Das Wiener Kaffeehaus: Coffee Culture in History

Americans spend $18 billion on specialty coffee every year. Since 1773, when American drinking preferences shifted from tea to coffee at the Boston Tea Party, coffee has become a staple of the American morning routine. Even before there was a Starbucks on every other street corner in Seattle coffee was an important commodity. In Europe, coffee has been a tradition for centuries.

One of the most famous coffee cultures of Europe developed in Vienna, the modern capital of Austria. The coffeehouses of Vienna are well known for being the favorite hangout spots for late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century intellectuals in the era known as the Fin-de-siècle, including writers such as Peter Altenberg and Theodor Herzl, politicians like Leon Trotsky, and renowned artists such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Today, Viennese coffeehouses are appreciated by tourists and locals alike and offer a variety of Austrian desserts including Apfelstrudel (apple strudel) and the Sachertorte, as well as Vienna’s signature coffee drink the Wiener Melange.

Cafe Schmetterling, or Butterfly, is one of the more well-known (and touristy) cafes in Vienna.

Cafe Schmetterling, or Butterfly, is one of the more well-known (and touristy) cafes in Vienna.

It is not uncommon for customers to spend hours at a table in a coffeehouse. This custom is quite distinct from the on-the-go coffee shop culture that exists in the United States today, and encourages people to order multiple drinks and cakes over the course of their visit (there is also a very different tipping custom in Austria, where service staff are paid much higher wages than in the United States, which certainly encourages customers to buy more).

How did this distinct coffee culture emerge in inland Europe, creating a thriving coffeehouse economy that continues to this day?

The story long associated with the origin of Viennese coffee dates to 1683. During the Battle of Vienna the Ottoman Empire besieged the city and capital of the Holy Roman Empire for two months. After the Holy Roman Empire defeated the Ottoman Empire, the Turks left behind sacks of coffee beans from the middle east. A Polish officer remained in the city and opened Vienna’s first coffeehouse using these beans, and Viennese coffee culture was born.

Ein Mokka-Kaffee (mocha) from a Viennese cafe.

Ein Mokka-Kaffee (mocha) from a Viennese cafe.

This story, which is common knowledge in Austria, is laced with folklore. There was a massive battle in Vienna in 1683 against the Ottoman Empire, but this was not Austria’s first encounter with coffee. Coffee was first cultivated and traded by Arabs and made its way to the European continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. When it first appeared in Europe it was called a “devil’s drink,” and efforts were made by Venetian clergy to ban it altogether. Despite the displeasure of some ecclesiastical figures, coffeehouses appeared in major cities in England, Austria, France, Germany and Holland and became social centers, none more so than Vienna.

Because of the importance of coffee in the world, it became a major cash crop in the late nineteenth-century. The Dutch first were the first to cultivate coffee plants on a large scale on the Indonesian island Java in the early eighteenth-century. As demand grew coffee plantations, particularly in Latin America, developed and exploited the land and the labor of indigenous populations. Coffee has had an enormous impact not only on our morning routines, but also on the socio-economic structure of the world.


2 thoughts on “Das Wiener Kaffeehaus: Coffee Culture in History

  1. I have family in Denmark, and noticed a very large difference between the way it is consumed in the United States versus in Europe while I was there. Coffee is very much a culture in Europe, and instead of just drinking it in the mornings like most Americans, coffee is consumed throughout the day. In Denmark, there is a designated coffee time before lunch, before dinner, and even after dinner. And it’s always caffeinated! I don’t know how they sleep at night! I enjoyed the history and background provided in this blog post.


  2. cotterem says:

    I never drank coffee until living in Italy this summer, and the reason I changed was specifically because of the coffee culture there, and how important it was to the cuisine. After reading this post, I recognize a lot of the same themes of coffee culture between Italy and Vienna. However, in Italy there was a huge grab-and-go aspect to coffee drinking, but you always drink your coffee in the cafe. Drink a macchiato in 2 minutes, and you’re out the door. Still, there’s a lot more craft into every cup served, rather than the amazing amount of terrible coffee you can find in the States. It’s interesting to make comparisons, and I’m glad you wrote about such a prevalent topic!


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