Watered down espresso is not the same thing
Of all the cultural challenges of moving to Europe from the U.S.—learning to think in kilometers and kilograms, remembering that a two euro coin is not a giant quarter—the greatest for me so far has been finding a straightforward cup of coffee. I don’t mean to suggest Europe doesn’t have coffee. It’s everywhere, served in smoky cafe-bars and subway-station snack stands alike—but it’s almost all espresso.
There’s nothing wrong with espresso per se, especially if your preferred afternoon pick-me-up is a latte or a macchiato, or the tres euro doppio espresso, sipped standing at a coffee counter. But I prefer my coffee drip, black, and in double-digit ounce quantities. I’ve begun to accept the fact that, more than my accented German or my New Yorker’s insistence on crossing against the don’t walk signal, my taste in coffee may be the most American thing about me.
It is, of course, possible to find drip coffee in Germany, but your surest bet is an American coffee chain like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts. Most other coffee shops and bakeries feature espresso or a kind of industrial-size coffee automat, which brews coffee in single servings at the press of a button. The coffee that comes out of these machines is abhorrent, which I say as someone with a true and earnest affinity for rest stop gas station drip coffee. Machine drip coffee is just rude.
The absence of drip coffee in Germany particularly is ironic, since the first auto-drip coffee machine was actually invented here. The first coffee filter was patented by a woman from Dresden named Melitta Bentz—as in Melitta coffee filters—in 1908, as a corrective to percolated coffee, which because of its mechanics was brewed too at too high a temperature, making it taste bitter. More than a hundred years later, a pour-over coffee will cost you around $4 in Brooklyn, which is not much less than what it would cost to buy a plastic Melitta coffee filter cone at your local Bed, Bath & Beyond.
The incredibly named Wigomat coffee machine was invented by Gottlob Widmann and patented in Germany in 1954, and is rather a pretty object, as coffee machines go. The New Yorker wrote of it in 1977, “The Wigomat coffee machine, also found at Zabar's, is a well-designed European model operating on much the same principle (though it uses less coffee) as the generally uglier American machines such as Mr. Coffee." Contemporary Mr. Coffee machines typically use a basket filter rather than a cone filter, which may contribute to more coffee use, and they certainly don’t make quite the same countertop statement as the early Wigomat machines.
But for a country that saw the invention of two of the best large-quantity brew methods (French press was invented in Italy, and, natch, is only called a French press in North America), drip and filter coffee are distressingly boutique. The most common home brew methods appear to be moka pots, stovetop espresso machines typified by the iconic Bialetti original, or Melitta cones, which are of course very nice but quite slow. It’s possible of course to make a whole pour-over pot, but between the cone, the pot, and the mug you’re drinking out of, it seems really an excessive amount of dishware.
The coffee culture in Germany may best be examined in language. The word Kaffeepause, what we would call “coffee break,” is here more literal than figurative in the sense of actually being a break. A coffee break in New York City is likely to mean the five or ten minutes it takes to walk to the corner and back for a cup of coffee, whereas in Germany it often means something more like tea time. Kaffee und Kuchen, “coffee and cakes,” is another such event, in which people sit around and drink coffee.
I associate coffee so much with travel—walking to or from the subway, or grabbing a coffee with a friend and taking a walk through a park in Midtown—that the idea of sitting and drinking coffee without either a laptop or a subway novel in front of my face seems more foreign than it probably should. My fixation on coffee quantity and speed runs counter to the stereotypically European pace of life, which only makes me antsy. Maybe I’m beyond help.
They do sell Mr. Coffee-like drip coffee machines for around €20 at Woolworth, a chain that still exists in Germany, but I haven’t yet succumbed to the temptation. As much as I would love to wake up, flip on the pot, and work my way through 60ish ounces of coffee in the course of a morning, as was my habit at home in Brooklyn, I’m trying to assimilate. So far this has meant making two successive 10-oz moka pots of coffee cut with boiling water to make four successive americanos, but I’m getting there.
On the occasions I treat myself to a good old Dunkin’ Donuts Amikaffee, “American coffee,” I’m comforted by the familiar brown-handled pot filled with a half-gallon of opaque, brown brew. I order a medium black, with a doughnut for good measure, and I’m transported to a land where caffeination comes in cups instead of shots, and always to go.