“The inhabitants of our land are used to having their coffee, and for many of them it’s a vital item. Lots of people are unable to effectively get through their daily tasks, whether physical or intellectual, without having some of this beverage at least once a day, if not more. With the climate conditions in Israel, this beverage is of great importance, especially in the hot summer months when working people get mentally weary, sometimes even to the point of depression. These feelings pass, to a lesser or greater degree, after drinking the ‘brown beverage’ also known as ‘brown gold.’”
“Coffee Growing in Israel,” Israel Gindel ((1959
Dr. Israel Gindel envisioned vast coffee plantations covering Israeli soil. As he notes in the preface to his book, however, his utopian Zionist vision was pooh-poohed by professional colleagues at home and abroad. But the dedicated scientist, born in Poland in 1908 and educated at the faculty of forestry at the University of Life Sciences in Warsaw, was not dissuaded. In the early 1950s, Gindel began cultivating different strains of coffee on an experimental plantation, in an attempt to adapt the plant to local conditions. A picture of his first crop appears on the cover of his book; as it went to press, its author urged the country’s farmers to plant small coffee groves for the sake of the learning process.
Gindel concluded the preface on an optimistic note: “At the end of the first stage of the coffee-growing experiment, the results cannot be described as perfect, especially if one takes into account that this exotic plant is still in the midst of an evolutionary process that has yet to reach a certain equilibrium among all the new climactic factors to which it is subject here. We should expect to find mutant strains in the plantations in Israel, and let us hope that successful mutant strains will also be discovered, as occurred with the Shamouti strain of citrus fruit.”
“He was a quiet man who kept to himself,” recalls Prof. Shimon Lavee, a world-renowned researcher in plant and fruit sciences, who was Gindel’s young neighbor down the hall at the Volcani Institute of Agricultural Research. “We weren’t close friends but I remember that he always dressed like a European gentleman and didn’t mix much with the other researchers. But he spoke very frequently, almost obsessively, about coffee growing in Israel.”
Preserved in the institute’s archives are letters by Gindel, desperately urging the institute director to allocate funds for him to pursue his pioneering research on coffee.
“His main field of expertise was the eucalyptus tree,” adds Lavee. “An avant-garde hobby like the acclimatization of coffee plants was not the top of the agenda for people of that era.”
The story’s end is known to those of later generations. Gindel did succeed in adapting coffee varieties whose seeds were imported from Brazil, Yemen, Indonesia and other traditional coffee-growing regions.
The first local plants even produced a decent initial crop, but the transition to commercial growing did not succeed. A tropical plant can be adapted to a subtropical environmental habitat, but in the state’s early years, it was difficult to create water sources and to obtain sufficient manpower for such undertakings.
The remnants of Gindel’s dream remained in local research facilities; some of the plants also eventually found their way to gardeners. Indeed, coffee plants, with their shiny evergreen leaves and beautiful red fruit, are also popular nowadays as an ornamental shrub. But since Gindel’s time, no one has tried to establish a plantation with the goal of producing a high-quality, local coffee.
“The seeds that are imported to Israel are from inexpensive strains. Drinking the meager beverage that can be made from them causes dismay among those who know the flavor of fine coffee”
− “Coffee Growing in Israel,” Israel Gindel
June 2013. The fields of Moshav Matzliah on the Coastal Plain, two kilometers south of Ramle. The coffee plants at Coffee-Tech Engineering, the moshav company that makes sophisticated coffee-roasting machines, are covered with beautiful white blossoms. The coffee fruit, like those of the first crop that thrilled the good doctor’s soul back in 1952, will soon appear on the trees, protected by a shady shelter.
In this tiny orchard − 30 trees planted three years ago (some after initially being grown in a hothouse) − you can find coffee plants of different strains and from different regions. One of the most notable is the Golda, which was developed by Dr. Gindel. This local strain, a source of pride and joy for the late coffee pioneer, is a local subspecies of the famed arabica coffee. Gindel, who passed away in 1983, never met Iris and Ram Evgi, the owners of Coffee-Tech, but he surely would have assumed that they “know the flavor of fine coffee” and would share his passion as well as original thinking and boldness.
“One of the most important things for researchers and inventors,” says Ram, “is not to listen to others. You have to go against the tide, and ignore what are considered the rules and the accepted norms.” The couple initiated their project in 2001, after years of dealing with coffee in other ways, and in the belief that fresh roasting is the most influential factor when it comes to the quality of “brown gold.”
“People thought we were crazy,” Ram adds. “We sold maybe one machine a month. Now we sell advanced roasting machines for home use, to cafés and restaurants and industrial plants all over the world.”
On the path leading to the factory sits a machine packed in a cardboard box, waiting to be sent to the research lab of a chemistry professor in Trieste. Coffee-Tech sells coffee roasters to Italians – the people most renowned for their glorious coffee culture – but not only to them. Machines destined for Freiberg, Germany, and Prague await packaging on the assembly line; a representative of a chain of cafés in Bangkok – sent to Moshav Matzliah to learn about using the machines being sent to Thailand – is practicing how to operate one; and Ram just returned last week from Ukraine (“It’s a coffee powerhouse. There are people there with nothing to eat, but they have amazing coffee”), where he presented his company’s products and served as a judge at a local barista competition.
Israel Gindel received a doctorate in forestry sciences from the University of Florence. Ram Evgi does not have any academic degrees, but is engaged daily in studying the connections between material, form and content. The machines and the unique patents he designed and developed have given Coffee-Tech an international reputation.
In another wing of the factory/workshop (the assembly lines combine advanced technological means and the work of expert metal craftsmen), classic Alfa Romeo cars are being restored − another expression of Ram’s love for aesthetics and mechanics. Espresso machines with designs inspired by local Bauhaus buildings are being made, and antique coffee machines are being restored.
Iris and Ram Evgi have a rare collection of machines, that includes primitive tools for roasting coffee beans; ancient grinders; and coffee pots from the preindustrial age, in which coffee was boiled over a fire in the Turkish-Arab style. But the crowning glory is the dozens of espresso machines, precious collectors’ items dating from the late 19th century to the late 20th century. Some of these machines − beautiful and functional sculptures, designed by some of the finest modern architects − make their way to Milan’s Coffee Machine Museum (MUMAC’s founders, the Cimbali family, inherited an eminent espresso machine company and have become close friends of the Evgis), or to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Most of the time, the collection – carefully wrapped and kept out of public view, – is placed in secured storerooms.
The Evgis have approached a number of local authorities about finding a suitable space to display the collection, but no one has picked up the gauntlet. They envision a museum of design and coffee history being built one day on the family’s land. Planting a coffee orchard is another step in turning the site into a comprehensive research center.
“We planted the coffee for ourselves, first of all,” says Ram, who, like Gindel before him, is always dressed in fine European style. “I want to understand and learn from personal experience everything there is to know about coffee, before and after the roasting stage that I specialize in. But I hope that people wiser than me when it comes to the agricultural side of things will come and keep it going. From the roasted beans of the first crops, we were able to make a good coffee. But these days, when traditional coffee growers are facing serious difficulties (diseases threatening to wipe out the old plantations) and local growers are looking for exotic fields with which to penetrate the global market, Gindel’s vision may not be so far-fetched.”
Ram does not have a high opinion of the local coffee scene. “There is no quality coffee in Israel,” he declares, defying the popular view of a coffee revolution that has been occurring locally in recent decades.
While the speaker does have a commercial interest − 99 percent of his company’s products are exported abroad, and just 1 percent is purchased in Israel − it is still worth listening to someone who has acquired a worldwide reputation in the field and is sought out by coffee experts from around the world.
Ram: “In Israel, there are two or three stores that fight to be able to supply good raw ingredients, but aside from that we are lagging behind the rest of the world. There are hardly any places here that offer on-the-spot roasting, which has become the standard in many other countries. The public lacks awareness, but even chefs – who are supposed to be opinion formers and advocates for good taste – aren’t interested in coffee. It’s easier to offer a name-brand coffee, in return for an espresso machine and cups supplied by the company, than to really study the subject or try to serve a good artisanal coffee.”
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