'Jesus Was Just Like Us': The Nazareth Brewery That Makes American Beer

While debates rage over the true homeland of hummus and the genesis of shakshuka, a boutique brewery makes the first Israeli-Arab brown ale

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The Nazareth brewery.
Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

On the logo of the Nazareth Beer Brewery, hop leaves replace the crown of thorns that was placed on Jesus’ head in the crucifixion, and his beard has become an upside-down hop flower. The Christian savior, who lived in the Galilee city more than 2,000 years ago, does in fact seem to be suffering less than usual in the logo. “Jesus, like us, also turned water into alcohol,” Amir Elouti, who established the boutique brewery with his business partner, Basel Massad, says jokingly. The two, both Christians born in 1984 and employed in high tech, have known each other since childhood and studied electrical engineering together at the Technion in Haifa. They started to brew beer in 2012, at first as a home hobby. “We realized we were spending too much time alone in front of the computer,” Elouti says. “And also that beer would be not only an opportunity to stretch our legs but also a convenient social entry gate to the outside world.”

They registered for a beer-brewing course at a kibbutz in the north of the country, and embarked on initial trials to produce beer. Things went well, and after a time they decided to try to establish a boutique brewery that would bear the name of their hometown. “There aren’t as yet Arab beer breweries in Israel,” Elouti notes. “There are breweries in the Palestinian Authority – Taibeh is of course the most famous example – and we thought this would be an opportunity to launch a project that is not a religious attraction in the city.”

The first – and so far, the only – beer they’ve produced for the market is Nazareth Beer, an American-style wheat beer. In contrast to beer that’s made mainly from malted barley, wheat beer also contains a significant percentage of wheat malt (in the case of the Nazareth Brewery, 50 percent malted barley and 50 percent wheat malt). Wheat beers were particularly widespread in medieval Europe. As it happened, their popularity – farmers and cooks preferred to make liquor rather than bread from wheat – and the growth of the population eventually led to the introduction of supervisory mechanisms and laws that organized the division of grains as we know it today: wheat for bread, barley for beer. American-style wheat beers are considered more bitter than their German and Belgian counterparts, which excel in sweet, fruity flavors. The Nazareth product, with its rich gold color and a bitter-fragrant balance of flavors and aroma, is a delightful example of its type.

“The attempts to achieve a successful blend lasted more than a year and included more than 50 brews,” says Elouti, who’s more talkative than his partner but more reticent than the average person, even after a glass of beer. “We chose this style, above all because we loved the initial result we got, and also because we were looking for a distinctive style that would differentiate us from other local producers. People today are used mainly to the taste of lager, but there is a whole world of other interesting beers. The next beer we plan to manufacture and market is brown ale.”

Nazareth beer.Credit: Dan Perez

The boutique brewery, which started off in a small space in Nazareth’s Mutran neighborhood, is now located in the Salesian quarter, directly below the façade of the neo-Gothic church that dominates the landscape of the Old City. In the past few years, Elouti and Massad have gradually increased the production volume and have had to cope with the labyrinthine intricacies of Israeli regulation on the way to obtaining a formal manufacturing license.

The two friends continue to hold demanding day jobs in high tech, with Friday and Saturday devoted to work in the brewery. “We aren’t yet making a living from beer, and it’s apparently no easy thing to do,” Elouti says. “But we see the interest the beer is generating among tourists who visit the city, and we’re also dreaming of exporting. Even though the weekends are devoted to beer-making, we don’t yet consider the brewery as work. There are always friends and family members who come to help, there’s background music, and everyone drinks. In what other place of employment can you drink beer nonstop?”

Two weeks ago, when the coveted manufacturing license arrived, the construction of the small visitors center the two friends built with their own hands was also completed. The brewery is a steep climb up a hill from the Old City, through ancient streets. Future plans include tables and chairs in the brewery’s courtyard, opposite the magnificent view of the dome of the Basilica of the Annunciation and the red-tiled roofs of the houses below. In the meantime, the Nazarene beer is available in bars and restaurants in the city (including Liwan Culture Café and Café Amani, the new, handsome coffee shop near the Fauzi Azar Inn), and in drinking establishments in Haifa, Acre and Jish.

Culinary evolution

Nazareth.Credit: Dan Perez

Last week, the first significant rain of the season fell in Nazareth. (“It’s good for the olives,” people on the street exulted, as they scurried to find shelter from the downpour). We were in a café in the Old City of Nazareth to drink locally-manufactured American wheat beer and to peruse the menu, which included, in addition to manakish (similar to pizza) and labaneh with olive oil, also shakshuka, a tomato and pepper sauce that has become part of the canon of Israeli cuisine – and of Palestinian citizens of Israel and or the Palestinian Authority – apparently through the encounter with Jewish communities that came to Israel from North Africa.

According to race-based culinary theories, which have recently become modish among Jews and Arabs alike and have been discussed in the media, Palestinian beer brewers, whose forefathers were wine and arak drinkers from the Middle East, should not be manufacturing beer, which originated in Europe and was adopted by those who settled in America. Chefs of Arab origin should not cook food that’s identified with Italian or French cuisine. Chefs of Jewish-Israeli descent have no right to make hummus and a Jewish food journalist of Ashkenazi lineage cannot claim to understand the workings of the Palestinian kitchen.

But food, such as a portion of hummus with tahini, has no distinctive identity in itself. It’s made from chickpeas, mashed sesame, lemon and salt. It is not Israeli, not Palestinian, not Arab, and not Syrian in and of itself. It’s people who insist it has community, religious or national meaning, but even that changes and is shaped according to historical circumstances. The definition of identity, all the more so in our globalized world, has become not only a tool to create a sense of tribal belonging, but also a product that carries economic importance and a popular weapon in contemporary border conflicts.

But food wandered from place to place, and from culture to culture, even before the world became a global village. We all copy, quote and make compilations in almost every field. There are few truly original creators, and their work, too, always draws on the work of those who preceded them. The same holds for recipes and chefs.

“Reciprocal influences are the heart and core of culinary evolution,” says the chef Erez Komarovsky. “The Arab sambusak was influenced in its turn by the Indian samosa, and in street-food stalls in Thailand and Indonesia you can see the same thin-dough pastry that in East Jerusalem is known as mutabak. Not to mention eggplant in tahini, baba ganoush and the Turkish influence. That doesn’t detract from the Palestinians’ justified anger at the Nakba, and I imagine that if I were a Palestinian I would also be angry. It doesn’t diminish the gravity of the fact that Israel discriminates against its Palestinian citizens, or of the disgraceful way it treats the Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority and in the Gaza Strip.

Nazareth beer.Credit: Dan Perez

“But,” he continues, “the fact that the forces are not equal – the very heart of the allegation of ostensible cultural appropriation – doesn’t make these foods absolutely Palestinian or contradict the fact that in Israel’s 70 years of existence a distinctive food culture has developed which is the product of the encounter between different cultures. And one of the most meaningful encounters is, of course, with the Palestinians.

“At the start of the 2000s, when Dohol Safadi and I prepared a series of joint meals, I learned a great deal from him, but I feel I also taught him things. The fact that there is a Palestinian identity and Palestinian cuisine doesn’t contradict the fact that there is an Israeli identity and Israeli cuisine. The claims that it is based wholly on theft and exploitation are no less ridiculous than the attempts to claim ownership of food or to attribute it to an exclusive source.”

Nazareth Beer; for details and to arrange a visit, call 054-5907696

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