Holiday beer roundup
Just being in the holiday season makes you want to enjoy time together with family and friends. Most people think of making a “l’haim” with spirits or wine on those occasions, but here are some new Israeli craft beers that will add to the festiveness of any event, even a simple meal. From the Shapiro Brewery in Beit Shemesh comes Israel’s first commercial sour beer. Sour beers are sometimes called “wild beers,” because they contain elements in the yeast or bacteria that are in some way out of the control of the brewer, and therefore “wild.” They were born in Belgium and northern France, where they remain among the most popular beers, but are gaining traction among craft beer enthusiasts all over the world.
Shapiro’s new beer is called Strong Sour because of the alcoholic content – 8.5% – not because of the sourness. It’s a “kettle-soured” beer because the souring takes place in the mash kettle before the boil. In this case, brewmaster Yochai Kudler and head brewer Ory Sofer used a wild yeast that they collected from almond blossoms blooming around Jerusalem in the early spring. (Sounds like a theme song from a 1950s movie.) The wild yeast and accompanying microbes are what give the beer its sour taste.
Sofer told me that he thought it was time to introduce Israelis to sour beer (even though quite a few imports are available). Since, for most Israeli drinkers, this will be their first experience with sour beer, Sofer and Kudler kept the sourness level moderate.
On to our tasting: STRONG SOUR pours out a hazy, orange-amber color. The sourness is immediately felt in the aroma as sour fruit, along with citrus, floral and yeast. It makes you want to taste what this is all about – and what you find are more sour fruits and fruit juice. I also detected flavors of apple, grapefruit and peach. The sourness was always balanced by the malt sweetness. The mouthfeel is light, and the finish tart and refreshing.
Strong Sour tastes similar to dry fruit cider and even dry white wine. I don’t know if Israel will develop a local sour beer brew scene, but I think that Strong Sour is a start in the right direction.
THE ALEXANDER Brewery in Emek Hefer, one of Israel’s largest microbreweries, has introduced a new Saison beer, with a label reflecting Rene Magritte’s famous Son of Man painting, but with a hop bine instead of a green apple obstructing the man’s face.
“Saison” means “season” in French, and this style of beer might have first been brewed in Belgium during the “brewing season,” November to March, in home and small breweries for drinking during the summer months. Regardless of its origins, the Saison style has come to mean a beer with fruity and spicy aromas and flavors, not very bitter, with a very dry finish. A few Israeli brewers have introduced Saison-style beers, even if all of them weren’t called by that name.
The Alexander Saison is made with unmalted wheat, in addition to the regular malted barley. It pours out crystal clear, the color of ginger ale, with a small but foamy head. The aromas are yeast, sweet malt and black pepper. The taste is sweeter than what you would expect from a Saison, along with yeast, spice and some fruitiness. Alcohol is 7%. It’s a very refreshing and enjoyable beer, perfect for hot days and a variety of cheeses and light dishes. But a visiting Belgian might have trouble calling it a Saison!
A NEW “single-malt and single-hop” (SMASH) India Pale Ale has arrived from the Six-Pack Brewery, the Super Hero Beers (made at the Beer Bazaar Brewery in Kiryat Gat). SMASH IPA is brewed with Maris Otter malt and Columbus hops, very popular in IPAs for their intense bitterness and herbal-lemon undertones.
The Six-Pack SMASH IPA is a hazy, mid-amber color with aromas of flowers, grass and sweet fruit, including apricot. The taste is mid-bitter, and as the beer warms up, you tend to get different flavors with every sip. The body is full, and the finish is dry, bitter and refreshing.
Six-Pack’s one other beer on the market now is Ultimus, an amber ale. Their Heavy Hitter, a Belgian tripel ale, is no longer produced.
While we’re on the subject of SMASH beers, the Sheeta Brewery in Arad has introduced a new SMASH Pilsner, brewed with noble Saaz hops from Europe. These hops are traditionally used in brewing Pilsner lager, giving the beer its distinctive spicy aroma and taste. Originating in the Czech town of Plzen in 1842, Pilsners have become the most popular and widely imitated beer style in the world. Purists say that nothing compares to the taste of fresh Pilsner beer, straight from the fermentation tank in Plzen.
The Sheeta SMASH may not have that pedigree, but it has a wonderful fresh lemony aroma coming off of the foamy, long-lasting head. The taste is bitter fruit (maybe red grapefruit), very refreshing, with a peppery and dry Pilsner finish that makes you want to keep drinking. With only 5% alcohol, you can go right ahead and do that.
ROTEM BAR-ILAN, one of the partner-brothers of HaDubim (“The Bears”) Beer, introduced me to his new version of Esh (“Fire”), a
pale ale made with shata red chili peppers (contract brewed at the Beer Bazaar Brewery in Kiryat Gat). I say version because the first Esh came out in 2012 and was produced for several years. “That was even hotter than this,” Rotem let me know.
The hops used in this pale ale are Chinook, Amarillo, Cascade and Citra, all American craft beer hops, which together add bitterness and intense floral, citrus and spice flavors. Alcohol by volume is 4.7%.
Esh is a cloudy, mid-amber color with almost no head when we poured it. The aroma was rich and fruity, with strong citrus scents and wafts of pepper. The taste is very bitter (the label gives the number of International Bittering Units [IBUs] as 63, quite high), with fruit flavors, notably orange and grapefruit.
My years of eating spicy Middle Eastern food have raised my tolerance level to unimagined heights, so I found Esh rather mild, with the chili making itself known only when it hits your throat. It’s a nice warming feeling that complements the fruitiness of the hops.
Also from HaDubim is a new dry stout called Black Out. Also known as Irish stouts, these drier versions have a more roasty and bitter flavor than other stout styles, which include English Stout, Oatmeal Stout, Milk Stout, Russian Imperial Stout, as well as the American craft versions of all of these. The most famous Irish stouts are Guinness and Murphy’s.
Black Out gives them a run for their money.
Already on the informative label, you learn that the alcohol by volume is an easily tolerated 5%, the IBUs are a moderate 25, and that the hops used are East Kent Goldings.
Black Out pours into your glass the darkest brown color, almost black, with a thick and creamy tan head. Really creamy. You get scents of roasted malt, chocolate, butter cream candies, caramel, vanilla and some coffee.
The taste is dry from the start, with a little sweetness creeping in, and dark chocolate, caramel and butter. Every sip seems to bring a different level of flavors. If some beers can be called “boring,” Black Out certainly is not. The finish is dry and roasty. OAK & ASH is a gypsy brewery that started out under the auspices of Dancing Camel in Tel Aviv, but has recently moved to the Hagibor Brewery in Carmiel because it needs larger facilities. Owner and brewer Asher Zimble chose the name because his first beers were aged in oak barrels. His two recent offerings, however, are not.
The Oak & Ash NEIPA (New England IPA) is an attempt to replicate this popular American beer style – characterized by a very hazy to opaque color, massive fruit aroma and flavors from the hops (tropical fruits are favorites), juicy, creamy mouthfeel and low bitterness.
This Oak & Ash version is not as opaque as the American NEIPAs I’ve seen (it’s only semi-hazy) nor as strong (only 4.5% ABV), but it is full of the juicy goodness you expect. I detected flavors of grapefruit, passion fruit, mango and some guava. It tastes like a tropical fruit cocktail, creamier and much less bitter than a regular IPA.
If you’re an admirer of the NEIPA style, this beer’s for you. And if you’ve never tried it, this is your chance. Tasting new styles is one of the true pleasures of drinking craft beer.
Also from Oak & Ash is the new Coco Porter – a Porter-style dark and roasty beer brewed with desiccated shredded coconut. (Zimble, quite rightly, will not reveal at which stage the coconut is added.)
In the glass, Coco Porter looks like Coca-Cola: the same color and the same fizz. The aromas are rather subdued – brown sugar, toffee and slight coconut. But the tastes are what bring the beer alive: rich coconut and dark chocolate, semi-sweet, with some dried fruits in the background.
Since I’m a fan of coconut, and especially coconut with chocolate, I found this to be a delicious beer, but one to be savored, not gulped down on a hot day.
THE WRITER arm-wrestles with the SMASH superhero over the new Six-Pack IPA.