Joe Sixpack: Etrog beer for Sukkot

Posted: September 29, 2011

THE HARVEST season typically brings beer lovers classic German-style Oktoberfestbier, newfangled American pumpkin brews and ale made with freshly picked hops. In one small corner of the world, though, harvest time means etrog beer.

Or, as David Cohen, owner of Tel Aviv's Dancing Camel Brewing Co. and inventor of this unusual style, says, "When you're done shaking 'em, we start baking 'em."

Maybe you need to know a little about Jewish tradition to understand the humor, so here goes:

The etrog is a fragrant, yellow, thick-skinned citrus fruit grown mainly in Israel, Italy, Yemen and Morocco. It looks like a lemon and tastes more bitter, though it is rarely eaten. Some believe an etrog, not an apple, was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eve.

That partly explains how it became a unique symbol of the Jewish autumn holiday of Sukkot, which this year begins sundown Oct. 12. It's most notably used in an intricate blessing, during which it is held (along with a bundle of palm fronds and willow branches, known as a lulav) and shaken toward the north, south, east, west, up and down to symbolize the belief that God is everywhere.

Some Jews will spend days in search of the finest etrog, traipsing through markets with a magnifying glass in hand, inspecting them for symmetrical shape, color, texture and, above all, the presence of a pittam, or stem. A perfect etrog may cost $25 or more.

But after the seven days of Sukkot, there's not much demand for the fruit. Which means that, in the markets of Israel, all those never-selected "imperfect" etrogs simply go to waste.

"They're literally worthless," said Cohen. That's how he got the idea to brew a beer with etrogs.

A former accountant from New Jersey, Cohen opened his brewpub, one of the few in Israel, in 2006 with the goal of making beer with ingredients unique to that part of the world. He brews a stout with carob from North Africa and an ale with pomegranate, a symbol of Rosh Hashanah. In December, he brews a cherry vanilla stout that tastes like sufganiyot, those jelly doughnuts enjoyed during Hanukkah.

From that perspective, etrog beer is a natural.

He asks his friends to donate theirs after the holidays, and he collects still more from a local farmer. "I told him I'd take them off his hands," said Cohen. "And he said, 'Only if you promise me a few bottles.' So we had a deal."

The etrogs are peeled and their rinds baked dry. Cohen uses about 150 per batch. Because the fruit is so bitter and aromatic, it couldn't be added to just any beer. "There's no way you'd throw it into a stout. It would ruin the beer," he said. "It would have to go into a beer that is lighter and naturally fruity."

His choice: a Belgian-style witbier, a style that is commonly made with dried orange peels. "It produces a beer that is dramatically different in terms of aroma," he said. "It's very floral."

Sounds strange, but all beer styles are a product of cultural tradition and necessity.

Those beers of Oktoberfest, for example, were originally brewed strong and malty as a celebration of the annual harvest. Pumpkin beer was the product of Yankee ingenuity, with gourds replacing British malt that was in short supply in Colonial days.

Cohen proudly calls his creation Trog Wit and says, "It's Sukkot in a glass."


"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at www.joesixpack.net. E-mail: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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