Turkish coffee: Past forward!

Turkish coffee: Past forward!

Last week, Dec. 5 was declared as World Turkish Coffee Day. Earlier, in 2013, “Turkish Coffee Culture and Tradition” was the first beverage to be included in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Turkish coffee has a history of roughly 500 years. Actually, coffee was first introduced to the Western world by the Ottomans. So, what exactly is Turkish coffee?

Turkish coffee is first and foremost a method of cooking coffee. Here, it is necessary to draw attention to the word “cooking.” Coffee and water are heated together over the fire in the coffee pot called “cezve” in Turkish and brought to the boiling point, while in other coffee preparation methods, coffee is either brewed with hot water or prepared by passing steam through the coffee granules.

Turkish coffee is never filtered. The coffee is transferred to the drinking cup, with tiny coffee ground particles slowly settling at the bottom, forming thick mud-like sediment called “telve” in Turkish. That bit is never drunk, but sometimes becomes the fun part of enjoying a cup of coffee; through these coffee ground particles, one can see the future. Turkish coffee fortune telling is a much-practiced pastime in Turkey. This sediment is almost creamy, and when the cup is turned upside down, it forms those mysterious patterns that supposedly tell you about your destiny.

Coming back to the coffee itself, the usual coffee choice is medium roasted Arabica coffee, but according to preference, the roasting degree is adjusted to personal tastes. But the foremost secret to Turkish coffee is hidden in grounding the coffee. To make Turkish coffee, one has to use extremely finely ground, almost pulverized coffee. In that way, some of the coffee particles are dispersed in the coffee so that it resembles a thick solution, giving a satisfactory mouthfeel with each sip taken. The finely ground coffee particles also create a nice foam; it is essential to watch over the coffee pot so that it does not boil over and ruin the froth that forms when the solution is about to reach the boiling point. That frothy bit is carefully transferred to the coffee cup, usually dainty little cups like espresso cups, but with a finer wall thickness, preferably porcelain. To increase the frothy bit, the coffee is brought to the boiling point more than once, usually twice or thrice, transferring the froth to the cup with each rise. In short, Turkish coffee is not filtered, thus it is not clear but opaque, it has a thicker consistency, and it is the only coffee method that is drunk in this way. A perfect cup of Turkish coffee has three levels: The frothy bit on top that gives the first sip a distinctive satisfactory feeling; the coffee itself, thick and warm, like cuddling a blanket on a cold day; and the sediment that is left in the cup, or sometimes licked by some (like myself) to stretch that coffee taste a bit longer. Needless to say, that seemingly useless part may contain precious clues about your future.

During the Ottoman period, coffee came from Yemen. Its origin was Ethiopia. The Ottomans discovered coffee following the conquest of Yemen after the Ridaniye war in 1517. According to 17th-century historian Peçevi, the first coffeehouse in Istanbul was opened in 1554. By 1582, the fame of coffee had spread across Europe. Venetian Ambassador to Istanbul Francesco Morosini reported that Turks drink “Acqua Nera,” a black and hot liquid, and that they gather several times in a day for this accompanied by a heated conversation. German botanist Leonhard Rauwolf records coffee the same year. Coffee was first introduced to Venice by the Ottomans, and then to Marseille, Oxford, London and Paris, respectively. As early as 1607, Captain John Smith brought coffee to America. Meanwhile, Dutch traders smuggled coffee saplings from the port of Mocha in Yemen and initiated the first plantations as of 1658 in distant geographies, such as Sri Lanka, Java and Sumatra. In 1670, the first coffeehouse opened in Boston. In the 1700s, coffee began to be grown on plantations in Brazil and ruled the world coffee market, so much so that starting from the 1730s, Brazilian coffee began to come to the Ottoman market, even to a distant point, such as Erzurum. In short, since then, we have started to consume coffee of Brazilian origin. Ottomans may have introduced coffee to the world but missed the opportunity to control its production and trade worldwide.

There is an often-repeated false story that coffee was introduced to the Western world when Turks left coffee sacks behind after the unsuccessful Second Siege of Vienna in 1683. I have drafted a chronology study that combines the history of Turkish coffee with the coffee history in the world from the Ottoman period to the present for the exhibition “A Drop of Pleasure: 500 Years of Turkish Coffee” opened at Topkapı Palace in 2015. That study showed very clearly that the real history, as I mentioned above, is very different. For some reason, this story is repeated a lot as if there was something to be proud of in leaving the coffee sacks to be looted while retreating after a failed siege.

Interestingly though coffee was spread with Turks, the technique of making Turkish coffee was not adopted by the world. Coffee is a culture in Turkey with its cooking technique and presentation, even including that fortune-telling ritual and conversations. However, it is not easy to make coffee carefully by watching it over the fire, to watch the moment when the foam rises, and to serve a cup of coffee perfectly from its grounds to its foam. It is even more difficult to adopt this unique method to technology. The reason for the spread of Italian espresso all over the world, including Turkey, was with the coffee machines developed in the 1900s. However, in Turkey, the tradition was not converted to technology till 2002, when an Arçelik design team started to explore possibilities. The transition from the traditional coffee pot “cezve” to the first-ever Turkish coffee machine, meaningfully named Telve, was in 2004. This very first machine lifted the obstacle for the spread of Turkish coffee to the world. A total of 12 patents were developed for the first Telve prototype, ranging from sensors that detect the rise of foam to mechanisms that cut off the heat instantly under the coffee pot at the exact time of foam rise, all simulating the traditional method. As Arçelik Industrial Design Director Serdal Korkut Avcı states, when the Telve machine first emerged as an idea in 2002, perhaps such a need in the Turkish market was not even considered. Today, 14 companies in Turkey and four companies in Germany produce Turkish coffee machines. In this way, Turkish coffee has become accessible to all, with the same pleasure and satisfaction guarantee all over the world. Now, aptly named Telve Café opened last week within the Rahmi M. Koç Museum in Haliç, the entire design process can be viewed since day one, displaying several Red Dot and İF Design award-winning models. Museum director Mina Sofuoğlu underlines the importance of linking tradition and technology, and as an industrial museum, they are proud to establish this invaluable link for the future of sustaining the tradition. Thanks to Telve, we are at a point to leave the false coffee-sack story in Vienna and talk about the new conquest of Turkish coffee worldwide; that’s what I call past-forward!

Two exhibitions on Turkish coffee:
Apart from the story of Telve machine in display at the Telve coffee, there are two exhibitions that give a thorough insight to all the traditional paraphernalia used in the preparation and serving of Turkish coffee, all from the collection of Nihal-Murat Sungur Bursa, a couple dedicated to Turkish coffee culture. The first one titled “Coffee-East and West” has opened a few months ago in Jerusalem, Israel, at the Museum of Islamic Art, open till May 2022. The second one is closer, in İzmit, titled “From Bean to Cup, Turkish Coffee”, open till Feb. 5, 2022. Both are worth visiting who happen to be close.