U.S. entrepreneurs brewing something special in Israel
It would be almost impossible to believe that an inventive Washington, D.C., caterer who created culinary events for Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, an NYU-trained lawyer cum high-tech maven, and a successful New Jersey accountant would actually chuck their lucrative careers in order to serve up hand-crafted boutique beers to thirsty Israelis and curious tourists in metro Tel Aviv. However, Jeremy (“Jem”) Welfeld, Daniel Alon and David Cohen all admit that they are “living the Zionist dream” by reinventing themselves as adventurous American entrepreneurs who’ve fired up Israel’s fledgling microbrew industry.
In terms of chronology, Cohen opened Dancing Camel, the first Israeli microbrewery and pub, in Tel Aviv in 2006. Soon after, Welfeld and Alon partnered to create the first kosher microbrewery, pub and restaurant in Israel, which is located in the bustling Petach Tikva commercial district (home to dozens of high-tech and low-tech companies), just outside of Tel Aviv.
Up until the arrival of microbreweries in the Holy Land, most Israelis and tourists alike appeared to be content with sampling the mass-produced local beers (Goldstar and Maccabee) and some of the well-known European imports. A true beer culture had yet to take root in the Jewish state. Welfeld, who received his master brewer’s certificate from the prestigious Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago, and Cohen, a former CPA who apprenticed at a microbrewery in New Jersey, decided that the time had come to change the way Israelis relate to their suds.
Five years later, Welfeld, Alon and Cohen had spurred a true American-style revolution in Israel. “What was a novelty [microbreweries], is now verging on a national phenomenon,” Israeli beer blogger Harley Zipori wrote.
Welfeld, Alon and Cohen will all tell you that while failure was not an option, having a cogent business plan, sufficient capital and quality brewing experience weren’t the only ingredients needed for success.
“We spent plenty of time searching for the right place to launch this venture,” recalled Welfeld, who catered events at the White House and State Department in the mid-1990s. “We needed to find a place large enough to install brewing equipment, as well as design a pub/restaurant that could fulfill our conceptualization. When we discovered an abandoned warehouse, which was a real mess, Danny and I knew we had found the perfect place for this venture.”
Welfeld and Alon also both knew that the warehouse was located in an area of Petach Tikva that was on the verge of a high-tech and real estate boom. “Besides which, it would have been almost impossible to develop our concept in Tel Aviv, because of the strict city zoning laws. Yes, some people thought we were out of our minds to do this in Petach Tikva, but the timing fit perfectly,” added Alon, the former New York legal eagle and high-tech impresario.
Jem’s Beer Factory serves six genuine lager beers including Pils, Dark Lager, Amber Ale, Wheat, 8.8 and Stout, which are produced on the premises using the freshest ingredients. And, yes, Welfeld is only too happy to offer a quick behind-the-scenes tour of his brewing area to guests upon request. Jem’s also bottles tens of thousands of beers a month, some of which are sold on the premises and the rest available in select liquor stores throughout Israel.
What separates Jem’s from the rest of the pub pack is the funky kosher restaurant that is an integral part of the experience. In fact, Jem’s is jam-packed with secular and religious singles, couples and business tourists during weekday evenings. On Sunday evenings, Jem’s is transformed into a SoHo-style pub/restaurant/nightclub where well-known Israeli singers entertain the throngs until the wee hours of the morning. The restaurant menu offers a variety of tasty dishes, including charbroiled steaks and homemade sausages.
“You won’t find a kosher microbrewery and restaurant anywhere … New York, London, Singapore, etc. It’s hard to find ‘kosher and cool,’ which defines Jem’s,” Welfeld kvelled. “We’re not exclusive but inclusive, meaning that Jem’s is a microcosm of Israeli society, where both religious and secular Jews can enjoy a fun and relaxing experience together.”
Alon revealed that Jem’s also hosts hundreds of business tourists each week. “The business people come from the nearby offices of Teva, IBM, Intel and Amdocs … on their way back to their hotels in Tel Aviv or to the airport, which is only about 15 minutes away,” he added.
Cohen originally wanted to set up his Dancing Camel microbrewery in the mystical city of Safed (Tzfat) in northern Israel. But when he and his wife realized that living and working in bustling central Israel made more sense, Cohen decided to pursue his dream in Tel Aviv.
“We settled on Tel Aviv after visiting and looking at almost every industrial park across Israel,” Cohen said. “Eventually, I found a place in a gentrified neighborhood not far from the city’s busy office buildings. It’s a great neighborhood pub where we brew 13 different ales, five of which we brew year-round. Our most popular beers are American Pale Ale, made with distinctive hops from the United States; Eve, which is a light blond ale; India Pale Ale, which is brewed with date honey; and Leche Del Diablo, a wheat beer that contains chili peppers.”
Dancing Camel’s bottled beers, which are available at select liquor stores throughout Israel, are also kosher (with certification from a rabbi in Monsey, N.Y.).
As for his customer base, Cohen pointed out, “That’s hard to define since we are a local pub, but we do know that we get regular customers from as far away as Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba. The nearby Azrieli Towers complex is a major transportation hub so it’s not difficult for lovers of beer culture to hop aboard a bus or train and enjoy Dancing Camel’s unique atmosphere.”
The success of Jem’s and Dancing Camel has fueled talk of future expansion, but Welfeld, Alon and Cohen maintain that they are constantly working to perfect their existing business model.
Added Alon, “Jem’s is a successful Zionist story that is based on 20 years of vision, energy and persistence. Right now, we like where we are.”
Jem’s Beer Factory, Hamagshimim 15, Kiryat Matalon, Petach Tikva. (03) 919-5367. jems.co.il. Sunday-Thursday, noon-last customer. Saturdays, opens one hour after sunset.
Dancing Camel, Hataasiya 12, Tel Aviv. (03) 624-2783. dancingcamel.com. Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-last customer, Friday, noon-one hour before Shabbat. Saturday, opens one hour after Shabbat.