Spilling the Beans on the Baltic Coffee Scene

  • 2015-11-28
  • By Monika Tomsevica

The Baltics and perfect coffee are not often words one sees in the same sentence. However, that is rapidly changing.
The Baltic affair with coffee is not new, with the majority of Latvians in Brazil having moved there to work on coffee plantations in 1890, which they did through the 1920s, and established the town of Varpa. Lithuanians also arrived in 1926 in the tens of thousands to the state of São Paulo, while Estonians settled in Brazil from about 1923 onward.
While the work on coffee plantations may not have made the potent bean popular in the Baltics, nowadays coffee means a lot to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

Rocket Bean Roastery, on Miera iela, a seemingly hipster (I say this because the café and roaster are clearly unmarked and there’s a plethora of kombucha) eatery and beanery in Riga, is seeing great waves of success in both the local roasting of beans, as well as education of the populace. Just follow your nose down the street, guided by the scent of chocolate (the Laima chocolate factory and museum are on the same street) intertwined with hints of coffee from the myriad cafés along the way to the Roastery itself. Their roasting days are Thursdays and, usually, ‘cuppings’ (a taste of the coffee they’ve roasted) are conducted. Where else in Riga might one find a perfectly sumptuous Matcha green tea latte with which to warm up on a cold day?

I once thought, “Oh, sure, I like coffee.” This, however, was before I’d been to the Roastery and learned I wasn’t crazy, sometimes the aftertaste of coffee is black currants! This coffee, it turns out, comes from Kenya, and was much loved by the English during their colonization. Fancy a “sweet, savory, dried fruit sweetness with strawberry, raspberry and lime acidity, with a rich and full flavor, complemented by the creamy taste of halva”? You’ve found the right place. (Hint: it’s the Yirgacheffe from Ethiopia.)

I’ve never seen a more knowledgeable staff of coffee anywhere. The Roastery offers Ethiopian, Salvadorian, Honduran, Kenyan, Columbian, Brazilian and Costa Rica coffees, all fair trade and roasted in their roaster (open for viewing). The workers know how high above sea level the trees were grown, how they were harvested, dried and processed. Their level of passion is awe-inspiring and motivational, and has brought awareness to types of grind, machine/press used to make coffee and so much more. Want to know the difference between a Hario V60, aeropress and a Chemex? Walk on in and ask away.

Closer to the center is Miit (at Lacplēša 10), a rather Finno-Ugric name for a very Latvian (and vegetarian) café, with a delightfully healthy pancake brunch on weekends. Their coffee is also prepared in various ways to order, via a V60, aeropress, French press, or Chemex and feature coffees from Ethiopia, Columbia, Kenya, and Guatemala, according to taste and mood. The café uses coffee from Andrito Coffee Roasting, founded in 2010 by former Latvian Barista Champion, Andris Petkēvičs.

Just around the corner (and in various locations around town), is Coffee Tower, a delightfully understated series of huts that appear right when one needs coffee most. Unassuming and simple in their standard Illy espresso making, they offer creative beverages, including a simply luxurious latte with condensed milk.

Indeed, the Baltic café culture is growing by leaps and bounds. Tallinn and Tartu have repurposed old theaters (Koogel Moogel, Tallinn), and if one looks down an Old Town Tallinn alley, chances are that one will spot a cozy courtyard café tucked away. Of course, most of these cafés will have moved into the even cozier indoors during these frigid months to come.

From a nostalgic Soviet-style hot beverage emporium (Must Puudel, Tallinn) where all the hip locals go, to one of the oldest purveyors of drinks and cakes (since 1882) at Werner, Tartu, Estonia has soothing winter beverages covered.
Lithuania has taken coffee to another, more mysterious and unadulterated level. A ‘no distractions’ approach to the sipping experience. Lithuania hosts the Dark Times Coffee Conference annually, as an ode to the dark and addictive beverage.  Run by Crooked Nose & Coffee Stories (at Pylimo 22c-1 in Vilnius), they focus heavily on the education of the coffee consumer and aficionado.

They peddle stories by local weaver of tales, Solveiga Masteikaite, with their fabulous coffees, and include products from Rwanda (Coko, with notes of sweet cherries, citrus fruits and chocolate) to a luscious blend of Indonesian Sumatra and Ethiopian Yirgacheffe (described as earthy, woody, with notes of tobacco and prune aromas).     
Those gazing wistfully West towards the closest Starbucks, in Warsaw, know that it’s highly unlikely their favorite over-roasted Arabica beans will be making their way to the Baltics anytime soon.

“Honestly, there really isn’t a place for Starbucks here. People already know better,” says Dairis, a patron of several Riga coffee shops, speaking to the education of the local coffee consumer.   

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