Ofer Ronen’s 30-year high-tech career took him all over the world. In his travels, he saw some of the most cutting-edge technology he’d ever seen (outside of Israel, of course.). But it was the beer, not bits or bytes that truly captured his heart and imagination.
“Being in high-tech is a great opportunity to visit places and know what type of beers are typical to the different places,” Ronen said. “Seeing all the varieties of beers increased my curiosity about this wonderful drink. I started as a young engineer, I was assigned to go to Germany for six months and visited Belgium, Austria, France and the Czech Republic. At the time, all I knew about brewing beer was concentrated in one word: Goldstar.
“In Europe, I realized that beer is not Goldstar. It’s not even just a drink – it’s a culture.” During his travels, Ronen became so taken with beer and its complexity that he dreamed of one day opening his own brewery. It took him a few decades, but in 2011 he and partner Ohad Elion – also a high tech refugee with the beer bug – secured a 250,000 NIS loan from The Jewish Agency Loan Funds, made possible by UJA Federation of New York. With the loan, they purchased modern manufacturing equipment and converted an old hillside winery, outside Jerusalem, into a micro-brewery (called Srigim) complete with a tasting area for visitors. Over the past few years, Srigim has been at the forefront of a new Israeli craft-beer frenzy. Currently, there are some 90 Israeli craft beers by at least 20 micro-breweries.
“The craft beer industry in Israel is like it was like in the U.S. 20 years ago,” Ronen said.
The actual contours of Ronen’s dream began to take shape in the early 90s. Ronen found himself on another stint abroad; this time in Silicon Valley. One day, tired of staring at the same depressing supermarket selection of Budweiser, Miller and Coors, he decided he needed to check out a liquor store, where perhaps he could find something interesting. At the liquor store, he noticed a six-pack of Pete’s Wicked Ale. Because the American craft beer revolution was still in its very early stages, the pickings – even at liquor stores – were slim. But there was Pete’s, buried on the bottom shelf, only visible to somebody who was looking.
“I took the beer and fell in love with the dark hue, fruity and bitter taste, the full-body, and its complexity,” Ronen recalled. “This became my house beer. People knew that when they came over that is what they’d have. During the six years I was in the States, I saw Pete’s become more popular. It went from the bottom shelf, to the middle and then the top.”
Eventually, Ronen returned to Israel to run his high-tech company, but the now booming American-style craft beer industry was never far from his thoughts. In 2003, he sold his company and began to brew on his own. His goals were to help start a craft beer scene in Israel and to capture the original taste of Pete’s, which had since been sold to a larger company that changed the recipe and eventually discontinued the label.
“I began to tweak ingredients, and eventually I made the taste I remembered on the tip of my tongue,” Ronen said. “I submitted it to the Samuel Adams Long Shot beer competition under the label ‘Ofer’s Wicked Ale’ and came in first place in the dark ale category.” A few months after the Long Shot competition, Ronen learned that Pete Slossberg – the Wicked Ale founder – was going to be in Tel Aviv. He arranged a meeting at a pub and brought along a bottle of Ofer’s Wicked Ale.
“He liked it and remarked about how close it was to the original recipe,” Ronen said. “He told me, ‘I’m so happy you’re doing this; you’re preserving the taste.’” Today Ronen and Elion brew about 5,000 liters per month. They use imported ingredients to produce a number of different beers, including a blonde ale, a Belgian-style tripel, a German-style wheat beer, an American-style wheat beer, an India pale ale (IPA), an Irish red ale, and an English-style brown ale. And Slossberg, the man whose beer changed Ronen’s life, remains a fan.
“We became friends,” Ronen said. “Six months ago he came back to Israel. This time he visited my brewery. The support we’ve had from The Jewish Agency provided us with a springboard for a high-standard brewery for people who understand beer.”