Strange Land Brew

Israel's newest brewmasters, a pair of Anglo settlers from Gush Etzion settlement Neveh Daniel, are trying to remedy what they call the country's lack of decent suds.

When the Levin family moved from Maryland to Israel four years ago, they realized they were bothered by two things: "We desperately missed Sundays, that's on top of the list," says Susan Levin, 50. "There's nothing we could do about that. And we missed having good beer. But that's something we could fix."

Levin and neighbor David Shire, who moved here from Glasgow in 1983 and was also dissatisfied with the local choice of brews, decided to give it a try themselves. After countless weeks of research and hundreds of trials, their Lone Tree Brewery, located in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc southeast of Jerusalem, started selling its first products a few months ago.

Today, they produce between 250 and 300 bottles a week, processing imported barley and hops in a 50 square-meter trailer on a hill with a view of their hometown of Neveh Daniel. Seven different types - from Extra Oatmeal Stout to California Steam Ale - are available, which are all brewed and bottled by hand and available in Jerusalem's Machane Yehuda market and selected restaurants in the area.

"In the States there are hundreds of microbreweries," said Levin, a mother of three who quit her job in the non profit world to dedicate herself to making beer. "When we came here we really felt there was something missing. It was nothing that was going to challenge our decision to make aliyah but if we were missing it, other people were missing it. And that was the beginning of determining that there is the market for this product."

Susan Levin and David Shire in their trailer-cum-microbrewery
Tomer Appelbaum

Lone Tree is still far from being financially sustainable, Levin says, although they already rejected three offers to export their products. "We're not there yet," she said.

Yet Shire, 50, expects to be able to abandon the landscaping business he currently runs and focus entirely on beer in less than three years.

"We both grew up in either Scotland or America, where beer drinking is not just for 16-year-old kids who want to get drunk," said Shire in a heavy Scottish drawl. "Where we come from good beer is appreciated like good wine and good cheese."

Levin and her husband Yochanan - a tax consultant who joins the two brewmasters on his free days - actually started making their own beer years ago in their kitchen in the U.S. For them, beer is a family affair.

"My kids grew up with the idea that once or twice a week, depending on what we were having for dinner, beer could be the beverage to go with that meal," Levin, a Baltimore native, told Anglo File on a recent visit to the brewery, while Shire opened bottles of English Northern Ale and India Pale Ale.

"We came [to Israel] and we didn't find the right beer," she said. "I certainly wasn't going to give them commercially produced beer. That's like bringing them soda, which we also didn't give my kids to drink with dinner. ... The idea was that of beer as a beverage of high quality and high taste that can be an interesting accompaniment for the food. Once we came to Israel that pretty much stopped."

Indeed, Israel is not a country of beer lovers. The average Israeli drinks 13 liters per year - one of the lowest rates in the world, (Czechs, for example, down some 150 liters per annum ), according to Shachar Hertz, who owns Beer Master, a leading company staging beer fairs in Israel. However, he says local tastes are slowly warming up to cold ones.

"Israelis were never great beer drinkers, but they are going through the same phase now that wine went through 20 years ago," Hertz told Anglo File. "Israelis are also not big wine drinkers, but wine consumption almost doubled in the last two decades, mainly because of the small wineries that popped up everywhere."

Since the first Israeli microbrewery opened four years ago, nearly 30 competitors have sprung up. Lone Tree is also not the first Anglo brewery to enter the local market. New Jersey native David Cohen founded Tel Aviv-based Dancing Camel in 2006. And last year, Daniel Alon, from New York, and Jeremy Welfeld, who originally hails from Washington, D.C., launched Jem's Beer Factory in Petah Tikva, which started as a brewpub and will begin distributing bottled beer this summer.

"Americans come with a lot of knowledge and a lot of thirst for beer," Hertz said about the overrepresentation of Anglo hobby brewers. But thirst is certainly not enough, and even "Homebrewing for Dummies" and other guidebooks on the Lone Tree Brewery bookshelf could not replace the trial and error system.

"We dumped hundreds of gallons of beer" experimenting with the recipes, explained Shire, a former biologist. "I treated it like a research project in biology. You start off with one thing and you change one aspect of it and see if it's better or worse. And then you change something else."

Levin and Shire say Lone Tree is about more than just beer: It is also a political statement.

"We are 125 percent committed to Gush Etzion," says Levin, tearing up as she talks about the settlement bloc's role during the War of Independence. The beer's very name was inspired by the iconic lone oak of Gush Etzion, which is said to be the last remainder of Jewish presence there from the Mandate era.

"Our family came to the Gush because we wanted our aliyah to have particular meaning," Levin said. "And we felt that being part of this enterprise and this area was significant. When we went through hundreds of names [for the company], we kept coming back to what has meaning for us: tying the company, the enterprise, the beer, our lives and our economic future to strengthening Gush Etzion."