Wheat Feat

Jerusalem Brewery Produces Second Temple-era Beer

The small Herzl Brewery has created a brew that’s as close as possible to an ancient strain of wheat, making it dry, syrupy and a very acquired taste.

Itai Gutman at the Herzl Brewery in Jerusalem.
Emil Salman

In Jerusalem’s Talpiot industrial zone, amid the carpentry shops and tire repair garages, a small boutique brewery produces a beer called Herzl. One of the owners, Itai Gutman, 31, occasionally adds his own innovations to the standard beer recipes. For example, he recently managed to brew a beer from a heritage grain – a wild plant that’s as possible to the 2,000-year-old wheat from which modern wheat developed. Presumably, therefore, this brew comes closest to the ancient beer that was consumed after man learned how to ferment grain.

Researchers believe that wheat was first domesticated in the Middle East some 10,000 years ago. That domesticated strain of wheat has almost disappeared, supplanted by strains that were better suited for cultivation and processing – in other words, wheat for bread and pasta. But in 1906, the early Zionist botanist Aaron Aaronsohn discovered the mother wheat heritage grain in a field near Rosh Pina, in the Galilee.

Haaretz reported last summer that a Nes Tziona-based startup, NRGene, had managed – along with researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Volcani Agricultural Research Center in Rishon Letzion – to map the genome of the ancient wheat strain.

For Gutman, beer is far more than a profession. (Alcohol) proof of this is provided by the tattoo on his arm, which includes the world’s oldest beer recipe – written 3,500 years ago in Mesopotamia.

After Gutman read Haaretz’s report on the mother wheat, he decided to contact the researchers to see if he could make a beer from it. He approached Assaf Distelfeld, a grain researcher from Tel Aviv University, who supplied him with a sack of seeds.

Unlike modern wheat, mother wheat contains two kinds of grain, large and small, and they’re protected by a thick, hard, outer layer. Processing them is quite complicated, so Gutman received seeds that were ready for use.

To avoid any concern over bacterial growth, he waited until the winter to carry out the fermentation, which involves getting the seeds wet so they begin to sprout. They are then dried and roasted. Everything was done the old-fashioned way, in a kitchen oven, because most grain used at Israeli breweries arrives in the country already roasted.

The range of Herzl Brewery beers.
Emil Salman

One Friday a couple of months ago, a number of friends gathered at the Herzl Brewery to help brew the beer. About 20 liters (5.3 gallons) of the ancient brew were produced in the batch, and about a month ago the first bottle was cracked open.

We can assume that Gutman’s beer is similar to the ancient beer consumed thousands of years ago. It’s 3 percent alcohol – a bit lower than modern-day wheat beer – and is rather dark and thick. And the taste? Well, it's a stretch to say it tastes good, but it’s definitely interesting.

“It’s unlike anything I have ever tasted,” nods Gutman. “From my viewpoint, as a person who has tried to hone his sense of taste, it was a surprise. It has a very dry taste, but it also has a strong aroma and suggestion of red fruit – almost like a syrup.”

That same Friday, the Herzl Brewery made another special beer. This time, they used yeast that was grown in a yeast culture that had survived in a beer bottle for 18 months. The yeast was isolated and grown with the help of the dental school at the city’s Hebrew University. This beer also had a special taste. It was actually similar to a beer that had been maturing for a long time, even though it was actually new.

The two beers have been produced in small quantities rather than for commercial purposes. However, Gutman hasn’t ruled out making use of the experience to refine his beers. “I don’t know how to do a lot of things that are not beer,” he smiles, “but there’s no more amazing alchemy than turning water into beer.”

Itai Gutman at work at the Herzl Brewery in Jerusalem. His arm features a tattoo of the earliest-known recipe for beer.
Emil Salman