A guide to Turkish Coffee in Istanbul. From its history, its role in daily life, the invasion of the specialty coffee scene and tips on where to find the best coffee, this is a guide from my travels in Istanbul, December 2019.
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Coffee in Turkey is more than just a drink. Its role is so engrained in the culture that its powers transcend that of taste and lifestyle. It’s a tradition, it gives order to the day; it tells the future and grants wishes. The Turkish language has evolved around it, and the granting of a marriage hangs in the balance based on the way the bride makes a cup of coffee.
It also tastes different. Made without a filtering process, the coffee has a bitter edge to it, making it one of Turkey’s finest exports: when tasted anywhere in the world it is quite distinctively Turkish Coffee.
It is no surprise then, that the specialty coffee scene took a while to get going here – their own coffee being so loved, so honoured and so embedded in Turkish culture that a 3rd wave coffee movement seemed more of a natural course of things than a need. Seven years into specialty coffee arriving on the scene and Istanbul seems divided: some coffee lovers have welcomed it and everything it entails (the smoother blend, the Western design features); and others are not even aware of its existence. Can Turkish Coffee withstand the global shift towards an appetite for a more Western style of coffee; or will specialty coffee soon be making its exit? Or will the two stand side by side, adding a further richness to Turkey’s culture? The coffee scene in Istanbul is like a Petri dish right now with changes afoot, making it the perfect time to visit.
The Specialty Coffee Invasion
Meet Kronotrop. They set up Istanbul’s first specialty coffee shop in 2013. With their own roastery in the city, they have become something of a staple in the Istanbul specialty coffee scene, with a growing number of cafes located on both the European and Asian sides. While offering brewing methods one would expect in a Western specialty coffee shop, and an interior design that wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch, Kronotrop still offers Turkish Coffee, with traditional copper pots placed right next to their La Marzocco machine. It’s a delightful duality unique to Turkey, one which is equally charming and practical. It softens the bridge between the two coffee styles, especially for so many Turks who would still prefer a Turkish coffee to a flat white.
Bridging the gap: “Kronotrop still offers Turkish coffee, with traditional copper coffee pots placed right next to their La Marzocco espresso machine”
Since Kronotrop’s entry onto the scene, specialty coffee shops have sprung up in the city like wild flowers, most of them starting between 2013 and 2014 – similar to the timescale of many UK towns and cities. Despite this baby boom of coffee shops, however, they still face resistance. Why is the coffee the locals drink no longer good enough? It reminded me of the challenges Holmeside Coffee faced, being the first specialty coffee shop to open in Sunderland (click here to read interview). It’s a problem shared by specialty coffee shops setting up in new towns/cities across the world: why should people suddenly change their coffee drinking habits – often for a heavier price?
“It’s difficult to get people to make the transition from Turkish coffee to specialty coffee” a barista explained in Kronotrop. “People are still looking for that Turkish Coffee taste”. Despite their relatively quick success in Istanbul this resistance remains a constant backdrop to their daily business, often requiring one to ones with customers, educating them on why specialty coffee tastes different, and why it costs more. Whether the offering of Turkish Coffee in a specialty coffee shop is a celebration or an olive branch – or both – slowly but surely, it seems to be working.
Turkish Coffee vs. Specialty Coffee
So what’s the difference between Turkish coffee and specialty coffee? It’s mainly in the brewing method. Turkish coffee is unfiltered, causing the grind to be much thinner. Historically, it was ground in a mortar and then mixed with water, and boiled in a copper coffee pot. You can ask for your Turkish Coffee with large sugar, medium sugar; or none. It has a bitter taste to it and comes black. To a palette that enjoys a smooth, rounded finish, Turkish Coffee has a bite to it, but an enjoyable one – it hits some sort of spot I didn’t realise I had. I was a surprising convert.
Turkish Coffee Culture
Its influence on the Turkish language
“Breakfast in the English language means ‘breaking the fast’. In Turkish, breakfast means ‘before coffee'”
The word for breakfast in the English language breaks down to ‘breaking the fast’. It’s centrally focussed on food, about how we have not eaten since yesterday. In Turkish, breakfast literally translates into ‘before coffee’. They want to have a full stomach before enjoying the coffee, and so breakfast literally exists – linguistically and practically – because they just want to have coffee. The food is a backdrop, a functional gastronomic duty that fast-tracks you to the main event.
A life-changing coffee date
The coffee drinking process is much the same as ours: it’s a drug that stimulates conversation and brings people together. At the end, however, the Turkish tradition is to read your future from the remaining coffee granules and then make a wish.
When you’ve finished your coffee, turn the coffee cup upside down onto the saucer. After a few moments, turn the coffee cup over and most of the remaining coffee should have fallen onto the saucer, leaving a residue inside the cup, from which – it is said – you can read your future.
After that, you can make a wish. Your saucer should now have coffee remnants left on it from Step One. Hold it on its side above your coffee cup. As it drips down into the cup, you can make a wish. Do this on two opposite sides. If the coffee has fallen onto the back of the saucer in the course of things, this means your wish will come true.
When a man asks for the hand of his potential bride, both families will get together for coffee. Traditionally, the bride makes coffee for everyone, including a rancid tasting coffee for her groom-to-be (any such ingredient can be thrown in to make it taste disgusting – peppers, chilli, salt, etc.). The test is on two levels: the groom’s parents judge whether she will be a good bride based on the coffee she makes them; and the bride can test whether the groom will make a good husband if he doesn’t let on to the rest of the party how disgusting the coffee she made him is. This ritual is told in various versions and still happens today, but as to whether people align coffee making skills with good wife skills – I’m led to believe it is taken with a pinch of salt these days.
Coffee was first brought to Istanbul in the mid 16th century by two Syrian traders. It was loved by the Sultan and became a fixture in the walls of the palace, inspiring coffee shops to open across the city. Due to their special brewing style, the coffee took on its strong taste and, combined with the accompanying ceremonial rituals, the legacy of Turkish Coffee began. It went through a brief period of being banned the following century, due to the Quran banning the use of drugs, but it was soon lifted, and went on to being the global phenomenon and fine Turkish export as we now know it.
Interestingly, the most popular coffee brand in Turkey is Nescafé, having been on the scene since the 1950s.
Where to go: Specialty Coffee
The stalwarts of the specialty coffee movement in Istanbul include Kronotrop, Petra Coffee and Coffee Department. All three have numerous spots throughout the city, so do make sure you stop by at some of these on your visit. Visiting the Petra Coffee roastery in Gayrettepe will change your life a little bit, and do book ahead if you want to visit the Kronotrop roastery in Maslak (see contact details at bottom of page). A perfect way to explore the city is by spending an afternoon in the area of Topagaci – a favourite of mine on the European side, with great independent shops, all sorts of restaurants, museums and specialty coffee shops at every turn. Coffee shops include (as well as Kronotrop and Petra Coffee) Borderline Coffee, Maura Coffee, Magado Coffee, Ministry of Coffee and Date Patisserie (you can sip your coffee while sitting on a swing here – it’s ever so Instagrammable).
Where to go: Turkish Coffee
If you want to see a traditional coffee house, head to Sark Kahvesi in the Grand Bazaar. Although not overly luxurious, the place is steeped in history, and is probably one of the most authentic cups of Turkish coffee you could try. Moreover, it is situated right on a junction deep inside the Grand Bazaar, so it is the perfect spot for people watching and getting the best tips on how to haggle like a local.
All in all
Istanbul offers such eclectic richness, a trip there is worth its weight in gold. Being both in Europe and Asia, it has the benefit of plucking the best bits from its neighbouring countries that – be it Iranian architecture, Greek food or European fashion – visiting the city almost feels like a cross-continental overland trip. The very feel of it is a heady mix of sights, smells and people, that you cannot but be enchanted by the place; and although its identity is founded upon many different influences, there is something definitively Turkish about it. Just like when Syrian coffee was brought over in the 1500s, they took an idea and made it their own; and now with the specialty coffee movement arriving here 7 years ago, I think we are only at the beginning of seeing what magic Istanbul might weave in making the Western specialty coffee movement their own. Putting their stamp on things is in their blood after all.
As I fondly read at the airport when leaving the city: ‘Istanbul: some cities are too much for a single continent’. Quite right. This city is larger than life.
Things to know:
-Kronotrop roastery address: Atatürk Oto Sanayi Sitesi 2.Kısım 33.Sokak No:1364 Maslak/Sarıyer/İstanbul, Türkiye (to book a tour: +90 212 924 1251)
-To travel around with ease, get yourself an Istanbul Kart. Like an Oyster card, it’s a top up card and easy to use on the metro.
-Uber functions in the city
Recommended things to do:
–Basilica Cistern – like an underground city, this was set up in the 6th century to store up water and channel it to nearby palaces. Situated right next to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia Museum, it is a perfect way to spend an afternoon
–Ulus 29 for a fancy evening meal with unforgettable view
-For real indulgence, head to Ciragan hotel, Kempinski. A former 19th century Ottoman Palace, head here for by for coffee, enjoy the spa with an infinity pool, or just take in the beautiful view of the Bosphorus (and if you can afford it, splash the cash and stay here)
–Zorlu Centre – everything from a shopping mall, a food court, late night bars, a gig venue and over a 2000 seater theatre, housing everything from touring theatre shows, Broadway musicals and acclaimed international popstars
–Must – excellent food, music and cocktails in an off-beat part of town