Your guide to Turkish Coffee
There is a Turkish phrase that says: ‘A single cup of coffee is remembered for 40 years’. The saying illustrates how highly regarded the drink is throughout Turkey, and serves as a reminder of the huge and historic part the country has played in spreading coffee throughout the world.
Indeed, so significant is Turkish Coffee that in 2013 Unesco gave it protected status by adding it to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage - the first beverage in the world to be granted such recognition.
It may be familiar to us the world over, yet it raises so many questions: Why is it called Turkish? Which sort of beans does it come from? How is it prepared? Can I make Turkish Coffee? Is it good for me? Who brews the best?
To many people, a cup of traditional Turkish Coffee is far more than simply a drink. It is an experience, a cultural cornerstone, a unique taste to be enjoyed one sip at a time - often invoking pleasure far beyond its flavour.
For some, it is not really a drink at all, since it is not designed to quench your thirst, but to enrich the moment - almost an art form. Unfiltered and highly caffeinated, it has real clout: the perfect Turkish Coffee recipe is strong, sweet and heavy, is like Muhammad Ali, Pavarotti and Picasso all rolled into one.
Origins of Turkish Coffee
Turkey has played a considerable part in the global spread of coffee, after coming up with its own method of preparing the beverage. If we go back half a millennium, we find coffee being grown in Ethiopia where tribes discovered its stimulant effect. Arabian traders introduced these plants to the Middle East, in Yemen, where a drink made from their boiled seeds became popular. The first commercial cultivation of coffee has been traced back to the 15th century, in Mocha on the Yemeni shores of the Red Sea. At that time it was part of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled a swathe of land extending around the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea, across North Africa to the Persian Gulf.
The popularity of coffee spread northwards through Egypt and Syria, then, in the 1530s, one Ozdemir Pasha, the Ottoman Empire's governor of Yemen, introduced it to Istanbul, the Ottoman capital. It quickly became a favourite of the Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, so much so that dozens of specialist coffee makers were employed in the royal palace. In just a few years coffee houses had opened all over Istanbul, and the brewing method invented by the Turks led to the drink we now know as ‘Turkish Coffee’. It left an indelible stamp, not just in the kitchen, but on society as a whole.
Thanks to Turkey's geographical position as a trading hub between Europe, Asia and Africa, coffee beans soon became an important export, as its message was spread by traders and Ottoman ambassadors. At first, it was rather expensive and hailed chiefly for its stimulant purposes, but soon sales climbed and prices fell so that by the middle of the 17th century it was being sold from street stalls in Italy. In the 1680s, Venice saw the birth of its first coffee houses, where customers loved to drink Turkish Coffee much as we do now - as a social occasion, accompanied by friendly conversation and sweet foods. So the Turkish Coffee cup became far more than a drink, and more like the spark of a social movement. The houses where it was served became centres of culture and society; customers would meet to exchange stories, relate news, play chess, sit and talk at leisure, and, naturally, indulge in trading. At first, coffee in Europe was sold only as green coffee beans: you placed an order and the merchant delivered the goods raw and in sacks. As you had to roast and grind the beans yourself, the quality was unpredictable, and drinking Turkish Coffee was still something for society's better-off. It was only when merchants in Italy began to supply the coffee houses with ready-roasted beans that it really took off as a popular drink. Coffee houses powered their way through Europe, to Rome and Paris: by the early 18th Century there were 2,000 of them in London alone.
How do you make Turkish Coffee?
First of all, the right beans are essential - you're looking for something nicely roasted with a strong, fruity, bittersweet flavour. If the roasted beans have a delicious, fresh aroma, you're on the right track. The fresher the roast, the better the brew. And there is no such thing as Turkish Coffee beans.
When the Ottomans brewed their first cup back in the 16th century, their beans were from Ethiopia, via Mocha in Yemen. So, if you want to stick to the tradition when making Turkish Coffee and guarantee the best flavour, go for Arabica beans originating in Africa (you may find some brands bulked out with the addition of Robusta beans from South America, so it is worth checking the description).
To be absolutely authentic, you can go right back to the source - the exotic Yemeni Matari. Highly acclaimed and very expensive, this is one of the rarest coffees in the world. To connoisseurs, it is the perfect Mocha. After roasting, it produces a rich, chocolatey flavour and aroma. Continental and Italian roasts also work well when brewed in the Turkish-fashion, as do India's Mysore Coffee and Monsoon Malabar.
The coffee preparation technique
Making the perfect traditional Turkish Coffee is not something that can be learnt overnight - or even over weeks. It is an intricate skill that has been handed down through generations, often by word of mouth. Family life is steeped in coffee. It is such a part of their lifestyle and tradition that you just cannot imagine a household, bar or restaurant in Turkey without a set of Turkish Coffee cups and the knowledge to brew it. And everybody likes to add a little personal extra - spices in the coffee or little sweets on the side. The same drink is massively popular in Greece, Arabia, Armenia and the Balkans - although for various reasons it is not called "Turkish".
Preparation demands some specialist techniques. First of all, good-quality roasted beans need to be very finely ground (ideally by hand) in a mill or a mortar until they are turned into a smooth powder; the finer the better because the coffee grounds are left at the bottom of the cup. The next step is to put the coffee powder, cold water and, according to taste, sugar in the cezve. The Cezve is the Turkish Coffee pot, long-handled and made from copper with a pouring rim. It is an essential item in every kitchen in Turkey. Elsewhere it is often known as an ibrik. Apart from sugar, other spicy or fruity flavourings can be added to the brew; cardamom is a popular addition, as is cocoa powder. In parts of North Africa and the Middle East, ground figs are often mixed with the powdered coffee.
Then the coffee pot goes on the stove and is heated slowly. Just before it comes to a boil, foam forms on the surface of the liquid. The barista will let the coffee froth gently for a few moments. That's the time to take the pot off the heat and pour the brew slowly and evenly into small coffee cups. It must have foam on top. It is served with a glass of cold water and a sweet cake, dates, chocolate or Turkish Delight. It is best left to stand for a minute before drinking, so the grounds settle to the bottom. Espresso cups can be used, but you will get a better result with Turkish Coffee cups.
It doesn't end there. Turkish Coffee comes with a cultural and social side. A good host will want to get it right and make his guest feel welcome and at home. In some families, it is still a marriage tradition: the potential bride will make Turkish Coffee for her future mother-in-law as a demonstration of her suitability to join the family; and another little trick is for the woman to add a touch of salt instead of sugar to test her suitor's reaction. Another common ceremony is fortune-telling: after the drink is finished, the coffee cup is rotated, turned upside-down on its saucer and left to cool. The drinker’s fortune is read in the grounds on the saucer.
Turkish Coffee essential tools
You won't be able to make good quality Turkish Coffee without a few essential pieces of equipment. It's easy enough to purchase an ibrik or cezve to brew your Turkish Coffee at home and if you don't have a Middle Eastern style coffee cup, then an espresso cup will suffice. Pots come in a choice of materials, from the traditional beaten copper with silver lining to glass, ceramic or stainless steel, each with a wide base, distinctive long handle and pouring brim. If you prefer, you can use a small saucepan instead - perhaps to hone your technique before buying a traditional pot.
The other essential is a Turkish Coffee grinder. Some baristas start by grinding the beans in an electric mill then finishing with a manual grinder or mortar; others stick to doing the whole process by hand. Finely ground coffee is essential for a Turkish brew - 20 times finer than espresso is ideal. The beans themselves should be as freshly roasted as possible for all recipes.
Alternatively, you could take the easy route and buy an automated, all-electric Turkish Coffee maker. One of these will make your drink, slowly brewed with foam on top, inside four minutes and dispense it straight into cups. All you have to do is put the coffee grounds in the little compartment, pour water into the pot and switch the machine on. Your guests may never know their coffee has not been lovingly prepared by your own fair hand! Of course, you won't have the satisfaction that comes from making your personal Turkish Coffee with your own individual touch.
Who makes the best Turkish Coffee?
Ultimately this is a matter of individual taste. As with your regular coffee, there are so many little touches that a barista can use to enhance the drink in a particularly personal way. But to be the best, you need to be measured against your peers. Turkish Coffee's popularity has spread worldwide and is no longer the preserve of the country that discovered it. Many young people have entered the field of specialist baristas, keen to go beyond the espresso, cappuccino and latte of the big coffee shop and brew something really special. The annual Cezve/Ibrik Championship attracts professional competitors from all over the globe and the top places in recent years were filled by Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Romania, United Arab Emirates, Germany and Italy.
While respecting the traditions of this time-honoured form of preparing coffee, prospective champions are judged on their technique, their varied recipes and modern approaches to brewing. This illustrates the nuances in style and flavour of many different cultures around the world.
Is Turkish Coffee good for me?
A cup of Turkish Coffee delivers a strong hit of caffeine, wherein lie its potential health benefits. Caffeine is believed, for example, to delay the onset of muscle fatigue by helping your body to use its own fat reserves as energy. Coffee may be just the thing before a workout! Reasonable consumption, up to five cups of coffee a day, helps you focus and stay mentally alert.
Some studies indicate that a Turkish Coffee drinker's general risk of early death is 25% lower than those who don't drink coffee. Unfiltered coffee, such as Turkish, also contains potassium and magnesium, which reduces our craving for sugary biscuits and snacks, and many antioxidants beneficial to health. Research suggests that moderate consumption of coffee reduces the risk of stroke and some forms of cancer. Studies also indicate that drinking Turkish Coffee lowers the risk of developing Parkinson's disease by more than 20 per cent.
Set against the health benefits of Turkish Coffee, however, is that nasty, five-letter word: SUGAR. Too much of the sweetener, in any form, is bad for our health and typically, many people add sugar generously to their drink.
Frisky Goats and Angelic Gifts
Since it has been around for six decades, it's not surprising that Turkish Coffee has found its way into so many stories, legends and verse.
From being part of the daily routine in Ethiopia, coffee spread first to Arabia, thanks to the influence of Middle Eastern traders; around the 11th century, Arabians found that roasting the beans before adding the hot water made a delicious drink. But it would be centuries before this particular beverage acquired the name of Turkish Coffee and was produced commercially. In the meantime, individuals continued to create their own coffee recipes.
One of the favourite stories concerns Kaldi, a goatherd in seventh-century Ethiopia. He noticed that his flock were acting oddly, leaping around and staying wide awake throughout the night. The frisky animals had been eating the berries of a shrub. Intrigued, he picked some of the berries and tried them out for himself. They had the same stimulant effect on him as they did on the goats, keeping him awake. Kaldi had discovered what we now call caffeine. News of the goats' behaviour reached a local monastery, and one of the monks visited Kaldi, asking to see the plant. The goatherd showed him the coffee plant and the monk picked some beans, crushed them in a cup and added hot water. He had made the first cup of coffee with a very simple brewing method. Pleased with the taste and stimulating effects, he took the idea back to his monastery where his fellow monks took to the drink, and the concept of ground coffee spread slowly from there.
Turkish Coffee has also been an indispensable part of Muslim culture. Legend has it that the Angel Gabriel brewed a cup of it for mortally wounded prophet Mohammed, who after drinking the "elixir from God" rose from his deathbed, strode into battle to defeat 40 horsemen then still had the energy to satisfy 40 women. Another ancient story tells us that King Solomon was instructed by Gabriel to make a drink of coffee for the inhabitants of a town who had been taken seriously ill; after drinking the potion they all revived.
What does Turkish Coffee taste like?
Less legendary and more factual is the universal appeal of Turkish Coffee. Its powerful flavour and colour and tradition have an indelible feature of society, not only in the country where it originated but across the globe.
According to history, an old Turkish proverb says: "Coffee should be as dark as Hell, strong as death and sweet as love." But perhaps the last word on the iconic drink should go to Sheikh Abd-al-Kadir, writing In Praise of Coffee as far back as 1587: "Coffee is the common man's gold, and like gold, it brings to every person the feeling of luxury and nobility."
Our finely ground coffee beans suit any Turkish Coffee pot or maker. Each coffee will have its own distinctive taste and aroma, so you may already have your favourite. However, we highly recommend you make Turkish Coffee with our Monsoon Malabar Coffee, Golden Crema Coffee, Kenya Blue Mountain Coffee, or Italian Coffee.