17th
Dec
2015

Posted in Kafevend Blog

Coffee is the second most highly traded commodity in the world. It's no wonder then that for many nations coffee plays a significant role both economically and culturally, but how many of them have such strong links with coffee that they're recognized by UNESCO? We're talking here of Austria and more specifically Viennese coffee house culture. So what does the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation have to do with the coffee scene in Austria? Permit us to explain...

As well as its list of World Heritage Sites, UNESCO has an Intangible Cultural Heritage list and since 2011 Viennese coffee house culture has been on that second list. The coffee houses are recognised as places “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill.” What is it that makes the Viennese coffee house so special? For starters they have a reputation for elegance and style, but they're also seen as something akin to a public living room, very important for citizens who historically lived in quite cramped conditions.  A customer can sit and contemplate life, as they watch the world go by; they can read a newspaper – a good selection is always on offer; alternatively, they can use the coffee house as a meeting place and venue for public discussion, or play a game of cards or two. A certain style of pub could be said to fulfil the same function in British life, but perhaps with a less civilised and refined air!  All this then for the price of a cup of coffee; there'll be no pressure to buy any more, or to move on, if the customer isn't inclined to do so.

With such a celebrated coffee house culture, you might imagine that Vienna was the very first European city to open a coffee house, but that accolade actually goes to Venice. In fact, Britain also had coffee houses before Austria, but once the first coffee house had been opened in Vienna in 1683, there was no looking back and coffee culture became a serious, if very relaxing, part of daily life.

The birth of coffee culture in Austria, and specifically Vienna, is bound up with the second siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Empire. After two months surrounded by the Ottoman army and all supply routes cut off, Vienna was seriously weakened. Fortunately, deliverance arrived in the form of an allegiance of  Polish, Austrian and German forces, led by the King of Poland. In the ensuing battle, the Ottomans were decisively defeated and in their hasty retreat they left much behind them, including their coffee supplies. Putting the spoils of war to good use, the first coffee house opened later that same year. It didn't take long before everyone from artists and poets, to scientists and politicians were using coffee houses as a meeting place and except for a shaky time between the 1950s and 80s, when Italian style espresso bars posed a real threat to the survival of the traditional Viennese model, coffee house culture continues to thrive.

While we typically choose between cappuccino, latte, mocha, americano and suchlike, Austrians have their own traditional styles of coffee. So, for instance, there's the Kleiner Brauner or Großer Brauner, which translate as 'little brown one' or 'large brown one' - a standard coffee. If you're after something more akin to a cappuccino, there's the melange, or alternatively the Kaffee verkehrt, meaning 'backwards coffee' - a large cup of foamed milk, served with a small jug of coffee. For a coffee with a punch you could opt for the Fiaker, coffee with a shot of rum and topped off with whipped cream. Whether the coffee or the atmosphere is more important to you, Vienna won't disappoint!

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