Nonfat, triple shot, two pump, Estonian latte, palun

  • 2008-02-13
  • By Adam Krowka

FEELING FROTHY: The coffee craze hits the Baltics in its' own way, providing caffeine addicts with the combination of cafe luxury and rich hometown Estonian traditions.

TALLINN - Throughout the modern world, two common features may be found in human society that arguably identifies the concept of "civilization." The first is a working form of government. The second: coffee.
The fall of the Soviet Union happened at a very opportune time. The West had just finished its consumer craze of the 1980s and was gearing up for round two in the 1990s. With newly opened, rapidly liberalized economies, some of the first tourists to cross over the border and take scope of the East carried names like Coca Cola and McDonald's.

While these large omnipresent corporations were busy working the magic of globalization, a new trend found its way from developing economies into the West. In a matter of years people began to acquire an expanded Italian vocabulary for speaking of coffee products; lattes, macchiato, cappuccino, espresso. Farmers of coffee beans in developing economies received an unexpected boost with sudden demands for variations from places many Western people only faintly knew existed; Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Java, Sumatra.
Although this post-colonial fascination with coffee beans and its Italian style of consumption (unfortunately minus pith helmets and safaris this time around) entranced Western populations, it has had a somewhat delayed and slow expansion in Eastern Europe.

Starbucks was undeniably responsible for pushing the trend to a new level. Organization of the business, benefits provided for workers, corporate responsibility with farmers and the opportunity given to people to mix and match ingredients for a perfect, personalized, $4 beverage, made the corporation a textbook chapter for companies of all sorts. Today it is hard to land in an airport anywhere in the world and not find one, with the same clothes and standards making Western businessmen feel at home. Shops are located everywhere from New York to Tokyo to Bahrain. The logo is a physical representation of the global economy's caffeine addiction. Where the trademarked green siren is strikingly absent from, however, is under the grey skies of Eastern Europe.

After years of wrangling, the first shop opened last year in Moscow (doubtless after ample payments of bribes and specially drafted taxes, in Russian bureaucratic tradition). The brand reached its first peak of popularity in the West close to ten years ago. The Baltic states are traditionally closer to Western attitudes and tend to quickly dissociate themselves from the clunky progress of the post-Soviet sphere. They have, however, so far remained barren of Starbucks.
However positive one might view the hesitation for expansion, due to either general doubts about globalization or spotting an entrepreneurial opportunity, the taste for this style of coffee remains especially deep among expats.

True, there are places which have been successful such as Double Coffee (and its Coffee In take-out branch) and Reval Cafe. Espresso drinks may be ordered anywhere in small cafes and the machines are nothing new to the region. The locations are usually somewhat a cross between a restaurant and a bar, twisting and refitting the coffee craze into a specifically Eastern European style.
One is looked at slightly strange when patronizing such cafes alone, especially if they break out books or work papers and settle into the cafe for a while. The Western version not only of coffee, but of a coffee shop does not translate easily. I recently had a discussion with several Estonians on the translation of this experience between languages. We came to a dead end; the entire conception of a "coffee shop" carries different meanings and is not adequately comparable to the Estonian word "kohvik" (cafe) given the ingrained specificities.

The further East one travels, the more difficult it becomes to find European or US versions of the product and the atmosphere in cafes. Nescafe (albeit Western itself) rears its chemically potent head and (from painful experience) sometimes may even be substituted for espresso.
 The Baltic version of the cafe has its place in the market and will long remain. However the Western variation is stealthily making an entrance in Estonia, though from an unexpected direction.
Kehrwieder first opened its doors in Tallinn in the late 90's, a long-dreamt of project of Vello Leitham. Canadian by birth to Estonian parents, Leitham returned to his ancestral home following a career in engineering and saw an opportunity for a fresh take on the cafe. As he had experience directly from the coffee-producing genesis in Asia, Africa and South America, he was the coffee cowboy of the Baltics.
The cafes themselves embody the strange in-between mix of translation. Reflecting somewhat Leitham's own identity (and that of many other Estonians who came to claim citizenship following occupation), elements of both worlds come together to create a place and a product Estonian by nature, but with an infusion of alternate techniques and atmospheric elements.

Although he feels somewhat selfish in the manner that Kehrwieder came into being, he is proud that many feel like the cafes are an extension of their home.
"When the family moved to Tallinn from South America in 1999, I developed a longing for some things. The various Kehrwieder environments are creations to simply satisfy some longing or need for that special creative moment. Luckily for me, the cafes' ongoing success and awards indicates that these environments are appreciated and understood by others."
Don't expect another Starbucks emerging, however. Another fundamental characteristic of Kehrwieder locations is its tie to the community based around it, placed under full control of Estonian managers and workers (with the random Canadian or American in the mix).
"There are no styles, guides, etc… it is what it is. One thing is for sure 's it certainly shouldn't smell of a business model as do typical chain businesses," said Leitham.

"Although there are several Kehrwieder environments, and there is a common invisible thread which unifies them all, they are by no means conceptualized in a business model sense. It is almost like, "Hey, I want to sit in a bookstore with a coffee shop with good coffee where I can browse and read books and listen to Estonian music!" Since there were no bookstores with a coffee shop, we found a bookstore and made a coffee shop in it and play Estonian music."