Food & dining

Double Shot

My waltz with the Viennese coffee scene

The scene at Cafe Central, one of the many old coffeehouses in Vienna.
The scene at Cafe Central, one of the many old coffeehouses in Vienna.
Matt Viser/Globe Staff
Cafe Sperl is one of the older coffeehouses in Vienna, carrying on a centuries-old tradition.

VIENNA — The coffee culture in this historic city has been building up for centuries. It’s one of the oldest in the world, with a well-established scene that has inspired some of history’s most important minds and laid the foundation for European coffeehouse culture.

But something else has been brewing here in recent years: The so-called third wave, specialty coffee movement is becoming an important part of the city’s fabric, with more than a dozen shops offering a high-end coffee experience that is beginning to rival other European capitals.

The result is a heady mix of new and old, bright and dark, small and big.

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But first, the history.

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The first coffeehouse is believed to have opened here in 1683, with bags of coffee from Turkey. Early coffeeshops called themselves the “Bruderschaft der Kaffeesider,” or the Brotherhood of the Coffee Maker, according to “The Vienna Coffee Guide.”

They were generally dark, dirty, and involved gambling.

In the 18th century, with a rising middle class, coffeehouses became more luxurious. Music was played, readings were held. And a tradition started that is carried on today: a small cup of water is delivered with every cup of coffee.

The coffeehouses became places for intellectuals, artists, and musicians. Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt, and Theodor Herzl could all be found inside the local coffeehouses. The poet Peter Altenberg was at Cafe Central so often that he is said to have had his mail delivered there. Mozart wrote to his wife in 1791 about calling his assistant to “bring a black coffee.”

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Many of these shops are still around today and, like the old days, the waiters are often in tuxedos.

Cafe Central is in the heart of the city, with its airy, high ceilings, large windows, and a pastry display that will make your mouth sweat. Sit in Cafe Sperl, about a mile away, and it’s easy to imagine debates and loud conversation. There is a row of pool tables, and atop one is a large spread of international newspapers (another tradition of the old-style coffeehouses, which began in the 18th century).

The serving, at Cafe Sperl, is how its been done for centuries in Vienna, with a small glass of water and an elegant tray
Matt Viser/Globe Staff
The serving, at Cafe Sperl, is how its been done for centuries in Vienna, with a small glass of water and an elegant tray.

But in many of these places, food is also served, and the coffee is secondary. When I tried to ask waiters about the coffee — particularly at Cafe Hawelka, a legendary old coffeehouse — I mostly got gruff looks and terse answers.

The coffee isn’t bad, but the atmosphere is much better. The reason you go to these places is to socialize, to play games, or to listen to music. A purchase of a cheap cup of coffee allows you to linger as long as you like in rooms with red velvet seats and magnificent chandeliers.

Over the last few years, newer shops have opened, some following the lead of Starbucks, which came here in 2002 (and opened the first nonsmoking cafe in Vienna).

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CaffeCouture opened in 2010, and is generally credited with being the first of the third wave coffee shops. It was followed shortly after by People on Caffeine. Growth has been slow, but the new shops are vibrant enough that there’s a consortium of 13 independent cafes — sort of a modern day “Brotherhood of the Coffee Maker” — and all of them worth the visit.

At Cafe Sperl, there are pool tables and a wealth of reading material.
Matt Viser/Globe Staff
At Cafe Sperl, there are pool tables and a wealth of reading material.

Where the old coffeehouses are big and sprawling, with a focus on the community, the new coffee shops are small and minimalist, with a focus tightly on the coffee. Waiters at the old coffeehouses wear ties; the baristas in some of the new coffee shops are in denim aprons.

The new shops have newspapers around, but they also have trendy magazines like Monocle or Cereal. Almost all are distributing a new slick quarterly coffee magazine called Standart.

They use beans from The Barn in Berlin, White Label in Amsterdam, or Nude Espresso from London (aside from Starbucks, there’s almost no American coffee presence here).

Matt Viser/Globe Staff
Kaffemik opened about a year ago, offering a minimalist interior and some aeropress coffee served by the national champion.

These shops aren’t doing anything that similar shops in the United States aren’t also doing. They offer pour-overs, with a wide range of beans. They serve nice cappuccinos, iced coffee, and a lot of places offer flat white (kind of a smaller, stronger version of a cappuccino).

Jonas Reindl was one of the best in the city. I had an Ethiopian pour-over that was one of the most flavorful cups I’ve had. Coffee Pirates was most like an American hangout, with big couches, several rooms, and lots of laptops. Zamm Coffee + Art Collective was a great spot to sit for a while and read a magazine, and Kaffemilk had a minimalist look, with just a few chairs and a friendly barista who is the country’s champion of making coffee with an Aeropress.

I loved People on Caffeine, one of the pioneers in Vienna’s third-wave coffee movement. It’s small, with old woodworking equipment. The barista isn’t behind a counter or a bar, and the equipment is part of the store.

“What kind of coffee do you have?” I asked when I entered.

“What kind do you want?” came the response (I got a flat white).

One thing seems to unite the new and the old: Many of the new shops also put their coffee on a tray, a glass of water next to it, and a little spoon upside down over the water.

And with enough coffee here, it’s easy to do the Viennesse coffee waltz.

A flat white at Zamm Coffee + Art Collective, one of the best of the new shops.
Matt Viser/Globe Staff
A flat white at Zamm Coffee + Art Collective, one of the best of the new shops.

More from Matt Viser:

Twizzlers, string cheese, and mixed nuts (in large quantities) fuel Iran nuclear negotiators

Double Shot: Coffee-related coverage

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.