A Coffee in Istanbul

You have never seen three millennia of culture look so good. The atmosphere echoes with footsteps, and prayer calls, and ferry bells.

Let the mind flow back up the Bosphorous. It is 660 BCE and you’re drinking with Greeks on a strait in a town they call Byzantium. The actors change and the scenery advances. It is 330 AD and you’re drunk with Romans. Constantine has decided to re-center the Roman Empire on this city of ships and traders.

He converts to Christianity. Aggressively.

It is 537. You are hanging with Emperor Justinian I. He’s showing you his new basilica. It is named the holy wisdom. And in just 5 years of construction, Justinian has built a church that will be the largest in the world for the next 1,000 years. He raises his glass and gloats: “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”

It is 1453. The faithful are saying their last prayers in Justinian’s temple as Ottoman Turks batter down the door. They kill or enslave all inside. Sultan Mehmet II, impressed beyond measure at the building, steps over the bodies and blood to convert Hagia Sophia to a Mosque. In his eyes glint 400 years of glory to come.

It is 1922. You walk with a man named Mustafa Kemal. He yearns for a modern state, with a modern language, and a modern democracy. He wants it to be centered on the Turkish ethnic identity — and secular.

It is 2015. You arrive in Istanbul at an Airport named Mustafa Kemal Atatürk- a special surname given only to him meaning “father of the Turks.”

You seek a printed coffee cup in the gift shop. And you may choose from images of Constantine, Justinian, Hagia Sophia, Mehmet II, and the “Che of Turkey”- Ataturk himself.

They say the Turks invented modern coffee culture.

The idea of a coffeehouse. The associated intellectual luxury of the brew. The Turkish word kahve becoming cafe, caffee, coffee across Europe. The very introduction of beans to Europe via abandoned bags at the siege of Vienna.

Imagine that.

It is 1683. A cunning Polish spy, named Franz George Kolschitzky, is sneaking messages through the Ottoman lines during their siege. He speaks Turkish. And Polish. And Arabic. And High German. Talking the talk across the Ottoman campfires, he becomes re-acquainted with the glorious taste of coffee. Caffeinated, he rides out to the hidden Hapsburg relief forces, directing them to key Ottoman positions, and sneaks back into town to coordinate a grand counter-attack.

BANG! CRASH! BOOM! The Ottomans are completely routed!

In their haste to roll back to Istanbul, they leave everything. Including their coffee.

Scavengers picked over the spoils but leave the alien coffee beans for crows. Until Franz George saves it. And brings the beans into town, establishing Vienna’s first coffeehouse at “the sign of the Blue Bottle.

Have you heard this story before? You should have.

Traditional “Turkish Coffee” is a bitter brew served in small cups with the coffee grinds left in. Known across the Middle East and Northern Africa, this style of coffee belongs to considerably more cultures than simply the 75 MM of Turkey.

Yet with Turkey as the transmission point of coffee culture into the west, this strong stuff became known as “Turkish Coffee.” UNESCO recognizes it by name as an “intangible cultural object” and protects it legally. Now, even the handmade pots and cup services needed for this style of brewing are visually synonymous with Turkish culture.

Today, Turkish coffee culture is a lie. These people drink tea and lots of it.

How much is a lot? A world-leading 7 Pounds per person per year. That’s over 5x the volume per capita in China, where tea is traditional, and nearly 10x the consumption per person in India, where tea is a national symbol.

In Istanbul, the sinuous curves of the Rize Tea glasses are ubiquitous and virtually free. A single cup costs just 28 to 60 cents USD. Merchants will buy cups for their colleagues across the street and send boys with silver platters to deliver the drink. You see them on across the busy open spaces of Istanbul raising their tea glasses to one another. They imply: I’ve got the next one.

All day, in cafes and restaurants, on the street and on commutes, it is tea not coffee that people are drinking.

So where’s the coffee? In bohemian Beşiktaş.

Loud, colorful, artistic, and boisterous, Beşiktaş (bah-shet-kas) is the East Village of Istanbul. It’s slow and sleepy in the morning, lively for shopping in the afternoon, and really loud from 9–1 AM.

Take the ferry over from the Historic Center.

You’ll bob across the Golden Horn and a speed along the Bosphorous.

Disembark at Beşiktaş terminal and wander up Ortabahce Road on a weekday morning. Only the bakeries and grocers will be open.

But the black, white, and red flags of the local soccer team will wave proudly. And Istanbuls’ ubiquitous cats will sit on windowstills and between flower pots on your way.

Find Mambocino Coffee. Step in.

Order a Latte to stay.

Istanbul, an eternal crossroads, stands between two paths for their coffee culture now.

Since 2007, the city has begun favoring foreign espresso-based coffee, with foreign chains popping up to meet demand. Starbucks, Nescafe, and Caffe Nero, have all grown considerably in Istanbul.

Displaced are the traditional coffee services that proudly serve Turkish Coffee exclusively. There is a potent nostalgia for these shops, but their daily appeal, between Starbucks and ubiquitous cheap çay, is pitiful.

Near the Spice Bazaar, you can find one of the last popular vestiges of traditional Turkish Coffee culture. It’s called Kurukahveci, and there’s been a line on this street to buy fresh coffee since 1871. It’s quality is “poor Brazilian grade” according to experts, but the nation is loyal. You can buy Kurukahveci coffee in any supermarket, but it’s considered special to buy some from their flagship store- still filled with the working roasting machinery- on a bustling afternoon.

The Third Wave of coffee has barely made inroads. There are scarcely a dozen credible pour-over locations in the city, and locals have never heard of them when you ask. An enterprising Istanbul Coffee Festival is attempting to reconcile historic coffee culture with modern brewing, but the appeal feels made entirely to western visitors rather than Istanbul citizens.

Mambocino is an English coffee chain, feigning at Italian roots, with Ethiopian beans, and more franchises in Instanbul than any other city.

So it’s apt summary of the state of Turkish coffee culture: confused.

But that doesn’t mean the staff at Mambocinco Besitkas do not make a lovely coffee. They really do.

You get heavy foam from the milk in Turkey and it creates a deep froth.

The balance is gentle, perhaps more milk than coffee strength. But in the damp morning air, you appreciate the lighter touch.

Istanbul swirls in the mind. It’s so lively and dense. So historic and modern. So eternal and ever-changing.

A cat walks into the cafe from the street, is greeted by name, and wanders back out like a casual neighbor.

Tellingly, she doesn’t drink the coffee.

Across the street, an old man balances a saucer of hot çay with a folded newspaper in his right hand. He calls to the cat who comes bounding over.

The cat is called Mehmet. And she seems to prefer tea.