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Summer's end means no pause in coffee revolution

  • 2001-08-30
  • Tim Ocuser
RIGA - With the summer soon over, Rigans will have to once again slink away from the hugely popular beer gardens and spend the long winter months idling the time away in the warmth of their favorite cafés. It has been a spectacularly fine summer in Riga, which the abundance of outdoor cafés and bars in the Old Town have clearly benefitted from.

Juris Strazdens, the owner of Livu Darzs, an outdoor karaoke-driven beer garden on the crowded square Livu Laukums, said it has been one of the best summers for business he can remember. "With the unusually hot weather and the Riga 800 celebrations, we have done fantastically well this year."

But the parasols will soon be coming down on the summer season as the Baltic weather turns. And so coffee-loving Rigans will have to take sanctuary in a plethora of new cafés that are springing up all over the city and transforming Riga into a true café culture capital.

Riga used to have a very different feel. Before Latvia's independence in 1991, all cafés ("kafejnicas" in Latvian) were state-owned. Just about every cup of coffee in the country originated in a coffee factory in Liepaja, which produced instant powder. For a whole generation of Latvians, this was the taste of coffee.

However, with independence, a whole new flood of style-conscious cafés opened and pushed the old-style kafejnicas, with their plastic plants and smoke-stained ceilings, well away from the premium sites of the center. So it is only now that Rigans are starting to become coffee connoisseurs, as more and more venues cater for specialized tastes.

Natalija Gudermane, a university student of culture management, says, "It's not only the atmosphere of a café that counts. I will go out of my way for a good cup of coffee. My favorite is the hazelnut classic at Monte Cristo. Its smell is worth the price alone."

Indeed, Rigans are pushed for choice when it comes to choosing which café to call their own. Monte Cristo, Aksela Vina Pasaule, Chicot, Kalipso, Kolonade, Mozums and Osiris are among the most popular cafés in the city center. But although some of these have a delightful ambiance, is the coffee actually any good?

Just 15 years ago in London you would have struggled to find a decent café latte. But now the city is awash with great cafés and coffee is a multibillion dollar industry. Coffee Nation, a new Latvian chain of espresso bars, is hoping to emulate the international success of names like Starbuck's and café Nero.

Maris Osins is Coffee Nation's director. "We had a very simple reason for setting up the Coffee Nation branches. We felt that you couldn't get a decent cup of coffee anywhere. We actually flew in an Italian expert from London to train our staff in the art of making coffee. There's a big difference in how you make a café latte, for example, and a cappuccino."

The single Coffee Nation that exists at Riga's Krasta shopping center will within a couple of months burst into a chain of cafés on Valdemara, Basteja and Blaumana streets, and in the glossy new building of the central train station.

Their menu boasts pretty much every type of coffee you can think of, from espresso, to café mocha, to café Americana, to machiato. But are Rigans ready to adopt these rather exotically named brews?

I came across Sigita Dobrja, a saleswoman for the Yellow Pages, sipping a coffee outside the Pablo café. "I love coffee. I can't imagine life without it. But I don't really know much about it. I mean, coffee is coffee, isn't it?"

So perhaps the coffee revolution will have to wait just a little longer. But at least Riga is starting to boast an array of cafés to rival its European counterparts. Cafés play such an essential role in our lives. We dream in them. We love in them. Or we simply watch the world go by from them.

We even strike up business deals in them. The London Stock Exchange was founded in, and grew out of, a café on the British capital's Lombard Street. It must have something to do with the caffeine.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote his philosophical masterpiece "Being and Nothingness" in a café in Montparness. It's now a must-see for many a tourist. And who knows? Perhaps one of Rigas new generation of cafés will give birth to a similar legend.