The Changing Face of European Coffee

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Matt Biddulph)

Europe has always had a special relationship to coffee. Centuries ago, European traders got their hands on it during travels to the Near East, helping to launch an entire global industry. We have France to thank for cafes, and Italy to thank for our beloved espresso drinks. European coffee culture has always been rich, and it continues to grow and expand today.

European Coffee Culture

Even the British, known around the world as tea drinkers, had a role to play in American coffee habits. It was thanks to them that coffee came to the colonies — a bit ironic, considering that eventually when the imposed tea tax led the colonists to revolt (the Boston Tea Party), those colonists skipped out on tea entirely and opted for coffee instead. Thomas Jefferson gave a nod to his French, coffee-loving counterparts and called coffee “the favorite drink of the civilized world.” American drinking habits were forever changed.

But while European coffee culture was rich, as specialty coffee culture began to grow in Australia and the United States, the quality of coffee felt a bit behind on the continent. Shots of espresso were dark, over-extracted, bitter, and harsh, and coffee professionals and aficionados found themselves disappointed when they ordered their morning cup.

The European Coffee Revival

The Nordic countries have helped lead a new wave of coffee, with companies like Nordic Approach and Collaborative Coffee Source. Oslo-based roaster (as well as previous World Barista Champion and the co-founder of Nordic Approach) Tim Wendelboe is one of the most well-respected names in the specialty coffee world. Today, there are more and more European specialty roasters achieving notoriety outside of their national borders. Roasters like Drop and Koppi from Sweden, Coffee Collective from Denmark, Workshop and Square Mile from the UK, and The Barn in Berlin are all examples of roasters who are helping to change not only their own local coffee cultures, but are also gaining a cult following elsewhere.

The rise in interest of specialty coffee has led to a flurry of activity, not just in roasting and serving coffee, but also in reporting on it as well. European-based magazines like Caffeine Magazine and Standart are documenting specialty coffee culture in a new way, and sites like European Coffee Trip are devoted to uncovering some of the best cafes that the continent has to offer.

In many ways, London has been a leader of the specialty coffee scene, the city a hub of third-wave cafes where single-origin pour-overs are as easy to come by as a cup of tea and a scone. That’s in part because of the U.K.’s previous relationship to coffee, says Scott Bentley of Caffeine Magazine. “The U.K. has never had or appeared to have a historic coffee culture like the Italians or Swedes, so there wasn’t an ingrained culture to fight against.”

But while that ingrained coffee culture in many European countries has made for hard-to-change coffee-drinking habits, it’s also what makes Europe’s specialty coffee culture so special. “I think the European coffee scene is exciting because of its diversity and progression,” says Bentley. “We still have the Italians working with their dark espressos, the Scandinavians working with their brighter filter coffees, and the ancient Turkish Ibrik and the Viennese coffee houses, but we now have all the shades of brown in between.” What each European country has to offer to specialty coffee culture is its own local flair.

New Faces in the Specialty Coffee World

While we often look to see what the big cities are doing — like how all eyes have been on the Paris coffee revolution in the last few years — some of the best in European specialty coffee culture is coming from the most unexpected places. “What’s really exciting is the Eastern European countries are now embracing the third-wave coffee style; cities like Tallin and Budapest are bringing specialty coffee to these places,” says Bentley.

Ralf Rueller, owner and head roaster at The Barn, agrees: “We observe great trends in Eastern European Countries,” says Rueller. “Even though in some places the local demand is not yet there, we see a lot of young and passionate people creating a footprint in coffee that cannot be ignored and will lead to more business.”

While it may have been slow in the beginning, this transition is happening quickly, with cities across Europe embracing specialty coffee in a big way. “The good news for us was to see the fast development of speciality coffee everywhere we went,” says Ales Pospisil of European Coffee Trip, who has traveled extensively around Europe to document the coffee scene. “Of course, London is still the number-one city in Europe. In terms of growth I would pick Prague, Amsterdam, and Berlin. Every week we hear about the new cafe or roastery opening there. I think Prague in particular offers a very wide range of cafes, and the Prague Coffee Festival gets more and more attention year by year.”

That’s exciting for the diversity of European specialty coffee; as the movement grows, we are hearing more and more about cities outside of the usual suspects of food and drink capitals. Pospisil cites Fair Finch, in Kiev, Ukraine, as a recent favorite. Whether it’s in Kiev, Prague, or London, all of these cafe and roastery openings across the European continent point to coffee’s universal popularity; it’s a drink that transcends borders.

Looking Ahead

Overall, this shift towards better-quality coffee is not just a reflection of interest in coffee, but a reflection of a wider interest in food in general. People are more interested in where their food and drink come from; coffee is yet another avenue for that. “The new food scene is important to bring in new concepts and lifestyle choices,” says Rueller. “There’s an awareness of food and farming — a more informed and selective way of buying and eating. All this also takes place in coffee. More and more people want to know where the coffee comes from, and how it was farmed and processed. Quality and taste is important, and we can deliver all this.”

While the rise of specialty coffee culture may take longer in some places than others, as Europe moves forward, there’s one thing that will continue to drive the specialty coffee market: what’s in the cup. “With time,” says Rueller, “quality cannot be ignored.” For European coffee drinkers, that means one thing: better coffee.