‘There is no coffee culture in Bulgaria’. So says the somewhat pessimistic co-owner of a café in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city. Is he right?
On our Balkan Caffeination travels we had already encountered the vibrant cafe and coffee cultures of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia where the fragrant (and potent) black stuff permeates daily life 24/7. You couldn’t throw a coffee bean in any direction in Sarajevo, Belgrade or just about any settlement with more than a few hundred people without hitting a cafe, coffee house or roastery. To a slightly lesser extent the same would be true once we got to Romania.
But Bulgaria? Not so much.
The first worrying thing we noticed was the proliferation of coffee vending machines. They were everywhere. In every village, town and city. Even, would you believe, adjacent to cafes. Actually many were probably owned by cafes.
Our guide had a theory which was to be echoed by other people we met. Communism, she suggested, probably had a lot to do with it. It’s no secret that Bulgaria suffered a particularly brutal and repressive period under successive People’s Republic of Bulgaria regimes up until the 90s. Culture was strictly regulated. People were reluctant to meet socially outside of their homes (e.g. in cafes) or, if they did, were chary of what they discussed. So socializing in cafes, a Balkan tradition, atrophied.
To explore what a typical venue of that period was like we visited a communist era coffee house in the Mladost district of Sofia. Whether by design or indifference it was one of the most depressing cafes of our entire Balkan odyssey. And the coffee wasn’t exactly nectar either.
Yes, there are sporadic attempts to keep traditional coffee culture alive in Bulgaria. In some cases these tend to feel more like living museum exhibits, than thriving cafes. But, in the interest of research we tracked a few down.
In Veliko Tarnovo, one of Bulgaria’s oldest cities, in the pedestrianised Samovodska Street, Neli Boncheva runs a tiny sweets and Turkish coffee shop called The Sugar Shop. In between hordes of teenies coming in to top up their sugar highs, Neli manages to dispense authentic Turkish brews. That said, Samovodska Street is littered with touristy gewgaw shops, and the Sugar Shop inevitably shares this vibe.
Watch the coffee spinning video clip here:
But as good as the coffee is and charming as the host and hostess of Zlatograd’s Old Town Cafe are, you still get the impression of a staged show rather than authentic cafe.
Sand ‘cooked’ coffee also figured in the picture-perfect village of Tryavna.
Like the Veliko Tarnovo venue, кафе на пясък (Coffee on Sand) cafe is as much about sweet stuff – cookies, candies, etc. - as it is coffee. But the coffee was good, our hostess was delightful and the cafe a match for the fairy-tale rusticity of the village.
Had we yet found a thriving coffee culture in Bulgaria? Not even close.
If anywhere should have been able to deliver the full-on coffee experience, it should have been Bulgaria’s capital city. So with high hopes we set off through Sofia’s mixture of monumental Austro-Hungarian and Soviet architecture to suddenly find ourselves descending into a predominantly Roman subterranean complex. And there, amidst a nicely curated clutter of antiquities, sarcophagi, and ancient brick and stone, we found our natural home: the Photojournalists Club of Bulgaria.
The venue looked like a small bomb had just hit it. Empty coffee cups and drinks glasses. A dishevelled drum kit. And a rather hung-over, apologetic, but totally welcoming hostess greeted us. Veselina - sometimes actress, daughter of the cafe owner – explained that there had been an all-nighter to celebrate the launch of a photographer’s work. She struggled to get the coffee machine working. But couldn’t.
So instead she offered us a classic Balkan breakfast (it was morning): a carafe of potent homemade rakia and bread with slices of cucumber and tomato. Which we gratefully accepted!
Next stop, the decidedly un-Bulgarian-named Chucky’s Coffee & Culture. Ivan Chavdarov and Dimo Kolev are in the vanguard of the new wave, claiming to be the first specialty café in Sofia. Chucky’s sells mainly espresso coffees, rarely Turkish via their two shops in Sofia. But they’re finding it hard. Ivan echoed our Plovdiv respondent’s view of no café culture in Bulgaria. Why, we asked? Mainly the politics and communism which discouraged social interaction traditionally in cafes and coffee houses.
Many of Chucky’s Bulgarian younger customers have travelled to other countries so they know about café culture and how good coffee should taste. But the bulk of Sofia’s population has yet to wake up and smell the new coffee and culture. Nevertheless these guys are forging ahead with their two locations and a lot of optimism. And yes, the name Chucky’s was ‘inspired’ by the film of the same name. Go figure!
Our last attempt to uncover Sofia’s ‘green shoots’ of coffee culture took us to Fabrika Daga, the Rainbow Factory. Fabrika serves up excellent coffee with interesting food.
Good as the food might be, the coffee is why Fabrika is often overflowing with younger customers desperate for a coffee culture scene that, so far, seems to have eluded Sofia. Cafe owner/barista Venelin Dimitrov: “Fabrika has been open for 3 years. People come here for the coffee and social scene".
"People here in Sofia can’t afford a lot of coffee, can’t afford to go to the cafes all the time. So the coffee has to be good. If you don’t serve good coffee your business is doomed. Also tourism plays an important role. As tourism grows so will we."
On to Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv. It was here that we met up with Angel Andreev, the author of the opening quote of this blog: ‘There is no coffee culture in Bulgaria’ – there it was again. Angel also told us: "...this business is for the heart, not for money."
Despite this apparently gloomy prognosis Angel and business partner Garo Uzunyan are determined to make their Biblioteka cafe business thrive and have even set up a modest roasting/grinding operation in a nearby bolt-hole. We wish them all the luck in the world.
Perhaps, aside from the coffee vending machine epidemic, the most telling encounter we had was in the home of an elderly couple to which we were graciously invited for a cup of coffee. Had this been in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Serbia, it would have undoubtedly involved the whole ritual of traditional coffee prepared in a djezveh possibly accompanied by a shot of rakia. In fact, they brought in steaming cups of… instant coffee.
This is not meant to be unkind. The couple were both welcoming and delightful. But on reflection it suggested how unimportant coffee culture had become to socializing in Bulgaria. Particularly among the older population.
We can only hope that the new wave of coffee roasters, grinders and purveyors – however few there are at the moment – will eventually win through and revive a centuries old tradition of coffee as a social catalyst and connector. The new Bulgarians are waiting!
Words and (most) images by Fred Shively and Paul Kelly, the Balkan Caffeinators
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Our mission is to explore why coffee and cafés are central to the Balkan way of life.