A Burning Love

About 90 per cent of all Germans drink coffee regularly.
Photo (detail): © xtock –

The Germans’ favourite drink is coffee. On average a German drinks 2.6 cups every day, that is about 150 litres a year. In the course of time, howev-er, the way people consume and perceive this hot beverage has undergone all kinds of amazing changes.

On the street, on the underground, in the park – all over the place we see people talking to a mobile phone in one hand, and sipping a paper cup full of hot, steaming coffee from the other. What used to be quite a rare sight ten years ago has now become part of the everyday scene. Communication and coffee-to-go – the traditional German “Kaffeekränzchen” coffee party has gone mobile in the 21st century.

This development has as much to do with the coffee-house culture that brought the hot drink to Europe via the Orient more than 350 years ago in the 17th century as a stage coach has in common with a Porsche. It was Italy that got the ball rolling, followed by England and France, a short time later the Germans also discovered the pleasures of this luxury brew. According to the German Coffee Association (DKV) the first coffee house came into being in Bremen in 1673. As was the case in the other European cities it was above all merchants that gathered in the coffee house to debate, to initiate new business and to settle transactions

From a luxury libation to a pick-me-up for the people

At first it was only affluent citizens who could afford the hot stimulant, but then industrialisation brought about a turning point – in the middle of the 19th century coffee became the preferred drink of the masses. People drank at breakfast and after lunch, the poorer sections of society concocted a kind of coffee soup for dipping their bread into that simmered on the stove the whole day. It warmed them up and at the same time took away their hunger pains. Factory workers who worked long shifts used coffee above all as “food for the nerves”.

In 1908 the paper coffee filter came onto the scene and this made for even more unbridled pleasure. It was invented by Melitta Bentz, a housewife from Dresden, and it finally put an end to all those irksome coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup. When she patented her invention she laid the foundation stone for the Melitta company that has had its headquarters in Minden in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia since 1929 and today provides employment for more than 3,500 people.

Prosperity indicator in the West, scarce commodity in the East

After the Second World War coffee was in very short supply – and it was so highly sought after that it was used as an alternative currency. Due to the lack of coffee beans people started roasting grain, acorns and beech nuts. In the period when Germany was divided the cup of caffeine embarked upon two completely different careers. In the 1950s in the West, the time of the so-called “Economic Miracle”, it became a symbol of reconstruction and new affluence. Drinking coffee, as the German Coffee Association said, meant being able to afford things again. According to the statistics portal Statista coffee consumption between 1953 and 1990 increased fivefold from 1.5 kilos of raw coffee per person to over seven kilos.

In the GDR, however, getting your hands on a bag of coffee was not always that easy. In 1954 they had their first coffee bottleneck. The shortage of 1977 went down in history as the Coffee Crisis. When the most affordable sort of coffee was discontinued and replaced by a mixed blend, half of which consisted of “ersatz” coffee substitute, the people were infuriated. Many of the citizens of the GDR saw this as an assault on one of their main consumer needs and, as such, on an important part of their everyday lives. 

Coffee bars and coffee specialities

In the years after German unification coffee consumption sank from one year to the next. In 2005 every German consumed a good six kilos of raw coffee, one kilo less than in the record year of 1990. The fact that this development was once again reversed in the new millennium could be put down to various reasons and it marked a turning point in the culture of coffee drinking. The change was initiated by new and adapted ways of making the coffee, mainly in the way it is mixed with milk. Since the 1990s filter coffee has been in competition with milk coffee, latte macchiato and cappuccino.

At the same time a new gastronomical business segment came into being – coffee bars and coffee shops with an Italian or an American touch, geared to a younger clientele who, in the cosily furnished, trend-oriented coffee bars, felt they were sitting in a kind of public living room. It was not long then before coffee-shop chains started to pop up all over the place. On top of that, this type of catering outlet turned into pacemaker for the young coffee movement. About 90 per cent of all Germans drink coffee regularly, every one in two even enjoys several cups a day. This makes for a total of 149 litres per capita per year. No other drink comes anywhere near that figure – neither beer at 107 litres nor mineral water at 144 litres per capita per year (figures from: Tchibo Kaffeereport 2015).

More competence and an increasing awareness of quality

For a long time now coffee shops have been more than mere sales points for hot drinks. They serve as a driving force and testing ground for new creations and brewing techniques, for example Cold Brew or Cascara, i.e. tea made from coffee cherry peelings. The advent of the barista – a trained expert – at the coffee machine literally brought a new quality to the coffee shop business. On the other hand, the number of consumers with more sophisticated tastes and demands is growing, as has been observed by the reigning German Barista Champion, Erna Tosberg. “This applies to all age groups, especially the younger connoisseurs. This development has also made it to the classical bar that sells alcohol where coffee is used as a mixer for cocktails.”

When it comes to the increased awareness of quality, modern technology has also played a role. Over the last few years the types and functions of coffee machines have become so very differentiated. Drip coffee machines are now being supplemented with fully and semi-automatic machines filled with coffee beans, not to mention pad and capsule machines. Nevertheless, despite all the many ways of quenching your thirst for coffee outside the home, most Germans still prefer to drink the hot, brown brew in the comfort of their own four walls – from a real cup and not from a paper one.