Historical cafe culture and brewing methods

historical cafe culture

Most morning routines around the world start with a steaming cup of coffee. Little do we know about the historic journey our coffee beans have taken from the first harvest in 15th century Yemen. Today, over 165 million bags of coffee are consumed, as the coveted drink has become a significant cultural epicentre for many countries across the world. Café ECAL spoke to Bärbel Dahms , the museum director of the Rösterei Burg in Hamburg for more insights on how coffee has changed our society and historical cafe culture.

The birthplace of Coffee in Mocha

The first coffee plants were harvested in Ethiopia, but it was in the port city of Mocha, Yemen where Sufi monks perfected its cultivation and harvest. These monks turned into powerful businesses men who managed to keep a 200-year monopoly over the coffee trade. However, coffee culture only started where people actually consumed it in the city of Zabid, a detail that escapes most historians.

Today, Yemeni coffee is world class and sells for approximately $240 USD per pound. The coffee is known for its chemical-free cultivation in the foothills of the city of Mocha. Known as the “natural process”, the cherries are picked from the coffee trees and left to dry in the heat. The cherries then transform into a hard and brown fruit which is removed until a dark bean is revealed.

The Turks that brought coffee to Europe and the Ibrik method

Turkish coffee is essentially the offspring of the original brewed in Mocha. As traders roamed the Arabian Peninsula, coffee arrived in Turkey by the 16th century along with Egypt, Persia and Europe.

According to director Bärbel Dahms at the coffee museum Rösterei Burg in Hamburg , coffee beans were uncommon and rare.

“These were used as medicine and were sold in pharmacies”, said Dahms.

It wasn’t until the Ambassador of the Turkish Sultan Mehmed arrived in Paris in 1669 that coffee really took off as a beverage.  A large of bag of beans was commissioned by the French King as Louis XIV would benefit from having it in his court. Entranced by oriental culture, he would be the key figure introducing chocolate, tea and of course coffee.

Turkish coffee culture gave way to a more innovative method of coffee brewing called the Ibrik method. The word Ibrik designates the small copper pot in which the coffee was first brewed.

Contrary to the original method which takes over 5 hours to boil or cook the coffee, through the Ibrik method, a small pot is used to boil smaller amounts of coffee.

The key here is repetition, since the pot is lifted multiple times from the fire when the coffee reaches its boiling point, and a foamy top is formed through this process. Some swear that three times on and off is enough, and others have their own superstitions as to how many times is best to unlock new aromas. 

Coffee as a European historical cafe renaissance

Illustration from 19th century

At the time, beverage consumption was widely available and fairly common. Beer and wine were the preferred beverages since they were quite bacteria-resistant according Dahms. The newer hot beverages belonged to the ideals and values of that time.

“The new hot beverages like coffee and tea without alcohol were sober and supported the ideas of liberation and rationality that was brought by the age of enlightenment”, says Dahms.

Coffee houses soon became cultural epicentres for intellectuals and students to discuss current affairs and develop new waves of thought throughout the 17th and 18th centuries onward.

In England, coffee shops were called “penny universities”, since they became places of deep thought, religious and political discourse over a cup of coffee costing pennies.

Many revolutions would be planned in coffee shops in Europe such as the most famous French Revolution. Feeling threatened, Kings were trying to outlaw coffee shops to oppose freedom of thought, such as Frederich the Great of Germany or Charles II of England.

Later in the 20th century, European countries under Soviet influence would suffer from a similar fate as communism brought on the ban of coffee culture for fear of rebellion.

Biggin Pots and European filters

Biggin pots soon came into view and were used to boil coffee grounds as the curved spouts of the pots filtered out any excess. New filtering methods also began to take shape with the advent of biggin pots and became what they are today.

The first filter is believed to be the coffee sock, which contains the coffee grounds as water is poured over it. Cloth was the initial material used for the sock filter, which would be replaced by paper filters approximately 200 years later.

The first coffee maker was commercially sold by Mr. Biggin, hence the name it has taken today. This pioneer was responsible for creating the first coffee maker which promoted more sophisticated coffee filtering methods.

Biggin pots have several compartments to brew the coffee, including a tin filter sitting under the lid itself. The 18th century version of the original Biggin pot introduced metal filters. Later, the French would follow a similar brewing technique known as the drip method that we know so well today.

Hamburg and the coffee connection

Burgs Kaffee www.kaffeeroesterei-burg.de

Hamburg is a prime example of how coffee infiltrated European cities that became the heart of the coffee trade. It joins the list of cities such as Vienna, Seattle and Melbourne as a destination for coffee connoisseurs. Its first coffee house opened in 1677 and spread across the rest of Germany during the 18th century along with other countries in Europe. The coffee trade made the port city of Hamburg wealthier, and has since been a coffee epicentre.

The city features an all-in-one coffee shop, museum and memorabilia called “The Burg Coffee Museum”. Founded in 1923, it is based on Hamburg’s historical coffee values and has become an institution for coffee history. Located in the historic Speicherstadt district, it offers slow roasted coffee options such as single origin and single estate coffee, homemade cold brew and espresso specialities.

“The Burg family had been a traditional coffee roaster for over 90 years, selling coffees in the shop as well as sending coffee to the customers by mail. We are still using the old coffee roaster from 1947”, says Dahms.

Coffee is still an important part of most cultures as it has become an essential social tool in most societies around the world.  Taking a moment  to think about the coffee pioneers can help us appreciate just how important preserving historic coffee culture really is.

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