The Viennese Coffee House Culture – what is behind this?

Rustling newspapers, soft murmurs and the scent of freshly brewed coffee. The Viennese coffee house is unique in its kind and known around the globe. Certain social customs and the characteristic equipment with marble tables, chairs made of dark wood, newspaper holders and chandeliers show the coffee house culture. Away from the traditional coffee house culture, the new, modern cafés celebrate different ways of making coffee.

The Viennese have turned coffee drinking into culture and elevated it to an attitude towards life – a feeling that visitors can feel in many of the traditional houses. All in all, there are over 830 coffee houses in Vienna, not counting the café bars. Even coffee chains like Starbucks could not harm this institution. Since Viennese coffee house culture plays an important historical and economic role, it has officially been part of UNESCO’s national immaterial cultural heritage since 2011. The description of the UNESCO Commission reads: “The tradition of Viennese coffee house culture dates back to the end of the 17th century. Coffee houses are a place where time and space are consumed, but only coffee is on the bill.

In the traditional coffee houses the atmosphere counts

The Viennese coffee house gives an insight into Viennese society. Different people come together to discuss politics, reflect on thoughts, browse through the wide selection of newspapers or just sit still and watch the hustle and bustle all around.

Café Landtmann

When you enter Café Landtmann, it seems as if time has stood still. The guests comfortably sit on dark wood chairs or on velvet covered benches. The view falls directly on historical inlays on the walls and mirrors from the 20’s. In a niche, directly next to the entrance there is a newspaper holder including all important newspapers. From the “Wien Heute“, “Salzburger Nachrichten” to the “Kleine Zeitung” nothing is missing. The tradition of free reading can be traced back to 1720, when newspapers were still handwritten.

While the guests stick their noses in newspapers to inform themselves about world events, they drink their espresso with whipped cream for hours. The traditional cafés are obviously not about coffee enjoyment, but about much more. The managing director of Café Landtmann Berndt Querfeld is well aware of this: “Our guests come to our coffee house primarily because of the unique atmosphere. Here the guests can sit in peace for hours, without any hectic rush.”  Among the guests are not only locals, but also many tourists and some celebrities such as Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler. To this day, the café has functioned as a central meeting place for celebrities from business and politics, not least due to its central location in the first district, opposite the town hall. 

The waiter in his tuxedo puts the melange on the table – half coffee, half milk with foam. It is served on a small silver tray with a glass of water. As in other traditional coffee houses, the silver tray protects the marble tables from coffee stains. One of many characteristics of the coffee house culture. Another characteristic is the typical interior, which can vary greatly from coffee house to coffee house. Everything is represented, from romantic plush or classic to clean.

Berndt Querfeld, Owner of Café Landtmann

In order to be able to maintain this, continuous investments are necessary. Berndt Querfeld, who represents the UNESCO World Heritage Site, takes a critical view of this: “The coffee house culture has been protected by UNESCO and is now worthy of support. We as entrepreneurs and owners should receive an economic advantage from it. These investment reserves can then be used for the maintenance of the cafés.” Although the managing director and the Café Landtmann are not badly off, the investments are nevertheless high, which in turn is reflected in the coffee price and makes this noticeable to the customer. 

In every traditional coffee house, the customer will pay around six euro per cup of coffee, which is quite expensive for an average coffee. Critical voices claim that coffee in traditional coffee houses is more like a broth, usually bitter, stale and inedible and is made with poorly cleaned coffee machines and water containing lime. At Café Landtmann, Berndt Querfeld wants to act against that: Here the coffee is prepared with seven different roasts and Italian roasts are used for Italian coffee variants such as cappuccino and latte macchiato. But his experiences showed guests are not interested in the origin and method of preparation of the coffee, but only enjoy the atmosphere.

The classic among the Viennese is the Wiener Melange. Half of this consists of coffee and half of milk. Due to internationalization and the standard embossing by Starbucks and Nespresso, the Viennese Melange is ordered and drunk less by the younger generation. A German saying says: “What the farmer doesn’t know he won’t eat”, and as a precaution, many young Viennese prefer to order a Cappuccino. Because here the guest knows what he will get thanks to Starbucks. That’s why Berndt Querfeld appeals with a smile on his face: “Save the Viennese Melange! Because that’s Vienna’s cultural asset.”

In modern coffee houses the focus is on coffee

But if you want to drink high-quality and good coffee, you should go to one of the modern coffee shops. In contrast to traditional coffee houses, coffee consumption takes place faster at bar tables or in a modern ambience and the coffee is tastier because modern coffee shops focus on the quality and preparation of the coffee. 

Coffee Bar Balthasar

The Tyrolean gastronome Otto Bayer opened his coffee bar Balthasar in 2014, in the up-and-coming District on Praterstrasse. Here, everything revolves around the origin and roasting of the coffee beans and the perfect preparation of the coffee. Attention is paid to fair trade and sustainability; taste is elevated to an art. The beans, for example, are from a trusted roastery in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, (Bavaria, Germany). “The way from the cultivation of the beans to the finished coffee cup should be transparent and comprehensible for me and my guests” Otto Bayer finds. This trend is called Third-Wave coffee culture. 

Because coffee house culture is not just coffee culture. In contrast to traditional coffee houses, Otto Bayer focuses on the quality of coffee “I want to bring good coffee to people. Good coffee isn’t expensive and it’s nice to make a positive contribution in the neighborhood.” He and his team demonstrate this passion with creations such as Cold Brew Coffee with blood orange juice on ice cubes, decorated with a sprig of thyme.

Owner Otto Bayer (left) with one of his regular guest (right)

Besides the quality, a gentler roasting is paid attention to. Coffee has more than 900 aromas, while wine contains only about 600 aromas. The more the coffee beans are roasted, the more the coffee will taste like caramel and chocolate. However, the fruitier notes are lost here. This makes the coffee one-dimensional and boring. 

And time does not stand still in the Balthasar coffee bar: The owner is constantly working on new ideas and ways to spread his passion for good coffee. A further development is his vision of a “lab”. Over the next few weeks, a kind of laboratory will be set up in the rear part of the café, where tastings, training sessions on coffee beans, roasts and preparations will take place. It is easy to bring good coffee closer to people, because he criticises “what is more terrible than a bad espresso after an excellent meal in an excellent restaurant? 

He is also critical when it comes to selecting coffee beans. In general coffee beans do only grow north and south of the equator – the so-called coffee belt. Here are regions with tropical and subtropical climate for demanding coffee plants. 

The industry only buys simple coffee, which can be purchased in large quantities and at low purchase prices. At the end of the day, this is reflected in the guest’s poor coffee enjoyment. Otto Bayer buys high-quality coffee beans in order to be able to offer his customers unique coffee enjoyment. With the special varieties, the annual harvest is sometimes only 60 kilos and pays 20-30 times the purchase price. But the investment is worth it. His regular guests have been coming to the Balthasar coffee bar for years and appreciate the quality and taste of the coffee.

Despite all the modernity, the coffee bar still has a traditional element: newspapers. Here, too, some newspapers with different political imprints, are displayed on the tables. “The guests have learned from the Viennese coffee house culture that they can read newspapers about their coffee”, Otto Bayer takes it calmly and with a smile on his face picks up “but at some point, I will abolish the newspapers – they spread too much chaos”.

Is modern better than traditional? 

Finally, traditional coffee houses and modern café bars in Vienna have a right to be there. They all contribute to the city’s economy and delight locals and tourists alike. Both models are well worth seeing and tasting. 

Those who want to linger for hours, have discussions or read a newspaper and who does not attach much importance to a good tasting coffee would be well served in a traditional coffee house.  But if you want to try something new and value good coffee enjoyment, you should try the creative coffee variants of modern café shops. They make an effort to offer their customers a tasty experience.