Lebanese communities, just like many other communities in the Middle East region, have a unique attachment to the rich dark substance known as coffee. Since Lebanon is deeply segregated with so many religious and ethnic groups, there is little to agree upon among the Lebanese residents. Although Lebanese coffee is made in countless different ways, it remains as one of the few things that is not disputed upon in the country. This small cup of dark coffee has brought people together and witnessed countless occasions. From engagements to funerals Lebanese coffee is so deeply integrated in Lebanese culture that they are almost one and the same.
The presence of Lebanese coffee in all aspects of society is so prominent that its rare absence in any social function is almost a sin. From a young age, Lebanese girls know how to prepare traditional Lebanese coffee for their families. Once girls master the art of preparing traditional coffee, it is common for them to hear statements of praise for their eligibility of becoming wives. Although it is widely known that the ability to prepare Lebanese coffee is not the only factor to a successful marriage, the sarcastic tone in which such statements are said only highlights the great social importance of coffee in Lebanese communities. Lebanese homes are almost always instantly filled with the rich aroma of boiling coffee with the arrival of every guest. From the worker fixing the pipes to the neighbor across the hall, Lebanese coffee is served as an act of hospitality and welcome.
Despite the deep ties coffee holds with the Lebanese culture, the origin of the drink is not exactly native to the country’s traditions. In fact Lebanon does not grow coffee beans and therefore imports its coffee from various different countries. Some of those many countries are Nicaragua, Brazil and Sumatra. The native origin of coffee is recorded to have been from the African country of Ethiopia. Eventually, coffee spread through the Arabian Peninsula and across Yemen where coffee cultivation became popular. It is believed that the Arabic word for coffee “qahwa” is a shortened version of the phrase “qahwat al-bun”, which means “wine of the bean”.
When coffee reached the Ottoman Empire in the early 16th century it quickly gained popularity in the palaces of the sultanate. It soon became part of the palace cuisine to an extent where the position of chief coffee maker was added to the list of court functionaries. Coffee eventually spread from the palace into the markets of the public with its consumption soon taking root as a social and cultural function. Countries under the Ottoman Empire, such as Lebanon, adopted the practice and intigrated it into their cultural norms. Today, Lebanese coffee is also known as Turkish coffee.
The way in which traditional Lebanese coffee is made is very unique and almost intimate to each household, town and occasion. According to a barista at Cafe Younis, a well known coffee shop in Beirut, the traditional way to serve coffee during condolences is to grind the coffee bean into a slightly rougher texture than its usual fine grind. Today, such traditions are only common in the rural villages of Lebanon, nevertheless, the intense richness and diversity that every cup of coffee offers is a simple expression of the Lebanese people as a whole.
Traditional Lebanese coffee is not a beverage that is prepared by following any one specific recipe, rather its beauty lies in the spontaneous measurements of the person preparing it.
"When I go to visit my mother, the first thing she says is: so are we going to put the rakwe and make a cup of coffe?" Hoda said.
Hoda, just like many other Lebanese women, learned how to make Lebanese coffee from her mother. Preparing coffee has become a daily ritual for Hoda, as she spends the early mornings sipping on Lebanese coffee with her husband.
“We drink coffee in good and bad times and good and sad memories,” Hoda said.
Hoda’s mother, Yolla, explains how she makes her own coffee in the video below.
“When my husband passed away we bought these cups,” said Yolla, referring to the small white coffee cup in her hand. To this day, it is Lebanese tradition to serve coffee at condolences in plain white coffee cups. Although those small white cups may remind Yolla of bitter memories and sadder days, they too have formed much happier memories as she uses them to serve the people she loves.
As mentioned before, coffee beans are not grown in Lebanon and are therefore imported from countries all over the world. According to the Cafe Younis website, the Cafe imports its coffee beans from 14 different countries. Although it is no secret that Brazil is one of the biggest suppliers of coffee in the world, it is surprising to find that, out of 14 countries, Brazil provides Lebanon with around 60% of its coffee bean supply.
The reason behind the different taste every coffee cup holds goes back to the specific type of coffee bean used in its preparation. Although coffee beans are universally known to have a dark brown color, raw coffee beans usually have a green color. After they are collected, coffee beans are roasted to different shades of brown. The growing origin of every coffee bean is exemplified in the taste it produces and its color is directly related to the level to which it was roasted. The darker coffee beans look, the stronger they taste.
“Coffee is just like wine, it is all about personal preference,” Said Ayman, a barista at Cafe Younis.
Buying coffee is almost a custom making process where every individual decides on the specific mixture they prefer. In fact, Cafe Younis has dedicated one of its coffee drinks to a Lebanese town called Marjeoun. The people of Marjeoun are known for having strong tasting coffee that is composed of 1/4 medium roasted beans and 3/4 dark roasted beans.
For many years traditional Lebanese coffee has brought people of all backgrounds together. Ethnic, Religious and Socioeconomic differences have always divided the Lebanese people and continue to do so to this day. Despite all the differences that may distinguish one Lebanese neighbor from the next, Lebanese coffee is the one thing that brings them together, even if it is only to dispute.
Let’s have coffee!