Vienna, Melbourne and Seattle are all cities renowned for excellent coffee and lively cafe scenes. But there’s another place that can be added to the list, and it may surprise you: Hamburg.
This port city in northern Germany has long thrived on trade, and with the coffee bean having passed through its docks and warehouses for centuries, there’s plenty here to interest lovers of the brew.
Hamburg is no latecomer to caffeine – its first coffee house opened in 1677. As is often the case, the bustling port cities of yesteryear were the gateway to something new and exciting; in this case, a beverage acclaimed for its contribution to conviviality and alertness.
From Hamburg and nearby Bremen, coffee was introduced across Germany during the 18th century. When the first coffee house was opened in Berlin in 1721 by permission of Prussian King Frederick William I, the drink had truly arrived.
Hamburg grew rich from the coffee trade, and still deals in the beans today. As a result of this long, hyper-caffeinated history, there are a number of coffee-related attractions in the city.
Hamburg's coffee zone
The best place to start exploring Hamburg’s coffee heritage is in the Speicherstadt district, south of the city’s attractive Altstadt (Old Town). This Unesco-recognised enclave of mighty brick warehouses, situated on long narrow islands threaded by canals, was built between 1885 and 1927 as a result of Hamburg being granted permission to establish a free port within its docks.
Speicherstadt's free port status was abolished in 2013 and it's currently being redeveloped along with the surrounding Hafen City area as part of an urban regeneration project but, luckily, coffee is still at its heart.
Begin your coffee investigations at the Speicherstadt Kaffeerösterei (speicherstadt-kaffee.de). It opened here in 2006, but this roastery and cafe looks as old as the 1888 warehouse it’s situated in; big steel girders criss-crossing the ceiling and arched timber doors opening onto views of the Brooksfleet canal make for an atmospheric interior.
The cafe side of the premises is dotted with tables set with potted plants and to the rear of this is the roastery, demarcated only by ropes and sacks of coffee beans. While a tour of the roastery itself isn’t possible, staff serve a changing variety of coffees, including the house blend created in honour of the port: Hamburger Hafenmischung (Hamburg Harbour Blend).
Suitably caffeinated, you might like to step next door to check out Miniatur Wunderland, with its vast collection of working model railways. It has nothing to do with coffee, but it’s a lot of fun.
Head back on the coffee trail via a short walk to the Speicherstadt Museum, housed within another lofty warehouse. Its displays explain how Speicherstadt was originally tenanted by Quartiersleute, companies that stored goods on behalf of traders. Coffee was one of the highest-value products which passed through their premises and, as such, was sorted by hand to remove foreign objects or low-quality beans.
During WWII, over half of Speicherstadt was destroyed by bombing. After the conflict was over, it was rebuilt and the city’s Coffee Exchange reopened in 1956 with a stylish new interior. Though it later closed down, its décor has remained intact as part of the conference facilities of the Ameron Hotel Speicherstadt. When it’s not in use, visitors are welcome to step inside the former exchange to experience a dose of its Mad Men glam.
After visiting the Ameron, the coffee completist should step across the road to the Coffee Plaza within the modern Sandtorpark complex. Its central sculpture of a giant coffee bean is covered with images and text connected to the history of the beverage.
Near the Ameron is the Burg Coffee Museum (kaffeemuseum-burg.de), an offshoot of a cafe and roastery founded in 1923. When its owner retired, his extensive collection of coffee paraphernalia became the foundation of this institution. Having opened in November 2015, the museum is the newest of Speicherstadt’s coffee attractions. Its exhibition is situated in the basement of a former warehouse, and can only be visited by guided tour.
The quantity and variety of items is staggering, stretching from industrial roasting equipment to stylish coffee cups for household use. Gleaming steel percolators line up beside decorative cans, ceramic coffee grinders and commercial signage. Particularly impressive is the large suitcase containing a complete coffee service, used by a travelling commercial salesman.
Museum director and occasional museum guide Bärbel Dahms thinks it’s important for coffee lovers to learn more about their favourite beverage. 'I like to tell them about the worth of coffee,' she says. 'About how much work is inside it, that every coffee bean had to be moved seven times by human hands.'
Living the coffee life
If you want to sleep in the heart of Hamburg’s coffee history, the upmarket Ameron is the obvious place to choose; each morning you can admire the former Coffee Exchange as you pass it on the way to the hotel’s breakfast buffet.
For a budget choice not far away, try the A&O Hamburg Hauptbahnhof. As the name suggests, it’s handily located for the main train station and is linked to the Speicherstadt area by buses and U-Bahn trains. A good mid-range option to the west is the Hotel Hafen, near the Landungsbrücken S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations.
In addition to cafe-roasteries, there are plenty of 'third wave' cafes representing the 21st-century face of Hamburg coffee. To the west of Speicherstadt, Milch (facebook.com/milchfeinkost) is a sleek white cafe in a former delicatessen, serving excellent coffee from espresso to flat whites.
In the Altstadt, a good choice is The Coffee Shop (facebook.com/thecoffeeshophamburg). Perched above one end of the Bleichenfleet canal, it has a great view of the Alte Post (Old Post Office) opposite.
Other recommendations for a quality cup of joe include Playground Coffee (playground-coffee.com), Less Political (lesspolitical.de), Public Coffee Roasters (publiccoffeeroasters.com), and Stockholm Espresso Club (stockholmespressoclub.de).
However you take your brew, there’s something Bärbel Dahms wants you to remember – Hamburg is as great a coffee city as its old rival, Vienna.
“We don’t have grand coffee houses like those of Vienna, but we were earlier than Vienna with our first cafe,” she says. “We have a modern coffee culture now, and I hope we’ll work on it and take it further.”
Tim Richards visited Hamburg with support from the German National Tourist Office. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.