Denny Neilson - Emil Salman - September 2011
Neilson in his brewery earlier this month. Photo by Emil Salman
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Beer is the new wine, say observers of the Israeli beverage industry. The local wine business exploded over the last decade and now it's beer's turn, they agree. California native Denny Neilson is one of the first Anglos who foresaw the trend and opened The Winemaker, selling beer- and wine-making equipment for home use.

"Beer is growing, it's like the bicycle industry," Neilson, 59, told Anglo File recently in his small store in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion. "If you rode a bicycle in Israel 15 years ago it was because you couldn't afford a car. Now you go out on Shabbat and, holy mackerel, there are thousands of people on bicycles that cost up to NIS 10,000. It's a huge market now, and this is what the beer market is going to look like in a few years."

Besides selling beer- and wine-making kits for beginners - which cost about NIS 465 - and handcrafting sophisticated beer-making equipment for more advanced brewers, Neilson produces his own beverages. His wine label is named "Pamela," after his wife, and his award-winning ale is aptly called "Isra-Ale." Neilson, who taught himself how to make beer and wine, is the only person in Israel that makes cider and smoked beer (for which the grains are roasted over fire ).

A father of four and former telecommunications professional, Neilson had actually dreamed of opening a brewery as soon as he arrived in Israel five years ago. "But all of our friends said that's nonsense, nobody drinks beer in Israel, why would you open a beer store?" he recalled. For three years, he took their advice. Eventually, however, Neilson followed his instincts.

"There are hundreds of people making beer in their home kitchens, it's really a new phenomenon that followed the heels of the wine revolution in Israel," said Yafit Gal Levi, who owns Beer Master, a leading company staging beer fairs in Israel. Just a few years ago, she added, there were about 20 microbreweries in Israel while today there are up to 300. She suspects that this number will soon rise to up to 1,000.

While most microbrewers do not have a license to sell beer from the Health Ministry, a few former hobby brewers have already gone professional. Today, there are about 20 licensed boutique breweries in the country. The first one, "Dancing Camel," was founded five years ago by Brooklyn native David Cohen.

On the ground floor of The Winemaker, Neilson sells different varieties of imported malted grains, malt extract, hops and yeasts, as well as home brewing equipment such as fermenters, bottles, bottle fillers, cappers and so on.

On the roof of Neilson's store, overlooking the Jerusalem hills, he brews his beers, the cider and also makes wine. The latter is in season only from the end of July to mid-September. "The interest is huge in Israel for homemaking of wine, but it's concentrated on one month," Neilson said. Beer can be produced all year long.

Neilson also gives wine- and beer-making classes and has installed microbreweries from Metula to Eilat, thus having helped launch the professional careers of more than one hobby brewer.

"It's not rocket science," Neilson said. "People have been making beer for 8,000 years, with a lot less equipment than we have now. I tell people: Relax, it's just beer. You can't really hurt it. There are a few things that can go wrong and it may or may not come out exactly right. But there are known recipes that are supposed to produce a certain result. People get so excited about having to make it exactly right. Why? What makes you think that what you do could not be better for your taste?"

Neilson's customers are mainly novice beer brewers. Uri, a 33-year-old carpenter from Nataf, a small village near Abu Gosh, received the basic brewing kit as a gift and started making his own beer two months ago.

"Every time I brew, I produce almost 20 liters," Uri said. "For the price it costs, the taste is the best you can find on the market, really. The taste of the beer is something you can't find in the shops."

On a recent Monday afternoon, Uri entered The Winemaker to pick up ingredients for the next round, plus some free advice about how to achieve higher alcohol content. "I like strong beer," he said. Neilson's response: add malted sugar. "It gives a rich, thick flavor, as opposed to the other option, which is adding plain sugar," he explained. Plain sugar costs less, but produces beer of a lesser quality, according to Neilson. "It makes the beer thin and limp and weak. If you've invested two hours of your time already, why make something crappy, just to save 10 shekels over 40 bottles?"

Microbrewers also see their hobby as a way to save money. "Every bottle costs me about four shekels," Uri said. He prefers the taste of his own cold ones to those in the supermarket, but he added laughingly that they always come out tasting differently, despite his efforts to stick to the recipe. "But I like it. And all the people around me like my beer. People share it with me, it's a lot of fun."

The economic and social aspects play a significant role in the rapid growth of home brewing, said Levi, the owner of Beer Master: "Beer is pretty easy to make. The brewing equipment and materials are really very cheap, compared to wine or other drinks. It's very cheap, easy and you don't need a lot of equipment to start. And it's a very social drink, which is part of our culture - you see that your friend is making beer, so you want to do it too. It's spreads really fast."