Salzburg Café Diaries: Searching for the “Coffee” in Coffeehouse

By Shauna Alexander Mohr, Consultant

In June, just after the World 2012 Barista Championships concluded in Vienna, my family traveled to Salzburg. Intentionally, I didn’t ask around in advance about good cafés or roasters. Instead, I wanted Austria’s grand coffeehouse tradition to reveal itself spontaneously. This approach had worked for me a few years ago in Sweden and Denmark, where I stumbled upon small, local roasters and some delicious and distinct coffees, alongside some more predictable but palatable fare. Austria, however, provided a different experience.

Our home for one week, Salzburg lies at the northern edge of the Alps, close to the border with Germany. The medieval Hohensalzburg Fortress dominates the city’s skyline. It sits atop a stone mountain that was quarried to build the city’s Baroque manors and churches, winding streets, and steep stairways. Huge marble horses prance in fountains, and statues commemorate the city’s famous inhabitants, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose music infuses the shops, churches, and restaurants.

Confectionaries, bakeries and beer gardens grace Salzburg’s streets. Windows display glazed sweets and cakes layered with cherries, chocolate, and whipped cream. House-made ice cream comes in flavors such as white chocolate with Nutella, green apple, double dark chocolate, fresh blackberry, and lemon mint. Leafy beer gardens offer cool lagers with grilled sausages, local cheeses, savory salads and warm pretzels.

In Salzburg, these delights are everywhere. They are hard to miss, easy to stumble upon. Which is why, with each passing day, we became increasingly perplexed: why was it so hard to find good coffee here?

On the first morning, I ventured out before breakfast in search of a cappuccino, only to find that nothing opened until 10 am. The locals apparently drank their morning coffee at home. Jet lag forced me to resign myself to the hotel’s dry, foamy push-button offering.

The next morning I tried a nearby bakery-café, noticing it was open early. The case was full of lovely pastries and breads. The cappuccino, however, was once again a push-buttoned, burnt, watery shot heaped with tortured foam. I needed counsel from locals.

An acquaintance recommended a café in the heart of town with a promising tagline: “The Art of Coffee Making.” The walls were covered with photos from origin, burlap coffee bags and shelves displaying antique hand-cranked grinders. The menu offered a long list of coffee whose “Kaffeeklassiker” (classic coffees) described an Italian Cappuccino (Cappuccino Italianisch) as “espresso with milk and creamy foam” and an Austrian Cappuccino (Cappuccino Osterreich) as “espresso with milk and whipped cream.” I ordered a Cappuccino Italianisch, which was another weak shot of espresso mounded with a fluffy Capuchin hat that had to be softly excavated in order to uncover the coffee beneath.

This was still not the Austrian café experience I’d envisioned. So, the next stop would be the city’s oldest and most famous coffeehouse, Café Tomaselli.

Founded in 1705, Café Tomaselli is located in Salzburg’s Alstatt, the historical center of town. The café occupies two stories, with balconies and outdoor seating that look out over the cobblestone square. It was raining on the day we stopped in, so the outdoor seating was unavailable. The interior of the café was steamy and bustling.

Tomaselli is stunning: polished wood paneling, glowing chandeliers, marble tabletops, large windows, oil paintings in gilded frames. Servers in black and white take orders and proffer platters of pastries. The menu was extensive, laced with liqueurs, and difficult to translate. Not really knowing what to expect, we ordered some house specialties.

The drinks that arrived were pretty to look at, like clouds. The mixture of fluffy steamed milk and sweet whipped cream on top was certainly creamy. But the coffee was hard to find, and the shot was again weak and bitter. At the end of our drinks, we still felt sleepy.

Nevertheless, it was pleasant to be there. The surroundings were lovely, so we lounged at the table, enjoying our daughters’ hot chocolates, the favorites of the group. It was nice to be waited on. If only we could find such surroundings and service in combination with good coffee, we would find home.

A café/bar called “Carpe Diem” held hope. Situated on an upscale corner in the Alstatt, it had an ample terrace, tall windows and modern lines. Hard-wired to order at a counter, I ventured inside and asked about the coffee. They brought out a large bag of whole beans from what they said was a local roaster. Asked how it was brewed, they responded, “We have a machine, and we press a button and it brews the cup of coffee.” However, they insisted that the cappuccinos were made “by hand.”

They politely showed me to a table on the terrace. When my cappuccino arrived, it did not have a huge cap of foam; instead, the foam was almost velvety and integrated with the espresso, even though the abundance of milk made it more like a latté. While the espresso wasn’t as weak as it was at the other places, it still lacked sweetness and character.

A couple sat down nearby on the long, red, cushioned bench. We struck up conversation and they revealed that they were originally from Frankfurt, now living in Salzburg. The woman shared her own assessment of Austrian coffee: weak. In her view, German coffees were better than Austrian, but Italian coffees were the best. When I asked for cafés to try, they gave a long list, but cautioned that nowhere would we find great coffee. Instead, we would find a lovely terrace, a breathtaking view, and a sumptuous interior.

It had become clear that the Austrian coffeehouse experience doesn’t center on coffee. Instead, it centers on gorgeous surroundings, a great view, and a menu with options for any time of day—cognac, whiskey, aperitifs, teas, pastries, and savory treats. It’s about lingering for hours over a book or a newspaper and long conversations with friends. These simple pleasures are indeed part of a gracious experience—but how could a famous coffeehouse culture lack the simple pleasure of a delicious cup of coffee?

On the eve of our departure, I couldn’t accept that a town as culturally rich as Salzburg didn’t have one or two great little roasters. Plus, I was dying for a good cup of coffee. I resorted to Google and found a New York Times article mentioning a small roaster/retailer that bought its beans directly from origin. Grad220 would be our last shot.

On our last morning in town, my family marched through the hot stone streets, eventually winding our way to a small, shady alley. A few doors ahead there were bright umbrellas over outdoor tables, inviting us towards an open door. As we stepped into Grad220’s modern, warm, inviting interior, we were enveloped by the smell of actual coffee, and greeted by the sight of a Probat roaster and a gleaming, white La Marzocco espresso machine.

They politely indicated that we could take a seat and they’d bring us menus. I ordered a single origin espresso from Tanzania. It was spicy, smooth and sweet with a velvety, viscous créma. My husband ordered a single origin cappuccino: a beautifully crafted Guatemala Antigua, chocolately, creamy, and dense.

The girls indulged in house-baked cakes: poppy seed raspberry and chocolate cherry. The large, full menu offered varied dishes—including lunch—plus other drinks like beer, wine, teas, hot chocolate and sparkling lemonades and sodas. It seemed we’d found the fusion of upscale ambiance and delicious coffees.

The owners were friendly and easy with recommendations. I bought two whole bean coffees to bring home: a Sidamo and the Tanzania. They also suggested I go down the street and around the corner to Kaffe Alchemie and ask for John.

Fueled by good coffee and hopeful curiosity, we found Kaffee Alchemie quickly. John Stubberud was behind the counter and, as promised, friendly and knowledgeable. After a few minutes of conversation, he shared that he’d been one of the judges at the WBC the prior week in Vienna. He also confirmed my hypothesis that coffeehouse culture did not equate to coffee culture.

“Austria is very behind in coffee,” he said, as he worked away on a cold brew Kenya. That sweet coffee fueled a sun-soaked afternoon, brimming with gratitude for the hospitality and talent of Salzburg’s new coffee pioneers. They are ushering in a new era of coffeehouse culture—one in which the coffee will be as unforgettable as the surrounding city.

Shauna’s passion for coffee began in 1996 while researching her master’s thesis on shade-grown coffee in Costa Rica. She presented her thesis at the First Sustainable Coffee Congress and has been involved in coffee ever since, as a researcher, consultant, facilitator, importer and presenter on topics related to specialty coffee and sustainable economic development. She frequents the cafes in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.