The Museum of German History in Berlin contains exhibits dedicated to life in the German Democratic Republic—more commonly known as East Germany—including a grocery store display that includes several common household products that have become nostalgic tokens of life in the East. One such product is Mischkaffee, generously translated as “mixed coffee,” as in “mixed with other stuff,” a coffee product introduced in the late 1970s during a shortage now remembered as the East German Coffee Crisis. A spike in global coffee prices in 1976 led to the quadrupling of import costs, and giving way to a coffee shortage in the GDR. German coffee consumption was significant, then as now. In 2012 Germans drank an estimated 149 liters (nearly 40 gallons) of coffee per person per year; in the 1970s, East Germans spent almost twice as much on coffee annually as they did on shoes. Higher costs, concurrent with the global oil and energy crises of the 1970s, triggered a national coffee crisis in the communist country.
In response, the East German Politburo pulled cheaper coffee brands from the market and introduced Mischkaffee, which was at least 50 percent (cheap) coffee and 50 percent... other stuff. This other stuff falls under the lovely German term Kaffeeähnliches Getränk, or “coffee-like drinks”—substances similar in flavor and/or color to Bohnenkaffee, or “bean coffee.”
Coffee-like coffee substitutes comprise a rich variety of makeshift epicureanism, and in various combinations have include anything from malt, grains, chicory, or sugar beets to grape seeds, asparagus, carrots, lupins, almonds, and even potatoes. A variant name for Mischkaffee was Muckefuck, which may be a Germanization of the French mocca faux, but the term’s origins are not entirely clear. Such was the state and the mystery of the East German cup of coffee by the end of 1977.
Just as any habitual coffee drinker might, East Germans hated Mischkaffee, and considered it an affront to their rights as consumers. Additionally, one of the fillers commonly included in Mischkaffee was peameal, or ground pea flour, which thickened in hot water and clogged coffee filters. It’s estimated that in the years between 1975 and 1977, 20 to 25 percent of the coffee consumed in East Germany had been sent over by friends and relatives in West Germany.
By 1978 the global coffee market had relaxed significantly and coffee import prices fell, but supply problems remained within the GDR throughout the 1980s. The importance of coffee to Germans on both sides of the Iron Curtain can be seen as a uniting symbol of German identity (which of course didn’t become united again, symbolically or otherwise, until October 1990).
In the Museum of German History, Mischkaffee features as a relic of another kind of life entirely, as cartoonishly outdated as the avocado-green Trabant with a camping tent perched on top. Nostalgia for life in East Germany is called Ostalgia, and is generally seen as a bit misguided among people not old enough to remember it, not unlike millennial New Yorkers who long for the city’s bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s. Mischkaffee is no delicacy, and nothing to long for, but it’s a relic of a crisis few people remember. If anything, it’s one more reason to sit down and smell the real coffee.