Pleasure Hunting / Pub Hopping

Beers and breweries are back in vogue. A road trip in search of Israel's best brew.

At 11 P.M. two yeshiva students in long black jackets, their earlocks dangling, showed up and sat down at a table in the pub. In the street adjacent to Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood, there was a riot going on at the time: A group of ultra-Orthodox were blocking the streets leading there, and from all sides supporters and opponents streamed in. But these two men wandered a few hundred meters away, looking for quiet, and found themselves in a secular pub.

"It's not kosher here," said the embarrassed waiter gently. "That's all right," replied one of them. "We only want a beer." The bartender immediately prepared two nice half-pints of Maccabee from the tap, thus fulfilling the commandment to drink and nourish one's body and soul. To those sitting at the bar who observed the strange sight in amusement, the two looked like Haredim born and bred, dressed according to all the rules of one of the nearby Lithuanian sects.

"Not true," observed Menahem Katz, the pub's chef, who was also watching the pair. "They are recent hozrim b'tshuva [newly pious Jews], maybe even Bratslavers, who had a momentary attack of longing for their former lives."

When it comes to familiarity with the Haredi street, you don't argue with a man who was born in Jerusalem's Geula neighborhood into a large Haredi family, and who abandoned religion at the age of 14. Alone in the world, Katz completed his studies, enlisted in the army and then started to work in the field of culinary arts - a childhood love that was one of the reasons for leaving his parents' home and family legacy. First he worked in the Arcadia restaurant, in the kitchen of chefs Tamar Blay and Ezra Kedem; at the age of 24 he was appointed chef in the Artichoke restaurant in Tel Aviv; afterward, he opened the 1860 restaurant in Jerusalem. In recent years he has traveled the world as a consultant to people who are opening restaurants.

"I hope that you don't intend to open a kosher place," he said to Ohalia Rotan-Barfi and Avi Budraham, the owners of the new Jerusalem pub, when he began working with them on the menu a few months ago. Not that he was trying to make some sort of defiant statement; rather, in the name of good food.

Rotan-Barfi and Budraham met in the hotel business, where they both work to this day. Together, they started Cafe Emile in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market a few years ago, but their dream has always been to open a real pub: a place of sunsets and the wee hours of the night, a place where liquor and whiskey are served, a place that is a warm, humane refuge from the cold outside world.

The space chosen to fulfill the fantasy - once the site of Hatzrif restaurant - conjures up pleasant memories for many people. At Hatzrif, which was in operation from the 1970s to the late 1990s, we also encountered the pleasures of the kitchen for the first time. We were children, we weren't familiar with anything except Mom's cuisine, but the French onion soup, the quiches and the bloody steaks left an indelible impression on us. The wall of windows that overlooks an attractive Jerusalem-style staircase remains unchanged, but today a large bar dominates the small space, and the interior is decorated with old black-and-white pictures and fragments of wine-related songs by Natan Alterman and Haim Gouri.

Dancing floors and ceilings

You take a glass of Nesher beer and fortify your body with coarsely chopped liver and strips of grilled eggplant mashed with lots of garlic. This is probably exactly what our Russian forefathers were referring to when they crowned the latter delicacy with the title "the caviar of the poor." Then you pour shots of whiskey, or wonderful Lebanese Kefraya arak, and raise a toast to the pleasures of pickled fish: schmaltz herring with onion rings, chunks of Matjes with a red tomato salad, and home-pickled salmon with cream cheese and dill. And everyone drinks and eats, eats and drinks, until, as author S.Y. Agnon once said, the floor below and the ceiling above begin to dance with one another. And if the people weren't busy with eating and drinking, they would surely dance with them.

Anyone who doesn't belong to the brotherhood of salted fish - a brotherhood that deserves a chapter of its own in the culinary chronicles - can choose fried red mullet in a beer tempura, a home-made roast beef sandwich, or a grilled hotdog. A platter of hot Sainte Maure cheese, served with home-made pear jam, seems to have been born to accompany a glass of Belgian Chimay beer or a British London Porter; and the kubbeh Nabalusia and the stuffed grape leaves are a nice tribute to Ohalia's Jerusalem roots and her forbears, who immigrated from Persia to Jerusalem on the backs of camels in the 19th century (Emile, her late grandfather, was the one who gave the place its name ). On Fridays they are planning joyous kabbalat Shabbat festivities and on Shabbat afternoons cholent will be served.

Emile's Pub, 5 Yohanan Hyrcanus, Jerusalem, (02) 567-2034

Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv...

"Pigs and beer," says Tal Hutiner longingly, looking at the Great Synagogue on Allenby Street. "I would fill up this entire space with pigs and beer."

The cities' drinkers, who came to celebrate the opening of Haberez bar with him, laugh. How beautiful are the naive fantasies of drunks, and how nice it is to imagine the huge building, covered with ugly stucco, disappearing in favor of kostitza (pork steak ) and rivers of alcohol.

Haberez - or the "Mini-Bar" as it is affectionately called - is the little Hebrew brother of Shishko, a Bulgarian-style bar opened by Hutiner, Elad Dor and Yossi Buznah a year ago. Three stores separate Shishko from the new Haberez, and the two intimate spots are located in the attractive complex behind the Great Synagogue on Allenby Street.

Haberez is tiny, no more than 30 chairs and a modest space, but behind the bar looms an entire wall displaying 30 types of wines from the best local wineries. The experts, three connoisseurs with good palates, have stored a selection of wonderful local beers, among them the cheeky wheat beer from the Ronen Brewery in the Judean Hills; a light, reddish Malka beer from Kibbutz Yehiam; the amber ale of Hanegev brewery in Be'er Sheva; and the wonderful smoked stout from the Salara brewery in Kibbutz Ginegar. On tap they serve Ha'abir, an old-new brand full of the aroma of hops; joining the selection of wine and beer is a variety of local distilled liquors and small plates of sausages, cheeses and snacks.

Haberez, 2 Har Sinai, Tel Aviv, (03) 560-0180

Beer fever

Nimrod Rosenblatt has been brewing beer since the age of 13. Over the years he infected his older brother Yotam with the love of brewing and today at the ripe old age of 19 he brews beers with Yotam in their parents’ attic. At the Beers 2011 exhibition, which was held last week at the Nokia Arena, the brothers presented a wonderful wheat beer that was aged for five weeks with sugar liquor. And a sage beer that was brewed according to ancient recipes dating from the era before the discovery of the special qualities of hops plant.

Wandering among the stalls of the large exhibition, with or without a glass of beer in hand, was a delight. Such a plethora of breweries and brands − several of them imported, but most of them local − has never before been seen in Israel.

The present momentum overtaking the beer industry, which is unprecedented, is reminiscent of the processes that took place in the local wine industry in the early 1990s. There is a reason why now, of all times, bar owners are returning to the good old beer houses and pubs. In the past five years, dozens of beer breweries have been established in Israel − from tiny home establishments to large, industrial ones − and anyone who wants to treat himself today to a good local beer can find a wonderful selection.

The names given to the new breweries include a charming mixture of proud Hebrew names ‏(Golda, the Labor Movement, Shibbolet, Asif and Canaan‏), and names that were hatched in the brains of total romantics ‏(Ba’aliyat Hagag − In the Attic, Ha’etz Haboded − Lone Tree, Abir Ha’elah − Knight of the Terebinth, and Habuddha Hatzohek − Laughing Buddha‏). The graphic language chosen to illustrate the beer labels is also often influenced, most enjoyably, by the colorful posters of the Hebrew Labor Movement and by fantasy literature.