On a day trip from Berlin to Hamburg, while exploring Speicherstadt, a neighborhood of ornate brickwork and narrow canals, I was suddenly struck by the scent of roasting coffee. As a coffee devotee, I followed the scent, Pepé Le Pew-like, in search of a midday cup. Instead what I found was the Burg Coffee Museum and Roastery. On walking inside, fraternal-twin aromas of coffee-roasting and espresso-pulling washed over me like waves of machine-made fog on prom night—it was almost too much, but who could argue with the atmosphere? A loading dock doorway beside a display of Hamburg-related tote bags looked out onto the cobblestone street, a light breeze just stirring the burlap sacks for sale along the wall.
This is Hamburg? I thought to myself. I’d imagined a canalside Biergarten, catch-of-the-day fish specials, and a few dozen Pornokinos on the infamous Reeperbahn—all of which I did find—but a bean-to-cup coffee operation did not seem even a remote possibility.The truth is I wasn’t sure what to think of Hamburg, a city that doesn’t have much of a reputation in the US, beyond the fact that people from there are actually called Hamburgers. I’d heard only great things about the city, and most Berlin-dwelling Germans I talked to about my trip expressed earnest excitement—nothing like the “Why?” New Yorkers offer about a trip to any other US city. Hamburg, I was assured, is echt cool, but no one told me about the coffee.
Germans everywhere love coffee, so much so that some estimates claim annual coffee consumption outpaces that of both beer and water. In Berlin, coffee is most commonly available as espresso, and its default setting is as a sit-in drink, nursed alongside a rolled cigarette at a sidewalk café. Big coffee chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts in tourist-heavy areas are the only places to get recognizable “American” drip coffee, often listed as “filter coffee,” and a few cafés offer coffee zum mitnehmen! (to go) with the same prideful zeal of Brooklyn cafés hawking in-house cold-brew. Even so, to-go cups are rarely seen and often miniature, suitable for short espresso drinks and not much else.
Living in New York City, I’ve unwittingly internalized that famous John Updike line that “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” Falsely and solipsistically, I’d been thinking of Berlin as the “New York” of Germany—just as Paris is the New York of France and Amsterdam is the New York of the Netherlands, right?—and therefore at the absolute cultural acme that all New Yorkers believe New York to be. How could any city in Germany have a better anything than Berlin? It’s the biggest. Berlin has coffee, of course, and even coffee roasteries, but it has nothing on Hamburg.
The Speicherstadt Kaffeerösterei isn’t the only place to get a fresh, almost overwhelmingly roasty cup of coffee; it isn’t even the only roastery in the city. It is, however, the only one with a dedicated a museum, directly below its café. And it’s how, drinking what was easily the best cup of coffee I’ve had on the continent and in recent memory, I learned that Hamburg is the secret coffee capital of Germany.
Descending the stairs from the café, we walked in on a small gathering listening to a lecture in German. Not one to get stuck behind a docent in any language, I pushed through to the museum proper, a dark and tidily laid-out basement lined with coffee-related industrial machinery, coffee tins, advertisements, historical hand-crank coffee grinders, and comparative displays of coffee bean varietals. Wall panels described, in German and English, the history of coffee production and consumption globally, with an especial focus on the industrialization of Hamburg.
Coffee-drinking dates to at least the mid-15th century in Yemen, spreading to the rest of the Middle East and north Africa by the 16th century. Coffee consumption spread to Italy by way of its most important port city, Venice, and then on through Europe, and by the middle of the 17th century the Dutch East India company was importing coffee to Holland from Mocha, Yemen. Queen’s Lane Coffee Shop in Oxford, England, was established in 1654 and is still in operation today, and by the late 17th century coffee had reached as far into Europe as Austria and Poland.
British tastes veered toward tea around the 18th century—it was simpler to make, and cheaper to import given the empire’s presence in India—and Continental coffee culture has since been notably Italian-inflected. Many Germans today make coffee at home with stovetop moka espresso machines, which are mysterious beasts to the uninitiated. In college I spent a semester in Heidelberg, a small city in Germany’s southwest, but rather than adapt to local tastes I bought myself a cheap drip-coffee machine at Woolworth—I have measured out my life in coffee pots.
This time, I’ve made an effort: My French flatmate taught me how to use our stovetop moka to make espresso instead of the coffee-scented crude oil yielded by my first attempts. The moka is accompanied by a very squeaky hand-crank grinder that I initially took for twee kitchen decoration, making a 6 ounces of coffee an extremely involved alchemy. By the time I leave the apartment I’ve usually had my fill—two or three mokas’ worth—and rarely take in a sidewalk macchiato or doppio zum mitnehmen, but on the rare occasions I’ve found myself hankering for the 3 p.m. re-up, espresso really doesn’t hit the spot. Now, that disappointment awakens in me a yearning for the Kaffeestadt of my heart—Hamburg.
Today, Hamburg is the second-busiest port in Europe, after Rotterdam, and remains Germany’s gateway to the world in a literal way. It’s precisely this access to major shipping and trade routes that has made Hamburg—not Berlin, Munich, Cologne, or Frankfurt, the other four largest cities in the country—the coffee capital of Germany. Coffee culture in the Nordic port cities of Copenhagen, Helsinki, and Stockholm, which almost couldn’t be farther from coffee-producing regions of the globe, demonstrates this principle of global access. The Swedish even have a cultural concept, fika, that means “to have coffee,” much like the notion of tea time. (Fika is reportedly derived from “back slang” for coffee—kaffi.)
Not unlike my aforementioned Updike mindset, I’d assumed without quite realizing it that the perceived coolness of a city and the quality of its coffee might exist in direct proportion—no backwoods little one-stoplight town has pour-over at the doughnut shop, I can tell you. Hamburg had been described to me as kind of a posher Berlin—less graffiti, less drinking in the street in the middle of the day; in a sense, Berlin’s older sibling who kind of has their shit together. “Posher” wasn’t far off, but don’t let the dearth of slouched beanies and open containers fool you. When it comes to coffee, Hamburg is it.