Turkish Coffee: from Past to Present

A cup of coffee is remembered for 40 years and holds a thousand year history

Coffee began its journey almost 1,000 years ago in Ethiopia. The legend says that Kaldi, an Ethiopian goatherd, one day noticed that his goats were dancing with joy all night long after eating the fruits of a certain type of shrub. He tried a few himself and shortly afterwards joined his herd’s energetic dance.

We do not know how accurate the goatherd’s legend is, but we are sure that coffee was a popular beverage amongst the monks of the region as a stimulator during their night-long practices. For centuries coffee beans were roasted in the sun of the Arab Peninsula and consumed as a hot drink.

It is believed that the people of the Ottoman Empire had their first acquaintance with coffee during their pilgrimage journeys to the holy lands. When the Ottomans conquered Egypt and Yemen in the early 16th century, coffee became a national drink of the Ottomans. The first coffeehouse was opened in the Tahtakale district of Istanbul by two Arabs, Hakem from Aleppo and Şems from Damascus, in 1554. It was the time of Suleiman the Magnificant. The grinding, roasting temperature, brewing method and presentation style used in the first coffee houses of Istanbul gave Turkish coffee its special characteristics.

Turkish coffee

Turkish coffee has been the most authentic and popular way of enjoying coffee for hundreds of millions of people living in Northeast Africa, the Arab Peninsula and Asia Minor. Coffee began spreading all over the world from this region in the 16th century. Turkish coffee is different from the other types of coffee in many ways. Turkish coffee’s distinction starts with the grinding and goes through the whole process until after it is consumed. Turkish coffee is brewed from the finest ground coffee and without filtration during the process. To enjoy Turkish coffee at its best, one coffee bean is cut into 15,000 to 35,000 pieces, whereas one coffee bean is usually cut into 3,500 pieces for standard espresso. In the traditional way, Turkish coffee is brewed slowly in tiny coffee pots made of copper (called "cezve") and poured manually into the coffee cups (called "fincan"), which are produced specifically for the purpose and decorated with ornaments. Water and sweets, such as dried fruits and Turkish delight, accompany Turkish coffee when served. As there is no filtration of coffee during the brewing process, you should wait for a few minutes before drinking Turkish coffee while the coffee grounds settle at the bottom of the cup. Turkish coffee is a perfect way to socialise; drinking Turkish coffee is a ritual enjoyed best in company and sometimes followed by fortune telling. As the poet says, "Not the coffee, nor the coffeehouse is the longing of the soul. A friend is what the soul longs for, coffee is just the excuse".

Ottoman era

Coffee used to be imported to the Empire through a specialist customs house located in today’s Tahtakale district of Istanbul. In the early days there were a lot of debates among the Empire’s clergy about coffee’s stimulatory effects on people, hence its importation and consumption were banned from time to time. However, the government could not resist the temptation of the tax income as well as the heavenly taste of the coffee bean for long. The coffeehouses proliferated in Istanbul and throughout the Empire afterwards.

Coffee beans were roasted on an industrial scale in places called “Tahmishane” in the early days. These establishments had huge furnaces and mortars for the roasting and grinding of coffee in bulk quantities and employed hundreds of people. After being processed, ground coffee used to be distributed to the coffee houses in Istanbul and throughout the empire.  

A permanent staff of 40 coffee masters employed the utmost care when serving Turkish Coffee to the Sultan in his magnificent chambers. In the following years, Turkish coffee flourished in the mysterious and magical atmosphere of Istanbul where it became the drink we know today.

“Kahvaltı”, the Turkish word for breakfast, was derived from “kahve-altı”, which meant pre-coffee. "Kahverengi", which is translated as "coffee color", means "brown" in Turkish.

Coffee maintained its status as the national drink of Ottomans for centuries. In the turn of the 20th century however, as the empire was in decline and had lost its last territories where coffee was grown, it became a luxury and was soon taken over by tea. Although coffee was still an indispensable part of certain occasions, such as when a boy’s parents visited a girl’s family to ask for her hand or hosted an important guest, it took almost 100 years for the Turks to remember this old friend and begin to accept it to their daily lives again. 

Giving light to minds

Accepted all over the world as part of Turkish culture, Turkish coffee has remained a popular Turkish drink and has been the source of inspiration to many artists. It later spread from Ottoman lands to North Africa, the Middle East, Europe and from there to America. Coffee was introduced to Venice in 1615, Marseille in 1644, London in 1654 and Paris in 1669. From Balzac to Beethoven, many renowned figures fuelled themselves with this type of coffee during the long hours of work for their most impressive pieces and accomplishments.

The roots of today’s Lloyd’s of London, a specialist market for insurers, can be traced to 1688, when Lloyd’s Coffee House was opened in Tower Street, London. The establishment became a popular place for sailors, merchants, and ship owners in a short time. Ship owners used to come to Lloyd’s coffeehouse to find brokers who would get the insurance policy underwritten by wealthy merchants. The modern Lloyd’s was born when they moved to the Royal Exchange in 1774.

Similarly, and interestingly enough, The New York Stock Exchange has its roots in a coffeehouse too. In 1792, The Tontine Coffee House became a meeting place to a group of stockbrokers who were bound to trade only with each other by the creation of the Buttonwood Agreement. This establishment evolved to become The New York Stock Exchange in time.

A rich tradition, a rich flavour!

Turkish coffee is made from the world’s most finely ground coffee grains and brewed in a coffee pot over hot flames. The crema of Turkish coffee is coveted by drinkers and should be served to everyone in equal measure. Well-brewed Turkish coffee with ample crema is known as “okkalı” coffee which means ‘rich’ coffee.

It is as much a joy to experience the moment as it is to sip the coffee. Turkish coffee is most often served up on trays of elaborate copper and silver, which along with the additional aesthetic of the delicate and elegant cups, transports its air of authenticity into the present day. It is accompanied by a glass of water and sometimes a piece of Turkish delight or chocolate.

The water is to be drunk beforehand in order to clean out the palate in readiness for the coffee so that the drinker can appreciate its full flavour.

When drinking of Turkish coffee is finished, the cup is turned upside down onto the saucer and left to cool. Sometimes a coin may be placed on top to make the cup cool faster. When the coffee cup is cool enough, someone other than the person who drank the coffee opens the cup and starts interpreting the shapes made by the grounds left in the cup.

The elaborate motifs and images on the coffee cups reveal the Turkish cultural tradition of exquisite ornamentation. ‘Turkish Coffee and its Tradition’ has earned a place on the UNESCO list of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013’.

Turkish coffee meets with modern technology

Despite its long history and huge fan base, Turkish coffee could not become a globally available beverage, like many other types of coffees such as instant coffee or espresso, primarily due to the lack of technology that would make it accessible easier. Espresso, for example, has been around for only about a hundred and fifty years, however, it is now a multi-billion dollar business worldwide, thanks to the wide range of machines that enable people to enjoy espresso anytime and anywhere.

Some Turkish appliance companies have intensified their efforts in this area in the recent years. The latest development in this field is “Okka”, the automatic Turkish coffee machine from Arzum Electrical, who are one of the largest suppliers of small electrical appliance suppliers in and out of Turkey. For the first time in the history of Turkish coffee, the Okka machine brews Turkish coffee and once ready, pours it directly into the cups automatically, making access to Turkish coffee easier at home, or in a restaurant or an office.