Hebrew doesn’t have 100 words to describe how alcohol impacts its enthusiasts, and it lacks expressions for the habits and varieties of drinkers. The English have many ways to describe the appearance and temperament of those who like wine, port and sherry, or those who prefer whiskey or gin. They often portray the beer drinker as round bellied and good tempered. Tolkien’s hobbits, the ruddy-cheeked residents of Middle Earth, were dedicated beer drinkers. Neil Churgin, the brewmaster of 'Beertzinut' (Serious in Hebrew) brewery in Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava, looks like he could have stepped out of some book whose jolly protagonists sit around inn tables, quaffing jugs of foaming ale.
But this story’s protagonist, who abounds with no less good will and optimism than his fictional colleagues, can often be found volunteering at breakfast shifts in the kibbutz dining room with a paper hat on his head.
Unlike the hobbits, who detest changes, Churgin is always happy to try out a new, complex beer with exciting flavors that are completely different from the classic kinds of ale.
His bearded face lights up when he talks about the taste of the Mexican inspired beer he brewed with raspberry and Habanero peppers, or the beer he seasoned with fragrant Asteriscus graveolens, an indigenous desert plant. But these two beers, despite his fondness, didn’t make it into the relatively large commercial repertoire of the tiny boutique brewery he set up on the southern kibbutz with Yoni Toren and Oren Horesh.
“What I like isn’t necessarily right for others or a commercial success,” he says, resigned. “But we’re a small brewery, in fact the smallest commercial one in Israel. And since with every brew we produce only 100 liters, we can diversify more than others. Craft beers – beers that are more adventurous in flavor and are intended for a smaller market segment – are in any case 1 percent of the beers made in Israel. When your market is smaller by definition, you may as well have fun and make beers in a variety of flavors, styles and influences.”
Churgin was born in 1963, grew up in Maryland and immigrated to Israel in 1986, straight to Kibbutz Hanaton in the Lower Galilee. He and his family left the northern kibbutz, which was founded by a group of immigrants from the United States in the early 1980s, about ten years later when members started planning its privatization. The search for the kibbutz way of life led him to Ketura in the south, one of the last places in Israel where the members still follow to some degree the way of life forged in the early 1920s. In other words, it’s a small enclave of quiet, hard-working resistance to the death of the Kibbutz Movement.
“I can’t be suspected of coming here for the weather,” he says. “I came because of ideology and because I believe in a society where the individual is part of a whole and that every person is respected, regardless of his origin or profession.”
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“In Hanaton I was a shepherd, a farmer and also worked in high-tech in Migdal Haemek. In Ketura I worked at accounting, the fish pond and the algae factory. It suits me, I like wandering, gathering experiences and exploring various things,” he says.
He inherited his love for beer from his family and he was curious about the fermentation processes, which also led him to bread baking. His neighbors and friends Toren and Horesh joined him in cultivating the brewing hobby, which he started in his yard on the kibbutz.
“We first met in 1994 in the Hanaton sheep pen,” says Toren with a pronounced American accent. “And we both found our way to Ketura in the end. The beer started as a hobby – Neil’s wife bought him a beer brewing kit for his 40th birthday – and we used to make beer on Thursday evenings in the yard. Neil made it more professional and went further with his intellectual curiosity, and the kibbutz encourages members to do whatever they like.”
“From home brewing we went to brewing beer using our own recipe at the Musco Brewery in Moshav Zanoah for two years,” says Horesh. “Then the kibbutz shut the cowshed down, there was a little spare money to invest in equipment for the brewery, and beer became an official kibbutz production line in 2016.”
Churgin is the only fulltime brewer at the brewery they set up in a former turkey run. Toren works in the kibbutz’s date industry and Horesh is a paramedic, teacher and archery instructor.
But the three share most of the brewery work among them, from work on the production line to bottling, marketing and distribution.
Desert Dew (Tal Hamidbar), an unfiltered lager, is one of the brewery’s more popular styles. There is also a stout, and a good American-style IPA brewed with three kinds of common hops. But most of the beers are brewed with techniques less familiar in Israel and bear a signature personal and local touch.
Cool Medjool is an ale made of smoked barley malt and date sugar from the kibbutz grove. The name, like the brewery’s, is humorous, as are the beers themselves. Apricot Berliner (Neot) is a sour beer balanced with organic apricots from the neighboring kibbutz Neot Smadar.
Churgin is partial to sour beers, which are less well-known in Israel and more similar in taste to old-style beers, which were fermented with wild yeast before modern beer yeast came into use. There’s also a charming seasoned hard seltzer.
Since the tiny southern brewery was opened, Churgin has been making others’ beer fantasies come true as well. He brews beer recipes marketed under other private brands.
“It’s not easy to brew beer that will make your own fantasies come true – in terms of flavor, aroma and color. Brewing others’ fantasies is even harder,” he says.
During Hanukkah, a limited series of three beers went to market, just a few hundred bottles each. Each one was aged four months in the same barrel, one after the other. They were commissioned by Biratenu – Jerusalem Beer Center. The styles and funky tastes don’t suit everybody – “These beers are for beer geeks,” Churgin concedes – but it is pleasing to know that there is someone out there willing to deviate from routine, their lifestyle or the type of beer they brew.