Coffee in Armenia is like beer to Europeans. When you arrive, you’ll quickly learn that when a new friend invites you out for a drink, they don't mean a pint of beer. It is almost always a coffee.
In homes, cafes, and restaurants, it is predominantly made with unfiltered, finely ground beans in a small pot, called a jezve or cezve. This is, of course, known as Turkish-style, though don't say that to Armenians due to the historically tense relations between the two neighbors. Armenia, a small nation of three million, is also wedged between Georgia, Iran, and Azerbaijan. The people here see coffee as a staple of every meal. It comes dark and rich and, more often than not, sweet.
A landlocked country with a complex history, the country experienced a politically charged 2018. Sick of the deep-rooted corruption that had spread its roots through every part of society, people took to the streets in a bid to overthrow the long-ruling Republican Party. After a peaceful revolution, the protest leader, Nikol Pashinyan, became Prime Minister and has since seen his party win a landslide election. It is a time of optimism in this small, yet beautiful, former Soviet country.
The capital of Yerevan embodies this newfound optimism. Bright and bustling, one of the oldest cities in the world is a fusion of monolithic Soviet-era buildings, ad hoc balcony and roof extensions, and modern new-builds. Water fountains, parks, grand government buildings, and public squares are spread across the city. And with an increasingly demanding service industry, cafes have become Yerevan's speciality. There are hundreds within the city centre.
The Green Bean
Launched in 2012, The Green Bean was an attempt to carve out an environmental conscience in Armenia’s cafe industry. Owned for the last three years by Lilit Ishkhanian and her husband, The Green Bean claims to be the first in the city to be entirely non-smoking.
Its sustainability mindset combined with a craving for locally sourced produce can create issues at times, admits Ishkhanian, but they have led the charge with their eco-concept approach. The theme continues through the restaurant's design, including messages of environmental caution sketched on the walls and a wide chipboard bar at the main cafe, which is just minutes from the Republic Square.
Another Green Bean cafe serves the students at the campus of the American University of Armenia, while a franchise outlet is located at the foot of the city’s grand Cascade stairway. All three sell a Costa Rican and Peruvian blend roasted at the main cafe. They began roasting five years ago and have seen locals join tourists in buying into the cafe’s coffee and concept—particularly during the Velvet Revolution, says Ishkhanian.
She recalls tables full of excited Armenians, desperately following the movement on laptops, tablets, and phones. And the subsequent political changes have left Ishkhanian excited for the future. “The country now needs an economic revolution,” she says when asked about any possible expansion.
An escape from busy city centre traffic, Mirzoyan Library is hidden just behind Yerevan’s impressive Republic Square. An arched entrance on a narrow side street opens into the grand 19th-century courtyard, which houses a small public library, a cafe, art gallery, and studio space. An ancient chestnut tree stands tall above the two-floor wooden terrace which is packed full of young tourists and locals throughout the year.
Named after its founder, Karen Mirzoyan, the cafe was opened in 2014 alongside the photobook library, which features donated books from across the world. The gallery also serves as a late-night venue with regular jazz and electronic music nights.
The coffee, Buon Gusto, comes from Bristot, and blends Arabica beans from Brazil, India, and Central America with Asian Robusta varieties. The rich body and intense aroma make it ideal for an intense espresso and there is nowhere better in Yerevan to enjoy it than overlooking Mirzoyan’s sunlit courtyard.
One of Armenia’s largest cafe chains, Jazzve opened its first branch back in 2003 when Yerevan was a completely different city. The ubiquity of Yerevan’s cafes and restaurants had not yet appeared across a city that was still adjusting to independence from the Soviet Union, and Jazzve can take some credit for that industry’s subsequent success. Its name comes from the concept of combining cezve-made coffee and jazz music and has stretched to five outlets. Three of those lie within Yerevan’s small city-centre with the most popular on Abovyan Street, just meters from the Republic Square.
Despite a rebrand in 2018, the chain has kept true to its traditional method of coffee-making. Using cold water in a cezve pot filled with blends from Ethiopia, Honduras, Cameroon, and Guatemala, the coffee comes thick and rich. Around a year ago, Jazzve opted to introduce three “Armenian coffee” varieties to its customers as a tribute to one of the nation’s most beloved writers, Hovhannes Tumanyan. Named Gohar, Anush, and Tamar, characters from Tumanyan’s poems—the brand uses the term Armenian coffee loosely as it refers to the techniques of their process rather than the coffee being grown in the small, mountainous nation. All three are sold in shops across the country, with Anush, a 70-30% blend of Arabica and Robusta, this writer's favorite choice.
Artbridge Bookstore Cafe
One of Yerevan’s oldest coffee spots, the Artbridge Bookstore Cafe in the city centre was the first to combine literature and coffee. The cafe was opened in 2001 by Shakeh Havan, who wanted to create a space where women felt comfortable to dine or drink alone. Its interior has changed little in the 18 years since, and includes a smoking room inspired by Armenian manuscripts and hieroglyphics. The ceiling’s exposed beams are decorated with painted copies of ancient documents while the walls host different artists every month. The back (non-smoking) room takes its inspiration from the Urartu Kingdom, or the Kingdom of Van, which was centered around Lake Van in the historic Armenian Highlands—now modern-day Turkey.
Customers in Artbridge can surreptitiously tuck themselves into the cafe’s corners. High-profile Armenian-Americans such as System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian are often seen there during visits to Yerevan and it has also been a personal favorite eaterie of the current Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan over the years.
Artbridge buys its coffee from a local roastery, where it is blended into what they call their “secret Artbridge blend.” A combination of Costa Rican and Tanzanian beans, it is served in a French press and has a light, subtle sweetness. Those looking for a more authentic experience can order the small muddy Eastern coffee. Either way, the best bet would be to pair it with the cafe’s mouthwatering French toast.
The ideal experience for a romantic late-evening coffee, Impresso is Yerevan’s tribute to the Italian cafe. It pairs modern lighting and tall ceilings with a number of vintage accessories, including a 1950s analogue TV that sits high on the bar. They only sell Caffé Mauro, which is bought directly from Italy and the cafe boasts that it is the “only place to get a real Italian espresso in Yerevan.” Almost the entire Caffé Mauro range is for sale though you’ll generally find yourself drinking from the original line, with its high-caffeine, spicy aroma, and strong flavors.
Aside from their coffee, Impresso also offers a broad menu ranging from a number of succulent pasta dishes to the intriguingly named pizza cones. The real eye-catching food items are found in the dessert menu, however, with homemade carrot cake and gato-chocolate among the choices.
Despite its long opening hours, the dark, classy interior and teardrop lighting make it more suitable for an evening outing. With piano music every night except Sunday, Impresso offers far more than just a great Italian espresso.
Joe Nerssessian is a freelance journalist based in Armenia. This is Joe Nerssessian's first feature for Sprudge.
Photos supplied courtesy of each cafe.
Top image © Adobe Stock/Photoaliona