The annual policy conference of AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group, is inherently political – and the partisan mood this year was sharpened by the contested presidential campaign. Austin Clar, though, was just there to sell beer.
Clar is a Dallas-based importer who’s trying to cultivate a domestic market for Malka, Israel’s most popular craft beer. Clar concedes that he’s unlikely to make inroads in U.S. cities with their own craft beer scenes: “I won’t sell any beer in Asheville, North Carolina,” he told a few dozen meeting attendees who gathered on Sunday morning to sample a Belgian blonde, pale ale and stout. “I do decently in Portland, but I don’t do anything in Bend. Can’t sell a thing in Austin. That’s just how it is.”
But he’s persuaded that beers from the Tel Aviv brewery can find an American fan base in the 12 states where they’ve been cleared for sale, including South Carolina. Indeed, the future of Israeli beer may well depend on foreign demand, since the average Israeli drinks just 14 liters of beer each year. The comparable U.S. figure is 90 liters.
According to Jake Sharfman, a publicist who represents Israel’s nascent craft beer industry, Goldstar was the only Israeli beer sold throughout the country until a few years ago. Another big name beer, Maccabee, “really fell off the map” in the 1980s.
At any bar from Haifa to Eilat, “it was Goldstar or an import, so they really wanted an Israeli taste,” Sharfman said of home brewers who contemplated transitioning to commercial production.
Now there are a number of microbreweries in Israel, despite an unfriendly tax structure and what Sharfman’s partner, James Fattal, describes as a drinking culture that is “just significantly, significantly less developed.”
Additionally, Israeli craft brewers are hamstrung by living in a region where most cereal grains and hops don’t grow. Clar repeatedly ducked questions about the economic and environmental sustainability of a water-intensive industry in a water-starved desert, but suggested brewers could replicate Israeli winegrowers’ successes.
“Wine also takes a lot of water,” Clar argued. “It takes a lot of water to make sure the grapes are OK. The Israelis miraculously do it.”
Wine in Israel has traditionally been taxed at a lower rate than beer, because of its use in religious ceremonies. According to Fattal, the beer tax paid by producers was the fourth highest in the world until the government last year slashed it in half.
Still, beer makers have to contend with the costs of importing water, whether from Jordan or another country. The Belgian beer that Clar poured is made with imported barley, imported yeast and imported hops, although the orange peel comes from a nearby kibbutz and Malka sources its coriander “from Bedouins in the desert.”
“So it’s really Israeli,” he said, encouraging tasters to drink up.
Malka is not currently sold in South Carolina, although restaurants and retailers can arrange to carry it through special order.