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Following the Viennese Coffeehouse Tradition

By Reg Butler

In 1683, a Turkish army besieged Vienna-the furthest limit of their advance into central Europe. A pan-European army commanded by a Polish king defeated the invaders. In their headlong retreat, the Turkish commanders left behind 300 sacks of mysterious green beans, which people assumed was fodder for the Turkish camels. Subsequently, the Viennese ritual of coffee-drinking has thrived ever since.

A Turkish-speaking Pole named Kolschitzky had done valuable work during the siege, carrying messages through the Turkish lines. He knew how many beans make a beverage and asked for the sacks of green beans as his reward. According to disputed legend, he then opened the first coffeehouse close to the Cathedral.

The Viennese did not like the bitter taste of the Turkish drink, so Kolschitzky strained off the sediment and added milk or cream and honey to neutralize the bitterness. The new drink soon became wildly popular. Soon the custom of drinking Viennese-style coffee had spread throughout central Europe, and it has been experiencing fame ever since.

The popularity of coffee also extended to the coffee shops themselves. From the 19th century onward, in addition to serving up coffee, coffeehouses were expected to provide customers with the day’s newspapers or with facilities for billiards or games of chess and cards. Coffeehouses became part of the cultivated leisure industry. “The one thing you need in a Viennese coffeehouse is time,” says one café manager. A sign in another establishment reads: “We do not cater to people in a hurry.”

The great surge in the international reputation of Viennese coffeehouses dates from around 1900. In Vienna, people came not just to quench their thirst, but also to meet friends, to close business deals and to discuss cultural and political matters. The coffeehouses became the preferred meeting place for journalists and literary men, politicians, professionals and the middle classes in general. In intellectual circles, coffee-drinking was regarded as an aid for clearer thinking and better discussion. Each coffeehouse catered for its subgroup of regular customers and developed individual styles of coffee preparation. It became a “home away from home” for its patrons.

In the 21st century, every Viennese has a preferred coffeehouse and is very fussy about it. Today, with the rise of the fast-food culture, many of the hundreds of traditional Viennese coffeehouses have been superceded by espresso bars. But enough remain to form part of the Austrian capital’s thriving tourist industry. Visitors to the city are just as eager to enjoy the Viennese coffeehouse experience as they are to spend an evening at the opera or to explore the Imperial palaces and museums.

The close link between coffeehouses and tourism is heavily promoted, with benefit to both sides. In fact, 30 of these traditional coffeehouses double as concert cafés, featuring regular violin, piano or zither recitals, typically of Johann Strauss or Viennese folk melodies. The Strauss connection is especially strong, as many of the waltz king’s early compositions were first played in coffeehouses. The Julius Meinl Coffee company produces a Vienna Café retail brand with packaging that depicts a violin-playing Strauss in a 19th century café-concert setting. The Vienna Tourist Board publishes a three-language brochure that provides information on a number of the cafés.

The Viennese pride themselves as coffee connoisseurs. Having started in the 17th century with a taste for the coffees of Yemen and Ethiopia, Austria has always remained a consumer of high-quality Arabicas with a high per-capita average of 8.5 kgs annually. Their approach to coffee is like that of a wine-drinker, with strong preferences for one coffee over another.

The Viennese never dream of merely ordering “a cup of coffee.” The exact ingredients and their proportions must be specified-coffee, milk, cream, whipped cream-each permutation having its technical name. Collectively, the coffeehouses can offer a hundred permutations of varying proportions of milk, coffee, liqueurs and toppings, each variation with its individual name. A Fiaker, for instance-named after Vienna’s two-horse carriages-is a Mocca served in a glass with rum, brandy or kirsch, topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. Most coffeehouses serve at least two dozen of these variations. For many customers, the favorite is Melange-half-milk, usually steamed, and half-coffee, with an optional dollop of whipped cream. Interestingly enough, Manfred Staub, owner of Café Sperl, one of the oldest and most traditional of the Viennese coffeehouses, regrets this consumer preference for Melange. “I buy the best available coffee on the market, and then the flavor and aroma is masked by the milk.” Staub serves 34 variations of the coffee theme, including a warming selection with alcohol.

Today, virtually every Viennese coffeehouse has moved away from old-time tradition in favor of using automatic or semi- automatic espresso machines. That’s in contrast to the custom in neighboring Germany of basing service on filter coffee. The newest generation of automatic machines have the coffee mill inside. However, in line with Austrian taste, the roast is not so dark as Italian. The two main rivals in supplying this sector of the away- from-home market are Julius Meinl and Kraft Jacobs.

Until the mid-19th century, coffeehouses followed the sometimes hit-or-miss method of roasting green beans on kitchen stoves. But then Julius Meinl developed a process which could supply roasted coffee of a consistently high quality. In 1862 he opened a retail store in Vienna, the first to come forward with the sensational idea of supplying coffee already roasted. The business rapidly expanded into an upscale chain that stretched throughout the Habsburg Empire. From that point on, Meinl established a commanding position in supplying the Viennese coffeehouses. And while the Meinl Group has more recently sold out its retail chain, it has retained its roasting facilities in Austria, Slovakia and in the Italian Tyrol. Meinl remains a dominant supplier to traditional cafés.

Jacobs entered this corner of the away-from-home market in 1976 with its own coffee concept called Profiteam, supplied to all their major coffeehouse clients. The HORECA range is now called Jacobs Kaffee, Professional Premium Aroma. This coffee is also served at the prestigious annual Opera Ball as well as in the State Opera House, the Burg Theater and the Volks Oper.

A Kraft Jacobs spokesman stated: “We have a range of special blends for our restaurant and coffeehouse customers. The premium blend is called Jacobs Exclusiv, which is the most important brand for Austrian café owners. We also have other blends, but that’s the most important. These are all 100% Arabicas from Colombia and the other usual sources of high-quality Arabicas in Latin and Central America.”

“A few years ago, our U.S. colleagues launched a European Coffeehouse Collection. The idea was to sell on the North American market the top coffees from the most famous coffeehouses of Europe. The pilot project was Café Sperl in Vienna and this brand-name can be ordered through Gevalia.

“Of course, Sperl Spezial is also sold by Mr. Staub in his coffeehouse in Vienna, because American tourists come and ask for these brick packs. They have bought them in the States and want to see whether it’s really the same as in U.S. All of it is Jacobs, the same blend, and roasted in the same style.”

A key factor in the Viennese coffeehouse experience is its unique traditional furnishings and service. Regular local clients cherish the familiarity of the surroundings, with service by waiters who know their coffee preferences. A wide range of reading matter is available. A typical café subscribes to around 20 national and regional newspapers-in languages including Austrian, German, Italian, French, English-and a similar count of international magazines. Clients wander over to the newspaper racks and return to their tables with a selection for an hour or two of browsing.

Nobody is hassled by any hint of “drink up and go.” By a long- standing tradition, the coffee is served in an elegant cup with matching saucer on a silver tray. Alongside is a serving of water, with a spoon balanced on the glass. If you want something to eat- from a light snack to an apple strudel to a complete meal-all things are possible.

The spoon-on-glass-of-water tradition is something of a mystery. Mr. Gert Gerersdorfer, of Café Dommayer near the gates of Schönbrunn Palace, gave a possible explanation: “Firstly, we present you with a glass of water, because Vienna is famous for its clear, fine, healthy, natural, mountain water.

“Secondly, because Viennese people drink more coffee, it would perhaps be possible to have too much caffeine. That’s less of a problem if you take a sip of water. It also clears the palate, [so that it becomes] fresh to taste the next sip of coffee.” Drinking water with coffee is also known to be helpful with digestion. Meanwhile, if a customer lingers, the attentive waiter brings more water.

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