The "House under the Blue Bottle" and Viennese Coffee House Myths

17 January 1685, the Armenian merchant Johannes Theodat or Diodato opened the first Coffee House in Vienna.

“The [ Café ] Central-people are always attracted like the murderer to the scene of the crime, to where they killed so much time, wiped out entire years.” (Alfred Polgar)

Reinhold Völkel’s (1873–1938) “Café Griensteidl”, 1896

Georg Franz Kolschitzky’s maiden name allegedly was Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, maybe he really was born a szlachta, a Polish nobleman, and maybe he even rode with the Zaporozhian Cossacks once and maybe he was born in a hovel in the backstreet of a Belarus dump, whatever was the case, during the 1670s, polyglot Jerzy worked as a translator for the Austrian Oriental Company in Belgrade, was in Constantinople in 1679 and relocated to Vienna in 1681. Two years later, Kara Mustapha Pasha marched west with 300,000 men to lay siege to the place and show House Habsburg what’s what. Jerzy volunteered to sneak through the Ottoman lines, disguised as a sipahi, singing Ottoman ditties and returned with the news that a relief army was on its way, the defenders held and during the Battle of Kahlenberg in 1683 that raised the siege, Jerzy fought in the ranks of the hero of the day, King John III Sobieski. And while it was the silk cord for Kara Mustapha in Belgrade, Jerzy asked Sobieski for a few sacks full of strange beans that his comrades believed were camel fodder found in the Turkish baggage train. Jerzy roasted and brewed them, added milk and sugar, opened the first coffee house in Vienna, served the stuff as Melange, became Georg and the Viennese coffee tradition was born. The old rogue knew perfectly well that the beans were no camel fodder. Or so the story goes. It’s unfortunately not true.  

Józef Brandt (1841 – 1915): "Battle of Vienna", 1873


The first coffee house in Europe was opened in Constantinople a few years after the fall in 1475 and next came the Venetians and the English. By the time Kara Mustapha messed up the conquest of Austria, there were already several thousand coffee houses in England and France, mostly ran by Jewish, Armenian and Greek proprietors, those who had usually the best contacts within the Ottoman Empire. However, Kolschitzky opened an establishment, a year after Diodato, in 1686, the Hof zur Blauen Flasche ("House under the Blue Bottle"), then in Schlossergassl, today’s Stock-im-Eisen-Platz near St Stephen’s Cathedral. Already during the 1820s, coffee houses in Vienna numbered more than 150 and even if the speciality coffees did not have their proper evocative names yet, the coffee tradition and coffee house culture began to assert itself. Like the places in London and Paris, the Kramersche Kaffeehaus catered already in 1700 for the local notoriously cash-strapped intelligentsia with coffee as well as newspapers, magazines and the charming custom that once a patron had ordered something, he could stay as long as he wanted, read and discuss.

A Viennese 17th century coffee house scene reimagined by an unknown artist around 1900

And while London’s coffee houses spawned Lloyd’s as well as Dr Johnson’s “Dictionary”, the Parisian establishments the encyclopédistes, enlightenment and maybe the great Revolution, by the end of the 19th and the early 20th century, the “Kaffeehaus” in Vienna housed the flower of Central European arts as well as intelligence, from Klimt and Schiele, Freud and Adler to Zweig, Schnitzler, Herzl and Trotsky in places like “Café Griensteidl“,  “Café Museum” and “Café Central”. The institutions hardly survived the Second World War, by the 1950s they had almost died out along with their illustrious clients. Fifty years later, in 2011, the "Viennese Coffee House Culture" at least had been ranked as part of Austrian "Intangible Cultural Heritage" by the UNESCO and a renewed local interest in tradition as well as tourism guarantee a survival and some of the classic places of cultural renown still exist along with many lesser known coffee houses throughout the city.

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