Beginning with its powerful position in the Hanseatic League in the 13th and 14th centuries, Hamburg became one of Europe’s most important port cities. Even after the Hanseatic League dissolved in the 17th century, the city continued to prosper by dominating international trade routes. Today, Hamburg is still referred to as ‘the gateway to the world’ because of its positioning between the Alster and Elbe Rivers and its direct link to the North Sea. It is this strategic location that has made the city an integral player in the global coffee trade for over 300 years.
Historically, green coffee beans from all over the world arrived in Hamburg to be stored, shipped, and roasted. It is no surprise then that a lively coffee scene emerged early on. In 1677, the city’s first coffeehouse opened. Run by English merchants who had brought the drink over from London, this set the stage for the emergence of a thriving coffee scene in the city. In the decades that followed, coffee was slowly introduced to the rest of the country. By 1721, with the permission of Prussian King Frederick William I, the first coffeehouse was opened in Berlin – a milestone marking coffee’s official arrival in the whole of Germany.
With the establishment of The Hamburg Coffee Exchange in 1887, the city became the most significant international trading place for coffee in the world. That’s why, over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, many industry giants chose to call the city home: Tchibo, Jacobs, J.J. Darboven, and Melitta, to name just a few. A trip to Hamburg today provides the perfect opportunity to pair coffee history with third-wave coffee shops, serving up something for every coffee lover.
Exploring the Speicherstadt
For those looking to deep dive into Hamburg’s coffee history, it’s best to start your tour of the city in the Speicherstadt (which means ‘warehouse city’ in German). Located just south of the city’s old town, this UNESCO World Heritage site consists of a network of mighty brick warehouses situated on a series of interconnected islands and winding canals. Built between 1885 and 1927, after Hamburg was formally granted permission to establish a free port within its docks, these neo-Gothic warehouses were used to store goods like tea, cacao, spices, and, of course, coffee. In recent years, the area has been redeveloped, along with the surrounding HafenCity area, as part of a state-of-the-art urban regeneration project. Coffee and its history, however, can still be discovered on nearly every corner.
The Speicherstadt Museum
The Speicherstadt Museum is a locally owned and operated museum found in the heart of the warehouse district, and it is the perfect first stop for coffee enthusiasts in Hamburg. In a warehouse dating back to 1888, you can learn how local people used to store, sample, and refine imported goods – including coffee. Throughout the exhibition, visitors can trace the path that coffee beans took from their arrival in Hamburg to the consumer’s cup. This includes learning about the shipping and storage process, as well as the way that green coffee beans were sorted by hand by women workers over the centuries.
At the museum, you’ll also find several examples of German coffee ingenuity. For instance, you will discover the invention of a young, local entrepreneur named J.J. Darboven, whose idea it was to package roasted coffee in bags and deliver them to individual households by mail. Darboven’s idea led to a direct increase in sales for coffee roasters across the city. You’ll also find early versions of Melitta filters, invented by Melitta Bentzin in 1908 as a better way to make a cleaner cup of coffee. Her innovation paved the way for modern pour-over and drip coffee brewing methods worldwide.
At the Speicherstadt Museum, you can actually taste German history by ordering a mug of Mischkaffee or Muckefuck. Loosely translated to ‘mixed coffee,’ this brown, coffee-like substance was the result of caffeine-addicted Germans trying to cope with the shortage of beans during the 20th century – mainly due to WWI, WWII, and the East German coffee crisis in the late 1970s. While the composition of Mischkaffee changed over time, it was generally comprised of about 51 percent cheap coffee and 49% other ‘surrogate’ ingredients – ranging from malt, grains, chicory, sugar beets, grape seeds, asparagus, carrots, lupins, almonds, and sometimes even potatoes.
Mischkaffee, however, did not become popular in Germany. In fact, in the 1970s, coffee-drinking advocates loudly protested the product’s emergence in local supermarkets. They argued that such ‘mixed coffees’ were characterized by a lack of quality – in terms of taste and enjoyment – and that they simply could not replace the real thing.
After visiting the Speicherstadt Museum, you’ll want to head over to the Speicherstadt Kaffeerösterei, located just a few short blocks away. Sharing a warehouse building from 1888 with two of Hamburg’s key tourist attractions – the Hamburg Dungeon and the city’s Miniature Wonderland – you’ll find this beloved coffee destination. Although the café and roastery opened here in 2006, it fits seamlessly into the historic space and exudes an authentic vibe. Large steel beams boldly crisscross the ceiling and arched timber doors swing open onto views of the Brooksfleet canal. Immediately upon entering, you’re greeted with the smell of freshly roasted coffee which wafts directly from the gentle drum roaster that is the centerpiece of the café.
The baristas and shop staff will help you discover a world of coffee through their specially developed system. Each of their coffees is labeled with a different color, each one reflecting the tastes and aromas of the coffee. The colors are based on the main tasting notes that you’ll find waiting in your cup. For example, if the first impression of a coffee is blackberry, the coffee is assigned to the sweet fruit category and given a red label. If the coffee is dominated by nutty and caramel flavors, it is given a light brown label.
Every time a new coffee or harvest is added to the stock, the café’s five-person tasting team assigns a color to the package. My personal go-to – and a favorite among regulars – is the Hamburger Hafen Kaffeemischung (Hamburg Harbour Blend), which is the perfect everyday coffee. The main tasting note of this smooth coffee blend is caramel, followed by sweet pastries and grapes in the secondary notes. Aromas of dark chocolate and walnut await in the finish.
Kaffeerösterei Burg & Museum
Another stop for coffee lovers within the Speicherstadt is the Burg Roastery and Museum, which occupies two floors of another neo-Gothic warehouse building in the area. Coffee has been stored and processed here since 1896.
The museum is the product of an impressive collection of coffee artifacts that highlight one local resident’s enduring passion for the drink. After Jens Burg took over the family roastery and shop – then located in Eppendorf — from his father Erich in 1960, he began collecting everything he could find that related to the industry. Today, thanks to his obsession, around 8,500 objects can be found in the Speicherstadt’s only vaulted cellar – including specialized tools and machines, roasters and grinders, filters and jugs, advertising, and curiosities, crockery, and furniture.
Coffee experts and collectors can easily spend hours marveling at the artifacts, including the advertisements created by local and national coffee brands during the past 100 years. For those looking to further expand their coffee knowledge, you can peruse the large oak bookshelves full of specialist literature that line the walls of the 700m2 museum and café. You can even find an exact replica of the Burg family’s original coffee stand, dating back to 1923, on display here.
To get the full experience, you should book a tour of the museum and roastery. Afterward, you can indulge in some coffees and pastries in the rustic café on the first floor. Here you can choose from dozens of filter coffees, all served in individual French presses. On my most recent visit, I tried a mild coffee with light notes of molasses and caramel from Finca Miravalle in El Salvador — a family-run farm that has successfully placed at over a dozen Cup of Excellence competitions.
Hamburg’s Coffee Plaza
At the edge of the Speicherstadt, where the old warehouse district meets the so-called HafenCity redevelopment, you’ll find Sandtorpark. Walking eastward through the urban park, you’ll quickly find yourself in the center of what is known today as Coffee Plaza. This area, once home to major coffee holding warehouses and the historic Coffee Exchange, now contains several modern buildings where many of the major players – such as the Neumann Kaffee Group – in the coffee industry sit. Other importing and roasting companies, technology suppliers, coffee shop operators, and other specialty shops, clubs, associations, and/or representatives of coffee-producing countries also find their home here. The shared location is aimed at securing and expanding Hamburg’s position as the number one coffee spot in Europe.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Coffee Plaza, however, is that at its center you’ll find a 5-foot-tall bronze monument of a coffee bean. Installed in 2016, this 3-ton bean stands as a permanent homage to coffee’s important role in shaping the city.
Specialty Coffee in Hamburg
Rich in coffee history and abundant in roasteries, it comes as little surprise that Germany’s second-largest city also has a thriving specialty coffee scene that is worth exploring. There are dozens of cafés to explore, but two stand out as must-visit destinations on any trip to Hamburg.
The name Elbgold references the port city’s longstanding role in shipping and receiving coffee from all over the world. Owned and operated by local couple, Annika Taschinski and Thomas Klieforth, Elbgold is heralded as the pioneer of third-wave coffee in Hamburg.
The duo first opened a small café in the district of Winterhude in 2004, but soon outgrew their original location and moved to what is now their flagship shop in the Schanzenviertel district — an extremely trendy and popular neighborhood of Hamburg known for its many small boutique shops, restaurants, cafes, and party spots. Once there, they increased their roasting abilities by investing in a ProBat G45, which allowed them to roast up to 45kg per batch and expand their capacity further. Since then, they’ve opened five additional locations across the city – ranging from neighborhood cafés to coffee bars in upscale shopping centers. However, the main roastery and café remain a tried-and-true favorite among locals.
At Elbgold, you can always find high-quality, directly traded specialty coffee as the owners take special care in sourcing the beans themselves, visiting and building longstanding relationships with local producers around the world. The carefully selected beans are then roasted by hand; each coffee is given an individual roast profile to impress both classic coffee drinkers and third-wave coffee aficionados. Their filter coffees range from light roast single origins and blends to rarities such as Cup of Excellence winners and special varietals such as Geisha.
Over the course of nearly two decades, Elbgold has set high standards for other specialty coffee shops to follow and fundamentally transformed both how and where Hamburgers enjoy their coffee by creating a space where everyone is welcome to explore the nuances of the specialty coffee scene. Their staff, always friendly and eager to share their robust coffee knowledge, add to the overall experience.
Public Coffee Roasters
Whether it’s a filter coffee, a flat white, a cappuccino, or a cold brew that you’re looking for, Public Coffee Roasters should be at the top of your list. With three unique locations, all located in Hamburg proper, you can choose to grab your coffee of choice at their original café located in one of the city’s trendy shopping areas (Wexstrasse), inside a light-flooded and historic metal foundry dating back to 1899 (Goldbekplatz), or inside the former headquarters of Der Spiegel (Brandstwiete).
However, the best place to enjoy Public Coffee Roasters is at one of Hamburg’s best-kept secrets: Café Entenwerder 1. A short 15-minute bike ride from the main station along the city’s well-kept cycling lanes will bring you directly to the idyllic Entenwerder Park where you’ll quickly find your destination: a glistening 3-story golden pavilion located on a pontoon floating on the shores of the Elbe.
The pavilion, rescued from an art exhibition in Münster some years ago was supposed to be melted down, now juts triumphantly out of the river. Connected to the land via a 100-year-old steel bridge, the golden art sculpture has become the iconic centerpiece of this buoyant and playful urban retreat.
The ambiance onboard the pontoon is markedly industrial romance. From the brightly blooming flowers that sprout mysteriously from every corner to the Instagram-worthy bursts of color integrated into the design details of the space, Café Entenwerder1 is akin to entering a modern yet whimsical wonderland. Unique, reclaimed furniture – including well-worn airplane seats and former stadium chairs – invite visitors to settle in and stay awhile.
A particular highlight is the renovated pink shipping containers that have been converted into kitchens that serve up delicious and local brunch menus, seasonal snacks, drinks, and, of course, coffee direct from Public Coffee Roasters. In fact, the coffee couldn’t be fresher as the roastery is located directly next door to Café Entenwerder 1 on a houseboat that was formerly used as a customs house.
Offering a perfectly Hanseatic atmosphere with a direct view toward Hamburg’s harbour, this urban oasis is particularly popular on spring and summer days. Not only can you settle in to soak up some Vitamin D while you watch the ships pass by on the river, but you can do so with an excellent cup of coffee in your hand. What’s more, a portion of the proceeds of the café is invested directly back into the community, supporting the onsite sailing school for financially disadvantaged children and youth in Hamburg.
Some other worthy coffee stops in Hamburg include:
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2022 print edition of Barista Magazine.