April 06

Move Over Starbucks: Israel’s “Upside Down” Coffee Saga

Esther Solomon

1. The Drug of Choice

My name is Esther and I’m a recovering addict. On a good day, I would have only one. On more challenging days, two. And, to my shame and not inconsiderable financial (and calorific) distress, there were days – thankfully, rarer – when I even got to three.

The object of my addiction? The poetically entitled ‘hailstone coffee’ or café barad in Hebrew, a sweet coffee-slush for grown-ups. A local variety of the famed frappuccino, but without the pretension, it is available at every two-bit city street-corner kiosk with room for a revolving slush machine on its counter. In the hot, humid Tel Aviv summer café barad is a supremely tempting product, though in these days of global warming, the barad season can last all the way from March to November.

I have managed with some difficulty to switch my attention from the sugar-rush chill of the barad to the more delicate charms of a regular café hafuch, ‘upside-down coffee’ in Hebrew. The origins of the term are disputed, but perhaps lie in the pre-espresso era when a common drink was to add a shot of instant coffee to a mug of milk, rather than adding a dash of milk to a cup of instant. In any case, in Israel hafuch is used as a generalised shorthand for a full menu of drinks based on espresso and frothed milk, from cappuccinos to lattes.

I don’t regret my conversion to hafuch, especially when savoured in Café Michal, my Parisian-style local. Israeli coffee and the culture built around it is well-developed, high-quality and inventive, such that the business development director of the fast-expanding gourmet coffee shop chain, Café Joe, Ofir Gvirsman, reports that the Italian coffee experts he has hosted assert that the coffee tastes better than it does back in Italy.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. It would be hard for a time-traveller from Israel of the 1970s, let alone from the 1950s austerity period, to recognize the cappuccino-heaven of present-day Israel. In former days, coffee meant the rough romance of café botz (‘mud coffee’, or Turkish coffee), or poor-tasting coffee powder, or, later on, the delights of ‘nes’, an abbreviation taken from the catch-all brand-name of ‘Nescafe’ which also means ‘miracle’ in Hebrew, a fitting term for a product whose wonders seemed – naively or ironically - so magical at the time. Espresso arrived in Israel late, in the 1990s. The growing sophistication of the coffee palate here is a faithful reflection of how consumerism and Europe and US-oriented aspirations have taken hold in Israeli society, and as Israelis traveled abroad more widely.

Still, there is no doubt that Israelis have a huge appetite for coffee. According to industry estimates, the average Israeli drinks 110 litres of coffee a year, nearly double the consumption of the average American (at 60 litres/year) and even ahead of Western Europe (90 litres). And coffee has a significant place in Israeli life. For one thing, it bridges ethnic divides: both Arab and Jewish populations are devotees and contemporary café chains offer a culturally neutral space. Within the Jewish population, coffee poses few kashrut issues for the religiously observant; and its limited cost makes it a relatively accessible luxury for a broad public. It has comforting associations for those who served in the army and experienced the basic but intensely sociable experience of making coffee together in the field. The stimulant effects of a strong cup of coffee perfectly match the frenetic pace of life in Israel. Bearing in mind that average public consumption of alcohol here is far lower than Europe and the US, caffeine is, in effect, the Israeli intoxicant of choice.

2. Cafe Society

Tel Aviv was known from its early days as a city of cafes, and cafes have always been an integral part of Israeli urban culture in general. Some local cafes in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv retain the Viennese/Central European café-salon feel that homesick refugees from central Europe recreated in their new home. Yet other cafes in the two main cities -- Atara, Ta'amon, Kassit -- were refuges for the pre-state undergrounds as well as later on, debating fora for the politicians, cultural icons, and journalists of the day. The center of gravity of urban culture may have spread beyond a few iconic locations, as cafes have proliferated, but cafes are still important venues for business and social occasions.

Today, though the appeal of alcohol is, slowly, growing, for many young Israelis, the venue of choice for hanging out in an evening is still a café rather than the bar or pub that it might be in Europe or America. And if the siren call of alcohol is heard, most coffee houses do have a menu of alcoholic drinks, often including combinations of coffee shots and spirits or liqueurs. Though the idea of an espresso fortified by a shot of whiskey or Irish creme may come as a culture shock for US coffee-house aficionados, it would be far less odd for their continental cousins, for whom the dichotomy between places serving food and places serving alcoholic drink barely exists.

Another, more macabre distinction of Israel’s café culture is its targeting by suicide bombers in recent years, and the resultant security fronting most major branches. Although some cafes have permanent guards, and others defiantly refuse to hire altogether, there are many café owners who appear to be engaged in a disconcerting form of Russian roulette. When the threat of attack is perceived as high, and they believe there is public demand for a visible security presence, the guards are called in and when the security situation appears calmer, they disappear, even though terror attacks have rarely followed such convenient patterns. And the cafes with permanent guards are not embarrassed to share the costs with their customers: many cafes have a supposedly voluntary $1 surcharge per customer to cover ‘security’. Clearly it would be hard – rhetorically and practically - for the individual customer to opt out of such a service

The bombings create a association by the public, mostly suppressed, between cafes and the intifada, and a new and depressing form of branding for the bomb attacks themselves: the Café Hillel attack, the Café Moment attack, the Café Apropos attack. Cafes are a particularly resonant target for attacks not just because an explosion in a confined space or even in the midst of a crowd waiting outside is particularly devastating. On the one hand, neighbourhood cafes are cosy spaces, and an attack is similar to bombing a home or an intimate community, with a high likelihood that friends and/or family members will be victims together. And on the other hand the larger chains are an example of Israeli commercial nous and success according to US/European norms, so that an attack on them is an onslaught on Israel’s West-oriented lifestyle and on the standard of living that the presence of such businesses seem to indicate.

Attacks on transport links such as buses, and on infrastructure, are clearly designed to disable the continuation of everyday life. Cafés, on the other hand, provide a counterpoint: they are non-essentials, they are the havens of the middle-class that can at least initially afford to flee from public transport when attacks threaten, they are highly accessible, ubiquitous and open continuously. As the Palestinian café scene develops, perhaps the bombers are sending out a two-way message: that they oppose the secular, ungendered, entrpreneurial café space not only for Israelis, but also for the 30-somethings of Ramallah.

Center image: Henryk Broder
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