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Coffee Lovers and Bulgarian Coffee

Bulgarians love a shot of their favourite Bulgarian coffee! Wander round any city town or village before everyone starts work and you will see them with their plastic cups, cigarettes and for many a bottle of Coca Cola - an additional wakeup call before a day's work.

It's not only early morning that Bulgarians need their caffeine shot; most will drink it throughout the day because coffee drinking is a Bulgarian tradition and national pastime, but the traditional Bulgarian brew has encountered a few new friends of late.

Coffee's History

Coffee was discovered in the 9th century in Ethiopia when highland shepherds chewed coffee beans after they noticed the energising effects it had on their goats when they chewed at the bushes! The habit quickly spread to Yemen and Egypt and when it reached Arabia they started to grind the beans and brew them with hot water. By the 15th century it had become a key part of the Muslim world with strong roots in Turkey, Persia and North Africa. In 1600 it was approved by Pope Clement VIII as a suitable Christian beverage. His approval ensured the spread of coffee throughout Europe. Over the centuries coffee has become a significant part of everyday life so much so that it used to be used in religious ceremonies in Yemen and Africa. It was most likely introduced to Bulgaria by the coffee-slurping Ottoman Turks during the Middle Ages, but the beverage was actually banned throughout the Empire during the 17th century because it was considered to be a drink of European rebels!

The Coffee Bush

The beans come from the berries of the small Coffea bush, an evergreen with various varieties, abundant in South America, Africa and South East Asia. When the berries ripen, they are picked and dried. The seeds inside are then roasted to various degrees according to the flavour required, which causes some chemical changes. The rest is obvious, the beans are ground down and there you have coffee as we know it.

Bulgarians and Coffee

The rich dark brew that Bulgarians love today was introduced to them by the Ottoman Turks who liked their coffee strong and thick - today this black coffee is often called Turkish coffee. The Turks taught the Bulgarians how to grind the coffee beans into a fine powder and then to mix it with hot water in a narrow-topped pot, called a "djezve," which comes from the Turkish word "cezve." Once the brew is mixed together it is brought to the boil and then removed from the heat - sometimes it is returned to the heat again and again - as often as two or three times. The resulting liquid is a dark brown, strong sludge with a layer of foam on the top and a thick layer of ground beans on the bottom. It is served with heaps of sugar in small clay cups. As more and more ways of brewing coffee were introduced across Europe mainly by innovative Italians and latterly by American coffee conglomerates, Bulgaria added a new and unique brew to its coffee roster - that of ‘Milyako s Nes,' or milk with Nescafe. One might be forgiven for thinking that this would satisfy those who preferred weaker, milky coffee, however this Bulgarian beverage is literally a mug of hot foamed milk with several teaspoons of coffee on top and the coffee is not always Nescafe!

Coffee as a Social Phenomenon

After a few centuries of hardened coffee drinking, the beverage had taken over Europe's leading hot drink tea as the beverage of choice for social drinking. During the Ottoman Empire, cafe houses sprouted up all over the country and became a hotbed for intellectuals to meet. Revolutionary groups during the 19th century plotted and planned how to overthrow the ruling Turks over a cup of coffee and the drink that was originally introduced into Bulgaria by its rulers the Turks became a part of their demise.

When Bulgaria was formally declared an independent state in 1908, there were hundreds of small coffee shops across the country. They continued to be meeting places for the intelligentsia, a new emerging business class and those with political aspirations. The notion as the cafe as a romantic meeting place, was non-existent as women were not allowed to frequent cafes in Bulgaria at this time.

As time progressed and everyone became equal under the banner of Communism, coffee took on more casual undertones; tea had always been a more formal drink associated with tea ceremonies and the upper classes of the British Empire and in nations like Bulgaria where half of the population are smokers, it was deemed the perfect accompaniment to cigarettes. Coffee was seen as a welcoming beverage in Bulgarian households particularly with women who still invite friends for coffee served with cake, biscuits and a soft drink. For the younger generation it became the adrenalin rush that enabled them to work and play hard.

The Invasion of the Coffee Snatchers

During the 20th century, more ingenious ways were found to brew and serve coffee and they too were introduced into Bulgaria, drinks like strong dark espresso, cappuccino served a little differently in Bulgaria than it is in the rest of Europe. Here it is really a cup of espresso coffee served with milk. Another popular and somewhat unique concoction served in Bulgaria goes under the brand name "Nescafe," but isn't always made from coffee from the Swiss company Nestle who own the brand. The odd thing about a cup of Bulgarian Nescafe is that it is served as a cup of hot foamed milk with a teaspoon of ground coffee on top. As Bulgaria developed at a rapid pace during the 21st century it came to the attention of the large international boutique coffee houses who saw a captive, under-exploited coffee loving market waiting to be exploited. Hence the giants with their trendy brand names, Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Coffee Republic and Coffee Heaven, moved in setting up boutique chains in all major cities. They came from far and wide, from the UK, America and even Poland with their stylish environments, diverse varieties of coffee bends and high prices. What had originally cost a mere 80 Stotinkis was now costing Bulgarians who craved the trappings of a Western lifestyle over 3 lv. a cup. In response the Bulgarians came up with their own ‘lifestyle' coffee boutiques with the introduction of the Onda Coffee Break and the Coffee House and Enjoy Cafe chains.

Thus, Bulgarian coffee lovers have more choice now than the formica-tabled, dowdy coffee shops of old and whilst the prices may be higher and an international economic crisis in full swing, the up and coming Bulgarian middle classes are not deterred and the new coffee boutiques are full with Bulgarian coffee lovers and addicts.