War or no war, Ukrainians don't give up coffee

When Russian tanks first entered Ukraine more than two years ago, Artem Vradii was sure his business would suffer.

“Who would think of coffee in this situation?” thought Mr. Vradii, co-founder of a coffee roaster in Kiev called Mad Heads. “Nobody would care.”

But in the days after the invasion began, he began receiving messages from Ukrainian soldiers. One asked for bags of ground coffee because he couldn't stand the army-issued energy drinks. Another simply asked for some beans: he had brought his grinder to the front.

“I was really shocked,” Vradii said in a recent interview at his roastery, a 40-foot-tall brick building humming with the sound of ground coffee and filled with the smell of freshly ground beans. “Despite the war, people still thought about coffee. They could leave their homes, their habits. But they couldn't live without coffee.”

The soldiers' demands are just one aspect of a little-known aspect of today's Ukrainian lifestyle: the vibrant café culture.

Over the past decade, coffee shops have proliferated across Ukraine, in cities large and small. This is especially true in Kiev, the capital, where small coffee kiosks run by expert baristas serving tasty mochas for less than $2 have become a fixture on the streets.

Step into one of Kiev's hidden courtyards and there's a good chance you'll find a coffee shop with baristas busy perfecting their latte art behind the counter.

Coffee culture has flourished globally – even in tea-obsessed Britain – but in Ukraine over the past two years it has taken on special significance as a sign of resilience and defiance.

“Everything will be fine,” said Maria Yevstafieva, an 18-year-old barista who was making a cappuccino one recent morning in a Kiev cafe that had just been damaged by a missile attack. The shop window had been shattered by the explosion and had fallen onto the counter, but Mrs Yevstafieva remained unmoved.

“How can they destroy us?” you hear it said in a video, referring to the Russian army. “We have a strike, let's make coffee.”

Before the war, Ukraine was one of the fastest-growing coffee markets in Europe, according to research group Allegra World Coffee Portal. In Kiev, the number of coffee shops continued to grow even after the Russian invasion, reaching around 2,500 shops today, according to Pro-Consulting, a Ukrainian market research group.

The Girkiy chain, for example, is hard to miss in the capital, with more than 70 coffee shops. Its mint-colored kiosks are found at the foot of centuries-old Orthodox churches and around Kiev's main squares.

On a recent afternoon, Yelyzaveta Holota, an 18-year-old bartender, was busy at her kiosk preparing orders. She had only been working for four months, but she already had a sure touch: she weighed the ground coffee, tamped it into a portafilter and, after pouring the espresso into a cup, she shook it lightly to bring out the flavors. .

The technique must be perfect, he said, because the competition is fierce. Six other bars are located along the street where he works in central Kiev, including a second in Girkiy, which means “bitter” in Ukrainian.

Founded in 2015, the chain served low-quality coffee, instead focusing on speed. But in 2020, Oleh Astashev, the founder, visited the Barn in Berlin, an artisanal coffee institution that roasts its own coffee.

The visit impressed and inspired him. Back in Kiev, he built his own roastery, purchased high-end Italian coffee machines and started training his baristas.

“We changed everything: the name, the service, the products, the quality of the coffee beans, the quality of the water,” he said. “Everyone should be able to drink high-quality coffee.”

The chain's previous name was “Gorkiy”, or bitter in Russian.

Astashev's story reflects how the country's coffee boom is linked to its broader rapprochement with Europe.

Since Ukraine's revolution on Maidan Square in 2014, which toppled a pro-Russian president, the country has strengthened its ties with Europe, including through visa-free entry for its citizens. Many Ukrainians traveled west, discovering a coffee culture that had not yet penetrated their borders. Soon they would bring him home.

“We wanted our coffee shops in Kiev to be like in Europe,” said Maryna Dobzovolska, 39, who co-founded Right Coffee Bar with her husband, Oleksii Gurtov, in 2017.

Ask Ukrainian coffee entrepreneurs about famous Vienna cafes or Italian espresso and they will dismiss them as a “conservative” and “outdated” take on coffee culture.

Their model was cities like Berlin and Stockholm, where a so-called third wave of coffee shops has developed over the past two decades, emphasizing high-quality beans and innovative recipes.

More recently, Ms. Dobzovolska and Mr. Gurtov have been experimenting with anaerobic coffee, a processing method that involves fermenting coffee in sealed tanks without oxygen, giving the drink fruity flavors.

“Try it. You'll love it,” Gurtov, 49, said as he poured the steaming, purple drink.

Always ready to push the limits, Ukrainian baristas have also popularized “Capuorange” – a double shot of espresso mixed with fresh orange juice – now on sale everywhere in Kiev.

Several foreigners said they were amazed by the quality of the coffee in a country that, since Soviet times, mainly consumed instant coffee.

“This is the best coffee in the world,” said Michael McLaughlin, a 51-year-old American who volunteers in Ukraine, as he ordered an Americano on Maidan Square on a recent afternoon.

Some say it is simply a return to Ukraine's roots.

Legend has it that the man who opened the first café in Vienna in the late 17th century was Jerzy Kulczycki, a soldier born in modern-day Ukraine. He is honored with a life-size statue in Lviv that praises him as the war hero “who taught Europe to drink coffee.”

Volodymyr Efremov, a roaster at Idealist, a major Ukrainian coffee brand, said his goal now is to “popularize” specialty coffee across the country.

In today's Ukraine there is perhaps no better way to achieve this than through the military. Every month, Idealist and other coffee makers deliver tens of thousands of drip coffee bags to the military: single-serve bags filled with ground coffee. These are some of the best products on the Ukrainian coffee market.

On social media, soldiers posted videos of themselves pouring hot water into coffee bags placed on iron mugs before enjoying the steaming beverage in a log trench.

Last year, standing near an artillery position, a young Ukrainian sergeant, Maksim – who did not give his last name according to military rules – was boiling water in a small white kettle, with a bag of coffee ground Mad Heads at his side. His unit had just fired an Australian-made howitzer at Russian targets on the Southern Front, and he was in the mood for a good cup of coffee.

For five straight minutes he discussed the degree of water mineralization needed to make the perfect brew, the quality of the single-origin beans that give it “the honey-alcohol-banana coffee flavor” and how the drink should be sipped for “perceive more” flavors.”

Maksim, whose call sign is Stayer, said his fellow soldiers had found the Mad Heads coffee “delicious and asked me where I got it”.

“I said, 'Guys, we're in the 21st century. Let's eat well, even if we're in the army.'”

Michael Schwirtz contributed to the reporting.

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