewer.

And at the end of the day, there's always hope. Twenty years ago home brewing in the States wasn't nearly as easy or prolific as it is today. One can hope that as home brewing in Israel takes off the situation will improve here as well. And it already has: In the last ten years the availability of malts, yeasts, and equipment in this country took a huge leap forward. Hopefully we will eventually catch up the the US in that field. Hopefully it will not take twenty years to do so.

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