Germany and Coffee- Coffee Culture and History of German Coffee

Komm, lass uns einen Kaffee trinken“… words I’ve heard my whole life. Come on, let’s drink a coffee. Mornings before a big day, the middle of the afternoon on a shopping trip, or maybe just while sitting and chatting. Germany and coffee go hand in hand. Germans might actually drink more coffee than beer… they certainly import more coffee than any other country than the United States. Coffee has been an essential to German culture for hundreds of years! Weaving its way into the political and social scene almost from the beginnings. Today the average German drinks between 2.6 to 4 cups a day, that’s 160 liters of coffee each year!

So let’s brew ourselves a pot… and talk about Germany and coffee…

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germany and coffee


Germany and Coffee

Depending on your preferences, you either love or tolerate German coffee. Up until 10 years ago, generally when you bought coffee, you bought a bag of Dallmayr, Tschibo, or Jacobs MILD roast. (Unlike here in my California grocery store where there is a mind boggling array of strengths and flavors…). And, as a general rule, drip coffee through a filter was standard.
Thanks to single-serving pod machines and the influx of Starbucks, tastes are changing. Instead of sitting down and ordering a little Kännchen, today people are walking around with a Cappuccino in a go cup.

But thankfully, an old fashioned coffee… served with milk and sugar around the table with friends… is still very much “in style”.

germany and coffee


So let’s go back a bit.

Chaube (the original German word for Coffee is first mentioned by Augsburg doctor Leonard Rauwolf in 1582 (probably when he was ready for a break), but it wasn’t until 1669 that it became fashionable among the elite after “discovering” it in the French royal courts where it was called Cafe, and then it jumped to the German spelling Kaffee. From there it wasn’t long before coffee marketing took off. The first coffee houses popped up in Hamburg in 1677, in Leipzig around 1694, and finally in Berlin in 1721. And while the Ost Friesen (East Friesians) declared their loyalty for Tea, the rest of Germany embraced COFFEE!

Coffee houses were more than just places to get a caffeine fix. They were the gathering places for intellectuals, and somewhat dangerously in the eyes of the elite, a place for political discussion. But only men could drink coffee in public. (Sigh). Women had Kaffeekränzchen or “private coffee visits”, in the mornings or afternoons. Generally these were held in private homes, but occasionally in back rooms.

The popularity of coffee spread, even to the lower classes. By the 1780s, poor households were drinking coffee, in the form of soup, as a way to get through the day. A saucepan of coffee would sit on the stove, and bread dipped in the pot replaced gruel. Naturally, the poor weren’t always able to afford the best beans, so Ersatz coffee (replacement coffee) was made with chicory (which grows abundantly in Germany) or roasted grains to stretch the beans.

Frederick II and the Coffee Sniffers

Frederick William I of Prussia had already declared coffee to be a luxury good (along with tea, chocolate and sparkling wine), so everyone wanted to drink coffee. BUT, it’s one thing for intellectuals and political elite to sit around drinking coffee, (these are exactly the people they wanted thinking deep thoughts), but it was quite another thing for the peasants to enjoy a cup of Joe. And coffee became a political issue. After all, how could social order possibly be maintained if EVERYONE could drink coffee?

They called it the “coffee plague”. The idea that peasants would revel in this unhealthy and extravagant habit! (Why do I hear a similarity to one generation’s commenting on another’s Starbucks habit). Not only that! They would sweeten their coffee with expensive sugar! and worse, save all of the milk to use for themselves.

And since the landowners collected tax revenue from Beer and Wine, they were losing money! People were drinking coffee instead of beer!

His son, Frederick II (1720- 1785) came up with a solution that would not only put a stop to this outrageousness, it would refill the government’s coffers. He put restrictions on coffee imports, and imposed high taxes. Then he gave the government a monopoly on roasting beans. No longer could peasants buy cheap green coffee beans and roast it themselves with grains or chicory. Only the clergy, the Nobility, and high ranking civil servants would be allowed to roast their own.

These restrictions led to a Black Market. (Imagine sketchy looking guys on street corners, only with green coffee beans instead of drugs). Peasants were still finding coffee beans, and roasting them at home.

Drastic measures needed to be taken. Because Germany was just out of the 7 years war, Prussia had too many out of work soldiers. Frederick II hired 400 of them, and gave them the job of Kaffeeriecher or Kaffeeschnüffler (Coffee Sniffers). Their job… to wander the streets of Berlin “sniffing” for the smell of roasting coffee! The soldiers wore special uniforms (I’m imagining golden coffee beans on the epaulettes) and could go into any home where they suspected coffee roasting. The fines for roasting your own beans was stiff, and the sniffers were paid a quarter of the fines, so they were rather enthusiastic about their jobs… and hated by the general population.

In 1785, Frederick II was dead, and two years later his Coffee Sniffer troops were disbanded. No one missed them.

germany and coffee

Public Domain – Die Kaffeeriecher  based on a painting by L. Katzenstein (I love the Maid’s face… I’m pretty sure she made the call)

Coffee as a Luxury Item

By the 1800s, coffee was available to everyone in Germany, but it was still a “luxury item” (and would be through the 1960s). Factory workers (and the factory owners) came to rely on coffee to quell hunger and increase production. In Silesia, home weavers were especially connected to their coffee fix. They exported their cloth directly to Central American merchants who traded them coffee beans instead of money, giving them access to the finest of brews.

Coffeehouses were still places for people to meet and discuss important ideas… and women still got together in the afternoons for a Kaffeeklatch within the home.

But one woman wasn’t so happy. 

Melitta Bentz loved her morning coffee. But, according to her son, in a 1949 interview, she would get irritated by the grounds that gathered in her cup, the coffee pot, and in her teeth. (My Oma made coffee the old fashioned way… she’d pour boiling water over the grounds in the pot. We all suffered in silence… mostly… so I can appreciate her aggravation). Frau Bentz started playing with the idea of a filter to let the coffee through, but keep the grounds out of the pot. Her first attempt was with blotter paper from her son’s school notebook. It worked, and by 1908, Melitta had the Patent for coffee filters, and she and her husband set up shop in their Dresden apartment.

Coffee was nicer to drink now, and much easier to clean up! And in her eyes, filters made a perfectly enjoyable cup of coffee.

Economic Miracle!

Coffee consumption rose after the obvious shortages of WWII. In fact from 1953 to 1990 coffee consumption in Germany went from 1.5 to 7 kilos per person per year. That’s a lot of beans!

Then in 1954, Gottlob Widmann invented first electric drip coffee machine,  the Wigomat (short for “Wi“mann “Go“ttlob Auto”mat“ic… rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?). This marvel of modern technology made the BEST coffee because it brewed the ground beans at optimal temperature. His machine made cooking a coffee simple enough for anyone to do it. And they did.

Coffee Crisis

In East Germany, demand for coffee was as strong as the West, but the government had trouble filling the store shelves with enough of it to satisfy everyone. Until the mid-1950s, the Soviet Union supplied coffee, but after that, the East had to find their own sources. Päckchen from families in the West satisfied only 20% of the need. The GDR ran on coffee. It became THE luxury good that no one would do without. (There is a statistic that claims East Germans spent 3 times more on coffee than on shoes!). In 1976, Brazil had a failed coffee harvest, which meant the East German government had to source coffee elsewhere. Millions of Marks were spent importing coffee beans that were mixed with Ersatz coffee to spread it out.

The resulting “coffee” was terrible. It even destroyed the coffee machines. This was the final straw for many in the East, leading to protests and a restructuring of East German consumer goods. Deals were made with Vietnam for coffee beans, and the country spent more on coffee imports than it could afford.

In Germany, it’s just not safe to get between someone and their coffee.

GErmany and coffee

Coffee and Germany today

Today, the biggest coffee roasters are still in Bremen and Hamburg. They mildly roast the Arabica beans for companies like Tchibo, Dallmayr and Jacobs, that you find served all day long in Germany. (In fact, the secret to being able to drink coffee ALL day long is the mild roast!)

But things are changing, as they do.

Single serve pod-machines found their way into many kitchens, along with flavored coffees and stronger roasts. People are as likely to order a cappuccino as a little Kännchen. Starbucks is turning up on every corner (heads up! Starbucks is good for when you are walking around a city, and need a toilet) And the go-cups are turning up everywhere…. but fortunately, the  Kaffeeklatsch, sharing a coffee with a friend, is still a lovely way to pass an afternoon.

Tchibo Coffee  and Coffee Machine

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Find more German Coffee Here….

Serve Jacobs or Dallmayr at your next Kaffeeklatsch!

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4 thoughts on “Germany and Coffee- Coffee Culture and History of German Coffee

  1. Which of the coffees would you recommend as a first choice?

    I hve a cute little children’s coffee set with the filter holder and little Melitta filters (they make, or anyway they used to, a special size 801 filter for children’s sets). It’s from the early 1960’s and is in those beautiful soft pastels that so many German kitchens used then – blue, pink, and yellow. (Actually, I have two sets – one is an original, and another is a reproduction set from – oh, maybe 15 years ago).

  2. Hello everyone. American coffee is weaker then the coffee in Germany. After living here for many years I got used to Folgers medium roast. My husband and I drank a 12 cup coffee machine every morning before going to work. Right away we brewed another 12 cup coffee maker. In 1981 I flew home for a visit. My sister lived in a small farm community and everyone knew each other. She told one of her friends that her sister is coming from America for a visit. Her friend was anxious to meet me. The women had a cute little living room decorated with items from all over the world. Of course she served coffee and small pastries. I had forgotten how strong German coffee was and said, wow, this will grow hair on my chest. My sister gave me a dirty look, but I had no idea why. After we left I asked her what was the dirty look for? She said I embarrassed her with my remark. She said her friend made extra strong coffee thinking I would enjoy her coffee. So I guess with my stupid remark I insulted her friend. That was by no means my attention to do that to her friend. It was not said as an insult, just that it was really strong. I did drink 2 cups of her coffee, but wished it would be Folgers. For an apology I send a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of wine, with a note attached saying I thanked her for her hospitality and that I enjoyed our little Kaffee Klatch. I believe I was forgiving. All this over a little harmless mistake I made unknowingly. I did not make the same mistake again. You all have a pleasant and healthy day.

  3. I just stumbled onto your site looking for Flammkuchen ideas. You are doing a great job informing your readers about German traditions and information. Like your parents, I left Germany in 1960. I was back in Germany as a US Air Force officer 1970-75 and have been back almost annually visiting family.

    This is a great article on coffee tradition & history; just a couple items I would suggest to explain the difference between European & US experiences & provide additional historical information:

    Until Starbucks, US-based coffee was generally inferior to the European brands primarily due to use of cheap coffee beans and large-volume roasting without much concern for the ultimate product. A lot has changed domestically, very good high-quality, small-batch coffees are now available everywhere, comparing quite favorably to the European brands. For many, many years I have survived with Gevalia, Jacobs, Tchibo & Dallmayer. In the last decade or so, German coffees have been available through Aldi (Süd) stores and Trader Joe’s (Aldi Nord).

    On a historical note: growing up in Germany in the 1950s, coffee was highly taxed and certainly a luxury item; my mother & grandmother would allow themselves a pot of “real” coffee on Sundays. Jacobs & Tchibo had local representatives who sold coffee out of their homes for ~10DM per pound; today we can buy imported German coffee for less than that at Aldi’s! What we drank daily was “Muckefuck”, the regional name for chicory-based imitation coffee, or peppermint tea, since black tea was another highly taxed item.

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