Anything considered a tradition is bound to amass a fair share of memorabilia – all the more so when it’s as vast and multidimensional as Vienna’s coffeehouse culture. Stretching from the first establishments opened in the 17th century to today’s third-wave artisanal cafés, Vienna’s Kaffeemuseum seeks to collect it all, and it shows: Its narrow aisles are stacked high with sacks of beans, silver pots, vintage espresso machines and memorabilia, the walls full of helpful explanations and photos of historical luminaries. With the smell of freshly roasted coffee wafting through its premises, it’s hard to know what to look at first.
The museum was founded in 2003, as part of the Österreichische Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum (Museum of Austrian Society and Business), by Edmund Mayr and Karl Schilling, two enthusiasts who bonded over their mutual passion and merged their extensive collections, gradually growing the museum over the years with additions from flea markets and numerous donations. After Mayr retired, Schilling took over as sole custodian, offering tours, workshops and insight into the world of Viennese coffee.
Romancing the Bean
The Kaffeemuseum takes a holistic approach, covering all aspects: Starting with a replica of the coffea plant, tours start with a description of where it grows, how it thrives and the different colors of its beans before moving on to harvesting and roasting. Schilling prefers to show and tell: After covering the basics, he’ll roast some coffee with a vintage machine right then and there, allowing you to touch, feel and smell the aromatic beans.
Further down, he’ll go over the history of brewing – once very time consuming, most early machines sought to shorten the wait by using pressurized steam, the first impetus for what eventually became espresso – numerous early models are scattered throughout the room, showing their evolution over time. One in particular towers over the others, extremely bulky with a staggering number of levers and compartments: It’s a prototype of a filter machine from the 1900s that works with steam pressure. Intended to produce in bulk, its enormous size was intentional; however, large batches meant quality suffered toward the end, as coffee would sit in the container until consumed. Therefore, newer designs focused on brewing fresh coffee, one cup at a time. Giovanni Achille Gaggia finally solved the problem by using high-pressure hot water instead of steam to brew coffee, applying for a patent in 1938. Unlike previous models, his method could build enough pressure to create the beloved crema, the prized foamy surface on a well-pulled espresso shot; Schilling considers Gaggia’s design to be the first real espresso machine that meets today’s standards.
A majestic portrait of Georg Franz Kolschitzky dominates this section, the Polish nobleman and diplomat widely celebrated for introducing the drink to the city. According to legend (the historical record is more murky), coffee first came to Vienna with the invading Turkish army during the siege of 1683; when the defenders found numerous sacks of beans abandoned after the city was relieved, they were initially assumed to be camel feed. Kolschitzky however, who spent time as a spy in the Ottoman army, knew exactly what they were and eventually acquired a license to serve coffee in Vienna. According to Schilling, the city was slow to embrace what was then perceived as bitter bean juice – but with Kolschitzky’s efforts to make it more palatable with milk and sugar, it brought people together as a welcome pretext to play cards, billiard or just read the paper and chat.
Ironically, it is probable that the long brewing times of pre-espresso coffeehouses contributed to their use as a second living room for patrons, encouraging the custom of spending long hours in one, which persists in Vienna to this day.
Fittingly, the center of the museum has several marble tables and black chairs, replicating a classic Viennese coffeehouse surrounded by examples from other cultures such as cezves, the traditional copper or brass pots used for Turkish coffee, or Jebena pots from Ethiopia, considered the birthplace of coffee. Assembling the physical elements helps define the local coffee culture while putting it in context with other traditions – it’s also a great place to end the tour or have a tasting.
Finding Lost Time
For Schilling, Viennese coffeehouse culture is about far more than the beverage; it is an experience. The small details fascinate him – the waiters in black suits, newspapers in wooden holders, the metal trays for serving coffee with water. Born and raised in Vienna, he grew up with the lifestyle and learned to appreciate it: In an increasingly accelerated world, coffeehouses are a cozy refuge to slow down and just be. “I am not the coffee-to-go type of guy; sometimes it happens, but normally, I just take my time.” What he finds most fascinating is that you can be alone in a coffeehouse even when you have company, which is probably what makes it so calming. He’s fond of the famous quote by Austrian journalist and intellectual Alfred Polgar: “Ins Kaffeehaus gehen Leute, die allein sein wollen, aber dazu Gesellschaft brauchen” (People go to the coffeehouse who want to be alone but need company to do so).
Still, while the charm of Vienna’s coffeehouses may be ephemeral, the quality is definitely no afterthought: In Austria, decent coffee can be found even at gas stations and the variations are myriad – cappuccino, mélange or Schilling’s favorite, Eiskaffee or a simple, large Mokka. Even when coffee is a necessity, it’s a luxury. The stories behind the beans, their journey to our cups and the variety of ways to prepare coffee fascinate Schilling, who personalizes his tours to participants’ wishes: Some attend for barista training, some to learn how to do latte art at home and some for an introduction to the coffee business. He also offers workshops for schools, private groups and business owners in both English and German.
“One hundred percent Arabica doesn’t necessarily mean good quality, it just means the beans are of this type,” he insists. Knowledge is the key to good coffee; one should understand that there are multiple aspects to a tasty cup. One of the most vital is water quality. According to Schilling, Vienna’s is just right – you can use it with peace of mind. Another important point is treating the beans like any other fresh food.
Always grind freshly in smaller amounts – or at the very least, keep them sealed in a coffee container to preserve the aroma. Schilling’s third trick is to know your method and master it. Whether you have an elaborate espresso machine or a simple French press, learn the ideal grind for your machine or ask your roaster.
Traditional or modern, Schilling anticipates a bright future for the local tradition, spurred on by a new breed of cafés spearheaded by the likes of Kaffeerösterei Alt Wien, CoffeePirates and the Kaffeefabrik. “In the last few years there was a change of generation. Young owners took over coffeehouses from their parents or opened their own. With very good, contemporary ideas when it comes to the specialties they offer, but not forgetting about the past, about the culture, about this treasure that they have. This is the future.”
And while tradition and innovation may seem mutually exclusive, even the most nostalgic coffeehouses are adapting. “Young people want not only good coffee, they want to know where their coffee comes from, the sustainability behind it; the cultural aspects in the country of origin, how people work there, what the working conditions are.” Owners recognize that, making conscious decisions based on their customers’ expectations, sourcing beans responsibly as single origin beans or certain blends.
After all, traditions aren’t static – perhaps the Kaffeemuseum will one day hold memorabilia of contemporary trends like fair-trade blends, soy milk lattes and an exposed brick coffeebar. Either way, as the culture blossoms, the Kaffeemuseum will be there to document it.
Mon-Fri 8:00-14:00 for individual visitors
Groups of over 10 by appointment.
0664 144 14 06