All photos by the author.
"You get a really good breeze coming through here," a customer picking up ingredients for an India pale ale said, standing at the red and white Dutch door of the newly opened Busters' brewery and supply shop outside Jerusalem. A dry wind sailed over to the bar, where I had been welcomed moments before with a glass of hard cranberry lemonade."Yeah, well, it's nice to get a blowjob every once in awhile," proprietor Denny Neilson quipped as he poured roasted barley into a grinding machine.
Neilson is the American father of Israeli microbrewing and the sole purveyor of hard apple cider in the land of milk and honey. In the past decade, as the craft brewing scene exploded in Israel—there are now nearly 20 microbreweries, whereas a decade ago there were just a handful—he's been there every step of the way.What started as a small shop for homebrewing based out of his garage in a Jerusalem suburb 13 years ago has grown into a commercial success story. No fewer than six of Israel's microbrewers learned the craft at one of Neilson's brewing workshops, and his Buster's cider can be found at bars and liquor stores across Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
He and his son run the show. They recently moved production to a little factory on a kibbutz west of Jerusalem, where we sat down for a chat. Neilson, now in his mid-60s, is a uniquely American blend of artist, philosopher, and comedian. He originally hails from California, though a sojourn through Tennessee left a hint of a southern twang."My wife had wanted to live here her whole life, since she was a little girl, and she followed me from farm to farm for 20 years—and, you know, once you get past 50, if you have a dream you'd better get busy," he said. "So we literally sold the farm in Tennessee and moved to Israel."After moving to Israel, he started up The Winemaker, a do-it-yourself beer and wine depot, out of his garage. His brewing, distilling, and winemaking workshops drew eager amateur brewers, some of whom started breweries of their own.
"Ronen, Shapira, Lone Tree—they all made beer at our facility," he said, listing off some small breweries from the Jerusalem area whose popularity have grown in recent years. "They learned how to make beer at our facility. In fact, for many of them I built their first brewing systems.""You know, in America everybody says, 'Did you do this in America?' I didn't even drink in America. Didn't need to drink till I moved here. Hell. Once you see this traffic, you gotta start drinking, and you can't afford to buy it so you have to make it."Israeli beer prices, he pointed out, are among the highest in the world. A pint of locally produced beer goes for about $7, most of which is tax. A lot of his clients (this author included) got into brewing at home in order to save a buck or two on beer.
He said he's got "hundreds or thousands" of homebrewing customers, some who come more frequently than others."I'd say consistently, people making beer every month, there's at least 100 who come here," he said.Buying beer ingredients from him over the years, not once did I see him crack open his clone beer recipe cookbook. Some recipes he knows by heart; others involve deliberation over how to reach a desired objective with the ingredients on hand. Without exception, picking up ingredients involves shooting the shit with Neilson, tasting some of his latest concoctions, and petting Buster, the golden retriever after whom the cider's named.
"We always liked doing stuff with our own hands," he said, and "at the time there wasn't a whole lot of beer." To get a decent pint in Israel back in the early 2000s, you had to settle for Guinness or brew your own. Guinness isn't his style."I'm not a beer snob but I know what I like," Neilson mused. For that reason, he said, he'll never produce wheat beer. It's not his thing.Neilson pulls the tap and fills a glass with hard cranberry lemonade, and a second with his Buster's dry cider for himself.
By the time he began thinking of brewing commercially, there were already more than a handful of microbreweries across the country, some of which he helped start."My thought was: 'Who am I to think that my beer would fly off the shelf instead of theirs?'" he said. Instead they tapped the market that hadn't been opened yet: cider. "We studied and tested and tried and for about two or three years worked on recipes and then we came out with Buster's Cider."Neilson's youngest son, Matthew, runs the day-to-day business side of things while Neilson is the self-described "R&D guy.""I rest and drink a lot. I told them that's what it stands for," he said modestly with a wink.In the past two years, however, Buster's has expanded from its two ciders—sweet and dry—to 12 products, including spiced cider, two types of hard lemonade, gin, rum, vodka, and moonshine. Neilson said he's working on an oak-aged stout the likes of which this country has never tasted."Nobody's expanded quite like we have. I hope it's not a jack-of-all, master-of-none," he chuckled.Although they've expanded operations to around 10,000 bottles a month, Neilson wants to keep the small producer feel."I'd rather sell five bottles to somebody I could talk to, than 100 bottles to someone who puts it on a shelf and doesn't know what it's about and who we are," he said. "It's a very personal thing. It's handcrafted, it's hand-presented, and hand-sold."