Beer on the Wall, Beer in Your Hand

From the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to an old-fashioned beer hall in Rishon Letzion, you can happily celebrate life's simple pleasures.

At the bottom of the painting “The King Drinks,” there is a copper basin with decanters of beer and ale. On the table above and to the right of it, an unknown hand has placed plates of fish, sea salt, yellow lemons, loaves of bread, sweet waffles, clusters of grapes and goblets. In the center of the picture sits the king. His glass is held high at the moment of his coronation by the court jester, following the custom of the Twelfth Night – commemorating the Adoration of the Magi, when Jesus was revealed to the three kings in Bethlehem.

The royal demeanor is false, the crown is made of paper, the “right to rule” is granted for one night only, and no blue blood flows in the veins of those gathered around the table to celebrate this folk holiday. But the feeling of gaiety is as genuine as it is infectious. Indeed, the joy of life and the love of drinking together are plain in every line of the faces and in the body language of the outsized figures in this painting by the Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens ‏(1593-1678‏).

Visitors to the Israel Museum, which received the huge painting as a gift earlier this year, could sit on a stool in front of it for hours and not get their fill of looking at the full, curvaceous bodies of the feasters − on the boundary between the vulgar and the sensual − or of yearning for a taste of the sumptuous spread. Everything is large, theatrical and exaggerated. Dripping from the top left corner of the canvas is a spray of wine, or some other transparent alcoholic drink, which one of the celebrants is pouring for a woman. Below them, another woman nonchalantly turns her neighbor’s head so he can vomit on the floor. And in the bottom right corner a baby boy is urinating. ‏(“The drops of urine look so real that cleaners have summoned me to the picture twice, thinking someone has sabotaged it,” Shlomit Steinberg, the museum’s curator of European art, says jauntily.‏)

Both what enters the body and what is excreted from it is welcomed in the same natural way around this festive table. A great deal of alcohol was consumed in Christian Europe in the late medieval and early modern periods. Alcohol was used for medicinal purposes, in rituals and as food ‏(beer was liquid bread for the lower classes‏). Drunkenness, especially during pagan festivals adopted by the Church, was treated with leniency devoid of opprobrium.

Some observers maintain that the burlesque figure of the king, who rules a nation of wanton fools resembling forest imps and leprechauns, was intended as criticism of overly liberated customs indulged in by the Catholic Church and its adherents. Steinberg prefers to see the painting as an expression of simple joy at life’s pleasures.

“Jordaens was one of the three major Baroque painters responsible for the high reputation of the Antwerp School,” she notes. “The two others were Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck. But in contrast to them, Jordaens was a simple man without much of an education who never left his hometown. It’s hard to suspect him of sophisticated criticism. Scenes of ‘the drinking king’ were a popular theme in the 17th century, as part of the spirit of the time, and Jordaens repeated this composition a number of times in different variations. Until 1640, Antwerp was wracked by the Black Death. In 1645, the year in which this painting was made, the plague abated, the religious wars waned and the city’s inhabitants had cause to celebrate the return of life.”

Those who make the trip to see the inebriated king − and he is well worth the pilgrimage − should also be sure to see the museum’s exhibition “A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses into the Life of Hasidic Jews.” Among the items on display, offering a rare peek into the life of Haredi communities, are some related to eating and drinking customs. Most fascinating are videos that document festive tish events in local Hasidic courts. In a tish, which is perhaps the closest Jewish ritual comes to the Christian-pagan tradition, the rebbe ‏(rabbi‏) eats a small portion of the food on his table, imbues the food with his holiness and passes it around to his followers. They dance on the tables not only by the power of words, but in response to the forgiving divine imperative to drink and make merry on holy days. Anyone who has not seen the masses of the Lvov Hasidic court tear apart roast chicken that was touched by the rebbe’s hands has never seen a lust for roast chicken in his life. ‏(Only in Belgium, the childhood haunt of the Flemish painter, a country that appreciates the divine spark that resides in roast chicken, have we seen similar exuberance.‏)

The pirate drinks

The wall of beer taps is located in the rear part of the bar, and it’s no less a monumental spectacle than the one revealed to the eye of the beholder in the painting at the Israel Museum. Visitors to the vast, dark space of the Pirate Bar, in the Rishon Letzion industrial zone, will pass a dramatic staircase, a life-size sculpture of a one-eyed pirate and wood-paneled walls that evoke the belly of a ship of ‏(drinking‏) fools. It is all large, theatrical and exaggerated, but also funny and wonderful. Most impressive is the brightly-lit wall to which are affixed more than 50 shiny metal taps. The keg room, which lurks behind the wall and is constantly chilly, contains more than 50 kegs of different types of beer, each with a pressure valve that regulates the level of gas to ensure that the liquid is perfect for dispensing.

Each tap is a world unto itself. Behind each keg lies a regional drinking culture, a historic narrative about the circumstances in which the drink was created ‏(some of the breweries featured on the wall are almost 1,000 years old‏) and subtle layers of flavors and aromas. You can sit at the bar dozens of times and tell yourself a different story each time. On one occasion you embark for the British Isles with Hobgoblin, a rich, dark English ale for which the sharp-eared mythological creature is the symbol, or with Irish Oyster Stout. Another time, you will plunge into a Flemish still-life painting with a spicy Belgian beer. Some will down a decanter of cloudy wheat beer from the Primator Brewery, or a classic Czech lager to show respect for alcoholic literary forefathers. And you can even embark on a first, hesitant journey with beers from the Holy Land.

There are more than 50 types of draft beer and an even larger variety of bottled beers from around the world. But none of the brands is imported by the two major beverage corporations ‏(Coca-Cola and Tempo‏) that dominate the local beer market ‏(“Beers that get PR campaigns are not necessarily better beers,” the barman says‏). Nor is there, at this time − though the future is as cloudy as the wheat beer − a draft beer here that costs more than NIS 25-30. The tables in the booths and private rooms are crowded mainly with Israelis of Russian origin − whole families, from grandparents to grandchildren and great-grandchildren − or with large groups who are out on the town together. They are less interested in the brands’ pedigrees than in flavor and price. The rather antiquated menu − platters of sausage, pickled fish, tongue in cream and mushrooms, “fried river fish” − is also aimed at this clientele.

Throughout history, legislators have introduced regulations aimed at controling the price and quality of beer, which has always been a people’s drink. “Beer has to be a cheap item,” says Mintz Makrian, who opened the Pirate Bar with his partner, Yuri Priadki, two months ago. The former immigrated to Israel from Latvia and was the proprietor of Russian restaurant The Black Knight. His partner, who shares a love of the drinking culture, was born in Ukraine and was the owner of the Beer House in Rishon Letzion. Together the two took a former banquet hall and, with a not-inconsiderable investment, turned it into their dream bar.

“A pirate is a simple man – maybe not a good man, but a simple one – who likes to drink a lot of beer and rum,” says Mintz. “We want every person who comes here, be he a butcher or a worker, to feel at home and be able to eat and drink well.”

They conceived and implemented their business plan before the sudden new economic edicts and the draconian tax levied on beer. The two co-owners insist on striking an optimistic posture despite the gloomy forecasts of people in the bar-and-restaurant industry. “We will talk to the suppliers and see to it that the prices stay low,” they say. Good luck, guys.

What is most worrying, they agree, is the situation of the small local breweries. The big importers will survive, the bars will adapt and sorrowfully do away with kegs and bottles of beloved beers. But the wall of taps rising above the heads of the drinkers is the product of a centuries-old brewing culture. The latest economic hammer blows are liable to put a quick end to the nascent local beer brewing culture.

“The King Drinks” is on view in the European Art Wing of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

The Pirate Bar, 11 Moshe Beker Street, Rishon Letzion, 03-5444474.