On Specialty Coffee in Europe

By Andra Vlaicu

Europe is quite a unique region of the world, totaling 51 independent countries. Some of the most popular travel destinations on this tiny continent are France, with its capital Paris, closely followed by Spain, Italy, United Kingdom, and Germany. It should come as no surprise that coffee in Europe is as diverse as its 51 states, and it is fascinating to see how socio-cultural and geographical aspects of our lives have a huge impact on our relationship with our eating and drinking habits.

Coffee is becoming more and more an expression of our identity, the way we choose to live our lives, and the impact we want to leave behind. You’ll notice, as you continue reading, there’s quite an interesting divide between drinking out (coffee shops) vs. drinking in (coffee or espresso prepared at home), as the habit of drinking coffee strongly reflects our lifestyle.

In France, for example, the general public’s understanding of coffee could be compared to the one they have of wine, says Ludovic Maillard, the quality and training manager at Maison P. Jobin, France. Specialty coffee is something nice to have, like a glass of wine. Although, there is a clear upward trend in home consumption of coffee in the form of pods and capsules. Maillard notes that the most popular brewing methods seem to be filter and espresso, and the quality has improved significantly in the last five years.

The neighboring countries have a bit of a different take on this. We talked to Peter Muschiol, independent consultant and German Chapter National Coordinator, and Karlheinz Rieser, Berlin-based roaster. Coffee is one of the country’s most-consumed beverages, and it is enjoyed mainly at home as filter coffee. However, the popularity of filter coffee has decreased slightly in recent years as the preference for single-serve pods and capsules increased. Though more expensive than filter coffee, these single-serve machines are preferred because of the brew-on-demand aspect and the ability to reduce coffee wastage. In Germany, coffee is a breakfast as well as an afternoon beverage, and with more young people getting into the habit of consuming coffee, there’s an array of coffee shops and coffee places that have opened in the last few years to serve this need. We can also point to a revival of filter/drip coffee in coffee shops, an aspect noticeable in some other European countries as well.

Daniel Hofstetter, the communications coordinator for the Swiss Chapter, tells us that people in Switzerland acknowledge the fact that there are dedicated coffee shops with professional baristas, but the majority are lacking an understanding of what defines specialty coffee and the average coffee drinker’s palate is not very sophisticated. Despite this, coffee is very popular in the morning, after lunch, and as a pick-me-up in the afternoon— and the country registers a high per capita consumption. Young people have started to drink espresso-based beverages, and coffee is slowly becoming more of a scene, but he concludes that there’s still a long way to go in defining specialty coffee in the minds of consumers.

Spain, on the other hand, ranks espresso high on its interest list. As Elisabet Sereno—owner of Coffee People Barcelona and coffee trainer— puts it, “In general the public knows very little about specialty coffee, as most consumers still drink mainstream coffee blends. There’s a 50/50 share of home and out-of-home in coffee consumption.” What’s more, 60% of households are brewing coffee with their Moka or espresso pots, and around 35% are using domestic espresso machines, whilst out-of-home coffee is brewed mostly as espresso. This is a result of Spain’s closeness to Italian coffee culture. Adults are the heaviest coffee drinkers, followed by elders, who have typically switched to decaf. In recent years, there has been an uprising in coffee shops serving specialty coffee. But as Jordi Mestre—Owner at Nomad Coffee, Spain— mentions that it is hard to change people’s taste all of a sudden, when they’re used to torrefacto (coffee roasted with sugar added)—we must be patient and understand that change takes time.

“Italy shows a lot of interest in specialty coffee, but the industry does not seem to respond,” observes Alberto Polojac, owner of the green coffee importing company Imperator Coffee. He justifies this by mentioning the fact that Italy is a very traditional market, and the generational shift has not yet been made everywhere—there’s a lot of ‘old school’ people still in business. Coffee is the most popular beverage after water, he jokes. Of course, there’s a difference in consumption from north, where’s quite low, and south, where it’s higher. Polojac puts this on account of quality, and since many cafes are not investing in quality and people can have the same average quality from pods or capsules, but for a different price, they will choose the latter. The exception to this rule is the ‘Italian morning rush,’ from 7:00 to 9:30 am, in which cafes are the place to go for caffeine intake. Moreover, he says, it’s obvious and normal for the new things to be embraced by the youngsters, and as coffee is becoming less and less traditional, there’s an acceptance of something other than espresso when it comes to coffee, like filter coffees.

South-Eastern Europe is witnessing dynamic coffee scenes, with Greece, Romania, and Turkey seeing a lot happening. What makes this region, as well as the Balkans, so interesting, is the really strong connection of coffee to tradition and culture. Here, you have a really strong cezve/ ibrik tradition in tandem with the third wave coffee scene. In some countries, specialty coffee shops embrace this traditional way of brewing coffee and are trying to raise the standards in the coffee industry by raising the brewing standards of this amazing beverage. Greece has had two World Cezve/ Ibrik champions, Turkey has had two as well, and Romania and Ukraine are closely following. The interesting thing here is the fact that coffee is deeply rooted as a ritual in the daily consumption habits, and it’s not your usual pick- me-up. You greet guests with coffee, you meet with friends over coffee, you debate, create, make decisions over coffee.

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In Greece, Athens has a good comprehension of specialty coffee, but most people think that it’s just special coffee, Konstantinos Konstantinopoulous—CEO of Coffee Island, Greece—says. Moreover, he says people seem to have a vivid interest in learning about the characteristics of coffee, especially about the country of origin, so they become more critical when it comes to what should be in their cup. Take-away has grown a lot in recent years, due to a hectic and busy lifestyle, and is sometimes preferred to staying in a coffee shop and enjoying a drink. Apparently, age determines  coffee consumption. In Greece, 63% of adults in the 25-39 age demographic, report that they drink coffee every day. In particular, people of older age prefer the traditional “Greek Coffee,” reminiscent of their predecessors, so it’s difficult to approach the younger audiences. On the other hand, instant coffee—for the past decade— is preferred by young people. Espresso is a top winner, counting 65% of daily consumption and, last but not least, filter coffee is a rising star of specialty brew methods and is gaining market shares.

Northern Europe is experiencing a shift in coffee consumption, and black is back. Nordic countries register the highest per capita coffee consumption on the continent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s high quality coffee. Johan Damgaard—Captain, Coffee roaster & Tea Merchant at JOHAN & NYSTRÖM, Sweden— says the general public’s understanding of coffee is very low, despite being one of the most popular beverages in the country. Coffee chains are rapidly growing, whilst the independent ones are developing quite slow. But the Swedes drink coffee everywhere, everyone serves coffee. Similar to other countries mentioned above, Sweden makes no exception: specialty coffee is consumed by young people, 20-45 years old. There’s a noticeable increase when it comes to specialty, and drip coffee is back in style, he says: ‘ten years ago we were a latte country, now we can notice a decrease of milk in the coffee cup.’

As you can see, there’s an obvious connection between ‘specialty’ and ‘third wave’ coffee, which is defined as a movement that regards coffee as a craft, rather than a commodity. Third-wave coffee shops serve above-average coffee, most of it roasted locally by an artisan roaster, sourced as ethically as means afford, in beautiful colored cups. Despite the diversity and complexity of the European coffee scene, there are underlying similarities that have appeared in all conversations. Firstly, there has been a clear increase in quality in most European countries. Secondly, due to the rising popularity of coffee as a craft, being a ‘barista’ or ‘roaster’ is gaining notoriety as being a proper job, and people take the pursuits seriously and invest in their coffee education—hence the quality increase. But, we still have a long way to go.

12801581_1047777008614494_3337284095616249714_nAndra Vlaicu creates, develops, and coordinates communications for the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), including social media, digital campaigns, and PR campaigns, as well as identifying and researching coffee stories.