Sunday, July 29, 2012

Getting your message out

Many words have been written in the past few days about the sudden, and some say draconian, doubling of the production tax on beer. Anger, desperation, contempt, and disbelief were the common response of a people who so their beloved industry dealt what many feel would be a death blow.

Of the many posts that have gone past my facebook feed, none was as heartfelt, simple, direct, and desperate as the words of David Cohen, owner and proprietor of the Dancing Camel brewery pub. David wrote his letter to the Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, and attempted to post it on Bibi's official page. Sadly the post was taken down within a few minutes. Others, myself included, who attempted to post the letter, encountered similarly swift removal.

We, members of the beer community of Israel, feel that our voice has a right to be heard. And while the Prime Minister of this country does not, apparently, believe in any form of free speech that criticizes him, and will deny such a message an official stage, we welcome it. Therefore, it is my honor to post David's letter here in it entirety. I know well that not many people read this blog, but any person that reads this letter because it is posted here is one more than the Prime Minister would like. I did not ask David for his permission to re-post this, but somehow I don't think he would mind.:

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

My name is David Cohen. I made Aliya from New Jersey nine years ago. Six years ago I founded the Dancing Camel Brewing Company in Tel Aviv, Israel’s first production microbrewery. I asked for no government subsidy, I received no government handout. I invested my own money – every last penny that I saved from working for 20 years as a CPA in New York. I brought additional investment – from the US, from Russia, from people who were excited about the mission of the brewery – to reestablish a culture that traces its roots in Judaism back thousands of years.

It has not been easy, Mr. Prime Minister. Whether from the language, the business culture, or the stifling beauracracy, I have endured obstacles at every stage of the way. I have endured personal traumas as well, including a divorce that stemmed from our Aliya and the loss of my children as a result. I have done this because I refused to be shaken from the belief that this is my home and that this is where the history of the Jewish people will be written for the next 2000 years. My father ז"לused to refer to Israel as a “Tiny Dam” with torrents of water pushing from all sides. One more person pushing on the wall could be the difference between the wall collapsing or the wall standing firm for our children.
הגמבל המרקד
Mr. Prime Minister, I know that you are responsible for the well-being of the entire nation. I know that you have a monumental task in trying to keep the Israeli economy healthy while the rest of the world is in shambles. I voted for you because I believed in you and I share your philosophy of fiscal restraint. And I am prepared to shoulder my burden, as I’m sure most of the Israeli public is, when it comes to income tax, VAT and any other tax that falls uniformly on the population. However, last week, your finance-minister’s office levied a tax on beer production that will quite frankly, shut my business. I can not absorb a tax increase that literally doubled overnight since my business is struggling as it is. I will be forced to pass this tax on and as a result, sales will fall. I will be forced to fire our workers and shut our doors. I will be left with nothing after nine years of Aliya, other then the staggering debts which I have personally accumulated.

I am not alone, Mr. Prime Minister. The Boutique Beer industry in Israel is only just now getting off the ground. With over 25 licensed breweries, we have brought tourism, employment and national pride to a global industry that traces its very roots to this region. These breweries have been started, largely by individuals with similar stories to mine. People with a dream, a passion and the drive to build something from their own sweat and money, where nothing previously existed. I ask you Mr. Prime Minister – are these the type of people you want to drive into bankruptcy?
Bibi, I am imploring you, I am begging you, for my own well being but also for the well-being of the country, don’t cast away people like us. You know that back in the US I would have 100 congressmen clamoring to sign a petition. Here, I do not know where else to turn.

Very truly yours,
David Cohen
The Dancing Camel Brewing Co., Ltd.

Monday, July 23, 2012

But you'll die happy

Anyone who drinks Tequila is probably familiar with the sight of a worm floating in the bottle. Once a sign of the potency of the drink (and today probably more of a gimmick), it is said that the worm died trying to drink itself out of the bottle. It didn't make it out, but at least it died happy. That's kind of what I felt like after two days of pouring beer at the Disingof Center annual craft beer fair. It was exhausting and exhilarating, and by the end of it I was left with the feeling that if you tried to do this every day, you would surely die of exhaustion. But you would die happy.

One of the great things about being in an event like this is the people you meet along the way. From the first-time drinkers who have never tasted anything other than commercial beer before, to the "professional" tasters who give you valuable (if not always pleasant) feedback, to the fellow brewers on both sides of the booths - the drinkers, and the presenters. There were far too many great presenters at the event for me to mention in one blog post, sadly, but I'll try to mention at least a couple...

The first familiar face I encountered, in the Center parking lot, was Gal Sapir from Gal's Brewery. I thought this was an auspicious sign, because it's totally Gal fault  that I'm brewing today. Ok, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. But the fact is that his "Talash" memorial brew was the first home brewed beer that I tasted in this country, and while I wish the circumstances were happier, I still think it was one of the best things that has happened to me. From the first taste I was hooked. Beer with flavor! Amazing. A side from being an inspiration to many (in his day job Gal counsels youth against drug use) he's also a wacky guy and great fun to hang out with.

If Gal is the inspiration for my brewing, Sasha from Gopher's Beer opened my eyes to the amazing possibilities of this unique brew. His Klobaska beer was the first beer I tasted in the first beer festival I went to (the now sadly defunct Ma'abarot festival) and I still remember the taste. I took a sip, took an other sip, took a third sip, and then wordlessly handed the glass to my friend who was standing next to me. It was amazing. I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that the beer had actual sausage in it. The taste was so spot on that you really expected to find "Kosher-Meat" stamped on the back.

My "next door" neighbor at the fair was Vladimir "Vova" Gershanov from the Laughing Buddha brewery. A great guy and fellow hitech-er who took a day off from his job to find some refuge in quality brew. The Buddha is a great brewery because it not only makes great beer, but it keeps making different great beers all the time. This is much harder than it sounds, if you consider how long it takes to come up with a great recipe, tweak it, prefect it, and brew and re-brew it until you can reliably make the beer. I know a lot of breweries who make great beer, but who stick to the same lineup of three or four beer. I can't blame them: When you make a barleywine that will age for four years like Vova you are taking a huge business risk, and not everyone wants to do that. But I think that the long line of thirsty drinkers at his stand proves that he's doing something right.

Finally there was Mati from the Habesora Brewery. Unfortunately, with all the hubbub and commotion I never got to taste his beers. But the "Winner of the Saint Patrick Irish beer challenge" plaque on his booth and the long line in front of it spoke volumes about the quality of his beers. In fact, between Vova, who was "upstream" from me, and Mati who was "upstream" from him, by the time people got to my booth, they were pretty much drunk! It's all good, though.

All in all, great event, great people, and great beer. I'd like to take a moment to thank everyone who came by the booth. To Mk Keren and Elad for the feedback, to Ben Fried, Ari Schmidt, and Michaela Wulff for the help behind the counter, and most important to my wife, who not only came and helped, but actually puts up with all this hobby entails. :)

See you all in two weeks, at Longshot!

Monday, July 2, 2012

La viva Italia

The Carbinirie in Rome were definitely in for a rough night last night. Italy was playing Spain in the European Soccer final and the Carbinirie knew that if Italy wins the streets of Rome would be flooded with drunk and jubilant soccer fans. Of course, though no one would say it out loud, there was the chance that Italy would loose. In which event the streets of Rome would be flooded with drunk and disappointed soccer fans. Either way, the Carbinirie were going to be busy.

I had left Rome the morning of the game, so I did not get to be there during the final. But I did get to be there when Italy first beat England in penalty shots, and then took out Germany with a couple of goals early in the game. We went for a walk through the streets during that game: You could follow the action play-by-play by the sorts of cheers and cries from the bars that line the streets and the Piazzas. Piazza Navona has no bars, so it was a barren wasteland of tourists and a couple of board peddlers. Campo de Fiore, on the other hand, had turned from a quint, touristy farmer's market into a living throng of soccer mania that spilled from the numerous bars all around the square. You got a feeling that the best way to get yourself ran out of town was to run across the square waving a Germany flag. I don't think you'd have made it all the way through.

To me, being much more of a beer fan than a soccer one, the striking thing about the drunk throngs was that, in the land of fine wine, they were drinking beer. And not just any beer: Italian beer. GOOD Italian beer.

Now granted, the vast majority of the beer Italians drink is crap, just like in Israel, in the States, or really anywhere else. I think it's a law of beer countries that before you can have good beer you must have bad one. In Israel we have Maccabi, in the States they have Bud Light, in Italy they have Peroni. As they say "shit(y beer) happens". Like its counterparts in other countries, Peroni is cheap, you can drink a lot of it, and it will get you drunk. A lot of Italians don't ask for more than that in a beer.

But some do. And for those who demand more of their brew, there are some really good Italian beers that fit the bill. In the middle of a country that lives and breaths wine, new(ish) Micro-brews are springing up. "This is a new thing" told me Manuel, the Owner of "Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa" - voted "the best beer bar in the world" in 2010 by "When I opened up eleven years ago no one was making good beer in Italy. The oldest brewery, BrewFist, opened about six years ago. Now we have a lot more breweries, and many of them are not very good, but some are." He went on to add an interesting observation "This is happening in France now, too. The countries that make wine are now starting to make beer". Having tasted both Italian and French microbrew, I have to agree with him.

My first introduction to Italian micro brew was "2Late". A Double IPA from BrewFist. At 9.5% ABV it is an evil, evil drink, and no less than an amazing beer. Take a sip of this hop cocktail and then just sit there with a stupid smile on your face as the different hops parade one at a time across your tongue. I have no idea how they manage to do that, but I've never tasted a beer that managed to highlight each hop separately, and then have them join into an amazingly balanced celebration of flavor. I've had DIPAs before that didn't taste like they had much alcohol. This is not one of them. You taste the alcohol in this beer, and it is there to enhance the flavor of the hops (and also to remind you that you are, in fact, drinking a double IPA). In my time in Italy I drank several beers by Brewfist, and every one of them was impressive. (Maybe it's just that Ma Che Siete knows how to serve it's beers: When I was there one night, Manuel refused to serve me a certain beer because it was too cold and carbonated. He insisted that I come back the next day, after they've had a chance to move the beer to a pump and bring it up to 12 degrees. I had him give me a taste anyway, just to compare, and he was right. On tap and cold it tasted like nothing. On pump and a bit warmer it was a different beer. )

Another Italian Brewer of note is Baladin, the wine maker, and the company behind "Open Baladin" the bar that is a serious contender for the title of "most impressive beer bar in the world". The idea of wine makers turning into brewers sound a little odd at first (wine and beer seem to be sort of natural enemies, though friendly ones), but it works. Baladin started making beer only a few years ago, but they're already a major player in the local market. Partially due to their distribution network, and partially because they just make really good beer.

There are many reasons to go visit Italy. The sights, the food, the atmosphere, the people are all part of it. But for a beer lover, Italy is slowly but surly becoming a heaven of tastes, and a must-visit destination. Salude!