April 23, 2020

Inside Ukraine’s Booming Coffee Scene

Historically, Ukraine hasn’t been well known for its specialty coffee consumption. As it’s become one of Europe’s fastest coffee shop growing markets, this could change very soon.

Keep reading to find out more about Ukraine’s history with coffee, how locals are consuming it, and the role that events have to play in increasing education and interest. In addition, baristas, coffee shop owners, and SCA members will share their insights on the industry. 

Lee este artículo en español Analizando la Próspera Escena Del Café en Ucrania

Credit: Blackfest

Ukraine & Coffee: A Brief History

It’s said that Ukraine was first introduced to coffee in the late 1600s by the Turkish. Legend has it that Yuriy Kulchitskiy, a spy and linguistics expert captured by the Turkish army, introduced coffee to what was then known as the Austro-Hungarian empire. While imprisoned by the Turks, Yuriy learnt about their coffee drinking traditions. Upon his freedom, he used this knowledge to open a coffee shop in Vienna. However, it would be some time before coffee took off in earnest in Ukraine.

Anna Sokolova, Marketing and Communication Coordinator of SCA Ukraine, explains that while Turkey’s influence may have led to some Turkish style coffee shops opening on Ukraine’s border, coffee still wasn’t popular or easily accessible in most of Ukraine in the early 1900s. In addition, during the Russian revolution when Ukraine joined the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin allegedly declared coffee as bourgeois – promoting tea consumption instead. 

As a result, coffee fell out of favour for decades, only returning to Ukraine after the USSR collapsed in the eighties, where it joined low-priced soluble coffee on the market. The late nineties introduced the country to espresso and Italian espresso machines, and small coffee shops and trucks started to pop up. However, most could only access lower quality coffee and brew it cup by cup.

Anna says that third wave coffee shops started appearing five years ago, “due to [the] large global interest [in the] culture of coffee consumption as well as [the 2013 creation of] SCA Ukraine, which hosts world coffee events annually”. This growth has continued despite the recent military conflicts in the region. While Anna acknowledges that this “has an enormous effect on everyday life and economy”, she also feels that “people… are driven by the desire to make Ukraine one of the countries with the best coffee consumption culture, so we can be proud of something… in such difficult times.”

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Credit: Foundation Coffee Roasters

The Current Coffee Landscape

Anna points out that when Ukrainian third wave coffee shops started appearing in 2015, it was accompanied by a growth in roasting and domestic and commercial coffee consumption. Contributing to this was the country’s 2014 financial crisis and conflict with Russia. This devalued the local currency (the hryvnia) against the Euro and Dollar, making the import of roast coffee financially unfeasible and encouraging an increase in local roasting.

This increase in roasting also led to an increase in green bean imports. According to a 2020 International Coffee Organization study, Ukraine is currently the eleventh largest importing country in the world in terms of volume. 

Currently Kyiv, Dnipro, Lviv and Odessa have the most third wave coffee shops in the country. While there’s room for more growth, those looking to open a coffee shop will need to meet the high standards set by existing ones. “There still seems to be room for everyone, but a requirement for quality and professionalism is high”, Alyona Khmelyk admits. She’s a Green Coffee Buyer and head of Quality Control of Yellow Place Coffee in Kiev. 

New coffee shops will encounter other hurdles when offering coffee to the public, as the market still consumes large amounts of instant coffee. For Anna, “One of the challenges is to teach a large number of people to drink the right coffee, which isn’t bitter and doesn’t contain any additives such as sugar or syrup.” However, she shares that coffee events make a difference in how specialty coffee is perceived. “Thanks to this… more people start showing interest in how to consume the right coffee, how to make it at home and the processes involved in delivering coffee from plantation to coffee cup.”

Credit: Carlos Santana

Improving Interest & Consumption

A key to further increasing specialty coffee consumption in Ukraine will be educating the public on what specialty coffee has to offer them – and empowering coffee professionals with the knowledge required to serve it to customers. Anna points out that “educational resources … bring coffee culture to masses. In future… more and more people will thoughtfully consume coffee that they like.”

As part of its educational efforts, SCA Ukraine hosted several events in 2019 which were attended by over 60,000 people. Other independent events were held, such as Blackfest Ukrainian Coffee Show – otherwise known as Blackfest.

Blackfest was one of 2019’s larger events. Targeted at Ukrainan coffee professionals looking to improve their specialty coffee offering, it offered insights on coffee shop management, coffee production, and technology and market trends. The event featured guest speakers from around the world, allowing attendees to connect with Ukrainian roasters like Svit Kavy, Takava Coffee Buffet, Fresh Black Coffee, Blur Coffee, and 3 Champs Roastery. Attendees could also visit cupping tables hosted by Fest Coffee Mission and Nordic Approach, to sample coffees from Central America and Africa that had undergone different types of processing and anaerobic fermentation.

The event was well attended by local and international coffee professionals, including 2014 World Brewers Cup Champion Stefanos Domatiotis. It also hosted Ukraine’s 2019 Barista Championships, which was won by multi-champion Oleksandr Benytsky, and the 2019 Slavic Commander Grind & Brew Cup, which was won by Alexander Rymarovych.

Blackfest was attended by over 4000 people, and next year’s event is likely to draw even more. It’s a positive indication that the Ukrainian specialty coffee scene is helping local professionals better their skills and remain on top of international trends – so they can better serve their customers.

Credit: Carlos Santana

Local Coffee Preferences 

When it comes to coffee preferences, local tastes are as diverse as in any other country in the world, but with a few cultural preferences present. Being a newcomer to the specialty coffee scene means that Ukraine has a blank slate. Alyona feels that “[Ukranians] do not have a traditional drink, which could be incorporated into the menu. [Specialty] coffee’s…history isn’t that [extensive]. In a way that’s a good thing, because it helps us change easily and be more innovative.”

According to Christina Ptushko and Olga Shevchenko, Chef Barista and Owner of Central Cafe, in Kharlov, “Coffee culture is still fairly new to Ukraine, as our traditional drink is tea. Coffee started being more popular when people started traveling more and experienced coffee culture in different countries. Specialty coffee is mostly appreciated by a younger audience, by people who travel a lot, [and by people who have had] a chance to experience food and drinks in different settings.”

Credit: Carlos Santana

When it comes to home consumption, brewing coffee using a Turkish Ibrik remains popular. Anna explains that “The historic way of preparing an Ibrik coffee is mixing beans with spices and herbs, and every family has their recipes. The practice survived through generations.” While you might not find this brewing method employed in coffee shops, it’s still used in many Ukrainian homes. Alyona mentions that “Maybe one or two coffee shops have a traditional vibe. However we have a Ukrainian Cezve Champion, Tatiana Tarykina, who is popularising the method.”

In Christina and Olga’s experience, the most popular drink ordered at coffee shops is “cappuccino, because it’s a middle point for everyone and most trendy ones are pour overs, which everyone loves.” However, they also note that people like mixing coffees with juices and syrups to make coffee cocktails. “Orange cappuccinos are very popular, [as well as] a drink called Hornet, which is a cocktail made with espresso, orange juice, and caramel. We don’t have many local drinks that people may recognise, but we have one called Raf, [which is] a coffee-based drink with cream and vanilla sugar”. 

It’s likely that coffee consumption and experimentation will increase, provided it remains affordable. Olga and Christina mention, “It’s easier for us to keep the prices attractive since we have many local roasteries that roast very high quality specialty coffee for lower prices because of the labour power costs here.” However, as more coffee shops are established outside of major city centres, this might become a challenge. Anna contends that “[Ukraine] has a disparity in income [between] people in different regions. The main challenge is to make good coffee affordable to every person”.

Credit: Blur Coffee

Ukraine’s specialty coffee consumption is unlikely to taper off anytime soon. However, industry will still need to overcome some challenges to keep growing. As mentioned, specialty coffee education needs to be cultivated amongst professionals and the public – something that events like Blackfest are already making strides with. 

Growing the market outside of the country’s major cities could also be the next step. Olga and Christina conclude that “there’s so many tools on the market that you can get to enjoy your favorite cup of coffee in the comfort of your home. (Although) Ukraine still hasn’t gotten out everything (out of coffee) that [it has to] offer, we have room for more awesome coffee shops.”

Enjoyed this? Then read Deconstructing Russia’s Coffee Market

Feature photo credit: Foundation Coffee Roasters

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