During my trip to Israel, I visited Cafe Levinsky 41, where owner Benny Briga has made a living from creating his own, healthy version of Gazoz, a well-known soda drink. I tried a glass, and I was so enamoured with it that I wanted to pick his brain about his creative process, his ethos and the history of Gazoz in Tel Aviv.
Here, Benny answers all of my burning questions about Gazoz!
What is Gazoz?
Gazoz is a drink made with any kind of clear soda water, which is then mixed with sugary syrups to create the flavour and colour. It first came from Turkey, and is now sold all over the world.
In the early 1900s in Tel Aviv, there was no alcohol – no bars or pubs either. There were just small kiosks which sold soft drinks. This was where Gazoz was sold.
Why did you go from selling coffee to selling Gazoz?
When Tel Aviv’s tourist industry was beginning to develop, I saw that there weren’t many coffee shops around. There was a gap in the market and it was a good time to start a business like this.
However, as the industry grew and grew, many people visiting Tel Aviv wanted to try Gazoz. It was part of the story of the city. The tourist guides would tell visitors about this drink, and how it was famously sold on the streets in the 20th century. Usually, when you visit a new country, you want to try the local cuisine. But there were no Gazoz kiosks in Tel Aviv anymore. Instead, people were drinking Coca Cola, or soft drinks that they made at home using their Soda Stream machines because it was healthier.
Tourists came to my cafe to drink coffee, but they saw that I also sold soda. They asked me why I wasn’t serving Gazoz, and eventually I realised that, with my background in food and drink, I could create a healthier version of Gazoz for the cafe.
I started by experimenting with preserved fruits instead of syrup. I would forage around Tel Aviv for hours to find ingredients. I discovered in the first week that you could ferment almost any herb or fruit to create a healthier version of a syrup.
Is it true that every drink is unique?
Yes. I knew that if I offered any flavour to my customers, they would all ask for the same thing. So I decided that, whatever I was working with that day, I would sell in the cafe. It’s exciting for the customer, because they don’t know what flavour will be available when they come to the cafe. They trust us, because they know that we have the knowledge to create something good.
What kind of water do you use as a base?
We use cold, triple-filtered water, which is then mixed with gas to create a soda.
How do you build a glass of your Gazoz?
We take the fermented fruits and put them in a glass with ice. From there, it’s like putting together an outfit. We play with a few fresh herbs, and we also use fermented spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, star anise, black pepper, or whatever we have on the shelves.
First, customers will enjoy the smell of the Gazoz, then they drink the liquid, then they can eat what’s left with a spoon. It’s simple, being in a glass from a kiosk on the street, but it’s beautiful and deep and unique – you’ll never get the same glass of our Gazoz twice.
Do your Gazoz blends have any medical benefits?
Most of the herbs and spices we use have medical benefits, and fermenting them makes these benefits even stronger.
Where do you source your ingredients?
We buy most of our spices from the local market, and we grow most of the herbs on our own organic farm, which we started 6 months ago. Our dream is to have an edible forest, so that we can grow all the ingredients ourselves, and even take people on a tour to understand more about the intelligence and beauty of nature. I hope this will happen in the next two years.
Can you drink Gazoz straight away?
You will enjoy Gazoz any way that you drink it. If you drink it straight away, you’ll enjoy it, because most of the ingredients are already fermented, so you get the deep flavour immediately. If you want to leave it for a little bit, the fresh herbs will add flavour to the soda water.
People wait over an hour for a drink at Cafe Levinsky. Why do you think it has become so popular?
It’s a combination of lots of things. It’s the development of social media and how people can spread the word so fast. It’s the fact that we have a unique and special cafe in the middle of the market, where lots of people visit. It’s also the hard work and the deep emotion I have for the cafe.
All of these things come together to give us these amazing moments, where people visit from all over the world and enjoy Gazoz and talk to us.
What’s the best way to enjoy Gazoz?
I think the best way to enjoy Gazoz is in the summertime, when you can sit down and chill out with a glass of Gazoz in your hand. It’s best to enjoy the smell first, then the drink, then the small salad left in the glass. It’s healthy, full of probiotics and full of life.
Can people make Gazoz at home?
Yes, they can use a simple process of fermentation which involves taking some fruits, adding a spoon of sugar or honey, and leaving it for half a day. They can then bring together soda water, ice, spices and some herbs from the garden or supermarket, and add the fruits, and they can enjoy this beautiful drink at home.
We’re actually working on a book which will be published in 2021, which will show people how do ferment at home, and create their own Gazoz.
Do you even sell coffee anymore?
We still sell a lot of coffee. Especially on Friday mornings, when a lot of people come to shop at the Levinsky Market.
Would you try Gazoz? Let me know in the comments below!
Michael has been involved with gardening and plants since he was just five years old. He is a self-professed Plant Geek, and was listed in the Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world, thanks to his plant hunter role at Thompson & Morgan.
Michael was responsible for new plant introductions such as the Egg and Chips plant and the FuchsiaBerry and keeps busy travelling the world in search of new plants as well as lecturing worldwide, including stints in Japan. He is very active on social media – so why not give him a follow at @mr_plantgeek or Facebook. You can also listen to The Plant Based Podcast with Michael and co-host Ellen-Mary on iTunes, Spotify and Google.