Rich Walter is the associate director for Israel education at the Center for Israel Education (www.israeled.org).
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Bottles are labeled at the Palestine Brewery in Rishon L’Zion in 1939.
While Israel’s outstanding wine industry has received international recognition with recent features in publications such as Wine Spectator, Aug. 4 is International Beer Day, so it is timely to take a look at the early history of beer in the Holy Land.
“All attempts to establish beer breweries in this country have so far proved unsuccessful,” proclaimed the Palestine Bulletin on June 30, 1920.
Those failures took place despite calls for investing in the industry because of the abundance of barley grown in the region.
In 1922, the B’nai B’rith Messenger reported that Nahum Tisch (Tishbi), the secretary for trade and industry of the Palestine Zionist Executive, advocated opening a brewery in Gaza, among other industries, to help spur Jewish development there. Both Tisch and editorials of the 1930s commented that in addition to exporting barley used to make beer in Germany and England, the Yishuv was spending substantial sums to import beer.
Among the reasons the beer industry had not developed, despite the availability of some ingredients and a thirst for beer among European immigrants, were the high taxes imposed on its production. Only when the British agreed to lower the excise tax on beer from 20 mils to 8 mils per liter was an economically successful brewery constructed.
A group of French Jewish industrialists, led by the banker Rene Gaston-Dreyfus, was behind the country’s first brewery, Palestine Brewery Ltd., which opened in the cellar of a Rishon L’Zion winery in 1934.
In addition to being from a well-known Parisian banking family, Gaston-Dreyfus was a trained brewer who had helped to start breweries in Egypt, Morocco and Indonesia through Sofibra, an investment firm he had created to finance breweries.
Gaston-Dreyfus, who would later receive the French Legion of Honor for his service in both world wars, was inspired to create the brewery after hearing a lecture by Chaim Weizmann at the Sorbonne on economic development in Palestine.
A year after opening, the brewery launched a label competition, which was won by Albert K. Henschel of Jerusalem. The first bottles were marketed and sold as Nesher (Eagle) beer in January 1936. Over 3 million bottles were produced in the first year of operation.
After the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, more breweries emerged in the 1950s to challenge the country’s first brewery. Commercially successful beers Goldstar and Maccabee came to dominate the marketplace.
In recent decades, a number of microbreweries have been established in Israel. While Israeli wine is available in many area stores, it appears that, at present, one cannot purchase Israeli beer in metro Atlanta.