Israel: a holy land for beer-drinkers. Yes, really
British beer writer of the year Simon Jenkins discovers a thriving brewing culture in Tel Aviv
L'chaim: Avi Shapiro celebrates his brewery winning the best Israeli beer contest at Tev Aviv's International Recognition Awards
'Beer in Israel, really?" I think the organisers forgave my stunned response when they rang to ask if I would like to be a judge at Tel Aviv's first Beer International Recognition Awards.
Six weeks later, and I'm drinking the first of 150 samples at the event on the Kfar Maccabiah complex in Ramat Gan. The competition is opportunity for nascent local producers to go up against renowned international brewers who export to Israel. Big names like German lager Krombacher, Czech pilsner Budvar and the wonderful fruit beers from Kasteel in Belgium. It is a dirty job, but someone has to do it.
The event is also a chance for local producers to put themselves in the shop window at the packed beer festival which follows immediately afterwards - again the first of its kind in Tel Aviv. Simply to wander around the stands here is to take a lesson in Israeli brewing, and to understand the incredible breadth of beer styles produced here.
The big winner is the wonderful rich pale ale from Jerusalem's Shapiro Brewery, voted the best Israeli beer in the contest, but so new that few others taking part have even heard of it.
The two events mark a major change in the country's drinking scene. Just three years ago, there were very few small brewers here, the drinking scene dominated by big brands Maccabee and Goldstar and imported foreign lagers. For many, wine remained the beverage of choice. But the success of places like Jem's Beer Factory in the unfashionable industrial zone of Petach Tikva is symptomatic of a growing awareness among Israelis of hand-crafted beers.
This cavernous building serves as brewhouse, restaurant, bar and concert venue. Brewer Jem Welfield turned his back on an amazing job as White House events manager to swear a new allegiance to beer. He studied hard before going hands-on with Baltimore's Oxford Brewing Company, and moving to Israel with $5,000, his family and a dream.
It was a risk, but Jem's Beer Factory is a major success; 300,000 litres have been downed in two years. "Craft brewing has really taken off in the US," he tells me. "Israel usually follows about 10 years behind."
It has not been entirely plain sailing. "Someone discovered our half-litre glasses only contained 470ml. It was a complete accident on our part but they threatened a lawsuit for a million shekels." Some careful negotiation - and a change of glassware - headed off this significant threat.
There are pictures of Jem with Presidents Clinton and Bush in his ramshackle office out back, but he has no regrets about his career change. "Business is going well, the family is happy, and I get to brew lots of beers. Life is good."
The atmospheric Tel Aviv Brewhouse in Rothschild Boulevard is another local favourite, and not dissimilar to the experience of visiting a brew-pub in Rome or Brussels or New York. Here, brewing vessels are both practical and ornamental; visitors are invited to try each of the three house beers before deciding which to drink. I choose the excellent, slightly cloudy amber Moonshine.
For sheer choice, you will struggle to beat Porter & Sons, in busy Ha'arba'a Street. In the 20 months since opening it has established a strong reputation for the range and quality of beers it serves, as well as its food.
"We already had a bar," explains owner Yoav Alon. "We wanted a restaurant that would also do good beers for our customers."
So as I sit at the bar with my Israeli friend Noa our eyes scan 50 beer taps dispensing home-produced ales as well as English favourites London Pride, Fullers ESB and Bass Bitter.
Keeping up to the demands of maintaining quality and the sheer effort of changing the barrels is an investment in time, space and love; few bars anywhere in the world do more to keep their customers happy.
"The whole idea was to fill the place with beers," says Yoav.
Now that sounds like a plan.