Israel lite — breweries want drinkers to hops aboard

Nahum Maza is crazy about beer.

He devotes at least eight hours a day to beer, and has been known to down a gallon — the equivalent of a dozen bottles — of the sudsy stuff in a single day.

But it's all in a day's work for Maza, whose title is "beer training manager" for Tempo Beer Industries in Netanya, Israel's largest brewer.

That puts him on the front lines in an unlikely battle for the hearts and taste buds of Israeli consumers, a battle joined by Tempo's main competitor — Israel Beer Breweries in Ashkelon — and by a few smaller importers and local microbreweries.

As they jockey for market share, all the local brewers and importers have a common goal: to entice Israelis to drink more beer and, while they're at it, to teach them what good beer is all about.

Tempo brews the dark Goldstar and the lighter Maccabee, which collectively make up more than 60 percent of beer sales in Israel. Tempo also imports the Dutch-based Heineken and Amstel.

Maza's crusade to promote Israeli drinking takes him to pubs, hotel employee training courses, bartender classes and, of course, to Tempo's annual beer festival.

He leads tour groups through Tempo's brewery, showing them the 9360-gallon "cooking" vats where the grain is liquefied and the $7 million bottling line that can fill 54,000 bottles every hour.

Someday he hopes to open a beer museum on the factory grounds that will attract tourists and school groups.

Maza often begins his talks with the statement — "Beer equals health."

That may seem counterintuitive, given the frequent association of beer-drinking with flabby bellies lolling over tight trousers. Maza bases his claim primarily on the salutary effects of brewers' yeast, a prime source of protein and vitamins. Taken in moderation, beer also helps to clean the blood and flush the kidneys, he asserts. Besides that, Maza notes, good beer simply is tasty.

The problem for Tempo and other local beer concerns is that Israelis don't really seem to care too much about a beer's taste or its health benefits. Jews are generally not known as big drinkers. And when their beer consumption is placed in international perspective, Israelis are shockingly laggard.

Today, the average German drinks some 39 gallons of beer a year, according to figures from the Industry and Trade Ministry. The English are not far behind, at nearly 38 gallons per capita, while the average American tosses back 26 gallons a year.

Estimates vary slightly for how much Israelis drink, but the highest one is just under 4.5 gallons per person a year.

Ron Makrin, marketing manager for Israel Beer, which brews Danish-based Carlsberg and Tuborg inside Israel, jokes that "a heavy drinker in Israel is someone who drinks one beer a day."

Mari Liebovitsky, 26-year-old Tel Aviv resident, is a typical Israeli when it comes to beer.

"Beer is beer. I buy whatever is cheapest," she said. "We don't have the same culture of beer in Israel like you have in Europe. Here, you invite someone over — the first thing you offer them is a coffee."

The heaviest group of Israeli drinkers are young people ages 18 to 29, who account for 53 percent of those who have at least one drink a week. Those in their 30s make up 11 percent of Israeli drinkers, while those in their 40s comprise another 15 percent, according to Tempo's beer brand manager, Eran Yaniv.

Beer consumption in Israel has actually has fallen 15 percent in the past three years, says Yaniv, as the number of foreign laborers and tourists here has decreased.

Tempo and Israel Beer have reacted to the situation with a flurry of innovative marketing and sales gimmicks: paraphernalia, taste tests, sweepstakes, beer cook-offs, videocassettes worth more than the eight-packs they're attached to. One company offers customers gifts at the cash register; the other tucks them into the beer packaging right on the supermarket shelf.

Israel Beer flew dozens of Israelis to the MTV music video awards in Milan this fall. The two big companies also try to sign exclusivity contracts with restaurants and bars, which account for some 30 to 40 percent of the 19.5 million gallons of beer sold each year in Israel; almost all of the rest is sold in supermarkets or corner stores.

International beers rapidly are conquering the Israeli market, growing from 11 percent in 1993 to some 40 percent today, according to government figures. As with cigarettes and clothing, the most important factor for many Israeli drinkers in choosing a brand of beer is less the taste or quality than the image it projects.

And nothing, apparently, has as much cachet for young Israeli drinkers today as the veneer of sophistication conferred by the choice of a foreign beer.

At Israel Beer, said Makrin, the company's message is simple: "Beer really makes life fun. Drink a little bit, catch a good buzz."

But not everyone agrees, especially when young people are the target population.

"I'm absolutely delighted that the beer companies are basically unsuccessful in making the population, especially the youth, drink," says Hebrew University sociologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda, who years ago fought against proposals to sell beer in army canteens.

"Alcohol is a dangerous substance in terms of pharmacological substances; it's more damaging even than marijuana. Every drink of alcohol you take ruins brain cells. If you start encouraging the population to drink a lot you'll see a lot more cirrhosis of the liver, violence in the family. What's so good about that?"

Also of concern is the effect an increase in beer consumption could have on road safety. While the number of drunk-driving deaths here is comparatively low, a spokeswoman for the road safety organization Metuna contends that any effort to increase beer sales to young people — who already have the highest percentage of fatal traffic accidents — should be discouraged.

"We're not against beer," Metuna spokeswoman Zelda Harris said, "but any attempt to aim sales at youngsters is very bad."

Meanwhile, at the Tel Aviv Brewhouse, one of the first brew-pubs in Israel, business is booming..

Proprietors Erez Turin, Giora Ben-Ari and Itamar Hatzor pipe four different kinds of homemade lager — varying in strength and darkness — straight from the vat to the customer.

Since its grand opening this fall, Turin says, the Brewhouse has had up to 300 customers fighting for tables nightly in a refurbished building that 80 years ago housed one of the young city's first restaurants. The owners plan to open four or five more branches throughout the country.

With Israel's growing prosperity, Turin notes, the formerly unsophisticated Israeli drinker is learning to appreciate good wine. "Now right in its footsteps will come good beer," he predicts. And he doesn't mind if others hop on the bandwagon.

That's a philosophy shared by both Israel Beer and Tempo.

"Our task is to lead, to educate, to explain," Maza said. "I want people to understand beer. As the market grows, we'll grow along with it."