Words: Maria Raicu
Photo: Bogdan Balaceanu
Illustration: Doina Titanu
It’s very early in the morning and I am still sleepy. It’s 2003. I’m 16 years old and in my second year of high school. School starts at 8am. I’m still in bed, listening to the tasty clamor coming from the kitchen, as my mom prepares breakfast before another day begins to unfold in our apartment, in this small town in Southeast Romania, Slobozia. Every morning starts the same. I’ve never needed an alarm clock. While my mom washes the dishes from last night’s dinner, my dad goes into the bathroom, which he doesn’t leave for the next half an hour, making us beg him to come out. I rush to the kitchen, my eyes half closed, looking for coffee, a 3-in-1 soluble mix of instant coffee, sugar and powdered cream – all in one sachet, which I really enjoyed back then and from time to time, I might still indulge in. This may be one of the weirdest things to mention when writing an article about specialty coffee, but bear with me.
Coffee culture in Romania has quickly evolved, and people from different generations and backgrounds have different ways of enjoying coffee. This is an article on how coffee is consumed by the people around me, like my mother, and the specialty coffee my friends and I drink today.
Savoring every sip – my mother’s love for coffee
My parents drink two coffees per day. For them, coffee drinking is sacred for several reasons. It soothes both the mind and the body, and offers them one of the few moments they have to reconnect. Their ritual is as follows: my mom wakes up and makes the coffee. She grinds the beans in a small electric coffee grinder she found at a promotion in a supermarket. She then puts one teaspoon of coffee in each small cup and pours bubbling hot water on top. That’s it. No sugar, no milk. They drink the second one in the afternoon after their siesta. That is when they also have something sweet with their coffee; either dark chocolate or digestive biscuits.
My mother, Nicole Raicu, is 62 years old, and loves her coffee. She was born in Țăndărei, a now small town in the southeast of the country. Her first memory surrounding coffee is tied to the fascinating stories that an old Roma woman was weaving while solemnly contemplating the bottom of a coffee cup turned upside down. She was practicing the ritual of reading the ‘future’ in the lines left by the coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup. My mom wasn’t at all attracted to the smell or taste of coffee, but she was happy her mother would give the old lady flour and eggs in exchange for nettles, wild mushrooms, and the stories that filled her childhood with images of lands and people she would have hardly come to know otherwise.
Later on, in the 70s, she discovered the taste of ‘real coffee’ and fell in love. She remembers it happened while she was at a friend’s place doing homework, when all of a sudden she was offered coffee. “It had the taste of emancipation, of freedom, of the forbidden fruit.” That is because at home they weren’t allowed to have it. It was considered something too elegant and refined, she remembers. Since then, this relationship has remained her most reliable. In the magical potion, she has always found a most trustworthy confidant to share her aspirations with, her passions and pleasures, and her time of celebration and ceremony. Many of my mom’s friendships were formed and strengthened over a cup of coffee – authentic or not.
Coffee during communism
During communism, people would drink coffee in small cups as it was something precious and expensive. It wasn’t real coffee made out of coffee beans, but a concoction that had many ingredients now considered unusual by the younger generation – chicory, chickpeas, oats, and rye. Real coffee was found in diplomatic shops and it would cost a lot compared to the salaries they received. A kilo was around 210 lei, which meant almost 10% of the average income, which in 1985 was 2827 lei.
Real coffee was kept for special occasions: a doctor’s visit that required special treatment or when one needed to ask someone a favor. Our parents’ generation gave gifts of coffee, chocolate, liquor, and cigarettes as tokens in exchange for the service provided. From a visit to the doctor, to thanking an acquaintance for helping you out with a better spot in the student dorm for your kid, coffee was always there to make things official. It came as a plus and not as a substitute for money. If you weren’t a doctor or a higher-up in your field, you certainly wouldn’t even enjoy the gift, but keep it for the next dire circumstance. Being so scarce, coffee was a symbol of power and status. For those who were powerful, offering it was a recognition; for those receiving it, it was an obligation to return the favor by helping the person with whatever they needed.
My mom admits that since she first tasted coffee, she has seldom passed a day without it. When I asked her what coffee means to her, she said: “It’s my daily dose of energy and vitality, it gets me ready for a work day or vacation day.” Coffee was always there for her when she was happy or struggling; when she was in love, or just in the middle of a breakup. My mom doesn’t know what specialty coffee is, although her taste for coffee has evolved as she grew older. Even if she is buying single-origin beans from around the world, she is still bound to the coffees she can find at her local shops in Slobozia.
As much as my mom’s coffee ritual brings me comfort and nostalgia, I can’t help but notice the stark contrast between her simple routine and the world of specialty coffee. While my mom enjoys her classic drip coffee every morning, there is an entire culture of coffee enthusiasts exploring unique brewing methods and exotic beans. Specialty coffee has become an art form, with baristas mastering the craft of creating the perfect latte art and roasters sourcing beans from all over the world. It’s a world of complex flavor profiles, where the subtle nuances of a coffee’s origin and roast can be tasted in every sip. But with this new wave of coffee culture comes a sense of exclusivity, a perceived notion that only those who can afford expensive equipment and beans are ‘true’ coffee connoisseurs. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of specialty coffee and forget that at its core, coffee is a simple pleasure that brings people together. My mom’s humble coffee ritual may not be Instagram-worthy, but it’s a reminder that the joy of a good cup of coffee can be found in the simplest and most familiar of routines.
The specialty coffee buzz – from coffee shop to home brewing
According to the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), the term ‘specialty coffee’ refers to “coffee that is graded 80 points or above on a 100-point scale by a certified coffee taster (SCAA) or by a licensed Q Grader (CQI).” This type of coffee is grown at high altitudes, and custom-roasted according to its profile to highlight and enhance its natural flavor and tell the story of its origin. The barista traces the steps of the coffee beans from the nutritious soil to eager taste buds. Just as a magician, he uses his set of skills to constantly recreate the best spellbinding experience. Due to the change in humidity, the temperature of the water, the grinding method, and many other factors, it is always a challenge. This is how true artistry is proven during international contests and in your local specialty coffee shop alike.
Tinu Cojocaru, 45, first discovered specialty coffee in 2013 when he went to Origo, one of Bucharest’s most famous specialty coffee shops, which opened that very year. Tinu started going for coffee with his friends once or twice every week, but now spends around 260 ron/month (approx 50 euros) for the coffee that he drinks at home, which he prepares using a Lelit, an Italian espresso machine, recognized as one of the more affordable machines one can use to make the best version of specialty coffee at home. The decision to buy it came after thorough research and following the advice on espressoman.ro, a forum for coffee lovers who want to experience the taste of specialty coffee at home. The forum was created by Liviu Frățilă, whose specialty coffee adventure began in 2007, as mentioned in his first blog entries. While searching for a good espresso machine, he started a discussion thread on Softpedia, a popular Romanian forum. His thread now has 6,287 comments. On his blog, he describes Espressoman as “an online platform, blog, and a wonderful and animated forum, which wants to be a tool for the rising Romanian community of ‘home espresso’ enthusiasts, or more precisely, for those who drink at home a better espresso/cappuccino that in most cafés in Romania.”
I met Tinu at Aviatorilor and went to Ototo (which is Japanese for younger brother), a concept store that sells locally roasted coffee and many sustainable and environmentally friendly Romanian (but not only) brands. The atmosphere is cozy with good lighting, green vibes, and lovely smiling people. They have a special coffee selection from the best local roasteries: Sloane, Origo Coffee, Pressco, Incognito, Nomonym, Dropshot, MABO Coffee, and Bob Coffee Lab.
Tinu was going home on vacation and was planning to buy 3 bags of coffee: one to take with him, one for when he comes back, and one for Carmen, his wife, to enjoy at home while he is away. This means that he needs to pay attention to the date the coffee was roasted. The best coffee for him is the one that was roasted two weeks prior. He used to buy a lot of Origo roasted coffee, but now his favorite is MABO. He looks for the best-tasting coffee that he can make using his espresso machine. When he travels he always takes his Aeropress along. When he books a hotel room he usually calls in advance to make sure the room has a kettle for fresh boiling water. One of the bags he bought was roasted a few days earlier. The coffee is from Brazil, and he will use it for filter and Aeropress after two weeks have passed so that the taste and flavor will be at their peak. He chose it as the best and cheapest version he could find for his requirements, which was 55 ron (11 euros) per 250 gr.
We are now at his home sitting around the dining table, the room warmly lit by an oversized paper mushroom ceiling lamp that is hovering above us. He now recounts his first interactions with a barista. He remembers how serious and proper they were when describing the coffee that was served. It felt strange at first, he says. He didn’t quite get it. Later on, he understood that that was the signature of the place and that, more or less, each coffee shop started developing its own vibe. He laughs when he remembers a particular barista who, back then, he thought was ridiculous for his pedantic speech and demeanor. We both laugh as it is clear what he is referring to. This used to be a trend (in some cases still is) among fine-dining restaurants in Bucharest, promoting a certain type of service believed to suit the tasting experience. Some of the servers are so serious, he says, laughingly, that they somehow make him think of the soup-nazi, (a side character in the Seinfeld series that was serving one of the best soups in New York. Once he absurdly felt his soup was being disrespected by his customers, he would ban them). When asked if he ever felt intimidated by this approach, he said that he sometimes felt like it was exaggerated, but he got used to it because of how much he loved the coffee.
Tinu’s favorite places to go for coffee are Origo and Steam Romană. His drink of choice is a double espresso. He remembers how he didn’t even drink coffee before his 20s. He didn’t like it as it was too burnt and needed sugar.
Adding sugar to your specialty coffee is usually frowned upon because it limits the experience of the coffee’s natural sweetness. At Origo, in the beginning, they were very adamant about not using sugar, to the point where you felt judged. Max Balthazar, 27, – barista at AM Social Space – says he likes it when his clients feel at ease to ask for personalized drinks, sugary or not. He noticed how when you accommodate one’s personal needs, as a barista, you create a certain ease around the space which makes people come for more. He has been working in the coffee business for just three months, but already feels comfortable in the coffee shop. He can easily froth milk and make a well-defined rounded heart design but admits that this is just the first step in mastering the craft of latte art.
Specialty coffee shop owners in Bucharest thought of a clever method to break Romanian’s obsolete taste in coffee (the very burnt Italian espresso style) through a comfort blend. A type of coffee, is roasted and prepared to fit a more general taste, but still keep up with the specificities of a specialty coffee: fragrance, aroma, flavor, acidity, body, and aftertaste. This blend helps baristas get people accustomed to a taste different from what they are used to, and educates them towards a more refined palate. The comfort blend offers a more balanced, tasty yet simple enough taste, to convert the old-fashioned coffee drinkers more used to the ibrik coffee (a traditional unfiltered Turkish way of brewing using finely ground coffee boiled in small copper pots) and taste than to the acidity-powered taste of the specialty coffee.
Tinu’s espresso machine broke a few days ago and he and Carmen are thinking about which new one to buy. It broke after he ground the coffee too finely. The water was coming through with too much pressure and got stuck behind the wall of finely ground coffee, making a sound that announced the unfortunate fate of their most used and most loved home device. They are willing to pay 2,000 euros for a new one, together with an exterior coffee grinder so, in case it breaks, they won’t need to change the whole thing.
After listening to my mom’s stories about coffee, I reflect on the deep connections we share with this magical brew and how it brings people together. From the simplicity of a traditional cup of coffee shared with loved ones to the artistry of a perfectly crafted latte, coffee has the power to bring people together and elevate our everyday experiences. The rise of specialty coffee culture is a testament to our desire to taste and appreciate the complexity and nuances of this beloved beverage, not just a drink but a reminder of the beauty in our delicately human daily practices.