With its incomparable historical and cultural heritage, and plentiful cafés both old and new, you can find traces of each stage of coffee development in Istanbul; from Ottoman culture, to instant brands, chain stores, and speciality coffee.
By Yao HsiaoCoffee culture in Istanbul can be first traced back to the Ottoman Empire. After being introduced to Istanbul from Yemen, coffee became a trendy beverage among the ruling classes during the era of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, and later developed its own rituals and ceremonies in the palace.
The aroma of coffee was not confined to the palace for long, it soon became a common part of everyday life. Istanbul’s first coffeehouse was opened by two traders, Hakem from Aleppo and Şamlı from Damascus, in Tahtakale in the mid-sixteenth century. Soon after, coffeehouses for different occupations—tradesmen, janissaries, firemen, folk poets, and musicians—spread throughout the city, functioning as social, cultural, and entertainment spaces.
Coffee culture thrived in Ottoman society and was later introduced to Europe. Some historic Ottoman-era coffeehouses are still operating in Istanbul today, serving the authentic taste of dark, strong Turkish coffee.
With such history, you may wonder why Turkey’s national drink is now tea instead of coffee. After the foundation of the republic, the state encouraged tea consumption to promote Turkish tea plantations and the national economy. Popular preferences switched to tea, a cheaper and more convenient beverage. However, coffee didn’t disappear from people’s lives.
After the instant coffee brand Nescafé entered the Turkish market in 1984, it became a drink commonly served in restaurants and stores as an alternative to tea. Around the 2000s, the arrival of international chains triggered a revival in Turkey’s coffee consumption. People quickly adapted the coffeehouse culture to these modern cafés, which are now among the most popular gathering spots for Istanbul urbanites.
A few years ago Istanbul started catching up with the trend of specialty coffee—referring to the whole process from farmer to cup using single origin coffee—emphasizing the transparency of produce, the use of high-quality beans with improved techniques, and a scientific approach.
In 2012 Çağatay Gülabioğlu opened Turkey’s first specialty coffee shop: Kronotrop. He recalls that, at first, it was not easy for Turkish customers to get used to the flavor of speciality coffee, which is light and fruity. Their palates were used to the strong taste of Turkish coffee. “They thought there was something wrong,” said Gülabioğlu, describing people’s impressions when his shop first opened. “They called it sour.”
But, gradually, more and more people started to appreciate the taste of speciality coffee and it became increasingly trendy, wıth various kinds of cafés popping up all over the city. Customers can now easily find a place that suits their own tastes; either for a particular flavor or the right atmosphere. The founder and owner of Coffee Department, Metin Benbasat claimed that speciality coffeeshops are not seeing others as competitors because each of their coffee is unique. By using different varieties of beans and different ways of roasting, every shop has unique coffee and their own loyal customers.
Old traditions, new experiences
When the Ottoman’s favorite beverage met the world’s latest coffee trend, a surprising revolution started. The taste of bitterness and over-extraction of Turkish coffee—people either love it or hate it—comes from the use of blended pre-grounded coffee and simple brewing techniques. “By using high-quality beans and improved techniques, Turkish coffee can be very delicious,” said Tugay Yıldızlı, a pioneer of speciality Turkish coffee and winner of the 2013 World Cezve/Ibrik Championship (named after the words for a copper coffee pot).
When starting his research, Yıldızlı found a lot of archives about Turkish coffee’s history and culture but nothing about the techniques. He then developed a revised brewing system by adopting the scientific approaches of speciality coffee, and applying them to traditional aspects of brewing Turkish coffee.
Dedicated to promoting specialist Turkish coffee abroad, Yıldızlı claims that almost 99 percent of foreign consumers give positive feedback. Along with the introduction to both the brewing method and traditional rituals, coffee drinkers tend to become very interested in this unique product. As for those who had tried Turkish coffee before, the significant difference between the tastes of traditional and specialty coffees also surprises them.
“Specialty coffee is about sharing,” said Yıldızlı. With transparency of farmers’ stories to brewing techniques, there’s no secret behind a cup of delicious speciality coffee. “I don’t think it’s [just] a trend; it will be the standard in the future,” Yıldızlı concluded.
With its rich, deeply-rooted culture, Istanbul is a living museum of coffee that possesses precious historic coffeehouses and numerous emerging cafés. No matter which kind of coffee you’re fond of, the city will take coffee enthusiasts on a trip of history and flavor.
Where to find traditional Turkish coffee
- At a time when buying raw beans was more common, Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi started selling roasted, ready ground coffee in 1871 and quickly made his name. While its products are now sold everywhere in the city, the historic store in Eminönü retains its legendary status for Turkish coffee. Tahmis Sokak No.66, Eminönü
- The historic Ethem Tezçakar Kahveci in the Grand Bazaar is a family business that has been open since 1909. Halıcılar Çarşışı Sokak, Grand Bazaar
- Another place in the Grand Bazaar is Şark Kahvesi, opened in the 1950s and expanded into a spacious enclosed store. Yağlıkçılar Caddesi, Grand Bazaar
- As the name suggests, Mandabatmaz (meaning “the buffalo will not sink”) is known for its thick, intense coffee foam. The shop has been located on a side street off İstiklal Caddesi since 1967. Olivia Geçidi 1/A, Beyoğlu
Coffee roasteries with workshops
- Çağatay Gülabioğlu’s Probador Colectiva offers coffee tasting, consultancy, and Turkey’s only Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) certified training
. KadirlerYokuşu No.69, Tophane
- Not far from its cozy café in Balat, Coffee Department’s roastery holds a four-hour workshop, focusing on everything from the introduction of specialty
coffee,to farming, to sensory analysis.Kürkçü Çeşmesi Sokak No.5, Balat
- Petra Roasting Co.’s headquarters in Gayrettepe holds a home brewing workshop every Sunday, which is limited to four participants. Hoşsohbet Sokak Panorama Selenium Residence Mağaza 1, Gayrettepe
- Kronotrop’s roastery in Maslak provides coffee tasting on a weekly basis, which is limited to six participants. Atatürk Oto Sanayi Sitesi No, 2, Maslak
Specialty coffee shops in Istanbul
On the European side
- On Prof. Dr. Orhan Ersek Sokak in Topağacı, you can visit the branches of two iconic names of Istanbul’s specialty coffee—Kronotrop and Petra.
- In addition to great coffee, some of Cup of Joy’s locations also offer breakfast and light meals. Cevdet Paşa Caddesi No.53, Bebek
- Sitting on a quiet Cihangir corner and featuring minimalistic décor, Norm Coffee stands out among many cafés in the area for its excellent coffee and pastries. Güneşli Sokak No.39A, Cihangir
- Rawsters Coffee & Supply Co.’s spacious store in Maslak is one of the few places in the neighborhood with specialty coffee. It is especially popular with office workers during lunch time. 42 Maslak, Ahi Evran Caddesi No.6, Maslak
- After making a mark with its tiny hip store in Karaköy, Coffee Sapiens recently open another spot at İntema Yaşam in Kanyon. Büyükdere Caddesi No.185, Levent
- With the colorful and retro decor, Sunday Coffee Bar is a joyful corner to chill in Teşvikiye. Ahmet Fetgari Sokak No.44/B, Teşvikiye
- Providing information cards for every type of coffee beans used, Coffee Department ensures you know all the details. Kürkçü Çeşmesi Sokak No.5A, Balat
- Starting with a small express shop, Deal Coffee has opened a larger, but cozy space on the same street. Yıldız Caddesi No.41, Beşiktaş
- In addition to its quality coffee, Karabatak’s authentic interior design makes it one of the most instagramable spots in Karaköy. Kara Ali Kaptan Sokak No.7, Karaköy
On the Asian side
- Not allowing laptops nor providing Wi-Fi, Rafine Espresso Bar has its own character. Its pastries are as good as its coffee; don’t miss the popular San Sebastian cheesecake. Sarraf Ali Sokak No.15, Moda
- Being the first specialty coffee shop on the Asian side, Çekirdek’s micro roastery and its owner Tunca Özgürer have been loved by the locals since it opened in late 2012. Şair Latifi Sokak No.9/A, Kadıköy
- Occupying a quiet, bright, first-floor balcony, Montag Coffee Roasters is an ideal working space where you can enjoy coffee away from the bustle of the neighborhood. Muvakkithane Caddesi No.16 Kat.1, Kadıköy
- Located in a historical building with a wooden, bricky interior, Story Coffee offers a unique nostalgic vibe. Dalga Sokak No.22, Moda
Popular chains in the city
- Founded in 2004 as Turkey’s first coffee chain, Kahve Dünyası is a primary destination for coffee, as well as salep, sweets, and pastries.
- Visit Starbucks’s Bebek branch to enjoy a Bosphorus view, or find a Starbucks Reserve to try some of its exclusive editions of specialty coffee. There are hundreds of locations around town.
- For a coffee break paired with a snack, stop by one of the European-style Caffè Nero shops.
- At Topkapı Palace Museum, you can find porcelain and copper utensils that were used in the palace and information on the sultan’s coffee ceremonies.
- One of Pera Museum’s permanent exhibitions, Coffee Break: The Adventure of Coffee in Kütahya Tiles and Ceramics, displays a collection of ceramic production centered around Ottoman coffee culture. Meşrutiyet Caddesi. No.65, Tepebaşı
- The book Turkish Coffee by M. Sabri Koz and Kemalettin Kuzucu provides an overview of Turkey’s coffee scene from past to present.