The Viennese Coffee House Tradition

In Europe coffee culture is commonly associated with the Italians. Actually, coffee was introduced to Western Europe by Vienna, capital of Austria. The Ottoman Empire had been besieging Vienna on and off for centuries. The Ottomans were eventually defeated once and for all by the Polish King John III Sobieski at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. That victory probably saved the rest of Europe from centuries of Ottoman dominance – in any event, Grand Vizier Kara Mustapha was forced to leave in an unforeseen hurry, leaving behind tents filled with Persian rugs and silverware and gold and … mounds of strange brown beans.

It didn't take the canny Viennese long to realize that the coffee bean was the most valuable prize of all.

Georg Kolschitzky opened the first Viennese Coffee House in 1685. Kolschitzky was a Pole who, as spy and double agent, had been playing the Viennese and the Turks against each other for many years, and along the way had learned the true art of coffee making . The good burgers of Vienna took quickly to coffee drinking and Kolschitzky became an extremely wealthy man.

In this day and age the coffee house is synonymous with Viennese 'Gemuetlichkeit' – a word which is almost impossible to translate, which could be described as a comfortable, relaxed, easy-going enjoyment of life. In 1900 the Viennese coffee house was much more important – it was a home from home, a place where chess was played, business transacted, critics and friends could meet to mull over the latest scandal concerning Gustav Mahler, the controversial new Music Director of the Vienna Court Opera. People would settle into their favorite seat and savor their coffee and read newspapers mounted on wooden frames.

For the outsider, too, it was no simple thing to know which coffee to order. The Viennese were far too fastidious to make do with simple black coffee or white coffee.

To begin with you had to decide between a cup or a glass – true connoisseurs would always insist on a glass.

Whipped cream, or, to give it its Viennese name, Schlagobers, was served as a matter of course with your coffee unless you specifically ordered without, or would rather go for coffee with skin (referring to the thick skin of the unskimmed and unpasteurized milk of the day). But you couldn't order simply 'coffee with skin' – you had to specify the exact shade or color: 'black with skin' or 'dark with skin' or 'whiter with skin'.

There were many shades and variants of white coffee, too – a 'cup of gold' referred to a coffee mixture with a golden color, a 'cup of brown' was similar to the Italian cappuccino. For black coffee topped with whipped cream you would order an 'Einspaenner' (a single horse drawn carriage – 'Fiaker' to the Viennese). If you were feeling really decadent a 'Zweispaenner' came with an extra dollop of cream.

Besides gourmet coffee, Vienna has some of the best natural tap water to be found anywhere – ice cold and delicious, delivered by aqueduct from the Alps sixty miles away – and coffee was invariably accompanied by a glass of water.

For many people life without the coffee house was unimaginable. It was possible to spend many hours there very cheaply – unlike today you weren't pressured to leave as soon as your coffee was finished. If the 'Ober' (waiter) wiped the table next to yours it was because it needed wiping, not as a signal for you to go. You could stay as long as you liked reading the newspapers, and from time to time the waiter would discretely replenish your glass of water. Peter Altenberg, the famous poet, had no postal address at all besides his coffee house.

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