Small Beer, Big Dreams

New Jersey native David Cohen - founder and CEO of the Dancing Camel Brewing Company, one of Israel's first microbreweries - has come a long way.

A few years ago, David Cohen was an accountant in New Jersey with two dreams: to move to Israel and to one day open a professional beer brewery. Now, from his warehouse in Tel Aviv, it seems that Cohen - founder and CEO of the Dancing Camel Brewing Company, one of Israel's first microbreweries - has come a long way.

"It was like we were throwing up the cards to see where they would land," Cohen said this week of the transition, "so we figured we would see if we would make this fantasy a reality." He was taking a short break from brewing a 1,200-liter batch of Indian Pale Ale, described by the company as "a pale ale on speed [with] deep gold color like a sunset over Jerusalem."

Cohen, a long-time amateur brewmaster, now aims to challenge the traditional Israeli palate and introduce casual beer drinkers to a taste beyond just Goldstar or Carlsberg. For Rosh Hashanah, Dancing Camel made a pomegranate beer and after Sukkot, an etrog (citron) flavored brew was introduced. Last month's Hanukkah offering was a delicious stout with cherry and vanilla flavors, similar to the traditional holiday sufganiya jelly donut.

Throughout the year, Dancing Camel's beers, with names like American Pale Ale and Midnight Stout, use local ingredients such as date syrup to produce a new take on some familiar classics.

"I wanted to take a style that is respected and give it a twist with a unique Israeli imprint," Cohen, 44, said. "England has its ales, Germany its lagers and the Czech Republic has its pilsners. Every country has something it developed, primarily because of its climate and tastes, and we want to use those factors to make something uniquely Israeli."

The beer, as yet available in only about 15 restaurants and bars in Israel, is nevertheless quickly making strides in the local industry. Currently supplied only in kegs, bottled versions will be available within several weeks. One aim is to bypass the exclusive arrangement many bars have with the large commercial breweries. Dancing Camel is also sold at Israel Football League games - with free pints for the winning team.

"The industry in Israel is still in its infancy," Cohen said. "Contributing in that way is part of a personal fantasy, but also a Zionist fantasy."

The 350-square-meter brewery is located in an industrial area in south Tel Aviv. The space, a former Ethiopian dance club, has industrial brewing equipment on one end and a bar - complete with stools and a variety of Dancing Camel on tap - at the other. Though mostly used for brewing, events are occasionally held there.

Cohen brews a new batch about once a week and overseas the entire process from beginning to end. He says the job does not require a lot of drinking, just drinking at odd hours. "Some mornings, I'll have already had a pint of beer by 9:30," he says. "It's an occupational hazard."

Cohen traces his fascination with beer to his early 20s, when he first began experimenting with bottles sold in his local supermarket. For his 27th birthday, his wife Susan gave him a brewing kit and from then on, "I was hooked," he said. Cohen began brewing in his Brooklyn apartment ("$300 in dry cleaning later, I realized I shouldn't be fermenting in the closet"), before moving to a larger house in a New Jersey suburb, maintaining his practice as a certified public accountant. Family vacations always revolved around beer, with Cohen contacting local brewmasters before traveling anywhere new.

In 2002, Cohen began to think seriously about immigrating to Israel. He sold most of his CPA practice and apprenticed at a New Jersey microbrewery. A year later, the family - Cohen, Susan and their three children - were in Israel and the company was in motion. After a brief period in Safed the family settled in Modi'in, and Cohen learned to battle the infamous Israeli red tape. Most government officials, he said, did not know what a brew pub was; it took a full year and half of bureaucracy before the proper permits were obtained. The first beer was sold in September 2006.

Inspiration for the Dancing Camel name came from a story about a Safed kabbalist who was saved from bandits by a group of dancing camels. The story, Cohen believes, carries a sense of creativity and magic, but also whim and fun. The brew has been hailed by serious beer drinkers, but the company has faced hurdles. Cohen says Israelis have been less adventurous about trying new beers than he had anticipated. He says that the company is financially stable, adding quickly, "You don't go into this market to make money."

"There are much easier ways to get rich," he said. "To do this, you need to have passion."

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