Like the millions of people and cultures of the world, coffee too has its own variations and traditions surrounding it. Here is a glimpse of how it is prepared and consumed in different ways all over the planet.
“Coffee is far more than a beverage. It is an invitation to life, disguised as a cup of warm liquid. It’s a trumpet wake-up call or a gentle rousing hand on your shoulder … Coffee is an experience, an offer, a rite of passage, a good excuse to get together.” ― Nichole Johnson
Coffee, the second-most popular drink in the world, was discovered in the 8th century in Ethiopia, probably by a goatherd. But, the Muslims are the ones who popularized its use as a recreational drink and are also responsible for the formation of Coffee Houses – places of intellectual discussion, socialization, and recreation over a hot, steaming cup of coffee. Called the ‘Satan’s drink’ in the Western world, it gained popularity, thanks to high prices commanded by tea, only after the 18th century.
Many of us view it as a completely customizable Latte, or Cappuccino, or a Macchiato – an essential pick-me-up for groggy mornings and dopey noons. However, adding milk to a coffee is almost unheard of in many places, while in some regions, it is diluted to such an extent, that a coffee aficionado would call it coffee-flavored milk. Here is a look at how the drink is consumed and its cultural significance, in some of the major communities in the world.
United States of America
For most Americans, mornings are synonymous with a cup of freshly-brewed coffee. Whether it is home-brewed, from a tiny independent cafe, or some massively-popular coffeehouse chain, work for most doesn’t start until the intoxicating fragrance of caffeine mobilizes them. It is not just a requisite part of a humdrum work day though, many Americans deeply associate themselves with their custom-made coffee and favorite blends. Even though it just requires two components; coffee has come to be an individual statement in America – from the type and quantity of sugar, milk, flavoring, water, and coffee itself, to the size and temperature; every bit is customizable.
Cafes here are places of meeting friends and acquaintances, reading, or simply relaxing and enjoying a cup of Mocha. Tables are also occupied by people working on their laptops or tabs, beckoned by the free wi-fi that most cafes provide, often for hours. Like everything else, Americans prefer their coffees large, sweet, and unlike most coffee-devotees, blended either with water or milk.
The birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia is known for it coffee ceremony – an elaborate ritual performed in Ethiopia and surrounding regions for socialization and as a means of welcoming guests. The ceremony is usually performed by a young woman, using traditional utensils reserved for just this purpose.
The Coffee Ceremony
Green coffee beans are cleaned and roasted over open fire, till they are a rich-brown color. The beans are shaken or stirred occasionally, so that the roast is as even as possible. Next, they are crushed in a mortar and pestle, followed by brewing in a traditional coffee pot called a jebena, filled with water. The coffee is poured from a height of approx. 1 meter in all the cups in a single stream. The eldest member is served first by the youngest person, and then the coffee is served to everyone else. It is often accompanied by traditional snacks such as roasted nuts and seeds. The girl performing the ceremony is praised for her skill in roasting, brewing, and pouring of the coffee. The coffee is brewed three times, each brew being slightly more potent.
The resulting coffee is a surprisingly smooth brew, and is usually sweetened with several teaspoons of sugar, depending upon individual preferences. In some rural areas, sugar is replaced with honey, salt, or butter. The coffee may also be flavored with spices like cardamom or cinnamon.
Italy – the birthplace of ‘coffee culture’ and the drinks associated with it, is extremely passionate about coffee. Italians have a strict set of dos and don’ts about coffee, and consider it to be a quick, stimulating drink, unlike most places where relaxing and socializing over a cup is the norm.
• Coffee comes at ‘drinkable’ temperature and has to be gulped in a sip. Two or three at the most.
• The Italians adore their caffè – a shot of very strong espresso in a small cup.
• Drinking a ‘milky’ coffee – cappuccino, latte, macchiato; after breakfast is considered absurd, even laughable by my most Italians.
• Most Italians drink their coffee standing up – sitting with a hot cup of coffee is for tourists only. The cafe might even charge you more for drinking a coffee on the table.
• Many Italians don’t just have their favorite coffee shop, they might also insist on a particular barista.
• You might find some Italians, particularly the older gents or working-class men, enjoying a cup of Corretto, an espresso spiked with liquor, as their wake-me-up drink.
• Coffee at home is brewed on the stove in a Moca pot.
Of course, the metros and the more touristy places are a lot more relaxed about these rules and won’t be as particular, even adopting some of the American customs.
Coffee, to the French, is what contributes to la dolce vida. The French start their day with an espresso, and the dinners end with a tiny cup of coffee as well. Numerous cups of coffee are consumed through the day, and the cafes are places to have a chat or just enjoy the view outside.
Frappé, instant coffee with ice and some cream, was first made in Greece, and is its national drink. Made with instant coffee, Greek frappe is a frothy, refreshing drink, with many variations, some adding liquor or a dollop of ice cream to it. Like most countries in this region, coffee plays an important part in Greece, and is a popular social drink.
Germany and Austria
The Germans love to have their afternoon coffee with cake, called Kaffee & Kuchen, it is also a means to welcome guests, and spend time with family and friends. Historically, the Viennese coffee houses were often used by writers and intellectuals as places of meetings and contemplating and were central in shaping the culture of both, Austria and Germany. Coffee houses were so popular, that Johann Sebastian Bach even composed a mini-opera, called Coffee Cantata, which tells the story of a girl’s addiction to coffee.
The Nordic Café Culture
The Nordic countries are the top consumers of coffee (per capita) in the world, and it is associated with a relaxed, chatty time with friends. A cup of coffee is often accompanied with a cookie, cake, or some other baked treat. Some countries even have the coffee-break, called fika mandatory; with workers enjoying it two times in a day – one at ten in the morning and the other at three in the afternoon.
Some Unusual Coffees from the Region
Kaffekask is made by placing a silver coin in a cup. The cup is filled with coffee till the coin disappears. Then a Swedish schnapps is added till the coin is visible again.
Coffee flavored with caraway seeds is used in the remote Icelandic regions to welcome the sun and the longer summer days.
Kaffeost is a traditional Swedish coffee made by placing pieces of a mild-flavored cheese called ‘Bread Cheese’, and then pouring a hot cup of coffee. Another intriguing tradition is to dip strips of bread cheese in coffee, and then eat as you would do with a cookie.
Asia, a predominantly tea-consuming region, is fast catching up with the Western world when it comes to coffee. Comprising over 60% of the world population, besides being a young, rapidly urbanizing population, Asia is regarded to be the biggest emerging market for coffee.
Tea being such an integral part of life, it is not surprising that coffee has not gained much popularity in China. The youth, however, are fast adapting to the coffee culture, cafes being the preferred places of socialization over the traditional tea houses. The Chinese mainly associate rapidly growing cafes as symbols of luxury, wealth, and modernization, and prefer the toned-down lattes and frappuccinos over espresso.
Known for its spicy curries and fluffy feel-good movies, India has traditionally consumed ‘filter coffee’, a sweet, milky coffee served in a metal tumbler. Long-standing coffee houses and Irani cafes have been places of much intellectual discourses, but are rapidly being replaced by coffee house chains.
Coffee is called qahwa or “The Wine of Prophets/Islam” in Yemen, and is thought to be the place where it was first cultivated. Historically associated with spirituality and religion, coffee houses are today seen as trendy and modern, yet deeply rooted in the Yemeni culture.
Japan is the third largest consumer of coffee, and was introduced to it in the 19th century. The cafes in Japan provide both, a place to socialize and interact with people, and as a quiet, individual space in the crowded cities for a person to read, do school assignments or work.
Coffee shops in remote villages serve as a place to have a chat, share information, and read newspapers, often being the only place to get them delivered. But the cities have their very own kopi-kaya places – small cafes which serve coffee (kopi), toast with coconut jam (kaya), and runny eggs. Often frequented for breakfast, these shops form an integral part of Indonesian coffee culture along with the modern chain cafes.
Coffee isn’t particularly popular in Iran, with most Iranians preferring tea over it. Viewed as a threat to the traditional lifestyle, coffee houses have been banned periodically (in 2007 and 2012) and informally in Iran. The coffee culture is still considered immoral by the government, and cafes and its patrons are closely watched for any form of unacceptable behavior.
Latin America is one of the biggest producers of coffee beans, but surprisingly, coffee isn’t a big part of life here, with the exception of Cuba, Brazil, and Argentina. The most preferred drink here is made from sugarcane, probably because it better complements the fiery foods common to this region, and also since the best beans are exported.
Unlike most of Latin America, coffee is very popular in Brazil, with many Brazilians preferring a cafezinho – a strong and very sweet coffee. Coffee is consumed all through the day, in dainty little cups, with or without meals. Coffee added to a glass of milk is often served for breakfast to kids as young as 10 years old. Though American-style coffee culture and drinks are gaining popularity, walking while eating or drinking is a strict no-no in Brazil.
Colombia, known for its great, versatile coffee beans, likes its coffee black with sugar, in small cups. Called Tinto, you might just be served this beverage for free by a friendly Colombian over some interesting chit chat. Interestingly, Colombians themselves are not very fond of it, and prefer aguapanela, a drink made from water and cane sugar.
Also known as Greek coffee, it is a home-brewed coffee served in regions around the Middle East, North Africa, East and Southeast Europe. Very finely-ground coffee, almost like cocoa powder, is added to an ibrik; sugar and spices may also be added depending upon individual taste. Water is stirred in, and the concoction is heated on a very low flame. When the coffee comes to a boil, the hot, frothy liquid is poured in small cups. The coffee grounds are allowed to settle, and then sipped slowly, so that a thick, sludgy liquid is all that remains at the bottom. It is always served with a glass of water, so as to clean the palate to better appreciate the flavor. It is also common to serve a piece of Turkish Delight or similar sweet along with it.
Egypt, a primarily tea-drinking nation, calls its coffee ahwa, a potent drink, with (ariha – little sugar, mazboot – moderate amount of sugar and ziyada – very sweet) or without sugar (sadda). Egyptian men often have a favorite coffee shop, where they enjoy the shisha, ahwa, and a game of backgammon or chess with their friends. Egyptian coffee might taste a bit sour, due to the local beans, but it can be masked by adding sugar.
Coffee is pretty big in Croatia, with a culture that developed under the influence of both the Turkish Ottoman Empire and Italy. People here enjoy all kinds of coffees – from cappuccino and lattes, Turkish coffee or instant Nescafe, each type has its lovers and haters, the focus being on the leisurely experience.
Coffee is very popular in Lebanon, and is the preferred drink, no matter what time of the day. Lebanese coffee is often stronger than the Turkish type, but made in a similar way. It is usually flavored with cardamom, and most prefer it unsweetened, and adding cream or milk is almost unheard of. A popular after-meal dessert is a cup of Lebanese coffee with baklava.
Coffee is of great traditional importance in Cyprus, with everyone from sultans, philosophers, and the lay person enjoying it. Even today, every village has a kafenio, a coffee shop, which is the center of activity for locals who often enjoy a cup of coffee with a game of Tavli.
The afternoons in Bosnia revolve around a cup of coffee with impassioned conversations with friends and family. Bosnian coffee is slightly different from the Turkish one – after the coffee is ready, the top, creamy layer is ladled in the cup first, and then the coffee is poured. It is usually served with lokum or Turkish Delight.
Customs Associated with Turkish Coffee
There are several customs associated with Turkish coffee, though not so common these days, they still are pretty interesting.
For Fortune Telling
A person must drink coffee in a relaxed, calm state-of-mind, preferably thinking about the matter he/she wants his fortune read. After the coffee is drunk, a saucer is placed on the cup, shaken, and then turned upside down. When the cup has cooled down, the ‘reader’ will open the cup and proceed to interpret the patterns in the cup, often in the form of a cryptic or symbolic verse.
Selecting a Bride
Another custom relates to marriage – traditionally, the groom’s family would visit the bride’s house to select the bride. She would be required to prepare coffee – with creamy froth at the top and full of flavor, and her skill in doing so is a crucial factor in the selection process. The girl might sometimes add salt to the groom’s coffee to test his character; it could also mean that she is not interested in the marriage.
Bedouins are nomads living in deserts around the Arabian Peninsula and parts of North Africa. Evolving in the harsh conditions, Bedouin culture puts a particular emphasis on hospitality, and a guest is welcomed and offered food and protection for three days, unquestionably.
The Bedouin Coffee Ceremony
The ceremony usually begins at dawn, in a cool tent, lined with comfortable pillows and rugs. The host grinds the coffee with cardamom in front of the guests, in a wooden mortar. The rhythmic thumping of the pestle is accompanied by music, so as to invite other members to join in. The ground coffee is boiled three times with water in a coffee pot. The coffee is served in tiny cups, usually filled only half-way. It is drunk at a leisurely pace, after the gritty grounds have settled. Ritually, three cups are served, accompanied by fresh dates, as sugar and milk are not offered.
Although the youth view it as chic places to hang around and have a good time, coffee culture has its roots in the 19th century, and it persists in the same form – a place to have intellectual discourses and share information.