Why Coffee is Hamburgs favourite drink

Glass Painting in historical Coffee Stock Exchange Ameron Hotel Speicherstadt

Coffeelovers will love Hamburg: Not only is the harbourcity a traditional trading hub for coffee and centre of many international coffee trading companies, it also hosts an exciting scene of young gourmet coffee roasters and many comfy cafes to enjoy this coffee with some homemade cake. 

It is five metres high and three tonnes in weight: the bronze sculpture of a coffee bean that Austrian sculptor Lotte Ranft created for the “Coffee Plaza” in Hamburg’s HafenCity district. Facts, figures and quotes on Germany’s favourite beverage are depicted on the sculpture. Most recently, 162 litres of coffee were consumed in Germany per person per year. This is good for Hamburg, because coffee has been instrumental in making Hamburg’s port what it is today. Coffee was also one of the reasons for building the Speicherstadt warehouse district at the end of the 19th century, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If you want to understand these relationships, you can start a few hundred metres north of the “Coffee Plaza”, in Block R of the Speicherstadt at St. Annen-Fleet. Here, in the “Genuss Speicher”, you will meet Bärbel Dahms, the director of the coffee museum that was founded in 2015. With much enthusiasm she tells of how in Hamburg in 1887 the first coffee exchange was opened, how Hamburg quickly became the third most important trading centre for green coffee (after London and Le Havre), and how this resulted in the need to increase storage capacities for coffee sacks.

 

The warehouse district - enjoy coffee in this traditional trading hub 

Bärbel Dahms is sitting in the café of the “Genuss Speicher” with its historic red-brick walls, its creaky floorboards and massive oak beams with huge steel rivets. The roasted coffee exudes a sweetly malty and slightly burnt aroma, and visitors can choose from twelve house-roasted specialities. In the old days, the coffee storage company “Eichholtz & Consorten” resided in this warehouse. The neighbouring warehouse had a huge glass roof under which up to 300 women used to sort the raw green coffee. Back then, coffee was not roasted in the Speicherstadt, since only raw goods were allowed to be stored in the Free Port. But there were 200 commercial roasters and five dozen coffeehouses in the rest of the city. “Much more than in Vienna,” says Bärbel Dahms with a hint of resentment in her voice. “It always annoys me when people refer to Vienna as Europe's coffee capital.”

This Viennese boast is in fact not true. After all, the Neumann Kaffee Gruppe (NKG), the world’s largest coffee trading company for many years, was founded in Hamburg in 1934. Today the NKG, which is still run by a Hanseatic family, holds 46 companies in 28 countries and determines the cultivation, processing, export and import, as well as the distribution of coffee worldwide. Built at a cost of DEM 600,000, the NKG unveiled the world’s first green coffee silo in 1975 at the Sandtorkai – which was still part of the port at the time. While the silo was not nearly as elegant, it was just as round and sleek as that of the white tower that was built at the same location 33 years later. Designed by star architect Richard Meier, it has served as the company’s head office. This white tower now constitutes the heart of the “Coffee Plaza”.

The coffee stock market and traditional coffee companies 

This is where Christian Bothe works as a trader with the NKG subsidiary Bernhard Rothfos. He buys coffee for his clients – large coffee roasting companies and coffee shop chains. Twice a day, at 11am and at 2pm, the “cupping” takes place and around 300 cups of coffee are tasted. This is when Christian plays out his trump card – his extraordinary coffee palate. As one of less than ten coffee experts in Germany, he has passed the difficult “Q-Grader” test of the Quality Coffee Institute. During cupping, he takes a spoonful of coffee from each cup, sucks the coffee through his teeth with a loud slurping sound and spits it out again. This process takes just a few seconds per cup. “The slurping has to be, it adds oxygen to the coffee and helps me detect the flavours while tasting,” he explains. It is all about sorting out tainted batches, which are usually caused by a rotten or fermented bean in a bag, insect damage or simply incorrect storage: “Coffee tends to easily absorb foreign odours. Just being transported in a container that previously stored chemicals is enough to give the coffee an unfavourable taste at a later stage.”

 

(Kaffeemuseum Burg / Helena Gunnare)

From Christian’s office, you can see the Hotel “Ameron” on Sandtorkai. It is well worth the visit, even for those who are not planning to stay overnight. The public entrance to the hotel restaurant can be reached via a footbridge over the Brooksfleet canal. Opposite you can see the auction hall of the former coffee exchange, which was newly built in the 1950s on the bombed out foundations of Block O of the warehouse complex. A real gem of the Fifties: swinging doors! Mosaic floor! Chandeliers! Ceiling panelling! And of course the glass painting of the coffee harvest, depicting bright red coffee cherries and harvesters in colourful traditional costumes.

The comeback of small roasters

But also in social terms, Hamburg is a real coffee city: the Darboven and Jacobs families are from here and made coffee affordable to post-war Germans, who were craving deli products. While the Jacobs family have long since departed from the coffee business, the Darboven family continue to roast in Hamburg-Billbrook, and when the wind blows from the southeast, you can smell the coffee even north of the Alster. Hamburg is also home to the Tchibo group, who pioneered with their shop-within-a-shop concept. Last but not least, Hamburg is currently experiencing a true renaissance in small roasters.

The “Kaffeerösterei Burg” on Eppendorfer Weg is a real veteran: established in 1923, it is one out of only three coffee roasters that survived the war. Here, it is said, Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, completed his internship in the 1980s. The collection of Jens Burg is exhibited in the Kaffeemuseum Burg: coffee grinders and filters, coffee cans, cups and jugs, advertisements, music, processing machines. In short: a wonderful assortment in which every coffee fan will find his personal favourite.

Today, more than two dozen other small roasters can be found across the city, each with their own profile. Take, for instance, the mobile “Kaffee-Rösterei Elbe”, which sells organic fair trade coffee from a tiny roasting truck at weekly farmers’ markets. Or the “Stockholm Espresso Club” in Winterhude, where in summer you can get a cold brew – cold pressed coffee with a fantastic variety of aromas, or coffee from a glass-bulb syphon from 1820. For all those who want to find out where it tastes best, there is only one choice: come along and find out for yourself!