Confession: I, the self-confessed coffee-phile, nearly said ‘no’ to a trip to Vienna. After walking through Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo and Bergen, then hopping on a 6 am flight to Brussels before a boat to Amsterdam, the thought of relaxing in London for a few days pre-graduation was tempting. But, the promise of marzipan, pastries and coffee convinced me to clear my calendar and empty my suitcases for a trip to Vienna.
Although Vienna is a famous for its cafés, the city’s reputation as a coffee powerhouse has flagged in recent years. As lighter roasts and an emphasis on origin dominate coffee culture, grand Viennese coffee houses and their unique drinks have become background noise for the coffee tourist. Tim Wendelboe defines destination coffee in the 21st century: you travel for the beans, not the space. The opposite is true in Vienna: you go for the space, not the beans. Accordingly, UNSECO added Viennese coffee culture to their ‘Intangible Heritage List’ in 2011. Rather than focus on a perfectly crafted drink, Vienna coffee houses combine space, beverage, activity, discussion and time to distinguish themselves.
A Frommer’s guidebook might describe the Viennese coffee house as a hybrid of Starbuck’s sit-there-forever model and Italy’s coffee, food and pastry spots. Yet, neither comparison touches upon how the city’s cafés feel special. For that we need a bit of history. Although there is some debate as to how coffee became popular in Austria, it is generally agreed that the capital’s first café opened in 1685. Coffee served with milk and sugar quickly became popular, causing more cafés serving the drink to pop up around the city. Until the 18th century, the coffee house functioned primarily as a way to get caffeinated. Then, writers, artists, politicians and political activists began to use cafes as their offices away from home and the coffee house flourished as a place for intellectual thought and discussion. Unfortunately, its popularity couldn’t last forever and in the 1950’s, due to the influx of zippy international espresso bars, traditional Viennese coffee houses started closing at a staggering rate. While many remain from the café’s hey-day, they no longer exist in the numbers they once did, which gives you a pretty good idea as to the coffee house’s complete saturation in Viennese culture.
Today, Vienna’s coffee houses are a mix between old, nineteenth-century spaces and cafés updated for the 21st century. While the intellectual vigour may not match its nineteenth-century counterpart, they continue to be hospitable to thought, especially when compared to the Starbucks drive-thru. People come to study, talk, work on the computers, read a book, borrow a newspaper, observe the world, refuel or grab a meal. There’s no foot tapping or frenzied line like at Stumptown on a Monday morning. No matter how grand the space may seem, the activities going on inside seem to temper the opulence. A chandelier may be overhead, but at the adjacent table someone taps furiously away on their Macbook Pro with a kleiner brauner and apfelstrudel.
During my time in Vienna I visited three different cafés. Each represented a distinct sector of Vienna’s contemporary coffee scene. My first stop was the famous Café Sperl on Gumpendorfer Straße, which opened in 1880. After landing at Vienna’s airport and slogging to the apartment we rented on the outskirts, my parents and I needed to remind ourselves why we thought a trip to Vienna sounded like a good idea. We needed a coffee and a pastry. We hopped on the U Bahn and walked into an opulent café with the kind of aplomb reserved for those who have no clue what they’re doing. With a little pointing and lot of truncated Italian — the German phrasebook was still in a suitcase, we didn’t know which one — we figured out that we should to take a seat and a waiter would bring us a menu. The German phrasebook wouldn’t have helped with the menu, which was studded with names of drinks that do little to illuminate what you will actually be sipping on. We ordered a melange, a kleiner brauner, a kleiner mocca and a slice of sachertorte. The quality of the coffee wasn’t exactly high — I’d have preferred an espresso from Taveggia — but the simple white cups and silver tray elevated the experience beyond a routine coffee break. Given my obsession with apricots and chocolate, I should have loved sachertorte, but I found the chocolate cake meek and the apricot jam cloying. Before leaving, we asked our waiter for the bill, who we paid directly.
It would be cruel of me to jump straight to my next, and favorite, café without describing Café Sperl’s interior, which manages to be simultaneously extravagant and shabby. The tables and walls are cloaked in a dark wood, but the walls quickly turn to a lighter colour as they climb to the high ceilings decked out with chandeliers. Large windows let ample light shine in, preventing the space from feeling claustrophobic on sunny days and giving it a pleasantly cave-like atmosphere on rainy ones. Yet all this seems to fade away as you sit down at your own cozy, nook-like table, which is most likely a booth. Invariably the seats are old, the wicker slightly fraying if it’s a pull out chair and the heavy cloth barely ripped if it’s a bench. That’s part of the charm. Despite the appearance, despite the fact that every bit of you feels like someone decked out in a suit and top hat should walk in at any moment, the café feels completely casual and welcoming.
Although I like Sperl, I knew I needed to try a third wave café so the next day I headed to Coffee Pirates on Spitalgaße near the university. Despite being summer term, the large space was filled with young people sitting and chatting in lounge chairs, working on their computers, reading books and browsing magazines. There were plenty enough seats for us all to relax without worrying about someone coming in and giving us the evil eye over a conspicuous drained cappuccino cup. Unlike Sperl, ordering at Coffee Pirates was just like ordering at any other third wave café in Europe: you go to the till and, after glancing at the menu, order the drink you planned to. Then, you patiently sit down and wait for a barista to bring your coffee to you. To help ease long wait boredom, Coffee Pirates provides plenty of magazines scattered on tables and around the chairs. In the midst of reading an article about coffee and cheese pairing in Caffeine, my cold brew coffee arrived in a little decanter with a tall glass. I poured and took a dainty sip, with one eye finding out what kind of coffee paired best with Stilton. My cheese-free coffee was soft and sippable, with a pleasantly muted blueberry sweetness that fell into an almost velvety texture. Needless to say, by the time I left about an hour later, my mind had ceased to think about gouda with Guatemalan coffees and was focused on the uniquely delicious brews from Coffee Pirates.
But had I stopped my coffee tour of Vienna at Coffee Pirates and Café Sperl, I would have missed out on a large sector of Vienna’s contemporary coffee scene. These are the cafes that cater to the in-between. They are the spaces where young people go to hang out, relax and drink a reliably good coffee without being asked to think about roast, unique names or origins of beans. To sample this café-style, I stopped by Phil, on Grumpendorfer Straße steps away from Café Sperl. Phil is a café-bookstore-music store hybrid with a full food menu. It was late morning and tables showed remnants of breakfasts well spent. More pointing and truncated Italian, this time with the help of a German phrasebook, helped us figure out that we should sit down and someone would be over shortly with a menu. It worked and we ordered two espressi macchiati, a melange and a couple of croissants. After a leisurely wait, our order arrived and we ripped into the croissants, a layer of non-buttery flakes falling onto the table. The coffees, like at Sperl, were fine, but not spectacular. Dark and toasty, they tasted like the dictionary definition of coffee. As we sipped our drinks and nibbled our pastries, we surveyed at the books that lined the walls and guessed how their German titles would translate into English.
Vienna’s coffee culture has long set it apart from other European capitals and continues to do so. Going to a café in the Austrian capital isn’t about getting the best cup of coffee or a transcendental pastry. It’s about changing the pace for a little while. Maybe you need to leave the library, get up from your desk, bask in a small slice of humanity collected together. And it’s refreshing. Even when the coffee doesn’t shine, even when you’d prefer something brighter and more acidic, the spaces satisfy. Of course, if you order an einspänner, long espresso topped with whipped cream, it’s pretty hard not to leave contented.