The Coffee House Legacy

The origin of the Viennese coffee house is regarded by many as more legend than fact.  As the story goes, the Polish-Habsburg army that defeated the Ottoman army and lifted the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 discovered several sacks of dry, dark brown beans among the booty left behind by the retreating enemy. 

Unaware of their purpose or value, Polish king Jan III Sobieski gave the sacks of useless beans to an officer named Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki.  Whether he shared his information with the king or not, Kulczycki was well aware of just how valuable the beans were, having learned about coffee during time spent in Turkish captivity. 

Kulczycki is often credited with adapting coffee to European tastes by adding milk and sugar to the strong, bitter Turkish drink.  At any rate, the first recognized Viennese coffee house was opened by Johannes Theodat in 1685.  Early coffee houses offered their customers a color chart depicting various shades of brown, lighter or darker, from which the customer chose their particular hue of preference. 

It was not until much later that individual coffee preparations were christened with the names familiar to customers today; Melange, Grosser/Kleiner Brauner, Grosser/Kleiner Schwarzer, Einspänner, Verlängerter, the rum-laced Fiaker, and the complex Kaisermelange.

As the centuries progressed, the Viennese coffee house evolved into something more than just a place to get a cup of coffee.  Although coffee houses were ubiquitous throughout the city, each had its own atmosphere and attracted a distinct clientele based largely on academic, political, or cultural interests, as well as social class. 

Viennese coffee houses were the favorite haunts of such notables as Alfred Adler, Sigmund Freud, Theodor Herzl, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweif, as well as countless others whose names and lives have since vanished from history.  Leon Trotsky was reported to be particularly fond of the Café Central.  The popularity of the coffee houses can be attributed to the unique social function they served.  In addition to excellent coffee and small meals, traditional Viennese coffee houses offered their patrons the opportunity to sit in a comfortable surroundings and read the news of the world by drawing from racks of local and, frequently, foreign newspapers.  This was an important service at a time before radio, television, and the internet.

The unique virtue of the Viennese coffee house today, as always, is that it offers the patron the opportunity to simply sit with one, two, or a handful of people and establish human connections in an atmosphere that lends itself to the personal and intimate, the meaningful, whether emotional or intellectual.  The marble tables and curved wooden chairs of Viennese coffee houses are graced by friends, lovers, business partners, students, intellectuals, politicians, gossips, idealists, conspirators and, of course, tourists.  Engrossed in your newspaper or in private conversation, you never know who’s sitting at the next table or what they’re discussing.  If the concept of the romantic emphasizes human emotion and the more intangible elements of personal interaction, then the Viennese coffee house is one of the most romantic elements of an undeniably romantic city. 

© Excerpts taken from the article "Cafe Hawelka" by John A. Irvin.