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What makes Turkish coffee, one of UNESCO’s Items of Intangible Cultural Heritage, so unique and so beloved? Culture Trip speaks to John Sytmen, founder of the Turkish Coffee Culture and Research Association, to uncover the turbulent, fascinating history behind this unique cup of coffee.
For nearly half a millennium, Turkey has been crazy about its coffee. Be it for early starts, gathering thoughts or burning the midnight oil, coffee has always been on hand: served thick, strong and just a little bit gritty. In Istanbul, the country’s proud and wild heart, the coffee house has been a great social equaliser – whether Sufi or Sultan, worker or writer, you drink your coffee daily and you know how you like it. It is an activity: you sit down for it, savour it and chat to those around you doing the very same thing, regardless of your differences.
But what distinguishes Turkish coffee from your average venti cold brew to-go, and what makes the culture so unique? John Sytmen, founder of the Turkish Coffee Culture and Research Association, has an answer. “The Turkish way – of sharing your coffee, of taking the time, sitting, chatting, waiting for people – is such a key part of the social life of Istanbul, and of the country: it’s a backbone.”
Sytmen has been one of Turkish coffee’s strongest advocates for over a decade, and he’s a pivotal figure in the nation’s modern coffee culture. He has helped release eight books on the topic, has a blend for sale on supermarket shelves in Turkey and spearheaded a successful campaign that gave Turkish coffee UNESCO status as an Item of Intangible Cultural Heritage, making it the first beverage to be awarded the title.
Originally from Denmark, Sytmen first made waves in 1995 by opening a speciality coffee shop in Istanbul – the first of its kind. “It immediately hit the news,” Sytmen told Culture Trip. “A foreigner trying to teach Turkish people how to drink coffee!” After years of importing, roasting and selling beans, Sytmen shifted his attention towards preserving and celebrating the traditional method of Turkish coffee brewing.
Making coffee in the Turkish way requires care. To this day, among more traditional Turkish families, preparing a pot of coffee is a rite of passage. When a man comes to ask a mother and father for their daughter’s hand in marriage, the daughter is expected to make the coffee for everyone; if she brews it properly, so the custom goes, then she is ready for married life (although some daughters have been known to spike their suitor’s coffee with salt, to test their temperament).
The process looks deceptively simple, but demands a deft touch – and your attention – to get it right. First, grind the beans ultra-fine – arabica beans are usually favoured, but robustas aren’t uncommon. Then, take your cezve – a voluptuous metal jug with a long handle – and add a cup of cold water and a teaspoon of coffee grounds for each person you’re sharing with. If you like your coffee sweet, add sugar at this point, but do not stir, so that the sugar settles and caramelises at the base, giving the coffee a rounded sweet taste.
Next, put the jug over a direct heat source, and warm it gently for a minute or two before bringing the mixture together with a teaspoon. Now, wait and watch. A thick foam will begin to form atop the cezve; when you see this, lift the jug off the heat and skim the foam into your cup (traditionally a fincan, which looks not unlike an espresso cup) before returning the coffee to the flame. The second it begins to foam again, pour and serve – the ability to do this with a steady hand, preserving the coffee’s head of foam, is the mark of a skilled coffeemaker.
It is precisely this craft that Sytmen has sought to defend. “When I went around travelling and speaking to people about my coffee ventures, they’d know it as Greek coffee or Arabic coffee – so I started a mission to plant the flag again for Turkish coffee.”
Turkish coffee has always been fought over. Like any popular phenomenon, it has its purists and its non-traditionalists, each hell-bent on believing that the other is wrong for adding or omitting sugar, or arguing over which sweet treat should be eaten alongside the coffee.
The Ottoman Sultanate got their first taste, appropriately enough, while at war with the Mamluks in 1516, as they brought Cairo into their empire, and their coffee culture along with it. Three decades later, Suleyman the Magnificent (a sultan of the Ottoman Empire) would discuss strategy with his closest aides over coffee; an invitation to sup with the Sultan was a confirmation of his trust.
Muslim clerics took opposing views on its usefulness: some, like Ebussuud Efendi, banned its consumption, and had bags of beans dumped into the sea; others, like Ebu’l Hassan Şazeli, encouraged worshippers to bring coffee into their prayer routines, so they could pray a little bit harder during late-night services.
According to legend, the first Viennese café was opened with the spoils of war that were gained after the Battle of Vienna when the Ottoman Turks invaded the city. According to the story, a Polish spy by the name of Jerzy Kulczycki assisted the Austro-Hungarian army with vital intelligence in the Battle of Vienna in 1683, and was offered his pick of the Ottoman loot. Knowing their popularity in Istanbul, he picked the bags of fresh coffee beans (which the Austrians had assumed were food for the camels), and opened Zur Blauen Flasche (‘the Blue Bottle’), which became the template for coffee houses across the continent.
Thankfully, Sytmen argues, this isn’t just ancient history. “The future is bright for Turkish coffee,” he says, and its heritage is now firmly a part of the national culture once again, due in no small part to his relentless advocacy. You can still find dozens of Istanbul coffee houses making their coffee in the traditional way – one of the city’s most famous, Mandabatmaz, translates as ‘a buffalo wouldn’t sink’, giving you some indication as to how thick their beverage really is.
Young Turks now love the stuff, as their predecessors did, as much for the fact that you can read your fortune in the leftover grounds (or even use an app to send a picture to a soothsayer, who’ll read them for you). Even the mighty Starbucks has been forced into brewing it the old-fashioned way in Turkey, so strong is people’s attachment to their cezve and fincan – surely a sign of a remarkable coffee culture.
So the next time you’re in Istanbul, tired from the heat and in need of respite, find a café, and do as the Turkish have done for five hundred years: sit down with a coffee and a friend, and take your time with it, as you engage with one of the world’s most vibrant, historic and unique coffee cultures.