Vienna Kaffeehauskultur shifts to third wave coffee shops

There is so much more to coffee than just caffeine,” Philip Feyer sighed while we enjoyed a cup at his coffee bar, Jonas Reindl, across from the Votivkirche. In a city famous for its traditional coffeehouses, Feyer is part of a blossoming so-called “third wave” coffee scene that has become a lively addition to the Vienna coffee culture, bringing a new generation to a beverage that has dominated the city’s way of life for over 500 years.

Over flat whites and V60 filter coffees, several roasters and coffee shop owners talked about joining and, to some extent, reinventing the Kaffeehaus tradition, revealing a world of passionate entrepreneurs along the way. This was not what I had expected. On arriving in Vienna in the summer of 2017, like many Wahlwiener (“Viennese by choice”), I was determined to drink in the culture of the coffeehouses, the Kaffeehauskultur, a central aspect of the intellectual and cultural conversation that shaped fin de siècle Vienna and was reborn in the Kreisky era of the 1970s.

I pictured myself sipping a creamy Melange, once in a while looking up from my newspaper to mingle with like-minded Viennese. Well-prepared, I had set out on my tour of discovery: Hawelka, Diglas, Prückel, Sperl, Engländer. It was all there, the newspapers, the marble-top tables, upholstered benches and wobbly Thonet chairs, grumpy waiters in black-and-white, mirrored paneling and chandeliers. Not so many Viennese, it seemed, although it can be hard to tell who’s local these days. Some I avoided: The storied Café Central was out, thanks to throngs of tourists queuing up for a glimpse of the admittedly stunning vaulted ceilings.

Still, most of the Kaffeehäuser were charming and fully deserving of their billing as the city’s living room, where you can be by yourself but not alone, with the unhurried time to read and reflect, all for the price of a cup of coffee. The problem was, quite simply, the coffee itself. At most Kaffeehäuser it was mediocre, at best. Time to find an alternative.

THE NEW WAVE

Sasha Iamkovyi, who runs Fenster Cafe (Window cafe), the smallest coffee shop in town put me on the right track. Iamkovyi’s vision is decidedly minimalist: No tables, no chairs. Not even a door. It’s simply Iamkovyi churning out flavorful specialty coffees from behind a small window (hence the name). His website bigheartedly lists a string of other third wave practitioners in Vienna. Isn’t he afraid he’ll lose customers to his competitors, I asked. “Not at all,” Iamkovyi said with a smile. “To create a larger clientele, we need more third wave coffee bars. We are friends rather than rivals.”

Michael Prem of prem frischkaffee confirms this. Unlike Iamkovyi, he is a roaster pur sang. Once a week, he rents a machine and drifts off into the “meditative” process of roasting, as he calls it. “Carving out the aromas from the beans is what I love,” he said. It’s a feeling that resonates with Iamkovyi. “Coffee is such a tasty and complex product,” he marveled. “Drinking it invites you to discuss serious topics.”

coffee culture
© Urban Portraits Vienna

Iamkovyi’s remark was soon confirmed as our conversation shifted toward the origin of human beings and other profound topics. Does that imply the third wave coffee shops are the modern Kaffeehäuser of Vienna? Without seats, it is hard to make the case for Fenster Cafe, but visit Jonas Reindl, Balthasar or CoffeePirates and see for yourself: buzzing spaces, closely packed tables, reading material – and exquisite coffee.

CAFFEINE COWBOYS

Sustainability is also key to third wavers. Covering the entire production chain from farm to cup, Tobias Radinger of kaffeefabrik was one of the first in Vienna to buy and roast his own beans, starting about a decade ago. “Being a small entrepreneur, it is hard to control the entire supply chain,” he said. “Hence, I joined Roasters United, a group of ten small roasters from around Europe. We jointly buy our beans and share the pleasure of visiting farms in their countries of origin. We voluntarily pay a higher price, not only to demand better quality and sustainable production methods, but also to make farming economically viable in the long run. To give the farmers more stability, we pre-finance 40 percent of the upcoming harvest.”

“Charity or a profitable business?” I mused half aloud, but Radinger didn’t see the two as mutually exclusive. “I have a degree in political science, so I understand the concept of exploitation. By making sure the farmers work sustainably both ecologically and economically, I also invest in my own future.”

But exquisite beans and a balanced roast aren’t guarantees for a good cup: the human element is still key. Jonas Reindl won’t even let trainees handle the beans at first: you learn by watching. The next step is preparing coffee after hours. Only when you are able to deliver consistently high quality are you allowed to serve customers. To further coffee appreciation, Feyer organizes regular “cuppings.” Recently, a guest roaster from Prague presented eight coffees, equally divided between Africa and Latin America.

A barista scooped ten grams of each into eight bowls on a long table before pouring 88-degree water over the grounds. Soon, the crust was broken and the first wafts of fresh coffee rose from the bowls. The other baristas were then invited to start the blind tasting. “Hops,” one barista noted. “Love it!”  Carefully imitating the coffee pros, I joined in. The flavors were remarkably different. I tasted nuts, caramel, nutmeg, strawberry, cumin and chocolate. As a rule of thumb, I was taught, the Africans are fruitier and the Americans are nuttier. No doubt: There is more to coffee than just caffeine.

SPERL FOR A SPRITZER

When asked if Jonas Reindl is an updated traditional coffeehouse though, Feyer denied the claim. As most of his colleagues, he adores the old Kaffeehäuser, but bemoans the quality of their brew. “Due to the tourists, there is no incentive to improve it.” That Kaffeehauskultur carried over to his coffee bar is a coincidence. Werner Savornik, co-owner of CoffeePirates, however, did build on the old tradition. “What would Landtmann look like if they would have set up shop in 2012?” was his vision when he decided to open his own place.

The result is a modern coffee bar sprawled over three rooms with two communal tables and (naturally) coffee of the utmost quality. The Thonet chairs hanging from the ceiling are a playful nod to local heritage. Everyone agreed that the Viennese third wave coffee scene may seem lively, but is small compared to Berlin’s or Amsterdam’s. Some of the larger coffee shops have become popular hangouts, and all of them provide a welcome alternative for the discerning coffee drinker. And the classic Kaffeehäuser? Prem summed it up succinctly: “I love to go there for a Spritzer.”