What Happened To European Coffee Culture?

Filed Under: Travel

I have a doctor’s appointment this afternoon, which requires fasting for 12 hours. I didn’t think much of it, until I realized that “fasting” also includes not drinking coffee. Which, let me tell you, is a bit of a problem when you wake up at 5AM.

So since I’m being deprived of coffee today, I might as well talk about it a bit this morning while frothing at the mouth (if only it were the milk for a latte frothing instead!).

I love coffee. People will judge me and say it’s not good for me and blah blah blah. And that’s fine. But I really do love coffee. And I’m not just talking about the caffeine effect, but I like actual coffee culture. There’s nothing quite like sitting down in a cafe in Europe (or on an airplane!) with a nice cup of coffee and just watching the world go by. Coffee relaxes me, and in the morning, coffee also sort of sets the tone for my day.


I’m a pretty “simple” coffee drinker. In the mornings I prefer just drip coffee with a bit of skim milk, and in the afternoons I love a good cappuccino or latte with skim milk, without adding any sugar/syrup.

I just wrapped up a two week trip to Germany and Austria, and one of the things I was most looking forward to was coffee. Admittedly the Germans aren’t as good as the Italians when it comes to coffee, but the Germans still appreciate coffee culture, if nothing else.

And I found myself terribly disappointed, which previously had never been the case. In the two weeks I spent in Germany and Austria:

  • I was able to consume a single cup of drip coffee
  • I had two espresso-based drinks which were actually freshly made

But in virtually every other case the only option was one of those nasty machines, as you’d find in the club lounge of a US hotel.


Like, it blows my mind that there are coffee shops where all the “barista” does is push a button on a machine to dispense a cappuccino, latte, etc.

I’m not sure if I’m just noticing this as I love coffee more and more, or if this is actually a new trend. And perhaps rather than “European coffee culture” I should say “German coffee culture.”

In fairness, one part of German coffee culture which doesn’t suck is Eiskaffee. Though even calling that coffee is a bit of a stretch. 😉


Am I the only one who has noticed this? Anyone else offended at the prospect of being served a “machine” produced espresso-based beverage at a coffeeshop? 

  1. Surprised to hear this about any european culture whatsoever. Europeans KNOW coffee culture.In america we can expect to push a button because *most* dont care about the process they just want the 128 oz of java-dessert. I think the machine may just be your isolation in hotels lucky…..everywhere ive ever been that is always my favorite past time. Just drinking coffee and people watching in a busy square.

  2. If you’re going to read terrible, terrible literature, at least have the decency to cover it up.

  3. No black coffee? All my fasting (for blood tests), black coffee was allowed, just no sugar or cream.

    Hope it isn’t for a more serious reason; good luck on finding out what’s wrong.

  4. @ beachfan — Hmmm, they told me *nothing*. At this point it’s almost time, so guess I’ll just stick to that. 😀

  5. Coffee should always be black. If it needs cream or sugar you shouldn’t be drinking it anyway

  6. @ brendon — Sorry if it wasn’t clear in hotels, but literally went to tons of coffee shops (actual coffee shops in small towns), and lots of them still had those machines.

  7. Would never drink coffee if it’s from one of the airport lounge or Nespresso type machines. If the beans for my espresso aren’t at least ground to order, then no thank you!

  8. @Ben,

    Hope all goes well with your tests.


    Ben said he has been sick; the book is hopefully just a symptom and not the cause. He is obviously not well. 🙂

  9. First, let’s make it clear, skim milk has no place in coffee culture!

    I agree with most of your observations. Fortunately things are going the opposite direction in the US. Roasters like Stumptown, Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia, etc. are enlivening a great coffee culture here.

  10. @ TransWorldOne — Heh, that’s true. And to clarify, don’t give a milk preference when ordering in Europe. Though when I get coffee at chain coffeeshops in the US I go with skim milk.

  11. Now imagine a whole month (until 7pm everyday, at least) without food and drinks including coffee and even water 🙁

    Ramadan is so hard, man!

  12. After traveling for a year straight, I actually found America has the best coffee culture (and beer for that matter). For whatever reason instant coffee has blown up in Europe (apparently they consume 40% of the stuff), whereas Americans have skewed higher end in recent years: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/07/14/almost-half-of-the-world-actually-prefers-instant-coffee/

    I expected coffee to be crappy in SE Asia, but was always surprised at how horrible it was in France. That goes a long way to explaining it.

  13. Wow at coffeeshops too? How sad does the world not have the muscle to tamp 30 lbs of pressure into an espresso puck?

  14. I just returned from 3 weeks in Italy and most every1where had those damn machines, which automatically make a cappuccino or espresso BADLY. Best cappuccino was a tiny cafe outside Siena, for 1 euro!

  15. Dallmayr Kaffeehaus in Munchen is really good.

    The coffee culture in Germany is based around creating better and better more efficient automated machines. Last week, I was in a Dat Backhus (northern bakery chain in Germany, really good), and they had a WMF Bistro machine with Tchibo Kaffee in it. It was REALLY good. I think the quality of the coffee from these machines is based purely on the quality of the beans themselves and the milk, after all the beans are ground fresh for every cup. Those machines are going to make crappy coffee if the club lounge is throwing some Walmart coffe in there.

    I’m saying that if I was in Italy and the barista simply pushed a button to make my coffee, I would be appalled. But in Germany, where coffee culture is these machines, I wouldn’t be appallled or offended. And neither should you, lucky.

    And never compare the machines in club lounges to the beautiful engineering masterpieces that we have here in Germany

  16. I am not surprised you were unable to find drip coffee in Europe — in my experience drip coffee barely exists at all outside of the US/Canada, curious if you have found it elsewhere?

    As for the lack of real baristas, I suppose that is disappointing but perhaps not entirely surprising. You need another trip to Australia if you want real barista culture 🙂

  17. Ben, I agree with everything you wrote here. I’m a huge coffee drinker, as well, and take it exactly the same way–drip coffee with skim in the mornings, and lattes or cappuccinos in the afternoon. As others have mentioned, I’m increasingly appreciating coffee culture in the US!

  18. This is somewhat of an insensitive post during Ramadan, when Muslims are required to fast between sunrise and sunset, not even water. FOR AN ENTIRE MONTH.

    My suggestion – get up 13 hours before your appointment, have coffee, problem solved. That’s exactly what my colleague does.

  19. Those machines are better than coffee that’s been sitting in a thermos or carafe for God knows how long…

  20. I remember I saw a show about a 100 year old, very famous coffee shop in Italy, the ‘manager’ of the shop said: “People come in, order a cappuccino, tall, short, with more foam, less foam, no foam, no fat, low fat, with sugar, no sugar…you can only order one thing here, cappuccino! That is!” (Imagine with an Italian accent). LOL!!

  21. That is bizarre. I live in Vienna, and I have no idea where you could have gone that you missed this. The McCafe that is inside every McDonald’s has a real barista making real coffee from an Italian machine. You can see right there that they are not pressing a button. I don’t know if it is the same way in Germany, but I regret to say I am recommending you go to McDonald’s for consistently good coffee. You could also go to the ubiquitous Aida for something similar.

    As for drip coffee, I have no idea. I make it at home.

  22. I agree, nothing compares to freshly brewed coffee.

    On work trips to Milan, Italy, my most enjoyed pleasure is a Ristretto at the local “Bistechi?” (sp?). After lunch we always walk into one of these authentic Italian coffee shops. Pay one euro, stand at the bar counter, get served in proper crockery and enjoy freshly brewed Syrup of Heaven (Ristretto).

    On another note, maybe you should think about a visit to Cape Town? The Telegragh just noted “Truth Coffee” as the best coffee shop in the world.


  23. Have to defend those machines now. They do grind the beans fresh, use the right amount of water at the correct temperature etc. They also do use fresh milk and foam it up. Its just labor saving but also creates a much more consistent coffee. There is a reason those stores use it, they don’t have baristas there and the quality is much higher then any drip coffee. Also with their high turn over the beans are usually fresh.

    Switzerland has a higher coffee culture then Germany (I also prefer Italy but if you are there more often you would know that your milk based drinks in the afternoon are a sin, cappuccino is for breakfast, drink espresso later on).

    A good fully automatic machine will beat 90% of the baristas you meet at a Starbucks assuming you use good coffee. Its just automation. Now some of the US automatic machines you see at lounges are a completely different story.

  24. Interesting. I was in Vienna a couple of months ago, and didn’t notice this. To be fair, I didn’t really look, either. I still have to say that overall, the coffee coming from those machines is still vastly superior to most of the stuff here in the U.S.

  25. Ben,
    Hope your medical testing turns out to be fine.
    With respect to health benefits and risks of coffee, the preponderance of medical evidence indicates that coffee is not harmful to you and, in fact, may be healthful.
    Coffee drinkers seem to have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes mellitus, for example.
    Coffee was long ago suspected of being carcinogenic, but that myth has been debunked in numerous convincing studies.
    While coffee, and caffeine in general, can increase blood pressure transiently, moderate consumption — even more than you normally drink — is not associated with any cardiovascular risk increases.
    Coffee may have short-term benefit in terms of improving mental function and mood — less compelling evidence here, but lots of anecdote!
    So, here’s to your health!
    zow, MD, FACP
    Diplomate, American Board of Internal Medicine

  26. As German Expat indirectly points out, most of you are confusing two VERY different things.

    First, those Nescafe (or whatever) things in domestic US Admirals Club lounges are indeed terrible. As are any machines that start with . . . um . . . coffee concentrate liquid.

    Second, many of those European machines are exactly as German Expat describes, namely, machines that grind the beans and then brew your cup at the correct temperature. That’s something else entirely. COMPLETELY.

    Having any sort of discussion that conflates the first category with the second is, honestly, just not useful.

    I still fondly remember the time I discovered that there even were “good” machines out there. It was at a Novotel in Chartres some 15 years ago, and we had to eat breakfast at 6:00 a.m. to make it to Orly on time for our 10:30 flight back to the US. To this day I’m not sure which was better — finding breakfast in France at 6:00 a.m. or that machine.

  27. ptahcha – Seriously, enough with the insensitive crap. If you choose to honor your religion by participating in the fast, do it and don’t whine… the rest of us go on living our lives.

  28. @ptahcha With all due respect I do not think Lucky’s post is insensitive. He was commenting on an experience which presented itself unexpectedly to him as a result of a medical issue. You (or perhaps the folks whose sensitivities you defend) on the other hand, CHOOSE to engage in a month of fasting. It’s safe to say that you/they knew it was coming for the past year. And isn’t the point of most fasting (I can’t say that I have info on Ramadan) to use that discomfort to focus on other, more spiritual matters? It seems almost that you are implying that they are suffering, when they are actually engaging in an important part of their faith?

    Your 13 hour suggestion is a good one. Not sure I would want to lose sleep to do that though – it would be a tough call!

  29. We just spent 4 days in Bratislava and had cappuccinos and ristretto macchiatos daily at Moods Bakery! Everything was done the proper way! Plus the service and the friendliness of the staff beats anything we have had so far this summer in Germany. We spend our summers here in the alps and each year things seem to go downhill with food and service. You can find cappuccino made the right way here but it is not easy.

  30. First and foremost Ben, best of luck to you in regard to your tests today.

    Noah Sprenger – I agree, Dallmayr coffee is pretty remarkable, and my all time favorite. I prefer the blue label.

  31. @German Expat – I agree with you about the machines. But even the machines in US lounges are WMF from Germany, it’s just the crappy Folgers that they throw in them.

  32. @ Abdel Rahim Abdallah
    7 P.M for u? Dont be a wuss 😉 Try 9:15
    But u know just as well as I do that after about the first couple days, your body finds equilibrium.

    @ ptahcha
    I dont really find it insensitive. If there’s an especially tasty post/pic article, I just avoid it.
    But man o man @tara is right…last pic is heaven!

  33. If you enjoy iced coffee, either black or with a splash of half-and-half and live near a Trader Joe’s, I can heartily recommend trying Trader Joe’s Cold Brewed Coffee Concentrate, though its availability in my refrigerator has significantly cut down on trips to Starbucks.

  34. @Tara, @Abe – Ben’s “heavenly” photo was taken at Café Kreutzkamm, probably in one of their 2 downtown Munich cafes (http://www.kreutzkamm.de/) – absolutely wonderful cakes, you must visit !

    @ Ben – very best wishes for a speedy and complete recovery. Is that a slice of my favourite Prinzregententorte?

  35. One word my friend and unfortunately i’m not a rabid follower of your blog but I do think you do a good job with what you address,


    It makes Starbucks look like a cheap copy. I got a Macchiato ( a real one) at a scroungy roadside train station 70 miles outside of Rome, by that I mean a place you wouldn’t think by the looks of it in the US or anyplace else would serve you anything other than yesterday’s grunge leftover from Double Donut, anyways…

    The best coffee i’ve seen thus far and it’s on every corner in every town… you don’t have to go into the fancy places that are all show no dough… but by far if you’re digging coffee culture go to Italy. I’m sure Guatemala or Ecuador would be great too.

    If you haven’t been to Florence, you can still point a place just outside of town and the restricted zone with Starwood, and there’s a great little place outside the local apartments and such for 20 cents on the dollar what you pay in the US. And everything is better. Downtown Florence however is expensive and very old world.

    Just as you can tell that a lot of Apple’s design concepts came from visits to Japan. There is no doubt in my mind that Starbucks came about after a few visits to Italy’s “coffee culture”. It’s great if that’s something that interests you.

    You’re going to need a car mind you. I can’t comment on Italy as a place to fly in… jump on a shuttle … you know your basic AIRPORT centered trip. But the coffee’s great.

    Wouldn’t expect 5 star rooms and the like , you’re going to have to mingle with the locals to really enjoy the experience or else you’ll come out of it in mounds of debt.

    I made some contacts for private rooms right off the rails in some places if anybody’s interested. Drop me a line at [email protected]. Happy Trails.

  36. Germany has a coffee culture, but it is completely different from ‘real’ coffee culture in Austria, Italy, or even the U.S. for that matter.
    In Germany, coffee is usually something that is consumed at home, or at some workplaces. At home, in the morning it is usually drip coffee (or espresso made with a Bialetti, if you are a student), at the work place it is often crema from a fully automatic machine (the whole department was saving for a low-tier Jura or Saeco, or over the last 10 years a Nespresso and you put 50ct in a tin box for each cup that you drink, because of these f***ing capsules), and rarely, if you are the guest of a couple, whose combined income is in the 90th percentile, you will be offered an espresso from semi-automatic machine, by a manufacturer whose name you can’t even google, made with freshly ground coffee from Peru, that was roasted in a small store in Lisbon and that costs 35€ per pound.
    Before I came to the U.S., I never ever got coffee to go in Germany, overall the idea of putting coffee in a paper cup and walking around with is relatively new to Germans (a little over five years ago, my mother asked me why everybody drinks coffee from Togo now). Actually, even going to a bar or a cafe for a latte macchiato (you’ll get a glas of milk in Europe, if you order a “latte”) or cappuccino, is something that did not exist 20 years ago. Back then the only people drinking coffee outside of their home were retired people that met with their 80 year old girl friends for a piece of Schwarzwälder Kirsch or Herrentorte and a coffee at 3.30pm (keep in mind: “draussen nur Kännchen”).
    Long story short, what you are experiencing these days is simply an attempt to adapt to whatever globalization and a bunch of early hipsters have brought to this country.
    Lucky, ask your parents, they are old enough to remember what things were like before it became too hip to simply have a cup of coffee in Germany.

  37. This crowd is taking itself way too seriously today. Forty-two comments – forty about coffee but only two ribbing Ben for reading “Fifty Shades of Gray”. Come on, people. Where are your priorities??

  38. Good espresso is good chemistry. It’s all about precision and consistency and finding the perfect balance between grind, temperature, and pressure. Consistency. And that is one thing machines can guarantee. If you have high-end superautomatic (espresso mashine that grinds, tumps and pulls a shot) it will beat 90% of baristas anywhere (save for Italy). It will also provide you the freedom to taste differences in coffee beans – that is biggest impact to end result. As a happy owner of Seaco superautomatic, I can spend plenty of time debating differences between Costa Rica and Nicaragua beans. Because I can taste it.
    Also, freshly roasted beans – nothing older than 10 days, otherwise that cup is just a caffeine vehicle with no taste (or worse, with bad taste).
    It is funny that we are debating the espresso as some ultimate high-end goal, when it has spread as a way to make bad, bad coffee (in then war-poor Italy) at least somewhat drinkable.

    Once you are bored with espresso, pay a visit to Kazakhstan airport – they used to brew Turkish coffee in tiny single-serve metal coffee pots and put it in heated sand for another 5-10 minutes (yes, coffee grounds are left inside). Enough caffeine to last you a week!

  39. My coffee instincts had a reboot on my recent San Francisco weekend. Forget Seattle, seemed like every place I went the coffee got better and better. Drip, espresso, didn’t matter. The beans really matter.

    My taste buds have gotten blunted by by the coffee I’ve been drinking the last few years on frequent stays in Paris. The café culture is great, the coffee, not so much.

    Some of the best coffee I’ve had in Europe was at a place called Coffee Lounge in Prague. The oh-so-coffee-geeky manager had trained in Oslo, I believe.

    I actually checked in to see how the medical tests went. Crossing fingers and toes…

  40. Good job showing your readers that you’re as much of a Coffee expert as you are a Oenophile.

  41. “and in the afternoons I love a good cappuccino”

    I think more Europeans are offended that you’re drinking cappuccinos in the afternoon…;)

  42. There is no coffee culture in Europe! The only bit that’s there is brought over by Aussies and Kiwis.
    Although the barista / locally roasted trend is (thankfully) infiltrating major cities.

  43. I have the same frustration! I’m based in Brussels, and there are probably 5 machine-drip coffee places for every one with an actual barista! I find in Italy, however, the odds are in the barista’s favour.

  44. I think the picture with the “50 Shades” book is an old one as Ben read it quite a while ago if memory serves me. Unless perhaps he returns to it regularly for refreshers. 😉

  45. Cappuccino in the afternoon?! Ay ay ay. It is very firmly a morning drink! Interestingly here in England in certain circles coffee at all in the afternoon is a no-go. Likewise I was once admonished by an elderly lady at a tennis club for requesting tea in the morning rather than coffee.

  46. > in the afternoons I love a good cappuccino

    As any Italian will tell you, you couldn’t have chosen a more truthful title for this post.

  47. We obviously don’t travel in similar style . I have drank most any excuse for coffee and sometimes been glad to have it . One time after a week with no coffee available I found some coffee in a small village market and it was great . Instant coffee in a plastic bag with a straw to drink with but , it was the best coffee in a week . Another time on a solo canoe trip I would go to sleep looking forward to the coffee I would make in the morning with my little butane stove .

  48. I have a question how has coffee culture changed in the past two years in Europe? Doing a research paper and just want some real opinions from people who have traveled abroad! Thanks!

  49. Infamisslady:

    Europe is too generic a term, depends a lot on the country. You can’t compare Italy to Germany and generalize them. I moved to Switzerland about 18 month ago and here its closest to a mix between both. Europe has 51 countries, 28 of them being in the European Union. So not sure I would do a research paper on ‘European coffee culture’ :-).

    I actually disagree with Lucky on the fully automatic machines, I work for a company that has sells both and you will have a hard time knowing the difference in a blind test with the fully automatic blowing an average or bad barista out of the water. A lot depends on the coffee beans and your taste as well (you like acidity in coffee or not etc.).

    You have to define culture now, it this the art of making coffee vs the actual taste? I do agree that sitting at a bar in Italy and watching the barista prepare your espresso while you relax and people watch is a very relaxing and nice experience compared to being in a hurry and get a coffee to go from a fully automatic.

    I travel a lot private and for business and need my coffee fix especially with jet lag a therefore got used to accepting a wide variety as long as it wakes me up.

  50. I am Brazilian and I have always heared that the best coffees from Brazil are sell to other countries (the best restaurants in Brazil usually uses italian brands, Like Lavazza or Illy). I ve lived one year in Germamy , and I found the German ( as well as the Danish coffee i tried on my there days to Denmark) too week. In other european countries I found very good the coffee (notabily espresso), but mosly were from Italian brands. In Germany, later , I discovered Tchibo, and I found also very good, but was the only German brand I used to buy. I also notice that few places in Germany (compares to other european countries) use to have italian brand coffees, usually it was just in Italian places.

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