Source: Discover Poland Magazine
Whether you\'re wandering the lanes of Warsaw\'s striking Old Town or walking through the narrow, medieval cobbled streets of Kraków, Wrocław, Toruń or Gdańsk, you can\'t fail to notice the coffee shops that seem to lurk on every corner. There are thousands of them, ranging from the relaxed couch-style bohemian to the elegant, classic coffee houses that serve an extensive range of caffeinated pick-me-ups. And with a growing variety of brown brews that cater to every possible taste, style and budget, coffee is increasingly becoming a lifestyle statement in this traditionally tea-drinking country.
Poland\'s love affair with the intoxicating brew began in 1683, after the Battle of Vienna, when the defeated Turkish troupes abandoned their massive supply of aromatic beans. Polish King Jan III Sobieski, leader of the Polish-Habsburng army at the time, gave the captured stock of aromatic beans as a gift to his military officer Franciszek Jerzy Kulczycki, who promptly began experimenting with beans and opened, in the same year, the first coffee house in Vienna. In the beginning, this revolutionary institution only served black coffee, but after a short period of innovative experimentation, the sugar-and-milk Viennese coffee tradition was born,along with its moon-shaped sidekick, the croissant. From there, coffee cultivation and coffee house culture rapidly spread throughout Europe, profoundly changing the social pattern of the affected countries.
Starting in the mid-18th century, Poland also proved a fertile home for a flourishing coffee house culture. According to Jan Adamcyewski\'s guidebook to Kraków, Kraków from A to Z, the first café was launched in the city\'s Rynek (Old Town Square) in 1770. This popular spot became known for its special house brew, the so-called \'Coffee the Polish Way\' that combined a strong cup of coffee with a heavy milk skin floating on the top. Despite this, it was only when cafés started serving a large array of sweets (and alcoholic beverages) that they became really popular with the Polish masses.
By the dawn of the twentieth century, the coffee house was deeply embedded in Europe\'s cultural psyche as a place synonymous with \'sanctuary\': a center of social interaction where writers, poets, artists and politicians gathered to read, observe the world, exchange ideas and philosophies or plot rebellious acts. In Poland, the heyday of coffee houses – between 1860 and 1914 – saw the establishment of many legendary cafés, including Warsaw\'s Blikle Cafe in 1969 and Kraków\'s two most famous cafés, Reman Café in 1879 and Jama Michalika in 1895. Many famous authors, scientists, and politicians of the period such as Stanisław Wyspiański, Jacek Malczewski, Kazimierz Wierzyński, Julian Tuwim, Franciszek Fiszer and Tadeusza Gronowski used “their” cafés as a homes-away-from-home, to talk, create and plot revolution. But these heady days would soon come to an end – putting Polish freedom and art at grave risk.
The Soviet Communist dictatorship from 1952 to 1989 saw the slow destruction of the popular coffee house culture in Poland, the so-called \'coffee house death\'. Leaders of the Communist People\'s Republic of Poland considered coffee houses to be headquarters of illegal underground communication. They believed - probably rightly – that Polish free-thinkers and revolutionaries gathered in cafés and had conspiratorial meetings about overthrowing the communist regime, and so the majority of cafés around Poland were first heavily guarded and then forced to close. This reached its peak in the early 1950s, as the Communist government focused more and more resources on stifling free speech and anti-government movements.
Another problem faced by cafés was a great amount of market confusion under Communism, as incomes dwindled and goods were in constant short supply. The first things hit hard by the shortages were Western goods,considered \'immoral\' by the Communist regime, so international coffee beans and products were harder and harder to come by. As a replacement for the \'dangerous\' capitalist coffee, the People’s Poland’s began producing Inka, an \'instant coffee substitute\' made not from even one ounce of coffee beans, but from the roasting of rye, beets, barley and chicory roots. For the next 40 years, Inka\'s bittersweet brew kept bubbling away in huge containers, served in chipped coffee cups everywhere from school canteens to workplace eateries (the so-called \'milk bars\'). Coffee-lovers were in despair, and it was under Communism that tea became the country\'s drink of choice: unlike Inka, it was cheap, easy to come by and could be improved by adding some home-grown herbs and spices.
It wasn’t until the demise of Communism in 1989 that the Polish tradition of classic coffee house culture started piecing together its long-lost pieces. The few surviving venerable places regained private ownership from government control, and a number of new gourmet coffee chains started sprouting up across the national landscape, reaping the rewards of a fast-expanding coffee market. As a daily staple of contemporary life, café culture has now taken a firm grip on Polish cities, offering a medley of places to score a gourmet cup of coffee, from a half-decaf, non-fat grande macchiato with a dash of cardamom to a triple Italian-style espresso and even an organic, Fairtrade cappuccino.
While Poles have long been imbibing the bitter brew, the Western-style \'on-the-go\' coffee craze only started to gain momentum in the mid-1990s. UK-owned CoffeeHeaven International was the first branded coffee chain to penetrate the Polish market. Today, the company has over 48 outlets and is in all the major Polish cities, making it the largest café chain in the country. Other popular corporate coffeehouse chains on the market include the Swiss Nestlé-owned Nescafe, the German Tchibo, and Scandinavian Wayne\'s Coffee, in addition to the homegrown Mercer\'s Coffee, Daily Café and Green Coffee franchises, just to name a few. The aromatic competition is heating up with brand-new players like the British Costa Coffee and the American mega-brand Starbucks. In addition to the already existing herd of existing cookie-cutter coffee outlets, market research shows that there are over 100 new cafés coming out year on year.
The reasons for Poland\'s modern café boom are multi-fold. Firstly, Poland\'s overall economic growth has lead to a increase in disposable incomes all all spectrum of the social strata. Secondly, the desire by Poles to embrace all things Western - including the no-frill, always-consistent cup of coffee to go – has fueled the surge in out-of-home coffee consumption. As a result, the Polish coffee market is steadily increasing at an average annual rate of 4.3%, according to research and market statistics.
There’s a lot more to a captivating and unique café then just a freshly brewed cup of java. It’s all about the sights, the smells, the sounds, the ambiance and the emotions that come with the coffee experience. And while some of these essential elements can be attained at corporate cookie-cutter café chains, it’s the smaller, independent Polish coffeehouses that really deliver a perfect harmony of sensory pleasures. In Warsaw, and several other cities around Poland, it’s the spread and growing popularity of a new breed of coffeehouses, the bookstore/cafés combos that has catapulted the coffee culture to a whole new level. Though a long-standing fixture on the British and North American markets, the combination of hot java and books in...well...novel in Poland.
“The initial idea was simple: create a bookstore with a friendly, open atmosphere where people could meet, discuss ideas and enjoy a cup of coffee in the process,” says Tomasz Brzozowski, founder of Czuły Barbarzyńca (The Tender Barbarian), Warsaw’s first café-bookstore. Coming alive with the aromas and commerce of culture in 2002, this establishment (named after Czech author Bohumil Hrabal’s notorious novel) became an instant crowd-pleasing meeting point, a feel-good cultural institution that set the trend for the rest of the town.
Stationed near the grand Warsaw University Library and the sleek suspension structure of Swietokrzyska Bridge, the Barbarian’s entrance is marked by a curvy red neon sign. Inside, a balmy bookish feel dominates the split-level space that features wall-to-wall stacks and shelves of mostly Polish literature, fiction, poetry and essay of which most where printed by the owner’s publishing house, Świat Literacki. They also carry a few English-language titles, mostly from the design-art-focused Taschen volumes. Apart from the books, Brzozowski envisioned his enterprise as a “stress-free social place”, where people of all ages and walks of life can come together, unwind and undergo artistic activity. In keeping with that spirit, the place has hosted a broad spectrum of events, including regular literary readings, exhibitions, meetings and discussions with artists and celebrities, film screenings and literature-centered children activities on weekends. By fusing a comfortable aura of sociability with dynamism and inspiration, in addition to nurturing creative expression, The Tender Barbarian has been embraced by the movers and shakers, the bohemians, the traditionalists and the mavericks as well.
The immediate success and reputation of the \'bookstore-café concept\' saw a number of similar java spots sprouting up in Warsaw – like Antrakt Café, Tarabuk Café, Kafka Café, Numery Litery and Bookhousecafe – and other cities, including Massolit Books & Café in Kraków and Mała Litera in Łódź. As a general rule, all these places ooze a strong artistic and open-minded atmosphere and share a devotion to the brain-stimulating brew, the written word and rich cultural diversity.
Branching out into a new frontier, Brzozowksi and his business partners launched a second café-bookstore outlet in the newly-renovated Praga Multikino movie-complex in the beginning of this year. Occupying almost the entire ground-floor of the building, Bambini di Praga (\'Children of Praga\', the title of another Hrabal masterpiece) is the older and more mature brother of The Tender Barbarian, in the way of offering a wider range of literature, cultural events and entertainment options. Brzozowski says, “We have added to our literary selection at Bambini di Praga with a much bigger selection of music, DVDs, albums and visual art books, because here we share the space with a cinema, so images and sounds are much more important. Also, with the enormous space here, there will be a lot of concerts and theatre performances.”
What makes Bambini di Praga, the new kid on the block, stand out from its counterparts is that beyond a bookstore and café, the place also merges a full-service restaurant and a wine bar all under one roof. The restaurant, decked with organic-looking furnishings, serves Polish and Central European dishes with a few upmarket touches, while across the building, the wine bar highlight the Spanish, Italian, French and white Moravian wines. Brzozowski has high hopes for this space: “We hope that this complex will be a driving force for Praga, a kind of contemporary community center where people can spend an entire day, going from cinema to café, from bookstore to restaurant and finish with a great glass of wine at the bar.”
The continuing evolution and expansion of Polish consumer palettes is leading the way to exciting, new coffee horizons. Viewing coffee as more than just a hot beverage, serious coffee lovers are seeking to enrich their coffee moments by trying better, lesser-known coffee blends with distinct aromas. Specialty coffee shops such as Cafe Bar Bla-Bla in central Warsaw feature hundreds of premium blends and flavoured coffee creations, dozens of different traditional ethnic recipes and stock gourmet beans from the farthest regions and countries of earth.
The latest manifestation of this specialty coffee fad is fairtrade coffee. In 2007, Warsaw welcomed its first \'ethically-correct\' fair-trade café, The Barista Espresso Bar & Bakery, situated in the cities\' newest shopping mall, Złote Tarasy. Decked out with layered terracotta, earth-toned couches encircling a cozy fireplace, this place offers an assortment of delicious baked goodies – including Warsaw\'s first baked-on-the-premises brownies and chocolate cake - and an assortment of creamy coffee concoctions, with a feel-good factor to boot. Championing ethical environmental practices, fair wages and equal human rights and a different way of trading coffee, The Barista adds variety to the java experience by spearheading into an untapped niche on the local market and paving the way for a new, more organic coffee revolution throughout Poland.
Text and photos by Anna J. Kutor
When in Poland, drop by some of these home-grown cafés, and support the local coffee culture!
Reman Café (today known as U Nowarola Café), Rynek Główny 44
The Barista Espresso Bar & Bakery,
Złote Tarasy Shopping Mall, ul.Złota 59