FOR 600 YEARS
From the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, and onto Europe via Venice and Constantinople, the cult of coffee has been spreading for close to five centuries
From the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, and onto Europe via Venice and Constantinople, the cult of coffee has been spreading for close to five centuries. Globally, we’ll knock back over half a trillion cups of the stuff in 2012; only that other energizing black liquid, oil, is more widely traded. But while the addiction might be international, the habits that have evolved around coffee’s consumption are as diverse as the ways it is served. As caffeine lovers around the world raise a steaming espresso, mocha or mélange to mark International Coffee Day on Sept. 29, we round up five cities where a few hours whiled away in a local café are an essential part of a visitor’s itinerary.
According to the folklore of the tribes that inhabit the Oromo Valley—widely held to be the native source of arabica coffee beans—it all began with a young goatherd called Kaldi, who noticed that his flocks became more skittish after gorging themselves on certain purple berries. Although coffee was banned by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for centuries because of its associations with Islamic countries, today’s Addis Ababa is a temple to Kaldi’s apocryphal discovery, its streets teeming with simple, invariably packed-out cafés. Most of them, like the famous macchiato den of Tomoca (tomocacoffee.com), take their cue from the Italians, who imparted their coffee-drinking predilections during Mussolini’s short-lived occupation of Abyssinia in the 1930s. For something more distinctive, head to a traditional restaurant like Habesha (habesharestaurant-addis. com) and request a “coffee ceremony,” a cornerstone of national hospitality, in which beans are roasted and ground in situ and served amid the fug of frankincense.
While coffee remains a defining taste of modern Istanbul, the past decade has seen homogenous, Western-style cafés gradually supplanting the male-dominated, smoke-wreathed grottoes of yesteryear. But sniffing out the old school is still possible, insists Ozgur Cekyay of the Turkish Coffee Culture and Research Foundation, established in 2008 to promote the more traditional milieu. “Coffee in Istanbul has been served the same way since it arrived from Arabia in the 16th century,” Cekyay says. And it’s a heritage preserved in the likes of Mandabatmaz (1/A Olivia Gecidi, Beyoglu) and Muze’nin Kahvesi, located within the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (muze.gov.tr/turkishislamic), where coffee, expertly prepared in a copper vessel known as a cezve, still adheres to the old Turkish proverb: “Black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love.”
When Pope Clement VIII dubbed it “Satan’s drink” in the 17th century, he could probably never have imagined that his Italian countrymen would invent the recipes and tongue-rolling lexicon that have come to define the way much of the world takes its coffee. In Rome, the humble brew is both an art form and a national spark plug. Each morning, commuters stand elbow to elbow at stainless-steel bar counters across the city to dispatch their obligatory morning catalyst. At other times, the city’s cafés are its principal talking shops—countless social interactions are initiated with the phrase Ti offro un caffè, or “I’ll buy you a coffee.” Favorites among morning suits and coffee cognoscenti alike are Tazza d’Oro (www.tazzadorocoffeeshop.com) and Sant’Eustachio il Caffè (santeustachioilcaffe.it), both stalwart, standing-room-only institutions, a bean’s throw from the Pantheon.
(PHOTOS: Rome’s Famous and Fabulous Coffee Bars)
Often referred to as “public living rooms,” Vienna’s kaffeehäuser are something of a paradox, for though they trade primarily in caffeine, their special appeal lies in what the Austrian novelist Heimito von Doderer described as “meditative quiet and idle passing of time.” Custom dictates that one can happily go alone, buy a single coffee and stay all day without being asked to leave. While some like Cafe Drechsler (cafedrechsler.at)—revamped by British designer Terence Conran in 2007—have modernized, others remain firmly rooted in Vienna’s fin de siècle heyday, when the city’s cafés were a magnet for Europe’s modernist luminaries, debating and musing over a Wiener mélange. Grand coffee palaces like Café Central (cafecentral-wien.at), with its evening piano recitals, somber waiters and roll call of past patrons including Leon Trotsky, Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud, represent coffee consumption at its most genteel.
“Barista competitions have taken me to coffee hot spots all over the world,” says Craig Simon, head brewer at Veneziano (venezianocoffee.com.au) and reigning Australian Barista Champion. “I’m yet to find anywhere that celebrates coffee quite like my hometown.” Carried there in the hearts and hands of Italian immigrants in the 1950s, coffee connoisseurship is such an indelible feature of life in Australia’s second city that the arrival of Starbucks was met with widespread disdain. “Next time, try selling ice to the Eskimos,” scoffed an editorial in the Age when the paper-cup leviathan opted to close all but six of its identikit Melbourne stores. Instead, the prevailing café-scape is dominated by independent, hipster joints like Proud Mary (proudmarycoffee.com.au) and Seven Seeds (sevenseeds.com.au), where painstakingly selected artisanal beans are brewed with a zeal verging on the fanatical.