Such is the prestige of Viennese coffee houses that at the end of 2011 UNESCO qualified them as an intangible cultural heritage, places “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill.”
Trotsky used to frequent the Café Central (left) in Vienna, staying in the city under the alias Bronstein. One Austrian minister, informed by the secret service of preparations for a revolution in Russia, asked, “And who on earth is going to make a revolution in Russia? I suppose you are going to tell me it’s that Bronstein who sits all day at the Café Central?”
Legend has it that soldiers of the Polish-Habsburg army, while liberating Vienna from the second Turkish siege in 1683, found sacks of strange beans that they initially thought were camel feed and were going to burn. The Polish King Jan III Sobieski granted the sacks to one of his officers named Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, who started the first coffee house. After some experimentation, he added sugar and milk to the brew and the Viennese coffee tradition was born. Another account says that Kulczycki, having spent two years in Ottoman captivity, knew perfectly well what coffee was and tricked his superiors into granting him beans that were considered worthless.
Milestones in the development of Viennese coffee houses include the practice of providing newspapers for guests, which was started in 1720 at “Kramersches Kaffeehaus” on Graben in central Vienna, as well as permission to sell hot food and alcoholic beverages. Napoleon’s ban on trade with England, which also applied to Austria from 1808, caused a spectacular increase in taxes on coffee beans. As coffee houses tried to survive on alternative sources of income, a new type of restaurant known as the “Kaffee-Restaurant” developed.
The heyday of the coffee house was the turn of the 20th century when writers, artists, scientists, and politicians made them their preferred place of work and pleasure. Austrian writer and biographer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) described the Viennese coffee house as an institution of a special kind, “actually a sort of democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee, where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering, to talk, write, play cards, receive post, and above all consume an unlimited number of newspapers and journals.”
There are several famous coffee houses in Vienna. The oldest is Frauenhuber (right) in the city centre, where Mozart and Beethoven gave public performances. The Central is one of the most splendid, formerly noted for its chess-playing clientele and restored to 19th century grandeur in 1986. The Landtmann used to have a table reserved for Sigmund Freud and the Café Dommayer is situated next to the vanished Dommayer Casino where in 1844 Johann Strauss Jr. had his first public success with his waltzes Gunstwerber (Favour-Courters) and Sinngedichte (Epigrams) – encored 19 times!
The Viennese are particular about how they take their coffee and there are several variations. A Kapuziner is black with a dash of milk, usually frothed. A Konsul is black with a dash of cream. A Türkischer is strong black coffee served in the traditional way. A Pharisäer is strong black coffee with whipped cream on top served with a small glass of rum. A Schlagobers is strong black coffee served with either plain or whipped cream. And the bizarre Kaisermelange is black coffee with an egg yolk and brandy.
Stefan Zweig wrote a wonderful biography of the French novelist Honoré de Balzac in which he describes Balzac’s addiction. “Coffee was his hashish, and since like every drug it had to be taken in continually stronger doses if it was to maintain its effect, he had to swallow more and more of the murderous elixir to keep pace with the increasing strain on his nerves. Of one of his books he said that it had been finished only with ‘streams of coffee’.”
Vienna would not be the same without its coffee houses, many of which also offer cakes and pastries to die for. But that’s another story!