Russian cuisine and Russian vodka are the first things that come to mind when one is planning to visit Russia. Tea? Maybe. Coffee? Definitely not.
Meanwhile almost every major city has a place where bearded and tattooed guys will brew you a cappuccino that tastes like it came from the famous coffee shop in Berlin, or prepare a Chemex brew following a traditional Japanese recipe. It can be safely said that the “third coffee wave” — a term used to denote the shift in attitude towards seeing coffee as a delicacy currently taking place in the world — has reached Russia.
In this aspect, Russia — the birthplace of the samovar — and the UK, with its traditional five o’clock tea, are very much alike. Independent coffee shops have begun sprouting up in London only in the last 10 years, whereas in Scandinavia and Italy black coffee consumption can be dated at least a century back.
But this doesn’t mean that Russia doesn’t have its own coffee history. It does — and what a history it is!
It is generally believed that coffee was first brought to Russia by Tsar Peter the Great along with an array of other “foreign delights” such as tobacco smoking. However, the first Russian historical chronicle (The Primary Chronicle, compiled in 1113 AD) mentions that the Grand Prince of Kiev Vladimir Svyatoslavovich drank this thick beverage, known then as “kava”
Nevertheless, it was in Saint Petersburg and encouraged by Tsar Peter the Great that morning coffee gradually became a routine, while Moscow preferred tea. Perhaps the Northern capital’s preferences were influenced by local Germans, Balts and Finns.
The Soviet leadership saw coffee as an attribute of bourgeois luxury. Up until the mid-1930’s coffee, along with a range of other delicacies, could be purchased only with gold or foreign currency and was available to just a select few.
In the mid-1960’s coffee returned to the USSR under Nikita Khrushchev. It became available at grocery stores and catering establishments, and cafes started getting equipped with Hungarian espresso machines. However, coffee became scarce soon after Khrushchev’s Thaw and was replaced by the cheaper chicory or even such unusual drinks as acorn or barley coffee (which we do not recommend you try. Ever.)
In 1991 instant Columbian and Brazilian coffee became available in stores and, unfortunately, remains popular in many households to this day.
Nevertheless, over the past 5-10 years the coffee shop industry has truly flourished in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Coffee shops in the Northern capital are mostly cheap and authentic, very few can even be considered posh. Moscow coffee shops tend to focus more on aesthetics and atmosphere.
Rules of thumb
If you’re planning to go on a coffee tour through one of the capitals, keep in mind that local coffee shops are open on weekdays and weekends from 7-8 am until late night. The patrons are mostly liberal youth and, to a lesser extent, office workers. What’s interesting is that Russians actively drink coffee in the evenings as well as in the mornings. This is probably more to enjoy the flavor or as a fashion statement rather than an energy boost.
Most of the noteworthy coffee shops are located downtown and near subway stations. This is very convenient, as it means you can split the tour into two or three days and combine it with sightseeing (which we highly recommend). If you find lodging in a coffee shop-rich neighbourhood, you are ensuring a great start to your day.
What is Russian coffee like?
Coffee drinkers in Russia still prefer dairy drinks. They’re essentially drinking milk rather than coffee! Cappuccino and latte rule the sales. Speaking of dairy drinks, the only indigenous Russian coffee recipe is espresso, sugar and cream whipped together in a pitcher.
Nevertheless, some “third wave” coffee shops can refuse to prepare a Raf coffee or add sugar into your drink (for example, Moscow’s “Cooperative Black”). Others intentionally lower the price of black coffee (for example, the Double B chain). This is done intentionally to get people used to drinking good black coffee.
Coffee in the capital: getting your fix in Moscow
Russia’s largest chain of coffee shops operating around the world. The team buy and roast the beans themselves and prepare their own syrups for original coffee beverages. You get to choose from espresso, latte, lungo, ristretto or alternatively brewed coffee recipes.
The most important thing you need to know about Cooperative “Black” is that they are Moscow’s main coffee geeks whose goals are to brew the best damn espressos in the city and nurture the local coffee culture. Black coffee makes up 45% of their coffee sales. They offer coffee with milk – but no raf or syrups.
Address: 5 Lyalin Pereulok
“Chelovek I Parokhod” at the Danilovsky market
The “Chelovek i Parokhod» coffee shop is a great occasion to visit the Danilovsky market, Moscow’s legendary food shopping venue. The coffee shop team do everything themselves, from coffee bean buying and roasting to the actual preparation. If you want to try something different, ask for their original filtered coffee with curry and lemon, or a cold brew with condensed coconut milk.
West4 Brew Bar
A New York style coffee shop located near the Cathedral of Christ our Savior. An authentic experience with brick walls, old chairs with worn leather covers, jazz, soul and disco played from vinyl records, live jazz concerts on Fridays and consistently high-quality coffee (classic, alternative and original drinks), including truly outstanding espresso.
The stars of Saint Petereburg’s coffee scene
If you ask St. Petersburg’s coffeeheads where the best coffee is, most of them will say “BolsheCoffee!” at the Alexandrovsky Park grotto. Two of the city’s best baristas: Nikolay Gotko and Nikolay Yalansky – own the coffee shop and roast the beans themselves. Apart from coffee, the café also offers home-made desserts, breakfast and salads.
Bonch, created by restaurateur Mikhail Georgievsky, is a coffee and tea bar located on Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa. The bar offers freshly roasted coffee, a wide range of desserts, business lunches, appetizer wines, a pleasant interior and Moscow-like prices, which should be kept in mind.
A typical “third wave” coffee shop with good beans from local roasters, a legendary Dutch Kees van der Westen coffee machine that sets the tone of the interior (very light, with huge windows) and a menu that features alternative recipes and creamy rafs with halva or pumpkin.
A small family coffee shop on the Fontanka river offering inexpensive, yet quality coffee, juices and smoothies. Coffee is taken very seriously here. The coffee shop holds daily cuppings and brews unusual mixes which the owners and their friends bring from their travels around the worlds and various championships. You may be glad to know that four-legged patrons are also welcome at the coffee shop, since the third «owner» is the family’s adorable beagle.