Austrian Coffee Culture

I was surprised to learn that Austria has a strong, distinct coffee culture.  I probably shouldn’t have been, as the adoption of exotic goods like cane sugar and coffee beans was the hallmark of European imperialists, and Austria, as the granddaddy of European imperial powers until the First World War, has been roasting, grinding, brewing, and drinking coffee for centuries.

The story of how coffee came to Austria was told to me several times during my stay.  In 1683, the Ottoman army, led by the Grand Vizier, besieged Vienna.  A Polish soldier named Jerzy dressed in Turkish garb and left the city to contact Duke Charles of Lorraine and ask for assistance.  Jerzy snuck back into the city, bringing a promise from the Duke.  With this information, the Viennese city council decided to resist the siege until reinforcements arrived.  The Turks were later defeated in the Battle of Vienna, and forced into a hasty retreat, during which they left behind several bags of coffee beans.  Jerzy is said to have been awarded, among other things, many of these bean sacks, with which he opened the first coffee house in Vienna.

Another version of the story has the Turkish beans discovered and brewed by a Capucin monk who, finding the drink too strong, dilutes it with milk, thus founding European coffee culture, and inventing what we, with most of the world (but not Austria!) call the capuccino.  That was the most complicated sentence I’ve ever written.

I have no idea if these stories have any historical merit, but the very fact that they are widely known and repeated speaks to the pride Austrians take in their coffee.  To further appreciate Austrian coffee culture, let’s talk a bit about our own.

North Americans tend to distinguish between “normal coffee” and “espresso,” sometimes erroneously pronounced “expresso.”  Many think that these are two different types of beans.  They’re not: they are two different methods for extracting the flavourful oils from a roasted, ground coffee bean.  The same beans are used in both methods.

“Normal coffee,” that is, the coffee brewed in most homes before the morning commute, is drip-brewed and filtered.  Hot water is slowly poured over ground coffee beans.  Under the force of gravity it seeps through the grounds, absorbing the flavour of the beans.  A paper filter ensures that none of the grounds get into the final cup.

“Espresso” is made by forcing hot water under pressure through compact coffee grounds.  This method of extraction produces a very different drink than drip-brewing, as it extracts and emulsifies components of the beans that are usually left behind.  It yields an extremely flavourful liquid that can have an almost viscous mouthfeel.  This method also produces a bit of foam on top of the drink, called crema.

In many parts of Europe, including Italy and Austria, almost all coffee is “espresso-style” coffee.  In my experience, drip-brewed filtered coffee was only available at a few touristy rest stations and hotels.  The reason I keep puting “espresso” in “quotation marks” is because much of the world uses this style of brewing, but doesn’t drink anything called an espresso.  It’s a bit like calling braised meat “coq-au-vin-style” meat.

Anyways.  Food historians now refer to three waves in the marketing and consumption of coffee in North America.  The first wave was the establishment of large coffee importers like Folgers in the nineteenth century.  The second wave was started by small coffee houses that made espresso-style drinks and categorized much of their coffee by country of origin and roast. This movement culminated in the proliferation of franchises like Starbucks and Second Cup that popularized a style of coffee loosely based on the Italian caffe.  I say “loosely” because the language is largely Italian (grande, venti, espresso, capucino, latte, americano, macchiato, ad infinitum…) but many of the practices (like the irresponsible use of foamed milk) are not.

The third wave, still going strong, emphasizes coffee bean roasting, grinding, and brewing as an artisinal trade.  Roasters and vendors are developing ways to categorize and discuss coffee much like sommeliers describe wine.  They sell their brew with detailed aroma- and flavour-profiles.   Their coffee is usually presented simply, without the elaborate, sweet, foamy accompaniments associated with the second wave.  Even so, ordering in a third wave coffee house can be an alienating experience to the uninitiated.  (If you don’t know what I mean by that, go to the Garneau Transcend and try ordering “a coffee.”)  Third wave vendors promote fair trade, and often develop lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with coffee bean growers and their communities.

Coffee culture in Austria has been much more static over the past hundred and fifty years.  Most of the classic cafés in Vienna were established in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.  They have a fixed style of brewing and serving.  Ordering “a coffee” in these cafés is a bit like ordering “beef” in an American steakhouse.  Here are some of the common drinks:

  • Brauner – Black coffee, served with a small dish of milk to be stirred in.  At one time it was available as either a Grosser Brauner (bigger) or Kleiner Brauner (smaller), though the smaller version is now more or less extinct.
  • Verlängerter – (Literally, “lengthened,”) A Brauner pressed with a little hot water.  Similar in concept to an Americano.
  • Melange – (From the French, literally, “mixture”) Coffee with steamed milk, and often whipped cream.  Similar in concept to a cappuccino.

There are also a number of coffee drinks containing liqueur:

  • Maria Theresia (a famous eighteenth century Habsburg) – coffee with orange liqueur and whipped cream.  I can’t say for certain, but oranges might be associated with Maria because one of her residential palaces, Schönbrunn, in Vienna, is famous for its orange groves.
  • Fiaker – a Verlängerter with rum
  • Masagran – ice coffee with Maraschino cherry liqueur

The coffee is served on a silver tray with a glass of water, a small chocolate, and, if appropriate, a small pitcher of milk.

Traditional Viennese coffee service: silver tray, water, milk, and sometimes chocolate