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Slake Charmers: Israel's Thriving Drinks Culture

September 3, 2013 By:
Debra Kamin, Inside Magazine feature
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The line at the Tamara juice stand, at the corner of Dizengoff and Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv, is almost always four people deep. 

Despite this little joint charging nearly 20 shekels (about $5.60) for a small cup of fresh-squeezed fruity goodness, and regardless of the fact that there are three nearly identical juice stands within a two-minute walk, it is this place — festooned with heavy bunches of bananas and mega-bright clusters of oranges, pears and peaches, its chalkboard juice list a colorful testament to the myriad blends and mixes on offer — that gets the crowds. 

“It’s just the best,” says a customer named Michal, who has just coughed up around $7 for a shake of soymilk, bananas, pecans and dates, and is waiting for her boyfriend, Idan, who has asked for a pineapple-mango mix. As the summer heat continues its relentless creep into Israel’s urban centers, and a short walk outside means a slick of sweat and an aching thirst, the freshsqueezed juices known as meetz sahoot are summertime staples. 

Some of the most popular blends, say the folks at Tamara (who also run a beloved frozen yogurt stand a few blocks up), are orangecarrot (which is great with a dash of spicy ginger), watermelon-mint and celery-apple- beet. Guilt-free and packed with nutrients, fresh juices fit in well with the healthconscious Israeli lifestyle, and they have nearly the same crazed following as Tel Aviv’s iconic cafés. 

Fresh juice is as much a part of historical Israeli cuisine as hummus and pita. The Israeli pioneers of the 20th century starting their mornings with a glass of orange juice to wash down the hard-boiled egg and salad that would fuel them until midday. These days, however, as Israeli cuisine continues its rapid evolution, juice culture has perked up to the reality of the cornucopia that is Israeli produce.

In the summer months, when the long, sundrenched days bring hordes of pedestrians onto the city’s shady boulevards to stroll, jog and bike away the hours, the city’s streetside juice vendors get a huge boost in business. To walk in style around Tel Aviv, carry your cell phone in one hand, your fresh meetz in another, and keep an eye out for strollers and cyclists. Sip, chat, repeat. It’s part of the culture.

Juice is big across the country, and in more pious Jerusalem and party-town Eilat, they also love the stuff. Most cafés will offer a limited menu of carrot, orange and possibly apple juice, all fresh squeezed and delightfully thick with pulp. And juice stands abound across the country. But Tel Aviv, Israel’s unofficial capital of coolness and culture, has the greatest density of juice purveyors and the most devoted following.

“I drink fresh juice with all my heart,” says Rachel Adler, a Canadian transplant to Tel Aviv who runs a mobile English-language yoga studio called The Yoga Space. “I love fruit juices, usually with strawberries, bananas and mangoes. All the sweet ones,” she says. “Fruit juice revives me. Canada doesn’t have any ready-made fruit juices — the best they have is Tropicana. I think it’s really accessible here and I think people appreciate natural foods more here.”

Of course, you can’t please all the people all the time. Lior Yanay, a marketing executive with a 4-year-old at home and a baby on the way, says her daughter prefers Fuze Tea, a Coca-Cola subsidiary which, thanks to a marketing dispute, recently replaced all Nestea Products in Israel. Their peachy blend of tea is especially popular in Israeli corner groceries, known in these parts as makolets, and Yanay says their sweet, refreshing taste is just the ticket for her picky daughter. To quench her own thirst, Yanay keeps it very simple and spends most of the summer sipping sparkling water — San Pellegrino, which is extremely popular here, is her favorite — mixed sometimes with a bit of grape juice for extra flavor.

Israelis with smaller budgets or less concern over whether their fizzy water is Italian or not are starting — at last — to embrace the SodaStream, a home carbonation system that was developed in Israel but has had much greater success in the United States, where it is readily available at stores like Target and Bed Bath & Beyond. Those with a sweet tooth or a hankering for more flavor can add any number of flavored syrups, effectively creating their own sodas, which might explain why Coke- and Pepsi-loving Americans are obsessed with the stuff, while juice-favoring Israelis have taken longer to warm to it. 

SodaStream, which in 2010 became the eighth-largest Israeli IPO to ever hit the NASDAQ, adds carbonation to tap water to turn it into the seltzer drink that Yanay so loves. According to Zacks Research, the company became profitable in 2012, when its earnings ballooned by more than 50 percent. 

“Israelis are prejudiced about the company; the gap between perception and reality is unique to the Israeli market,” SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum told the Israeli business newspaper, Globes, in 2010. 

But sales in this country are starting to improve, with Israelis, at the very least, becoming more familiar with their popular export. It doesn’t hurt that there is a massive SodaStream exhibition in the departures lounge at Ben Gurion International Airport, showing citizens how many bottles of soda an average family consumes in three years (the answer: 2,066). The mural’s motto? Cut the waste — switch to SodaStream instead. It’s a marketing stance than even Yanay’s 4-year-old daughter would likely get behind. 

For older drink aficionados, Israel’s burgeoning wine industry is providing all sorts of new oenophilic options. David Rhodes, who writes extensively about Israeli wines, says that rosés are seeing their popularity skyrocket this summer in Israel, as is a varietal new to the country called Roussanne. 

This tippler tips his hat to the 2012 Roussanne from Binyamina winery near Zichron Yaakov and the 2012 Roussanne from Tabor Winery in the Galilee. 

“Roussanne is a medium-bodied wine, with the flavor of pear, honey and tea leaves,” he says. “It’s a new grape to Israel, and it’s more in line with our climate than the white grapes we’ve been growing in the past.” 

As for his personal preference, Rhodes says that he is drinking a lot of rosé this summer. “Rosés are popular throughout the Mediterranean, and they’re making a resurgence here after a long drought,” he says. “We were making a lot of cheap rosés here 20 years ago. Now, some of the best wineries in Israel are making better rosés, and everyone is following their lead.” 

One of the best rosés on the market this summer can be found at the Amphorae Winery, which is nestled at the foot of Mount Carmel and accessible only by first wandering through a vine-studded pathway that seems plucked straight from the hills of Tuscany. 

At the end of the pathway sits a charming stone house where the real magic happens. Here, chief winemaker Dr. Arkady Papikian creates the fantastic wines that are quickly putting this little boutique winery on the map. One of the best, which was introduced this year and has been, the winery says, flying off the shelves, is its crisp, tart Blanc De Noirs sparkling wine. 

Amphorae is just one of dozens of boutique wineries that have, of late, been strutting their stuff in Israel’s best restaurants and gaining an audience. The birth of the boutique Israeli winery has evolved into a developed adolescence, and these days, says Rhodes, bottles from the small guys are gaining acclaim not just in Israel but in the United States as well. 

“We don’t have the selection of wines that you see in the United States because we don’t have the market for it. But we’ve got about 5,000 labels of wine, both local and imported, available here, and our wines are winning worldwide competitions,” he says. “The food and the wine are bringing each other up.” 

Of the boutique wineries to watch in Israel, Rhodes has his eye on Kfar Tivkah’s Tulip, Flam in the Judean Hills and the centrally located Saslove. Another winery of note is the Somek Boutique Winery in Zichron Yaakov, a small, family-run operation. Putting out only six superb varieties a year and operating out of a small stone house with vineyards in front, this little operation sits in the shadows of Israeli mega-wineries Carmel, Tishbi and Binyamina, yet holds its own in taste, quality and price. 

Americans craving a taste of Israeli wines will soon have new choices, thanks to M&R Spirits of Holland, Pa., which recently announced that it has acquired exclusive distribution rights in the United States for Rimon and Granada wineries, two specialty wineries producing spirits from the beloved pomegranate fruit. 

Not only are these wines — which are all produced by hand and will be available to U.S. consumers starting this fall — kosher, but they are also known to have special health benefits, thanks to the anti-oxidant qualities of pomegranate — yet another reason to raise a glass and enjoy. 

There are two reasons that Israeli wines are so good, Rhodes says. The first is because Israeli taxes on beer and liquor have recently been creeping skyward, prompting many drinkers to switch to more affordable wine. The quality has followed that newfound demand. 

The second reason, he insists, is because Israeli food has had a real renaissance of its own in the past decade. “We’re there,” he says. “For cultural or political reasons, we’re not in the top 10 of wine countries, but we’re on our way. Israel — or, at least, Tel Aviv — is being written up as one of the Top 10 nightspots in the world. Our food and drink are a major part of that.” 

Debra Kamin is an American journalist living in Tel Aviv. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.

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