For the love of debauchery: Wine and Beer festivals in Jerusalem

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine Sept. 12, 2014

The workers at the Jamoos stand were in high spirits. “You see, it says here on the shirt ‘garage beer’, we make it in the garage.” For a country with a noticeable lack of garages, it is a surprise to find people who boast of making homemade beer in one such structure in central Israel.

Beer time

Beer time (Seth J. Frantzman)

The home brewery takes its name from the Arabic word for water buffalo, a creature once prevalent in the swamps of Israel. “We were all in the army together or good friends, it’s a joke from the army. ‘Jamoos,’ it means animals that work in a team,” explained one of the men giving away samples of the beer.

The annual Jerusalem Beer Festival is in its 10th year. This year, it began a day after Israel and Hamas agreed to yet another cease-fire, ending fighting in the Gaza Strip. Watching the long lines of people waiting to get into the event, it was clear a collective weight had been lifted off people’s shoulders. Several young men in uniform milled about, maybe back from reserve duty.

The cover

The cover

“There were a few conversations [about a possible cancellation]. Five days before the event, we didn’t even know if we’d have the festival. We had to get a permission from the police, Home Front Command and the municipality to go forward,” said Regev Gur, one of the event organizers, in an interview with the Magazine. “We decided early on we would not have the event while there were troops on the ground in the South. We didn’t want to celebrate while their families were worrying back home,” he added.

This year, some 9,000 people converged on Independence Park for the festivities. One the second day of the festival, August 28, a long row of home breweries were set up with free tastings. There were some interesting things on offer. A young man serving Twan Jican ladled out a beer with a tinge of ginger; many agreed this was a winner. Another beer with the awkward name of Shita is brewed by an adorable young couple from Beersheba.

For some reason, Irish Red Ale was a popular home brew this year. What exactly is an Irish Red Ale? Supposedly it gets a darkish red hue from the inclusion of roasted barley, and is renowned for its malty and medium- bodied brew. But from the samples on offer, it was sort of a bitter disaster. The beer festival’s downside is that it basically becomes a “pub crawl” – without the pubs. Yet the inclusion of this free tasting of home brews was a great way to start the evening. The main event area included around 25 breweries, such as Mosko, Bazelet, Tuborg and Emek Ha’ela.

The beer festival, like its sister event the wine festival, is an annual event that showcases Jerusalem at its best. A city otherwise reviled for being overly religious or boring, from which young people are always said to be fleeing for nightlife, the festival brings out the cheeky and eclectic Jerusalem crowd – from hippies with long dyed hair, to teenage girls with facepaint who look too young to be drinking, to numerous families and several pregnant women. One young woman, pregnant with her first child, jokingly held a large carafe of beer and told us: “Even though I’m drinking, I thought it was important to come out with friends and enjoy the festivities after the summer we had.”

"Pour another" (Seth J. Frantzman)

“Pour another” (Seth J. Frantzman)

The sentiment of “Yalla, let’s move past the events of the summer,” seemed to reverberate throughout the crowd, and defaulting to postwar jokes when asked about the conflict seemed to be the norm. “I find the ground tremors make for better-tasting beer,” one Ashkelon brewery owner joked, when asked how he coped during Operation Protective Edge.

The proliferation of Israeli microbreweries is a recent phenomenon. According to the InSite Israel Tours website, which offers a window into Israeli beer culture, there are thought to be about 100 microbreweries in the Jewish state, of which 20 are fully licensed and 19 are kosher. Almost all of these have been founded in the last half-decade.

But several brewery owners we spoke with described stultifying regulations that have made it difficult or impossible for small businesses to succeed. Or Fass, co-owner of Fass Beer with his brothers, explained how layers of bureaucracy and taxes make it difficult to turn a profit. And what can start out as a relatively cheap product ends up costing upwards of NIS 30 by the time it gets to the customer.

One microbrewer explained, “It is all about the stranglehold of the old mentalities and the socialist era. After independence two big companies controlled the market, Goldstar and Maccabee.” This was a common refrain. Moreover, this past April, many small breweries were outraged when the Knesset approved doubling the tax per liter on beer from NIS 2.18 to NIS 4.25.To put it all in perspective, consider how much Israelis drink.

Fass brewery (Seth J. Frantzman)

Fass brewery (Seth J. Frantzman)

According to recent data from the World Health Organization, Israelis consume 424 ml. of beer a week, compared to the US where people pound 1,664 ml., and the UK with 1,476. The Irish, famed beer drinkers, suck down 2,100 ml. Basically, the average Israeli is drinking one pint of beer a week. Furthermore, Israelis only drink 25 ml. of wine compared to the vino-loving French, with 1,067 ml.; even Americans drink 10 times as much at 242. Overall, the beer festival was a tame experience, not a display of raucous debauchery; there were no drunken brawls or streaking.

WHEN A beer festival ends and the hangover subsides at the end of the weekend, one obviously needs a wine festival to attend. The Jerusalem Wine Festival, in its 11th year, was estimated to have hosted some 20,000 attendees over a four-day extravaganza from September 1 to 4. Buying tickets online made it possible this year to skip the arduous process of a massively long wait that greeted visitors in years past. Unlike last year, the Israel Museum hosted some wineries on a concrete esplanade next to the entrance of the museum and some other wineries in the gravel park adjoining it.

Originally supposed to take place on August 11, it appeared the Wine Festival might also fall by the wayside and join the already lengthy list of summer event cancellations. However, by pushing the event to two weeks later, oenophiles were still able guzzle wine to their hearts’ content. “We were very hopeful. I think after 50 days of sitting in front of the TV and watching the war, people are desperate to get out,” Wine Festival organizer Shmulik Cohen said, explaining the overarching attitude behind the back-and-forth discussions he held during the two weeks the festival’s status hung in the balance.

But whatever the lingering affects of the recent war, it was the last thing on people’s lips. There was a nice display of wineries from “southern Israel,” though in fact most were not from the Negev but rather the area between Tel Aviv and Ashkelon. The most well-known southern Israeli winery, Kadesh Barnea, appeared at the festival under a new name, Ramat Hanegev. Two ciders were on offer as well as ample cheese and sushi vendors.

Festivals can be a taxing experience (Seth J. Frantzman)

Festivals can be a taxing experience (Seth J. Frantzman)

Yet many of those who attended were not impressed by the variety of wines. There were Tabor, Dalton, Tishbi, Psagot, Recanati, the usuals – all decent, but not particularly spectacular. One woman postulated, “Maybe the fact that the festival had to be moved due to the war made some venues pull out? Some of these winery stands look like they were pasted together at the last minute.” But overall, attendees enjoyed the evening, with the right blend of music, wine, food and space enough for the huge crowds that came out.

The festival has always blended a sort of faux wine-loving crowd with people who pay NIS 85 and expect to get their money’s worth via the all-you-can-drink glass everyone receives. Stations like that of Amphorae, a beautiful winery in the hills near Zichron Ya’acov, are deluged by people wanting wine, while several others feel it is their duty to have a long conversation with the servers about taste and variety.

Wine time (Seth J. Frantzman)

Wine time (Seth J. Frantzman)

As the festival wound down Wednesday night, the last of the crowd decided to have an impromptu drum circle outside the museum. Men danced and clapped while women cooed. A few people smoked marijuana.
Glasses were smashed on the pavement. Taxi drivers fought for customers. Friends I had seen earlier in the night, sober and put together, came stumbling out of the mass – drunk, broken and ruined. Four nights of debauchery, two nights of beer-filled craziness: to wash away another summer and maybe remove the stress of another war.

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