I had the perfect set-up: a table facing the window, a comfortable wooden chair draped in a sheepskin, a view of Gothenburg in the rain, a steaming filter coffee. Of those four wonderful things, I was most excited about one—the coffee! I had chosen it and the café with great care. The coffee was Ethiopian, a special variety that Ava, the owner of this café, sources responsibly from organic farmers in East Africa. The café was one I had read about before I arrived and felt drawn to because of its dedication to excellence in coffee but also its commitment to sustainability across its business—from the supply of its ingredients to the working culture there in Sweden. Before settling on my filter, I had a wonderful conversation with Ava about how she chooses her beans and her unique approach to making various coffee delights. Her secret: precision is important, so always weigh the grounds before brewing. For several hours that afternoon, I watched the rain dance on the low, brick buildings of this southern Swedish city, sipping my coffee and feeling a unique sort of caffeinated bliss.
For me, coffee is as close to a religion as I come to. The rich smell of espresso permeates my dreams and I have, no exaggeration here, dreamt in a world made up of latte foam art. Given my inclination for this stimulating beverage, it comes as no surprise that I’m in the business myself, in one of the coffee capitals of the world: Los Angeles. When I decided that I wanted to explore Europe, I opted to center my travels around coffee, especially the fourth wave coffee shops that exist in many smaller creative cities and focus on top quality and ethical sourcing. What did I want to achieve in my travels? Above all, I wanted to explore what cafés in Europe were doing, how they balanced centuries of tradition with modern techniques. But…so you don’t think I’m totally nuts, I also wanted to do other things aside from coffee, especially explore Europe’s smaller cities where young creatives congregate and where life is a bit slower than in the big capitals. Coffee and cafés, it seemed to me, would be a great structure to visit Europe, a sort of guide that would enable me to meet people, hear about local events, and learn something about the culture.
Gothenburg was first on my list. Every coffee person I know as well as all the best coffee books listed this city as a haven for this lovely drink. Ava, from the introduction, was the first owner I met. Aside from the lovely coffee and warm hospitality she showed me, she also introduced me to Axel, a regular at the café, who in turn gave me excellent advice on what to do in the city. He suggested I visit the Linné neighborhood, an up-and-coming quarter where young artists had set up shop over the last few years. As it happened, there was a pop-up gallery there, and he suggested I check it out. That afternoon, I strolled through this area, looking at the creations of young Swedish artists. There was also a gallery that had a live dance show to music from an electronic musician who was known here but had yet to break out nationally. The last thing Axel told me: check out a café just east of the Slottsskogen park. There, I had a rich double espresso made from Burundian beans. Perhaps just as good: I learned from the barista about live music that would take later that night. So far, my plan of drinking coffee and learning the lay of the land was working!
Alas, however, my time in Gothenburg would eventually come to a close after many days of wonderful coffee and many new café friends. But my trip was not finished! The other city I was dying to visit using my coffee-structure was Graz, Austria. Though Graz has a wonderful history of traditional Austrian coffeehouses, what I was most keen on discovering was the contemporary specialty cafés. Nestled in many parts of the city, young coffee entrepreneurs mix art, culture, and friendship to build wonderful café communities. My first coffee destination was one in the northeast part of the city, not far from the Stadtpark. The owner, who I soon learned was a young man called Jan, was kind enough to show me his roastery. Through a door behind the main café area, I was excited to see sack upon sack of green coffee beans and a batch of beans being roasted at that very moment. For twenty minutes, Jan and I exchanged tips and information on roasting, responsible sourcing, and the best machinery for grinding. As it turned out, we even had some coffee colleagues in common. Before returning to the main room of the café, Jan even invited me to a small gathering of coffee professionals that would take place later that night. I had a few hours to pass before then, which I spent drinking a delightful flat white made by Jan’s colleague, and people–watching while seated on the terrace. Later that night, I spent four hours drinking beer, eating local appetizers, and talking coffee. It was splendid.
When I reflect on my time in Europe, sure, the coffee sticks out as an amazing memory. I loved exploring young cafes and tasting their best concoctions. But the most important part of my travels were the people I made through coffee. Ava and Gothenburg was lovely and hospitable. Jan in Graz was open and welcoming. With contemporary café culture as my way into Europe, I made new friends, had local experiences, and truly discovered the two cities I visited. That’s my tip to you: maybe coffee isn’t your thing, but there are any number of “obsessions” you could use to connect with the places you visit. Perhaps you love craft beer or contemporary sculpture or foraging, or cosplay—communities of people who love these things too are waiting for you in Europe.