Coffee Grounds

While writing the previous post (Growing Roots), it got me thinking about an old article I wrote for the Warsaw Insider (see below) about the history of coffee culture in Poland. The eating/drinking out scene in Poland is different from the western Europe in that the natural development of eateries and cafes was skewed and thrown off course by the communism era. In the bad old days, you and I would rarely dine out. Tea and coffee were had at home or at friends’. Places to eat out were milk bars, restaurants frequented by big wigs and hotel restaurants with prices that were beyond the purchasing power of ordinary folks.

Since capitalism came to town, eating out and cafe options in cities and tourist zones have boomed. But the relationship between Poles and restaurants/cafes is still taking shape. It’s still not a way of life like in other countries where there wasn’t an 4-decade long hiatus from public eating and sipping. The cafes seem to be leading the way in “rehabilitating” the going out scene.

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee (Warsaw Insider, May 2007)

Since coffee was carted into Poland circa 1683, it went from being a high society brew to a hard-act-to-find in the communist period. But once again, the streets are abuzz with the coffee rush.

“What coffee do real men drink?” I ask, partly out of jest and partly to figure out what the hottest liquid in the town is.

Marcin Michalik reflects slowly before saying, “Double espresso.” Glen Gregory, without hesitation, injects, “Espresso. Or Americano. Without milk and sugar. Black and bitter.” While Agnieszka Chochół smiles and also votes for espresso. “You can add a bit of sugar,” she says. She thinks real women should drink espresso, too.

Marcin works at the home-grown Coffee Heaven. He trains the staff at the chain to draw the perfect extraction and swirl rosetta and heart shapes on milky froths. In the 2007 Poland Barista Championship, he won the top spot for the Warsaw round. Petite Agnieszka, is a barista-trainer and works for the Java Coffee Company, where she infects staff from the food and beverage industry with her coffee gospel. Glen, Agnieszka’s colleague, is an American who has set aside an IT career to transform raw green beans into luscious blends.

No matter what these three purists say real men and women should have, in reality, based on the sales figures compiled by both companies, real Poles are putting their hot beverage money on lattes and cappuccinos. Unlike in Italy, you won’t be taken as a wimp if you go the milky way after midday. Macchiato, doppio and ristretto are seeping into the local vernacular. Katarzyna Tondera, a co-founder of Coffee Heaven, recalls a time when cafes didn’t expect anyone to roll the double consonants off their tongues. She says when the chain opened in early 2000, they had to explain to the customers what an espresso was. People were expecting a more voluminous cup than the two gulps of 30ml.

From Sobieski to Inka

Tracing the local coffee trail further back, most recipe books, including the “Polish Cooking: Tradition and Present Day” published by the State Ethnographical Museum of Warsaw, agree that coffee first slipped into the Polish vernacular via Vienna in 1683.

That summer, Vienna was under siege. By autumn, King Jan III Sobieski galloped in and liberated the city from the Turkish invaders. Huge supplies of beans were found in the camps of the interlopers. Using the loot, Kulczycki, a Polish merchant, soon opened his first café in Vienna.

Warsaw’s first café opened some time between 1724-1729. Coffee became a trendy sip among the upper class women. And they had it good. The beans were bought raw and then freshly roasted, grinded and brewed at home. Since this required skills, they had a designated servant called “kawiarka”, the precursor of the modern day barista, whose task was to keep the masters and guests caffeinated.

Another coffee tale was captured by Adam Mickiewicz*. It’s woven into the epic poem Pan Tadeusz set in 1811 when Poland was annexed off the map. It gave glimpses of life in the households of two squabbling noble families. Mickiewicz waxed lyrical that Polish coffee had “a black of carbon, transparency of amber, smell of mocha and the density of honey.” Agnieszka believes the poet was describing kawa po Turecku (Turkish coffee).

The poem discloses more habits: “You know how important good cream is for coffee … the kawiarka in the mornings … she visits the milk farm and with her own hands, she scoops the white flower of dairy into a separate pot for each cup…”

From there, coffee culture took a nosedive when the commodity slipped out of mainstream circulation. World War II saw a shortage in supply. And the situation persisted in the ensuing malaise.

“Probably around 1968-1969, came the coffee crisis,” recalls Andrzej Rosner, a coffee drinker who lived to tell. “It was not the first one, but this time it was really serious. Władysław Gomułka, the First Secretary of the Communist Party, decided to almost stop buying coffee. It was sometimes available in kawiarnia, but you couldn’t buy it in shops.”

However, ‘pretend’ coffee were in shops. Inka coffee, made from grains and chicory, emulates the look and feel of the genuine article and it even comes with a frothy head.

“I like Inka,” says Agnieszka, beaming with a warm glow in recalling a childhood memory. “I used to drink it. Since I was four. But only with milk.” She is surprised to learn that Inka hasn’t gone down the same lane as communism. Not only is it alive, it is kicking. The pretender has spruced up its image as a vitamin-fortified caffeine-free option for pregnant mums, kids and anyone abstaining from caffeine. Inka gets a helping hand from an old ally – milk bars, another conception from the same era. Oblivious to the new beans in town, some milk bars uphold the one-option policy and their only coffee option is kawa Inka with milk.

The advent of fake coffee gave rise to the retronym kawa prawdziwa (real coffee). You will still find kawa prawdziwa in retro establishments. The coffee ground is dunked into a tall glass and hot water poured in. Sometimes it is given the misnomer as Turkish-style coffee. Its other more picturesque moniker is kawa z fusami. That’s roughly translated as coffee with flotsam. I find it charming but my husband deems it vile to spit out the coffee granules.

Romancing the Beans, Machines and Baristas

Shortages and spits are distant memory now that coffee machines are hissing and spurting all over town. The cup is so bottomless that Starbucks is expected to open soon at several prime spots near you. With all these caffeine-pushers jostling for your cash, the beans, the machines and baristas can make a difference in winning your patronage.

La miscela (blend), la macinazione (mill), la macchina (espresso machine), la mano (barista),” Marcin names the Four M’s of extracting a shot of coffee. La miscela is handled by roasters like Glen. In a roastery in the north of Warsaw, Glen tweaks with Arabica mix and roasting time. The fresh blends are handed over to the baristas.

“Get real,” I hear you protest. “Overdoing it a bit, aren’t you, to call every button-pusher a barista?” But there’s more than meet the eyes. A self-respecting barista is one who loves coffee and knows everything from beans to cup. (For simplicity’s sake, I use the pronoun ‘he’, though there are many fine women baristas out there.) He sets up the mill for the proper grind size. The coffee machine he uses is the advanced model where he tamps the grounds and controls the extraction time. He sees to it that the machine is properly warmed up and has the correct water pressure and temperature. If anything is amiss, he can diagnose it from the crema, the tan velvety emulsion atop the soot-black liquid. And he makes every espresso like it’s last thing he’s going to do in life (alright, this part is stretching it a bit). When everything’s done right, you get that ideal balance of acidity, sweetness, color and aroma.

I’ll wrap now and go for some real coffee high (meaning, made from freshly roasted beans, grinded on demand, tamped evenly and firmly, good quality water, extracted with water temperature of 90oC and 9Bar pressure, and comes with a tiger-skin crema).

*Adam Bernard Mickiewicz, 1798 – 1855, a Polish poet of mythical proportions.

Thanks for dropping by! Please come back for photos updates!


About kitfchung

Experienced food and travel journalist based in Warsaw, Poland.
This entry was posted in Interviews, Liquids (Drinks), Poland, PRL, Published articles, Warsaw, Where to Eat and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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