Exploring the Holy City’s Home Brews

Meet five residents of the city who take the chill out of winter with their own wines, brews and other intoxicating booze.

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There may be something in Jerusalem’s mountain air that is nurturing quite a few small local breweries and makers of other alcoholic drinks there. Maybe it is the climate, which is good for the ingredients — and for the people, too. Maybe it is just the alcohol itself — which, besides gladdening the human heart, also warms us up (an advantage in winter) and brings strangers together. What is certain is that somehow, in Jerusalem, it is easier than ever before to find local makers of alcoholic drinks — working in vineyards, home brewing and opening small breweries. As part of Jerusalem’s annual Shaon Horef, or Winter Noise, cultural festival, which will be celebrated in selected locations every Monday throughout February, we have chosen five local producers of alcoholic drinks to tell their stories over a glass of wine, a glass of chacha, Georgian-style grape vodka, or a bottle of beer.

Herzl Beer: Jerusalem’s first (and only) brewery

Maor Helfman and Itai Gutman, two young and highly-motivated Jerusalemites, have beer beating in their hearts and flowing in their veins — in a good way. Helfman, who began home brewing a decade ago, decided to make his relationship with beer official after winning first place in national competitions. He flew to the BrewDog brewery in Scotland, which he calls “possibly the coolest brewery on earth.” Helfman worked there, gaining expertise. When he wondered aloud whether he was the first Israeli to visit BrewDog, his Scottish employer told him that he was actually the second. The first had been a young man by the name of Itai.

When Helfman returned to Israel, he decided to put the knowledge he had gained in Scotland to work. As he sat in his neighborhood bar in Jerusalem, he found that the bartender had a great deal of knowledge of alcohol, and of beer in particular. When Helfman asked him where he had learned so much about beer, the bartender told him that he had done an internship in Scotland — and yes, that bartender was the very same Itai who had been the first Israeli to visit BrewDog.

Helfman and Gutman became good friends and business partners. Two years ago, they rented a loft in the Talpiot industrial zone that became their brewery, and they founded Herzl Beer. “It’s a gutsy beer, the right kind for anyone who wants to try new and cool flavors,” Helfman says.

Herzl Beer produces three kinds of beer, all of them colorful, unusual and with interesting names that brand the beer as “out of the box.” There is six-percent Kapara, its best-selling variety. Dolce de Asal, which has shades of dulce de leche, adopts the local flavor. It is a powerful beer (eight percent alcohol) that, like its name, is on the sweet side, local and honeylike — “asal” is Arabic for honey, and honey can be tasted in the beer. Their IPA VeZe — their variety of Indian Pale Ale — is aromatic of scent and bitter of taste. Their Buzz Olami IPA seems to be their most talked-about beer, branded for beer cognoscenti, and is particularly attractive for refined hipsters. Helfman and Gutman brew seasonal varieties as well.

On Georgian grappa and women’s empowerment

Lily Shimshilashvili immigrated to Israel with her family from the Georgian Republic in the 1970s. In mid-2011, her family opened Racha, a restaurant in downtown Jerusalem, based on the recipes from the family home. But at a certain stage, her brother Yisrael, who was then an electrical contractor, took on the task of running the kitchen. The patriarch of the family, Yosef, is in charge of distilling the chacha. This drink, a Georgian version of grappa, is distilled in the traditional way, slowly and with devotion — drop by drop, first in a boiling vat and then in a cold bath. The result is a strong, clean alcoholic beverage that can reach more than 50 percent alcohol on a good day. Yosef, an employee of Israel Aerospace Industries and a marathon runner, gets up at five o’clock every morning and starts the day with a small cup of chacha. Lily explains that the combination of marathon running and alcohol contributes to balance. As she sees it, the secret is to enjoy everything and do it all, but in moderation. The most important thing is to do it with a great deal of desire and love. Accordingly, the element she likes best in Georgian cuisine is the abundance — of ingredients, mainly meat, vegetables and herbs and the flavors themselves: strong, sweet-and-sour, from the green plums to the scorched onion, the coriander and the spearmint with pomegranates. For Lily, Georgian cuisine with its food and, especially, its drink, chacha, is one of emotion and joy above all.

Saadia’s cider: Getting drunk on the cheap

Matan Saadia and Yonatan Antebi are a social duo, friends and bartenders. They say of themselves: “Matan is the guy who gets high, and Yonatan likes to drink.” At one time, they were roommates (in Jerusalem, of course), and got along so well that one morning, each of them found himself waking up in the other’s bed And neither one ever knew how it happened.

They are the duo behind Saider , a play on words between Saadia’s surname and cider. Matan began making cider slightly more than a year ago. “It was about the time that taxes on alcohol were raised,” Saadia and Antebi say, also recalling the incentive for making cider and toward alcohol in general: “To drink and get drunk on the cheap.” In less than a year, Saadia and Antebi went from being a small private enterprise that made cider for friends’ parties to a business. Although they started producing their cider commercially only this month, their goal remains “to offer a fun and delicious alternative to all the alcohol that is just expensive, or the cheap and dangerous stuff that exists there.”

Buster’s:  A father and son making moonshine

Father and son enny and Matthew Neilson came to Jerusalem from Tennessee. Their story begins more than a decade ago, when wine-making was something they did in their free time. They would buy grapes at the Mony Winery near Beit Shemesh, bring them home and stomp on the grapes with their feet, making wine the old-fashioned way. Matthew recalls the first vintage they produced: “It had an atrocious flavor,” but that did not stop them from trying again until they produced wine. And not just wine, but good, delicious wine. He adds, “Winemaking quickly gave us an appetite for making alcoholic drinks in general,” and within a few years, they began brewing beer as well. It did not end there; the family went on to open a store for home vintners called Wine Maker.

The idea of opening the store was “to awaken the appetite and the desire for wine for other people, too, and help people who wanted to make wine instead of just drinking it” — in other words, to give them a fuller experience in which drinking wine is only the final stage, that would include preparation, fermentation and waiting. And as if all this were not enough, they also created Buster’s Beverage Company, where they make hard cider and hard lemonade. They named the company after Buster, their golden retriever. They also produce moonshine.

The Katamon Winery:  A scribe-turned-vintner

Avital Goldner, the vintner behind the Katamon Winery, began making his own wine at home in about 2000 with grapes that he brought home from the Mahane Yehuda market and fermented on the terrace of his apartment. In addition, he is a screenwriting graduate of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School as well as a ritual scribe. “The winery, like writing — whether it is a Torah scroll, tefillin or a mezuzah — includes acts that are bound up with tradition and require a great deal of patience,” he says. But he also mentions what is different and even contradictory about those activities. While there are specific, inviolable laws involved in writing mezuzot, wine-making allows for creativity. But it is possible that these activities also complement one another and are not so different after all. “If writing is from the mind, then wine-making is from the heart — so yes, they are different, they have different purposes and goals, but they act in a single system.”

The winery is named for the neighborhood in which it is located — Katamon — which, in Greek, means “near the monastery,” a reference to the monastery of San Simon. Both the winery and its name, then, suit the romantic nature of a story of wine.