Meet the coffee roasters who have been grinding for a century

The Izhiman family-operated chain sells tea, nuts, spices, condiments, chocolate and henna from Thailand, Turkey and Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Izhiman's Coffee and Spices (photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)
Izhiman's Coffee and Spices
(photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)
When the Izhiman family opened its coffee roasting and grinding business in 1921 on Suq Khan a-Zeit (Beit Habad Street) 100 meters inside the Old City’s Damascus Gate, Sir Herbert Samuel had recently arrived as Great Britain’s first High Commissioner for Palestine and Egyptian chanteuse Umm Kulthum was just beginning her illustrious career.
Over the past century the Middle East has changed beyond recognition, but Izhiman’s flavorful qahwa – blended from high-quality Arabica beans – has remained a staple for Jerusalem’s coffee aficionadas. And at NIS 48 per kg., the cardamom-flavored finely ground secret mix, which includes Brazilian, Colombian, Guatemalan, Costa Rican and Tanzanian beans, is a bargain.
From that modest first roaster and grinding shop in the Old City, Izhiman’s has grown to today operate a chain of six stores in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem. Besides its signature blend of Arab / Turkish coffee, the Izhiman family-operated chain sells tea, nuts, spices, condiments, chocolate and henna from Thailand, Turkey and Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Many of the imports are cheaper than their Israeli counterparts.
“I manage three stores,” says Mazen Izhiman, 63, who started working at the Old City branch in 1976. “My son Mahmoud is the operations manager.”
Mahmoud Izhiman (Gil Zohar)
Mazen points to the various historic photos decorating his Old City shop. One shows an antique car bearing Mandate Palestine license plate 5111. The vehicle is decorated with the company’s logo, based on advertising from that era showing a turban-wearing waiter à la Cairo’s legendary El Fishawy coffee house in the Khan al-Khalili serving – what else? – coffee.
Interviewed at the company’s office in the gritty Atarot Industrial Park not far from the now-decommissioned Kalandia Airport, Mahmoud (Mamu) Izhiman, 32, explains the roaster was moved there from Abu Dis in 2014 because of transportation problems reaching the West Bank suburb of Jerusalem. Originally the roaster was located on Suq Khan a-Zeit across from the shop which his father today manages. A century ago the beans were ground by hand, he notes. Coffee wrapped in a cone fashioned from a newspaper was then sold in a single serving portion.
Mazen Izhiman (Gil Zohar)
While the Izhiman family came to Jerusalem from the Hijaz eight centuries ago during the time of Saladin to fight the Crusaders, the founding of the business has been lost in the mist of time and legend, says Mahmoud, who studied political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before realizing that the coffee business is more satisfying than the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire.
Even the given name of the company’s founder a century ago is in dispute, he notes. The family business began splitting apart in 1948 when one brother fled to Amman, Jordan where he opened a coffee roaster of the same name. Another split occurred in 1994, and a further one in 2008. That resulted in a 2014 lawsuit in the Jerusalem District Court for copyright infringement. Notwithstanding the favorable ruling, family members continue to operate unauthorized Izhiman’s branches across the West Bank and Dubai. Indeed the website is illegally used by the unlicensed stores, Mahmoud notes.
Joining the family business, Mahmoud apprenticed at a 2013 course in Izmir, Turkey offered by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and then earned a Coffee Science Certificate from Nouva Simonelli in Ancona, Italy.
“I was the first one in the Middle East to study with the SCAA,” he notes with pride.
That expertise led him to experiment roasting different blends, seeking a taste that he calls “balanced and aromatic” with “no acidic bitter aftertaste.” The exact blend is “top secret,” he says.
Having relocated the roaster from Abu Dis, Mahmoud bought an $80,000 machine capable of roasting a 120 kg. batch of coffee beans in 20 minutes. In 2018 he upgraded to a $110,000, fully automated, 240-kg. capacity Turkish-manufactured roaster with a built-in fire extinguisher. To preserve trade secrets, Mahmoud asked me not to take photos of the roasting machine, which he custom-designed. The plant also boasts a hi-tech Chinese-made grinding and filling machine that injects nitrogen into each package to prevent oxidation before it is sealed.
Mahmoud’s brother Abdullah is the production manager at the Atarot facility.
How much java does Izhiman’s sell? Mahmoud hesitates before answering: “Enough to call us a major coffee factory. We have a presence in every supermarket and grocery in east Jerusalem.”
But Izhiman’s success isn’t limited to providing a caffeine fix for the Arab half of the city. In December the company will open its first outlet in west Jerusalem. Mahmoud calls the four-square-meter kiosk at the First Station a “pilot.” It sells “macchiato, lokum (pistachio, hazelnut, rose and pomegranate-flavored Turkish delight), everything,” he enthuses.
“If you’re afraid to come to the Old City, I’m coming to you.”
As well, Izhiman’s sister company Coffee Zone will soon be launching a line of espresso capsules, he notes.
Delicious coffee is one of the flavors of co-existence, Mahmoud believes.
With peace on the horizon, foodies may want to visit the Izhiman’s booth at the Gulfood 2021 expo taking place February 21-25 at the Dubai World Trade Center.