City of Coffee: Houston Coffee Culture

Some people drink coffee for the jolt. Some people drink it for the flavor. But coffee is, in fact, part of an ancient social ritual as elaborate as the culture of alcohol.

Ethiopian Coffee

Blue Nile Restaurant

9400 Richmond, 713-782-6882

At $10 for three people, or $20 dollars for six, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony at Blue Nile Ethiopian restaurant is one of those exotic luxuries we can all afford. The coffee ceremony is an ancient and integral part of Ethiopian culture.

First the frankincense is lit, and then you are given a basket of popcorn — it is customary to enjoy a salty snack with your coffee. Blue Nile buys the best imported Ethiopian coffee and then hand-washes, hand-crushes and roasts it for the coffee ceremony. The beans are brought to your table so you can take in the aroma.

The fresh-roasted coffee is then brewed in a traditional clay pot called a jebena that is balanced on a straw ring. Hot water is added to the beans in three distinct brewings; the first is called abol, the second tona and the third baracka.

It is impolite to stop before the baracka, which is said to bestow a blessing. Luckily, the cups are very small.

Turkish and Bosnian Coffee

Turquoise Grill Brick Oven Bistro

3701 Kirby Dr., 713-526-3800

Empire Turkish Grill

12448 Memorial Dr., 713-827-7475

Cafe Pita +

10890 Westheimer, 713-953-7237

There were no bars or taverns in the alcohol-free Ottoman Empire, so the coffeehouse was the center of social life. And it was the Turks who gave us many of our coffeehouse traditions. My friends from Bosnia and Croatia consider it vaguely antisocial to drink coffee at home. You drink coffee in a coffeehouse. But having a Turkish or Bosnian coffee is not like knocking back a quick cup of joe in a diner — it's a social occasion.

The preparation of Turkish-style coffee is very complex. The powdery coffee grounds are slowly cooked with cold water over a gentle heat source in a single-serving copper ewer until the highly desirable foam forms on top and the fine grounds sink to the bottom. There are various methodologies; some call for double or triple heating.

In Turkish coffeehouses, you specify the degree of sweetness, and the sugar is mixed with the coffee during brewing. The four degrees of sweetness are sade (plain; no sugar), az sekerli (little sugar), orta sekerli (medium sugar), and çok sekerli (a lot of sugar). Bosnian coffee is served with sugar cubes. You put them in the bottom of the cup and pour the coffee over the top.

The coffee is often served on ornate copper platters. On each platter, you get a teaspoon and a saucer with a small, white, handle-less cup. There's also a long-handled copper ewer full of foamy hot coffee. The candy called lokum or Turkish delight is a traditional accompaniment.

The unfiltered coffee is hellaciously strong. When you get down to the thick layer of grounds in the bottom of the cup, you turn the cup over onto the saucer if you want your fortune read. Tasseomancy, as the witchcraft of reading fortunes in coffee grounds is known, is my favorite part of the Turkish coffee ritual.

Espresso Bars

Coffee Groundz

2503 Bagby, 713-874-0082

Tuscany Premium Coffee

5 E. Greenway Plaza, 713-961-0584

Catalina Coffee Shop

2201 Washington Ave., 713-861-8448

Empire Cafe

1732 Westheimer, 713-528-1847

Starbucks

Many, many locations

The first coffeehouse opened in the trading capital of Venice in 1640. It was modeled after the coffeehouses of the Ottoman Empire and served the same sort of Turkish coffee. The beverage was extremely popular, and by 1763 Venice had 218 coffee shops. The Muslim beverage gained in popularity across Italy when Pope Clement VIII declared it acceptable for Christians.

Espresso, which is made by forcing hot water under pressure through finely ground coffee, was invented in Italy around the beginning of the 20th century. Luigi Bezzera of Milan filed a patent for a lever-and-piston-operated espresso machine in 1901. Espresso became the base for other popular coffee drinks, including cappuccino, latte and macchiato.

In 1948, Gaggia introduced a spring-piston espresso machine that was capable of producing higher pressure. Cimbali introduced a hydraulic machine in 1956. In 1960, the first electric pump-operated espresso machine debuted — the FAEMA E61 began the history of the modern espresso bar.

Decent Restaurant Coffee

Houston's Restaurant

(several locations)

Kojak's Cafe

1912 W. 18th St., 713-426-1800

Crave Cupcakes

1151 Uptown Park Blvd., 713-622-7283

Kraftsmen Baking

4100c Montrose, 713-524-3737

McDonald's

(Look for the golden arches)

The average cup of coffee in Houston is a cheap robusta blend brewed weak. For a good cup of coffee, look for some indication on the menu that the restaurant is using a 100 percent arabica blend. Believe it or not, McDonald's uses excellent coffee beans in its exclusive blend — too bad they brew it so weak. Upscale restaurants are your best bet. Many of Houston's top chefs have created their own exclusive blends.

 
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