Long before cortados, cold brew, and flat whites began appearing on cafe menus, the Turkish were brewing kahve by grinding and boiling coffee beans. It’s the oldest method of staying caffeinated in the world, and while you don’t often see it at your local coffee shop (unless your local coffee shop doubles as a Middle Eastern restaurant), Turgay Yildizli is trying to change that. The 2013 World Cezve Ibrik champion has turned his passion for quality beans into a side gig that has him teaching coffee connoisseurs from places as far flung as Thailand how to make a proper cup of Turkish coffee. He talked to Extra Crispy about the ancient brewing method and why any serious coffee lover should give it a shot.
Extra Crispy: What does it mean to be a World Cezve Ibrik champion?
Turgay Yildizli: It’s like a bartender competition, but the idea is to promote and educate baristas, and the specialty grade, high-quality coffee. They prefer to call it cezve ibrik because the well-known name is Turkish coffee, but in Greece they call it Greek coffee, in Russia sometimes they call it cezve, and sometimes in the Middle East they call it ibrik or Arabic, Turkish coffee. In Yugoslavia they call it Bosnian coffee. It has different names.
But it’s all the same coffee?
Same method. Probably around the 16th century the Ottomans learned from Yemen Arabs how to brew the coffee, and then it became popular in Istanbul palaces. Then European travelers learned from the Turks how to make Turkish coffee. First, [the Turkish would] boil the water, and then they would add the powder. They would use mortar and pestle, and then drink all day long because, you know, there's no alcohol. It's forbidden for Muslims, so [coffee] was very popular in the region.
What are the main components of making Turkish coffee today?
The basic brewing method, and the oldest, most primitive, is you need coffee and water and equipment. A cezve is a Turkish coffee pot. It's a specially designed pot with a long handle. You need coffee, water, this coffee pot, and a heat source—this can be gas, electrical, charcoal. So you boil the coffee with the water, and you can add any ingredients. Now, mostly everybody adds sugar in Turkey, but in the Middle East they add some spices like cinnamon and cardamom. In this region, generally, they use very low-quality commercial grade coffee. That coffee has some defects and bad taste and no natural flavors. Also, [improper] brewing methods create over extraction and bitterness, so [people in Turkey] add extra sugar to balance that bitterness. But when you use high quality, well developed, well-roasted coffee, you don’t need to add sugar or other ingredients. Coffee has already a very natural sweetness, if well-roasted, and characteristic natural flavors.
What are the biggest misconceptions about Turkish coffee? I know many people think that it’s very bitter, but you’re saying that can be avoided by using high-quality beans?
There are two problems with Turkish coffee: coffee and water quality, and improper brewing methods. Everybody learns this method from their parents, from grandfather, grandmother and then they boil the coffee three times so that it creates over extraction and bitterness. They don’t use fresh coffee, they use pre-ground coffee, stale coffee, and everybody expects nice, thick foam, so to create extra foam they boil three times.
There's a lot of scientific research for filtered coffee or espresso coffee, but not a lot of research about Turkish coffee. Also there are standards for filtered coffee. So I tried to apply that information to this matter. It's difficult to use all that information because the biggest difference between Turkish coffee and other methods is filtration. We don't filter the coffee. We brew and pour into the cup, so extraction is continuing, and the taste is changing. I try to prevent that over-extraction with coffee selection, coffee roasting, equipment, and brewing technique. All the variables are very important for brewing pleasant coffee.
Can you describe the ritual of drinking Turkish coffee?
The ritual way is serving it with water and something sweet. It is a very old tradition. Three or four hundred years ago, before the discovery of sugar, they were using dried fruit. Now we have Turkish delight, which we call lokum, which became a very popular sweet. But the idea is water to clean your palate, drink coffee to get the flavors, then you eat something sweet to balance.
As you travel to teach people about Turkish coffee, what are their reactions?
Two and a half years ago, no one knew specialty coffee. Even my friends in Turkey laughed at me saying, "What is specialty coffee? That is impossible!" OK. It's possible because when I share the coffee with coffee professionals, especially from the U.S., they're shocked. They're surprised because they don't expect that kind of taste, because they probably have some bad experience, and nobody wants to play around with the Turkish coffee method. But in this region—in Turkey, in Greece—it's getting popular because of specialty coffee shops. I'm consulting with a company in Turkey so they can serve good quality coffee. I pick the green coffee beans for them, and I decide the roast profile. Also, I design equipment and workflow for their coffee shops and restaurants. Social media helps, and it's like the new item I think for coffee shop menus. Greek, Middle Eastern, North African, Balkan, Russian, or Ukrainian [people] have an interesting connection to this method from their family and daily life. It may not be the next thing, but it can be a new item for coffee shop menus.
So why should someone start making Turkish coffee?
Because of the ritual. I prefer this manual method because you have full control, and the difference is there's no filtration, so in the cup, the extraction is continuing. Also, the taste is changing. It's changing so after, for example, 20 minutes, you can feel the defects in the cup. It’s easier to feel the defects in the cup, so it affects your buying decisions. Also lately, I'm talking with coffee professionals. They say espresso is very dense, and the method sometimes brings out one characteristic of the coffee—maybe the acidity, or maybe the sweetness, but sometimes, it depends on the barista, and it depends on the coffee and the machine. You can get very balanced coffee [with Turkish coffee]. Coffee should have a good aroma, a good flavor, a good sweetness and a nice body or texture, and overall, you need to describe the aromatics, flavors, acidity, sweetness, but at the same time, it should be balanced and pleasing in the cup. With Turkish coffee, the only difficult part is that when you brew the coffee it creates foam. The first sip holds coffee grounds, so that's what you taste. But after the second sip, it gets clear, smooth, and sweet.
What’s the ideal bean for Turkish coffee?
In [Turkey], they love Brazilian coffee. Commercial grade coffee is popular because of the price. That coffee has a very round, big, strong body and almost no acidity and sweetness. For that bitterness, people add sugar, to add sweetness to their coffee. But still, when you introduce a new coffee bean, everyone expects they can accept the acidity, but they are still looking for the texture. That big body texture is very important. For example, I'm used to bad Turkish coffee, but also I try very high-quality, expensive coffees. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. When I introduce the specialty Turkish coffee to a new or regular Turkish coffee drinker, I like to serve two coffees: coffee from Sulawesi and natural process Ethiopian coffee. There’s some sweetness, some extra body, but still some wonderful fruity notes.
If you have to go to a Starbucks , what’s your order?
[Laughs] I order tea. I always carry my equipment with me, so there’s no reason to go to Starbucks.