Tracing the coffee house revolution to its Ukrainian roots
Under the Blue Bottle coffee house, Lviv, Ukraine. (Kostyantyn Smolyaninov)
Ukrainians and Viennese have been arguing for ages about the origins of Europe’s first coffee houses. As far as it can be traced back, a Ukrainian war hero named Yuri Kulczycki brewed the first cup of coffee in Vienna sometime soon after the Battle for Vienna in 1683, in a place called Under the Blue Bottle.
Both countries claim credit for inventing European coffee shops, even if for Ukraine, it is only on behalf of its homegrown barrista Kulczycki. The typical Viennese coffee house -- an elegant institution with high ceilings, marble-top tables and a stack of newspapers to make one linger over an impeccable black brew with a customary glass of water -- may be more famously known than its Ukrainian cousin, but to trace back the origin of the communal coffee space, you have to go to Lviv, a Medieval city in western Ukraine.
Kulczycki was a Cossack (a mounted soldier) with a quirky moustache who came to Vienna to trade after years on the battlefield and in captivity in Turkey, which is where he discovered the coffee house experience he would bring to Europe and improve upon. When the Ottoman troops laid siege on Vienna, he volunteered to sneak through the enemy camp and persuade the Polish army to rescue the imperial city. Dressed as an Ottoman merchant and able to speak fluent Turkish, he accomplished the mission and saved the city during the 1683 Battle for Vienna. As the spoils were divided, he apparently wanted just the mysterious sacks with green beans as his reward.
Kulczycki’s coffee house, where he roasted his pungent trophy and famously added milk and sugar for the first time, no longer exists, but in Lviv you can experience those early flavours in its reincarnated namesake, Under the Blue Bottle.
To find it, turn into a tiny alley off the main Rynok Square and squirrel away from sight along old houses until you spot an oak door with a blue bottle over it. These directions have eluded many a lost visitor, but it is worth the hunt.
Natural light sneaks through one small window in the otherwise candlelit room. Coffee is prepared 1700s-style: on the open fire in small copper jugs with long handles. The brewing style differs from a traditional Turkish three-time boil as the coffee gets removed from the stove when the first chocolatey foam pops to the surface.
Under the Blue Bottle’s simple, almost cold, stone interior is fitted with an Austria-Hungarian coat of arms and wobbly chairs, inspiring intimate conversation perfect for a third date or scheming a mysterious plan.
Locals consider it a secular sin to order a coffee take away. In Lviv, the coffee capital of Ukraine, experiencing the beverage properly means sitting down and hanging out while you sip.
Another unassuming jewel, Cafe #1 (5 Katedralna Street; 380-32-242-3369), is nestled next to the 17th-century Renaissance Boyim chapel, with soot-black Catholic statues adorning the facade. The coffee house is furnished with aged sofas, mirrors and waxy tables and is popular among the youth for its eccentric gypsy vibe, great coffee, moist cherry pies and wi-fi.
Although Lviv has more than 600 cafes, Internet is often missing from their menus to preserve the Medieval theme that appeals to many tourists and local artists. Flocking to Lviv for literary evenings, art salons and music performances, the latter often converge in Dzyga Art Gallery, which houses a bohemian cafe under a dome-shaped roof.
Lviv is also renowned for its cakes and sweets (influenced by the border city’s neighbouring Austrian, Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish, and Armenian traditions) which compliment the coffee shop experience. The secrets of Viennese signature apple strudel and chocolate cake Sacher are well-known among Lviv pastry chefs but syrnyk, a moist pie made from fresh cottage cheese, is a local specialty that many guests to the city take back home.
For the best syrnyk-coffee combination, visit Cukiernia, a cafe where residents and tourists form a line in the morning for a small table in front of its glass pastry case, gleaming with dozens of sweets.