View From The Hills: Gush Etzion’s peaceful brewster
By JOSH HASTEN
Susan Levin is the only female “settler” brewster in all of Judea and Samaria and is the co-owner of the Lone Tree Brewery. Photo: Courtesy Lone Tree Brewery Nestled away and nearly completely hidden deep inside the Gush Etzion forest, 52-year-old Susan Levin spends her days inside a 50-meter building measuring and mixing, boiling and bottling.
With her hair always covered and her long skirt nearly hitting the floor, one might assume Levin is perhaps busy cooking up some matzo ball soup in bulk, maybe as a caterer for weddings or Bar-Mitzvahs.
In actuality Levin, who made aliya from the US six years ago, and was looking for a change in career, is the one and only female “settler” brewster in all of Judea and Samaria and is the co-owner of the Lone Tree Brewery, a boutique beer manufacturing plant which produces eight kinds of high-quality suds with an average output totaling 800-bottles per month.
Levin says that she is “proud and, even more so, privileged to be able to call Gush Etzion her home,” for its rich Jewish history, and is grateful to be producing “a completely natural and healthy product” that has been a staple of nearly every civilization throughout history.
Beer? Healthy? While beer perhaps has gotten a negative reputation over the years thanks to college fraternity parties gone wild, Levin explains that beer, which today is the number one consumed beverage worldwide, actually saved lives in England at the turn of the 17th century during the beginning of British pub culture.
“Since the water in England was so polluted at the time,” she explains, “the people who drank water might never have made it to work. However, those that stopped for a pint at their local pub on their way to work – because beer is boiled, which kills the bacteria in the liquid, lived to see another day. There is no doubt that beer curbed disease and early death at the time.”
Fast-forward to the year 2012, within Israel’s so-called “settlement movement,” often portrayed in the media as an area of radicalism and violent conflict, or in some camps both locally and abroad viewed as the “main obstacle to peace.”
Levin scoffs at the notion that her presence is the reason that Arabs and Jews are still at war. She says that in fact her visitors, who travel to the Gush for tours of her brewery and tastings on a regular basis from places like Tel-Aviv and Haifa, sometimes arrive “with preconceived notions, only to discover that this is one of the most peaceful places in all of the Land of Israel.”
In addition to local guests, Levin says that she hosts visitors from abroad who sometimes call her up to two months in advance to book tours and tastings.
SO HOW did this mother of three, with no previous brewing experience other than making beer as a hobby for her own consumption, decide to undertake this venture? “I was looking for a way to build something,” she says, “to plant roots in the Land of Israel, and it dawned on me that the microbrew market in Israel was not fully developed, so I decided to give it a shot.”
In 2010, after perfecting her craft, she along with a business partner opened a small factory, and began selling her product. Her selection of ales includes various styles – three British, two American, one Belgian, one stout and the house special – an Israeli blend of pomegranate-date beer.
Each bottle features its own scale on the back to let the consumer know how bitter the blend is, from one (least bitter) to five (most bitter). The logo on each bottle is a single tree, representing the “Etz Haboded,” the historic “lone oak tree,” which has been a symbol of Gush Etzion for hundreds of years, and recently a representation of the return and re-establishment of Jewish communities in the area after 19 years of inaccessibility following the fall of the Gush during War of Independence.
The near-panoramic view from Levin’s brewery door, which is usually always wide open, is breathtaking.
On a clear day, one can see Israel’s coastline from Tel Aviv to Ashdod down to Ashkelon. Also clearly visible are Beitar-Ilit, Tzur Hadassah and Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem neighborhood.
“I am blessed to live and to work in a place where I can gaze over the hills of Judea, see the mountains, and the coast, and become inspired by the beauty and peacefulness of the land,” Levin says. She adds, “When I am in the midst of brewing, producing a natural product, I become in concert with the Land and its surroundings, which is a perfect match.”
One of her greatest senses of satisfaction, admits Levin, is when “visitors from Tel Aviv come here and see how normal life is in Gush Etzion, or when we go to the annual beer exposition in Tel Aviv, and we are the only ‘settler’ brewery represented, and I’m the only woman brewster around. That’s a great feeling.”
While she doesn’t know the exact number of visitors to the brewery, she says that “hundreds have come from all parts of Israel, and all over the world.”
Levin takes her beer-making very seriously.
“Brewing is an art, a science,” she says. “I’m not some young 24-year-old out of the army, looking to brew as a hobby. This is a full-time job.”
In fact, Levin says she works “a job and a half” since she also puts in about 20 hours a week as the assistant to the director of Jerusalem’s prestigious Ma’ale School of Film.
According to Levin, who describes herself as a “proud, and very low-key ‘settler,’” she has gotten almost nothing but positive feedback from her customers.
“We are right there in the market with the other boutique beers in the country,” she says.
“Beer has given me the opportunity to tell the story of how our people became a people, which is especially relevant in this area of the country. Here I am prancing around making beer 40 years after the original ‘settlers’ sacrificed and gave their blood, which flows through this land, so that I can be here.
There is no question that this area is our land. We don’t ask, ‘can we live here in the Gush?’ we ask ‘where do you like living here?’ Being able to brew here and to live here is a gift I received with no down payment. I feel like I am now spending a good chunk of my life, with the privilege of paying back, what nobody asked me to pay for.”