Long before we had Bulletproof Coffee and unicorn lattes, coffee was only a humble plant existing in its natural condition, unaware of its destiny to become one of the most valuable global commodities. In the centuries since its discovery, there has been a rich and staggering proliferation of coffee culture, and the sheer variety of ways to take your coffee around the world has bloomed like a cloud of milk newly added to a single-origin pour-over.
No one knows the exact origin story of coffee, but according to legend, it was a single Ethiopian goat herder who made the discovery that would forever change mornings all over the world. He noticed that his goats became especially energetic after eating red coffee berries, so he tried them for himself. Thus went the tale of Prometheus giving the gift of caffeine to mankind.
Human ingenuity ensured the invention of numerous ways to consume coffee berries over the years that followed (including a type of “coffee wine”), but it wasn’t until the 13th century that the concept of roasted coffee beans took off. By the 15th century, coffee cultivation was fully established on the Arabian Peninsula, and from there it spread through the Middle East and eventually to Europe. In turn, European colonizers began growing coffee in Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, Brazil and Central America, thus establishing the reign of coffee around the world.
Can you take a wild guess as to when coffee began its history as a fixture of American culture? Here’s a hint: American culture was tea culture…until it wasn’t. Nature abhors a vacuum, so when Boston Harbor turned into the world’s largest cup of tea in 1773, Americans turned to coffee in a form of continued protest.
Today, the world is largely united by its slavish consumption of coffee, but there are worse things to worship. Come with us on this jittery, Instagrammable tour of coffee around the world.
1. United States
Three words: pumpkin spice latte. You might groan, you might protest, but the PSL is probably the most iconic of American contributions to the international coffee scene, so it stays.
Mexico also takes its coffee with a little bit of spice, but the café de olla is not a passing seasonal whim. This traditional Mexican take on caffeine involves simmering coffee with a cinnamon stick in a clay pot, which gives a specific flavor to the coffee.
Cuban coffee is strong coffee, and this special brand of espresso has its own name: café cubano. These small and mighty shots of turbo fuel are sweetened with a syrup made from sugar that’s whipped together with the first few drops of freshly brewed espresso.
Do you like your coffee with milk, or your milk with coffee? In Argentina, a popular coffee drink is the lagrima (which means “tear” in Spanish). It’s a cup of warm milk with a few drops of coffee added to it.
In Brazil, coffee packs a punch. The preparation of cafezinho is pretty straight to the point: the coffee is usually pre-sweetened (meaning it’s brewed together with sugar), and it’s often fairly concentrated, so a little goes a long way. Oh, and it’s served at virtually any hour of the day, because the party must go on.
Italian coffee culture deserves an entire article of its own, but suffice it to say that Italy has done for coffee what YouTube has done for niche celebrities. Venice was one of the first European importers of coffee beans in the 16th century, and since the 18th century, Italian cafés have served as a central hub for social and intellectual discourse — fueled, as it were, by coffee. It’s kind of hard to choose one drink that sums up Italian coffee culture because the breadth is so wide. Will it be a caffè lungo, cappuccino, caffè macchiato, or perhaps an affogato? I would say that since the invention of espresso changed the course of coffee history forever, I’ll stick to the tiny but mighty shot that could.
One of Portugal’s most idiosyncratic contributions to coffee culture is the mazagran, which consists of iced coffee and lemon juice (think of it as a buzzier Arnold Palmer). The coffee is usually sweetened, and you could add things like rum or sparkling water to it if you’re feeling extra fancy.
You could get by with a café con leche in Spain if you like your coffee, well, milky. If you’d prefer more “coffee” than “milk,” though, ask for the cortado. For something truly regional and specific to Spain, the sugar fiends among you might want to go for the Valencian café bombón, which is equal parts coffee and condensed milk (which are typically not mixed together).
The French contribution to coffee culture is perhaps best summed up by the noisette, an espresso with a chic little dash of hot milk. It gets its name (literally “hazelnut”) from the color the espresso turns when you add the milk to it. To be sure, the French have their own take on espresso and cappuccinos (and watered-down drip coffee, served with a sneer to tourists who don’t know any better). There’s also the famous café au lait (coffee with steamed milk), but this is something most French people only drink at home. So noisette it is.
Germany is the land of mild roasts, and I can personally attest to the fact that the coffee in Germany just isn’t that strong, especially if you’re a New Yorker who bleeds in various shades of americano. Germany is one of the world’s top coffee importers, with famous variations including the Milchkaffee (literally “milk coffee”) and Pharisäer, which is made with coffee, a sugar cube, two shots of rum and whipped cream. Seeing as Germany invented drip coffee, however, I’ll have to dedicate the unfussy cup o’ joe to Deutschland.
In Sweden, no cup of coffee is complete unless it’s paired with a pastry and a moment of relaxation. Coffee is a central component of the fika, a short break enjoyed alone or with others, and almost always taken as an excuse to visit a local bakery. For this reason, I elect to represent Sweden with a cinnamon roll paired with a large cup of coffee in a mug (because you have time to sit and enjoy this thing, damnit).
Finland is one of the top coffee-consuming countries per capita, and it’s usually prepared quite strong (I mean, that’s one way to survive a cold, dark winter). The weirdest kind of coffee preparation in Finland/northern Sweden — and probably this entire list — is the kaffeost, which is hot coffee poured over chunks of cheese curds. Think of it as poutine that gets you going (versus putting you in a coma).
I’d be remiss not to include the notorious Irish coffee, which includes the not-so-secret ingredient of whiskey (plus sugar and whipped cream). Believe it or not though, Irish coffee wasn’t invented for the sake of the Irish, necessarily. A chef at an Irish airport restaurant created the concoction to comfort American tourists during a cold winter in the 1940s.
Greece takes its coffee with lots of foam. The method actually comes from a Yemeni tradition of boiling coffee in a brass pot, which allows foam to form on the surface (and lends a certain creaminess to the coffee). The coffee is ready to serve once the foam spills over the top of the pot.
You may or may not have heard the famous Turkish proverb that says “coffee should be black as hell, strong as death and as sweet as love.” I personally agree. Turkish coffee is way up there on the intensity scale thanks to its #nofilter preparation, which means your coffee cup comes with grounds settled on the bottom (which you can glean your fortune from when you’re done, kind of like a tea leaf reading).
Across the African continent, spiced coffee is also a theme. In Morocco, coffee is blended with spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
In the land where it all started, coffee brewing and consumption is a long and elaborate ritual that can last two hours. First, the beans are roasted, ground and filtered in front of the guests, and then the coffee (or buna) is brewed three times. Traditionally, Ethiopians would add salt or butter to the coffee, but sugar is becoming a more common addition.
18. Saudi Arabia
Saudis like their coffee with a bit of spice (namely cardamom), and it’s often served with dates to help sweeten the experience. In Saudi Arabia, serving coffee is an important ritualistic display of hospitality, and there are certain etiquette rules to follow, such as serving elders first.
19. Malaysia & Hong Kong
In Hong Kong and Malaysia, black coffee is mixed with milk tea, which is itself a mix of black tea and milk. Essentially, you get two powerful caffeine vehicles with a creamy touch. Called yuanyang in Hong Kong and kopi cham in Malaysia, this popular drink delivers a serious jolt.
Vending machines are a big thing in Japan. You can buy anything ranging from umbrellas to eggs, fish soup, hamburgers, socks and even puppies from a vending machine. Coffee is no exception, which is why canned coffee is the representative drink of choice for Japan.
Vietnamese coffee is somewhat similar to the Valencian café bombón, but the key difference is that the coffee is brewed directly into the condensed milk, creating a more blended form of coffee dessert. For even more novelty, try it with two beaten egg yolks, honey and vanilla.
If the scene in New York City is any form of concrete evidence, Australia has cemented itself firmly on the map of trendy coffee culture in recent years. The best Aussie invention, in my opinion, is the flat white. No, it’s not “basically just a latte.” A flat white has a higher ratio of coffee to milk, and it’s a little more nuanced in its preparation. Microfoam (milk steamed in a certain way as to make its consistency especially velvety) is poured over a shot of espresso, creating a coffee drink that’s richer and stronger in taste than the average latte.
In Indonesia, you can have your coffee with coal (and not only if you’ve gotten on Santa’s naughty list). Kopi joss was invented by a coffee stall vendor who thought adding a burning coal to his coffee might help ease his stomach pains. And strangely enough, it worked. Supposedly, coal helps neutralize the coffee’s acidity, but you might also want to try it for its burnt sugar taste.