Around the world, people have been coming together over cups of coffee. The beans speak of culture, the aroma heightens the senses, and the sipping together makes for good friends and good business.
— By John Jacobs
You stagger to the kitchen early in the morning to grab that first cup of coffee before getting ready for work, drinking it alone, or sharing time with a partner or roommate during breakfast. At work, the breakroom coffee pot is always kept filled, and co-workers network with a cup of coffee in hand during breaks. On the other side of the world, Ethiopians gather together to drink coffee to talk about life and bond. In Turkey, people drink their coffee and then tell their fortunes in the leftover coffee grounds.
Around the world, coffee is not just a delicious, warming, eye-opening liquid. It is a relationship builder, a people bonder, a cultural tradition, and an element in rituals. It is a drink that crosses borders and is familiar to people of most cultures, unlike anything else.
Sharing, Blessings and Good Fortune
It makes sense to start the cultural aspect of coffee by explaining the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The ceremony involves roasting and grinding (by hand) coffee beans and making strong boiled coffee in a special vessel similar to the ones used to make Turkish coffee. The two- to three-hour ceremony is a social event for family members or when friends visit. Even the way the coffee is poured matters with the cups filled without breaking the coffee stream, and the oldest guest is often served first as a sign of respect. The first cup called “abol” is the welcoming and starts the transformation of the spirit. The second cup called “tona” continues the spiritual transformation. The third cup called “baraka” is a blessing.
Along the coast of Kenya, you can drink “kahawa chungu” coffee. This traditional drink of bitter coffee is steeped in history, going back to the days when Arab and Portuguese traders carried spices and minerals. When Arab trade ships arrived, the workers (men) would end a hard day of labour by sitting on low benches and talking while drinking the concentrated black coffee. It is brewed over a charcoal stove in brass kettles. Today, men and women of all ages share stories and events over kahawa chunga or kahawa tamu (diluted version with sugar).
In Turkey, coffee brings people together. Like Ethiopians, Turks have traditional ways of making coffee, and there are rituals still passed from one generation to another. Turkish coffee is made with finely ground coffee beans and water, and often sugar, brought to a boil. The traditional ways to serve Turkish coffee is in small porcelain cups called “kahve finjani.” In traditional coffee houses around the country, people socialize while drinking the strong coffee known as the “milk of chess players and thinkers.” The cups of coffee that have sediment in the bottom can be turned upside to let the leaves/sediment fall out so a coffee reading can be done by fortune-tellers.
Warm and Cold Climates
Speaking of coffee houses, the Cubans also like nothing better than sitting in a café, often at outside tables, and drinking strong dark-roast espresso. Sometimes they buy coffee at a window and sip it while standing on the sidewalk. The espresso is brewed with a light-brown cane sugar called demerara and is very sweet. There is not a ritual per se, but drinking coffee with others has cultural importance. Cubans believe in spending quality time with friends and family in the home or a café, sharing a strong cup of café cubano that is slowly sipped. They do not grab a cup of coffee and run out the door.
Though Sweden does not usually come to mind when discussing coffee cultures, the country has a "fika" culture that puts coffee and the cinnamon bun in a central role. Swedes enjoy relaxing with family, friends or co-workers at any time of the day. Fika is a state of mind or an attitude that is an important concept in Sweden. Swedes make time for fika every day, which is time spent socializing with others. It is a cultural bonding ritual taking place while sipping a classic black drip or boiled coffee, cappuccino or kaffe latte.
In Brazil, coffee is a cultural icon with a long history. It part of everyday life, with drinking coffee with others a way to socialize in a relaxed manner. The “cafézinho” sounds like an espresso, but it is not made like an espresso. An espresso is made by forcing hot water via high pressure through finely ground compacted coffee. A cafézinho is made by boiling a small amount of water and sugar and then adding finely ground coffee. The coffee is then poured through a strainer into the small cups. It is pure black coffee that is intense and very sweet and drunk throughout the day. Brazilians keep their coffee drinks strong and simple and avoid elaborate drinks like a frappuccino. It is served in very small cups. The first coffee plant came to Brazil from Ethiopia, carried by settlers in the early 1700s.
Anyway you Like it
In the United States, coffee is made in a variety of ways, but it is as much a part of the social culture as the other countries just mentioned. Coffee shops seem like they are on every corner, serving the espresso, latte, cappuccino, frappuccino, macchiato, mocha, iced coffee, black coffee, coffee with milk (Café Americano), flavoured coffees, coffee with flavoured syrups, seasonal coffees, and on and on the list goes. Americans consume more than 400 million cups every day. The American coffee culture says to drink your coffee however you like it. You can drink it alone, in your car, in a restaurant or at a café. It definitely also has a social aspect. Walk into any coffee shop and find university students doing schoolwork together, retired friends chatting, shoppers and bicycle club members who stop to rest and visit, and people just enjoying the atmosphere of camaraderie.
Coffee is like no other drink. It is almost universally drunk, adaptable, embedded in global cultures, and served in endless ways. Next time you drink a cup of coffee, think of everything it represents. It is a drink made for socializing and has brought people together through the centuries.
When you travel, one of the first questions to ask is, "May I have a traditional coffee?" Then get ready to socialize with the locals.