Why coffee is still Israel's hottest drink

Israelis are so fussy about their lattes that Starbucks didn't stand a chance

By Bernard Josephs, January 13, 2011
Israelis, like these lounging at a Tel Aviv café, drink nearly twice as much coffee as Britons and Americans

Israelis, like these lounging at a Tel Aviv café, drink nearly twice as much coffee as Britons and Americans

I admit it - I am an addict. For me a day without coffee is a day without sunshine, without energy and without the strange palpitations that an overdose of caffeine brings on.

So what if some medics say that too much of the brown stuff can raise your blood pressure, increase anxiety and make you irritable? Other experts have found that it also protects against liver cancer and type 2 diabetes and can even be used as a beauty aid against cellulite.

During 10 years living in Israel I found that a brew was essential if one was to meet the challenges of everyday life and become part of Israeli society.

What after all can be more relaxing than greeting the start of the weekend over a steaming cup at one of the country's celebrated cafes?

A favourite was the Cafe Atara in Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda Street. Not fancy and not chic, this establishment was nevertheless a symbol of Israel's history. Founded in 1938, it achieved near mythical status as the haunt of intellectuals, politicians, and Hagganah officers.

It was immortalised in Amos Oz's novel, My Michael, and after surviving suicide bombings, moved to Rehavia where, sadly, it finally closed 10 years ago.

The Atara may be gone but the cafe culture continues to flourish, whether in the capital or the beach fronts of Tel Aviv. Recent figures show Israelis to be among the top 30 in the international league table of coffee tipplers.

One survey showed that the average Israeli drinks over 100 litres of coffee a year, nearly double the consumption per capita of the average American and way ahead of the amounts quaffed in the tea-swamped UK.

While latte and cappuccino culture has taken hold amongst the sophisticates of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, sweet, grainy, Turkish-style coffee, prepared in a finjan jug, is still favoured by diehard romantics who hanker for its authenticity and strength.

Known as botz (mud), this was the drink that kept Israelis going during the years of austerity when coffee powder of dubious quality was all that was available. Today it remains part of the folklore and is as popular as ever.

For many Israelis the slightly acrid scent of botz evokes memories of army service. It also helps bridge the country's ethnic divide, it being as popular with Bedouin Arabs and Druze as it is with Jews.

It is particularly enjoyed by hikers and picnickers who prepare it on portable primus stoves or on hot coals and it is also often seen as a taste of home by homesick Israeli communities worldwide.

To make botz, bring water to a boil in a finjan or a small heat-proof jug and add three teaspoons of sugar (or more if required). Wait for the sugar to dissolve and then add three teaspoons of coffee. Bring again to the boil so that the coffee almost overflows and then turn off the flame. If you want a truly authentic taste, add ground cardamom and serve in small cups.

Perhaps the most popular Israeli coffee of all is cafe afuch or "upside down coffee". A perfect afternoon drink, it comprises steamed milk poured into a coffee mug, with a shot of espresso added to give it a layered look and a great flavour.

Israelis are fiercely loyal to their local cafes and foreign establishments such as Starbucks have found it a difficult market to penetrate. They have been unable, it seems, to meet the demands of Israel's coffee crowd who, whether they be couples with children, people reading their newspapers, soldiers on leave or businessmen busy on their laptops, prefer to enjoy their coffee the Israeli way.

Last updated: 10:56am, January 13 2011