Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The time of the season

"30 degrees?! Where the hell did this heat come from?" - I've been hearing this same exclamation, in various forms, for the past three days since a heat wave has engulfed Israel. People are sweating and looking forward to Friday, when the heat spell will be over and temperatures will finally drop.

The thing that most people kind of overlook is that when temperatures drop again they will only go down  to the mid 20s, instead of the teens we've been enjoying thus far. Indeed, little by little, without us noticing, spring is coming. And spring means warmer spring weather.

Of course, after a long cold winter some warmth would be welcome. Especially if you live in the colder, snowier, parts of the world. But to brewers, especially lager brewers before the advent of refrigeration, spring also meant the end of the brewing season. Brewers in Germany, who have used the cold German winters to brew excellent clear lagers throughout the cold months knew that soon their fermentation rooms will be too warm to brew, and only the cellars and the deep caves in the hillsides will maintain a semblance of chill.

As Brewing season draw to an end each year, brewers at the time brewed one last beer. It wasn't for drinking right away, but rather for keeping throughout the summer. In order to make it last the months they brewed it stronger and a little hoppier than their traditional brews, and put it barrels that can be de-bunged when the weather got warmer. Then they put those barrels in the caves in the hills, and waited.

Spring passed, summer came, and the caves got warmer. Though they were still quite cool, the temperature had reached a level where lager yeast wakes up and starts to ferment again. There wasn't much sugar left in those barrels in the hills, but there may had been some, and the German brewers weren't taking any chances with their precious brew. So they would go down to the caves and de-bung the barrels, and relive the pressure that built up from the renewed fermentation, and waited.

Until finally, fall came, and with it the drop in temperatures and the new brewing season. The brewers went down to their caves and got the barrels out to make room for the new lagers they were going to brew. There wasn't as much of it left as they had originally put down, since a lot was drank during the summer, but it was still enough for a nice little party. The beer, called Marzen (because it was brewed in March) was served in carnivals, horse races, and fairs to celebrate the harvest and the new brewing year.

Later, in 1810, Price Ludwig and Princes Therese decided to marry right around the time of the celebrations. They bought up basically all the stock of beer that was in Bavaria for the wedding, and then invited the citizens to drink it all with them. The citizens loved this idea so much that they did it again the next year, and the next, and the next. And thus the Oktoberfast was born.

Nowadays, we have refrigeration and temperature control. We can brew lagers in the summer and light wheat beers in the dead of winter. Marzan, Oktoberfest, and Vienna beers have become nothing special. They've lost that sense of renewal of drinking that last beer from the past season and looking forward to the next new batch. The sense of time and season.

 Still, sometimes,  as the weather gets warmer and the thermometer starts climbing. There's a primordial brewer in all of us that looks up at the sky, and then starts wishing for a deep, cool, hillside cave...

Monday, March 4, 2013

Survival of the fitest

I haven't written on this blog for a while, and in fact have been taking a bit of a break from the Israeli beer scene. Not beer, just the scene. :) And by the looks of it, I'm not the only one.

The one beer event that I did go to in these past three months was "Beers 2013" - the yearly showcase of Israeli craft brewing held, like the Oscars, at the beginning of the following year. So while the name said "2013", the event was all about 2012, and one name kept coming up over and over "Mosko" brewery.

Mosko is a new brewery opened in Moshav Zanuach by a couple of childhood friends, a hippie and a ba'al tshuva, who started home brewing together and then went pro. It's a great personal story, and the beer itself, while nothing special, isn't bad. But this is not what attracted people to the Mosko stand. What attracted them is that Mosko was the only new brewery to open in Israel in 2012.

That's right. After three years of breweries spawning in this country like mushrooms after the rain, in 2012 we had just one.

On the other hand, several breweries went the opposite direction. Starting with Butterfly brewery in Dalton which closed (thankfully), Libira and Salara who merged their brewing opperations, and several other breweries that have been seriously re-thinking their business plan. It wasn't all bad in 2012: Dancing Camel opened a second location, and a couple of 50+ tap bars opened in Rishon. But the overall trend this past year seemed to be one direction - downwards.

The obvious question is why? I'm sure that many people (especially the kind of people who read this blog) will be quick to blame the draconian doubling of the excise tax for this trend, and certainly that had in impact, but I feel that's just a small part of the story. Looking around the Israeli beer scene it seems to me that it is over-crowded, over-saturated, and not self-sustaining. At the end of the day, it's not enough to be a nice guy with a story and a dream. You have to be able to do one thing: Sell Beer.

You don't even have to make good beer. It helps, of course, and it's easier to sell a quality product. But it doesn't matter how good your beer is if you can't get it to people with decent ease and a decent price. Oh, in the long run quality will make or break you, but lack of distribution will kill you much faster. This is why it took Butterfly beer so long to die: It was shitty from day one, but they signed up with the Scottish Company and had good advertising. They were available in lots of places, and they got people to buy the beer. (Once they bought it once, they never made the mistake again, but that's a different story)

The point I'm getting at is that this is a natural process. Right now the Israeli craft beer market is not big enough to support all the breweries in it. There's a minimum amount of money that a brewery needs to survive, and there's not enough to go around so that every brewery will make that. This means some will fail. The excise tax will serve to make this process quicker, but it would have happened anyway. In the next two or three years we will see a string of brewery closings, mergers, and production shifts. Mark my words: if you are looking for good deals on brewing equipment, you'll be able to get a lot of good second-hand stuff soon.

Who'll survive? Those who can adapt, as always. Darwin pointed this out a long time ago: It's not the strongest, most powerful, or quickest that survive. It's those who can change quickest and adapt to a new circumstance. The Libira and Salara merger is exactly that kind of adaptation: lowering costs by sharing production capability, and building on respective strengths. Another example of this is the booming business over at Mivshelet Ha'am - small breweries using contract brewing to avoid equipment and regulatory costs. Ultimately, a brewery is a business, and a business works by lowering costs and maximizing profit. Nothing else.

My hope is that this will lead to better beer, since breweries that don't make good beer wont survive, and the breweries that do survive will recognize that they must invest in quality in order to remain competitive. It can easily go the other way too: Breweries trying to appeal to the broadest consumer base will start tailoring their beer to the lowest common denominator, and we'll end up with a bunch of pale lager makes. But I hope that personal integrity will bring those brewers that are truly passionate about the craft part of craft brewing to keep brewing exceptional beer, to keep innovating, and to keep a real craft industry in this country alive. If for no other reason, than that I hate drinking Goldstar...