Snuggled between Italy, Croatia, Austria, Hungary, and the Adriatic Sea, Slovenia is a surprising little country. The northwest corner ripples with the snow-dusted peaks of the Julian Alps, while barely 100 miles south, the country’s 29 miles of coastline cling to the Gulf of Trieste; vineyards stipple fertile valleys girdled by evergreen forests, and fairy-tale castles float on crystalline lakes. And all of it fits within a 100-by-150-mile patch of land.
You can walk Ljubljana, the tiny capital—and take your time doing it—in an hour. There are no exceptional museums or major historic landmarks, but what the city lacks in geopolitical importance it makes up with great attitude. The people are friendly, most of them speak English, and Ljubljana snagged the title of European Green Capital in 2016 for its environmental efforts. Riverside cafes line the car-free city center and fill up in summer and winter. While the majority of them serve commercial Italian blends, a few progressive souls have opted to work with local or international micro-roasters. Slovenia was late to catch the specialty coffee current, in large part because of a deeply rooted tangle of Italian, Austrian, and Slavic coffee cultures. But as more young people travel and more tourists catch on to Slovenia’s pint-size charms, the demand and market for specialty coffee is growing. Here are the standout specialty coffee cafes to know if you go.
I nearly missed Cafe Čokl‘s discreet green storefront, distracted as I was by the bustling flower market across the street. When I cracked the door at 8:30 a.m., self-taught barista and roaster Tine Čokl was already pulling Americanos for several locals, and the cozy, wood-paneled room hummed with Slovenian chatter. Čokl has been making coffee for the past seven years, but he got serious about specialty coffee after volunteering at the World Barista Championship in 2012. “I realized I didn’t really know much about coffee, which was not fair to my customers,” he says. After hours of training and experimentation, he developed his own vision and saw that he couldn’t express it using other people’s roasts—so he started roasting on his own, eventually working up to 15-kilogram batches. Today, he roasts for his cafe and seven clients in Slovenia. Two years ago, Čokl and colleague Živa Lopatič created the cooperative Buna, which distributes Čokl’s roasts to other cafes in the city and works to educate Slovenians about fair trade and environmental concerns. As passionate about social issues as he is about coffee, Čokl uses his cafe as an example to other businesses: he’s working toward zero waste in the cafe, he sources his beans directly, and he privileges local provenance for non-coffee products. “We need to prove it’s possible,” says Lopatič. “If we can do it, others can too.”
Ljubljana is home to roughly a dozen museums, but it's possible you’ve never heard of any of them. The city's Museum of Modern Art is hoping to change that. Just under a year ago, it invited Kavarna Moderna, a specialty coffee cafe, to take over a corner of its basement level. The sleek, modern cafe stocks three single origins by local roaster Escobar, as well as a rotating coffee of the month.
Besides sparking an interest in Ljubljana’s modern art offerings, co-owner Bine Likeb hopes Kavarna Moderna will increase awareness of specialty coffee among Slovenians. “You have to present the idea of knowing the farmer you’re buying from, roasting profiles, preparing coffee,” he says. “[You have to explain] that there’s effort put into the coffee, it’s not just [some] product.” Kavarna Moderna certainly lives up to its name: Likeb’s brother, an architect, transformed the dimly lit space into a cozy multi-level hangout. Clever wood chair backs and bright-colored pillows transform broad concrete stairs into a seating area. On the landing above, mid-century modern meets Scandinavian cool in two comfortable lounge areas. Below, baristas prepare cold brew, filter, and espresso behind a slick workstation equipped with Sanremo machines for a largely local clientele. Insider tip: ask for a slice of the walnut cake with your V60. It’s a local delicacy done very well.
Stow Speciality Coffee
Stow Speciality Coffee is very serious about coffee. Very. For the past three years, founder Aleš Turšič and his associate Peter Sevic have been working on all fronts to increase the profile of specialty coffee in Slovenia. In that time, they’ve become distributors for La Marzocco, started a Speciality Coffee Association of Europe-certification-based coffee academy, and created a coffee festival, all while roasting for their own cafe and several clients. Convinced that competition is the secret to growing Slovenia’s coffee scene, Sevic and Turšič have also supported the development of regional competitions like AeroPress, Barista Battles, and Latte Art. Stow’s elegant flagship cafe occupies the garden level of the City Museum in central Ljubljana. Past meets present here: on one side, a scrabble of preserved Roman ruins evokes Ljubljana’s distant life as a Roman military base; on the other, an arching glass wall looks out over a quiet garden. The cafe serves single-origin coffees in a variety of extraction methods, along with some less commonly found products such as coffee flowers and cascara. “We want to try to have everything we can in this space,” says Sevic. “It’s time that people know what good coffee looks like.”
Riverside spot TOZD is a charmingly undefined space: part cafe, part bar, part library. Like Tine Čokl, TOZD owner Robert Henigman was one of the first in Ljubljana to serve specialty coffee. A chef by trade, Henigman spent about four years in Australia, where he worked in hospitality and discovered third wave coffee. In addition to locally roasted coffee supplied by Escobar (always two varieties on offer), TOZD is one of the best places to try Slovenian craft beer and regional artisan spirits. You can also get a bowl of homemade soup, made with market-fresh ingredients, or a charcuterie-and-cheese plate. Ruster, the bar’s signature cold brew and one of the only in Ljubljana, comes in a house-designed glass bottle perfect for pocketing.
“The message I’d like to give is always try something different, but which is local and of good quality,” says Henigman. “People have their habits, but here I always try to change this.” The elbow-to-elbow seating in TOZD’s front room is a great vantage point from which to admire work by local artists and cafe friends, all of it for sale. Henigman transformed the back room into a lending library with a take-a-book, leave-a-book policy. Out front, low wooden seats look out over the Ljubija river. In winter, wrap yourself in one of the cafe's military-grade wool blankets and settle in for a chat and an espresso—even when it’s snowing.
You can’t talk about specialty coffee in Ljubljana without including Escobar, the city’s first micro-roaster (even if it's based in the nearby town of Vrhnika). When Omar Escobar moved to Slovenia from Honduras, he couldn’t find any coffee that he liked. So he started roasting his own. This wasn't a totally new venture for him—he grew up on a coffee farm and attended the Honduras Coffee Institute—so starting a specialty coffee business was a natural extension of what started out as a hobby.
Escobar directly imports the majority of the roastery's single-origin beans from farmers he and his wife, Katja, know and supplies them to specialty cafes around Slovenia. The couple also developed a high-quality blend for more traditional cafes, and they pride themselves on being able to roast and package according to the needs of individual clients—the biggest advantage of being a small company, according to Katja. Last year, the Escobars roasted between 10 and 12 tons of coffee, nearly double the year before and a sign of the changes that are slowly but surely underway in Slovenia. “The market is tough, people here are between two walls and they don’t like to look over,” says Katja, colorfully. “[Changing] the habits of a traditional Slovenian is quite difficult. But the younger generation is more open, and they also like to discover new coffee and new methods of preparation.”