“You can tell when you have crossed the frontier into Germany because of the badness of the coffee.”
– Edward VII (1841-1910, son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert)*
I’m a devoted coffee drinker. I drink it wherever I am, especially in Europe. I’ve had coffee in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and even Slovenia. The Germans always rave about their coffee, but I think German coffee is highly overrated. There, I’ve said it. Now here’s why I say it.
First, there is no such thing as “German coffee.” Coffee trees don’t really flourish in northern Europe. All that Dallmayr, Hag, Jacobs and Tchibo coffee gets to Germany via Bremen, Hamburg and other European ports. That’s no different than the rest of Europe. Other than the type of bean, the main difference is the roast. (The brewing methods are pretty similar all across Europe.) The beans are usually Arabica, so that leaves the roast. And I think the roast is the problem.
A “German coffee” is a type of cocktail made with Kirschwasser, coffee and whipped cream. That’s definitely not what we’re talking about here!
Germans generally like milder flavors. They really aren’t into spicy or pungent. That’s why “Mexican” food in Germany is not even close to Mexican. Foreign foods (Chinese, Indian, even Italian) get toned down for German taste buds.
I like what is generally called a “regular” cup of coffee, what the Italians and Mexicans call an “americano” – not a fancy espresso, cappuccino, macchiato or mocha (although I also enjoy those once in a while). I just want a good steaming, aromatic cup of coffee. With a little cream, no sugar. The problem I have in Germany is the mild roast that is so common there. I really prefer a darker roast, at least a Vienna or French roast. Often a little stronger Italian roast. The German roasts are too mild for me. I need something with a bit more punch.
I’m not sure where the “German” roast falls, but it is definitely milder than a French, Austrian (Vienna) or Italian roast. Here are the roast levels (with German names for some):
195 °C (383 °F) Cinnamon/Light Roast (Zimt-Röstung)
205 °C (401 °F) New England Roast
210 °C (410 °F) American/Moderate Roast (amerikanische Röstung, Frühstücksröstung)
220 °C (428 °F) City Roast (German Roast?)
225 °C (437 °F) Full City Roast
230 °C (446 °F) Strong/Vienna Roast (helle französische Röstung, Wiener Röstung)
240 °C (464 °F) Double/French Roast (Continental-Röstung, französische Röstung)
245 °C (473 °F) Italian/Espresso Roast (Espresso-Röstung)**
250 °C (482 °F) Spanish Roast (Dark French, Neapolitan; some call it “burnt”)
A lot of northern Germans are tea drinkers. I enjoy a good cup of tea from time to time (usually when I’m eating Asian), but I much prefer coffee. When I was living in Berlin I made many attempts to find a decent brand of coffee that I could turn into a tasty home brew. I tried all the German brands: Dallmayr, EduScho, Hag, Jacobs, Nescafé, Tchibo, etc., but never really found one that said, “I’m the one!”
Partly, that’s due to the German coffee oligopoly, in which six firms control 85 percent of the coffee market. All the major coffee roasters and distributors are concentrated in Bremen and Hamburg – where all the imported green coffee beans arrive. Coffee that isn’t roasted and packaged there is then sent to Berlin and other cities with roasting facilities. And the roast they sell is usually the mild German one.
Other than going to a Starbucks, a McCafé (780+ in Germany, almost five times the number of Starbucks!) or a good Greek or Italian restaurant in Germany, the best cup of coffee I had in Berlin was from a friend who brews his coffee one cup at a time using the Turkish (he called it Russian) method. It can’t be simpler. Put ground coffee in a coffee cup and pour in water that is close to boiling temperature. Let it brew while the grounds settle to the bottom of the cup. Drink. (Wimps filter the grounds out first. Real men just drink it, grounds and all.) It’s sort of like French-press coffee without the press.
I had a French press when I was living in Berlin. I also had a normal German drip-brew coffee machine that uses the coffee filters invented by Melitta Bentz (a German Hausfrau from Dresden) in 1908. Yes, any serious coffee drinker knows that it’s almost impossible to reproduce the kind of coffee that comes out of a $7500 professional pressure-brewer, but I just wanted a good cup of coffee that equaled what I could make back in the USA.
There was a time when it was almost impossible to get a good cup of coffee in the United States until Starbucks dramatically changed the coffee landscape – and Americans finally realized what they had been missing. But the same thing has now happened in Germany! Today you can find a Starbucks on almost any corner in any larger German city. Starbucks opened its first German stores (in Berlin) in 2002. There are now 167 Starbucks all across Germany, employing nearly 130,000 people. (Austria has 12 Starbucks, all in Vienna; Switzerland has 52, almost half of which are in Zurich; 806 in the UK.) Starbucks is now located in over 60 countries around the globe. But the coffee found on German grocery store shelves is still the same wimpy stuff it’s always been. I have tried and tried to find a package of coffee in Germany that had a roast level beyond “mild.” Ground or whole bean. Nichts. Zip.
When I was in Berlin (2007/2008), I just missed the new single-cup espresso-like coffee-machine revolution that really began to catch on around 2010. In the US, my wife and I now have a Tassimo machine (by Bosch) that makes wonderful coffee of all kinds. (Other brands include Keurig, Nespresso and Starbucks’ own Verismo.) For about $100 and up, you can get one of these single-cup brewers that make coffee that comes close to that brewed by the much more expensive pro machines. But I’ve only tried the American coffee discs for these machines, not the German ones.
The espresso machine is an Italian invention. Beginning in 1884, various Italians, from Moriondo to Bezzera to Pavoni, tinkered with these machines on into the early 1900s. Espresso spread all over the globe, even to coffee wastelands like the UK and the US. But in the US, lattes and cappuccinos were still a bit exotic, with a hippy air about them – and you couldn’t make it at home. Regular coffee didn’t seem to benefit until the Starbucks revolution in the 1990s. Before that, most Americans had never even heard of a macchiato (pronounced MAK-ee-ah-toe), much less tasted one.
The Italians also brought their good coffee to Germany, but for normal coffee (not espresso) Germans still seem to prefer a lighter roast than the dark roast preferred in southern Italy. Coffee in Italy, no problem. Coffee in Germany, that’s a problem.
To end on a lighter (milder) note, I turn to Bach:
„Ei! wie schmeckt der Coffee*** süße, lieblicher als tausend Küsse, milder als Muskatenwein.”
“Ah! How sweet coffee tastes! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, milder than muscatel wine!”
– A line from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Coffee Cantata” (“Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht” (BWV 211), ca. 1735)
*Edward VII also said: “I believe the emperor of Germany hates me” (regarding his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany)
**Technically, “espresso” is not a roast, but many people refer to this level as “espresso roast” anyway. There is no “official” roast scale, so scales can differ, but the steps and temperature increments are the key. Roasting is more of an art than a science.
***”Coffee” was the common German spelling until “Kaffee” later in the 1800s.
Also see this interesting coffee roasting site with photos.