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
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
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coffeehouses have been superceded by espresso bars.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 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
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.