Europe's enduring love affair with coffee

From Balzac to the Third Wave: Amie Weiss explores European coffee culture and reflects on the unexpected effect of borderless travel on our consumption.

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Since arriving in Europe in the 17th century coffee has become a defining part of European culture | Photo: Paul Evans; Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Honoré de Balzac eternalised his outsized relationship to coffee (according to legend, he drank 50 cups a day), writing that:

“The coffee falls in your stomach […] From that moment, everything becomes agitated: ideas shudder like Grand Army battalions on a battlefield, and the battle surges. Memories arrive at full charge, banners flying; the light cavalry of metaphor careens by at a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes in with its train and ammunition; wit suddenly appears like a line of sharpshooters; literary figures rise up; the paper is filled with ink, as evening begins and ends with torrents of black water, like the battle with its black powder.”

From its introduction into Europe in the early 17th century, most likely through the ports of Venice, coffee began to capture hearts and minds across the continent. It fuelled the workings of innumerable great figures like Balzac. Fashionable and decadent, coffee was sought-after like delicacies such as chocolate or liquor. But coffee drinking soon took on a greater importance: it was a shared act uniting people, creating opportunities for gatherings and discourse. Coffeehouses quickly became fixtures of social, cultural, political and economic life.

One of the beauties of coffee culture is that it is so malleable, conforms to local and personal habits, and changes easily with the times. Perhaps this is partly why we feel so attached to coffee—it offers a custom snugly adapted to our place and era, situating us comfortably precisely where we are, the epitome of cosy. It connects us to our immediate surroundings (the city, café, kitchen), but also further out to its origins in the Middle East and Africa. In this way, coffee can also exhilarate us, transporting us as we sip an exotic form of the brew.

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Today’s cafés are a far cry from where Balzac would have sipped the jet-black liquid | Photo: Vinicius Rebecchi (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

My adopted homeland, Italy, is often lauded for its exceptional coffee. I will always remember my first Italian espresso, homemade by a pair of Franciscan monks in a monastery in Emilia Romagna. Its rich, nutty, slightly sour notes lifted it somehow out of the category of mere liquid.

Ferenc Máté has written that, here in Italy, “coffee is not a social drink – it is a drug. It is not drunk; it’s mainlined.” This tradition of standing at the bar and scarfing down an espresso in 5 seconds flat does not seem to be changing much at all. On the other hand, in neighbouring Greece, one is meant to savour the drink, even when it is delivered in the traditional demitasse like in Italy.

Drinking habits in various European countries, after their long gestation, today characterize diverse traditions like Swedish fika or the Italian pausa caffè. Europe enjoys the highest per capita coffee consumption in the world. According to the European Coffee Federation, “The EU consumes 2.5 million tons coffee per year, which equates to four kilos of roasted coffee per EU inhabitant per year.”

So I wondered: How is European coffee drinking changing with the advent of open borders?

The Third Wave

“Third Wave” is the resounding answer. The Third Wave, or specialty coffee movement has swept into parts of Europe in recent years– namely, Scandinavia, Germany, and the UK, but elsewhere too – from its New World origins. Third Wave refers to artisanal coffee: that is, carefully sourced beans, highly-trained baristas, and a subtlety of taste discernment by specialists that rivals the finesse of wine connoisseurship. The industry takes an interest in the entire coffee-making process, from cultivation to import, roasting to brewing; and especially in the economic and environmental impact of the coffee trade, where exploitation of farmers, slavery, child labour and harmful environmental practices have been commonplace. (If you’d like to read more about the history of the coffee “waves”, check out this article).

“It is the internet and the EasyJet Generation that made the Third Wave and speciality coffee phenomena possible.”

Danish barista Klaus Thomsen is winner of the 2006 World Barista Championship and co-owner of Copenhagen’s remarkable The Coffee Collective, which runs a specialty coffee roastery, barista training program and coffee shops. He told me that the Danish coffee scene is changing a lot, moving toward barista-owned cafés and specialty coffee. I asked him whether he attributed these changes to the free movement within Europe.

“I do think that especially the growing trend in Eastern Europe is due to the open borders and that people are in general travelling more. People see coffee shops all over the world and good ideas spread quickly.”

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Third Wave coffee-making involves new techniques. Here: the Aeropress | Photo: Chris Bentley (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I also interviewed Yumi Choi, co-founder of Bonanza Coffee Roasters in Berlin, opened in 2006 as perhaps the first Third Wave coffee purveyor in Germany. Choi also credits the growing high-quality coffee culture in Berlin to free movement within Europe:

“It is the internet and the EasyJet Generation that made the Third Wave and speciality coffee phenomena possible.”

She explains that “I can see, meet and relate directly to my colleagues in Seoul, Warsaw, Istanbul, NY, Copenhagen, Barcelona, London, Taipei, Cape town, Tokyo, Stockholm, Moscow or Athens, who will use the same machines and techniques and knowledge that I use, but then in their specific cultural colour and stage of development.” More than free movement within Europe, it is perhaps easier travel on a global scale  that has influenced coffee culture.

The UK is another hotbed of specialty coffee. Max Mason, 40, an Oxford and Adelaide restaurateur, calls the younger British generation “ever so coffee-centric.” . The Guardian recently reported that UK tea sales are falling, while coffee is on the up; and according to Steven Shapin there is a “frenzy for real, peasant-grown, master-roasted and barista-crafted coffee.”

My brother Richard Weiss, a 45-year-old British-American, tells me that, “Britain has benefitted from enormous European immigration in the last decade, with these immigrants not only introducing continental coffee-drinking styles and habits to the Brits, but also as these immigrants themselves began to form a significant proportion of the local population, were demanding these drinks themselves from the bars and restaurants.” So here, too, the movement of people has been a big influence on local culture.


Coffee experts invite us to weigh our options carefully for their ethical and environmental impact. Asked what the European consumer can do to encourage positive changes in the industry, Mr. Thomsen suggests:

“Consumers need to pay more for coffee. Not necessarily at the cafe or coffee shop – where instead they should demand that a larger amount of the paid money gets to the farmer – but especially on retail coffee. The supermarket budget coffee price wars are destroying the livelihood of farmers. By paying just a little more, and buying from roasteries who work transparently with getting the money to the farmer, consumers can help push that change.”

As Europeans find this beloved beverage improving exponentially in quality and sourcing, we can relish the connections it forges between ourselves and the rest of the world. Yumi Choi told me that “speciality coffee combines agricultural practice and processes, handcraft, technology, machines, design and urban culture. So many young people are fascinated because specialty coffee is the most international and most integrating industry on this planet right now, connecting consuming and producing countries in a quest for quality and excellence.” In her words: “Pretty exciting times, really.”

Teaser photo: Pixabay

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    Amie Weiss was born in the USA, lived in New York City, and moved to Europe in 2009. She is currently based in Italy, where she translates, writes and often leaves to travel for concerts as a classical violinist.

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