Until recently, the only flat whites to be found in Moscow were the city’s snowy streets and parks during the depths of winter.
That’s changing fast as the Russian capital embraces a coffee culture that initially took its cues from its old adversary the United States.
Despite a traditional thirst for tea, Russia has seen a dramatic increase in coffee consumption – from a $750 million market in 2001 to $2.5 billion in 2011.
This new-found appetite for a beverage associated with the West has sometimes left a bitter taste.
In November 2016, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wryly declared the Americano – a shot of espresso topped with hot water – unpatriotic, “not politically correct,” and in need of rebranding.
Hence, the “Rusiano” was born.
While Russians generally interpreted the stunt as merely a bit of dry humor, some businesses temporarily changed their menus from Americanos to “Rusianos” and the country’s Burger King restaurants also followed suit.
Despite this high-profile Americano snub, there’s no denying that American and Western European coffee culture has established itself in Moscow and its growing hipster scene.
The West 4 Coffee Brew Bar is one of many coffee shops that have popped up in the city in the past few years.
With a green and white “West 4” sign that looks like it could have been stolen from a New York City sidewalk, it’s easy to spot.
In fact, the entire café feels like it could have been plucked from Manhattan’s West Village.
Exposed brick, original art, and an NYC subway map adorn the walls, a record player is on display, and Lana Del Rey’s “Brooklyn Baby” plays in the background.
Co-owners Maria Raylyan and Konstantin Dmitrienko say they decided to create West 4 after Dmitrienko spent time living in Manhattan.
“We were inspired by New York culture and hip places and good music,” Dmitrienko says.
The pair are pleased with West 4’s reception since it opened in 2014. As they speak with CNN Travel, the coffee shop runs out of seating.
It feels like a jovial pub as customers squeeze up against tables, socializing with coffee in hand as they await a jazz concert taking place at the venue later that night.
Most of the Russians we spoke with don’t see anything inherently American about the elements that make a café fashionable.
But they do credit the United States for its ability to start trends and promote a cool lifestyle through something tangible like coffee.
“I think America is just good at coming up with and spreading new business models,” says Andrei Muchnik, a freelance culture journalist based in Moscow.
“Hipster coffee shops have been around Moscow for five years, maybe. And they already feel like they’ve been there forever.”
US-style customer service
He attributes their popularity to Western marketing, arguing that tea shops could be just as widespread if they became trendy outside of Russia.
“Starbucks and other coffee chains spread around the US and Europe in the 1990s and Russian copycats appeared a decade later,” Muchnik says.
“If there was a tea shop instead of every Starbucks in the West, we would start a tea chain.”
“I’ve heard millions of times, ‘Why don’t you guys invent a tea shop,’ ” says Alexey Karanyuk, a founder and marketing director of Jeffrey’s Coffee, which has several branches in Moscow. “But I still can’t understand how to make it trendy and modern.”
Customer service is one aspect that was definitely imported from the United States.
Maria Orlova, a photographer who has documented Moscow’s growing coffee culture in “Moscow Coffee Book,” says over-the-top friendliness and customer service only became the norm in Russia when American businesses began arriving.
“It was like, ‘OK, pay for your coffee, shut up and get out,’” Orlova jokes of Soviet culture.
“Russian people are very discreet. We don’t smile at neighbors and strangers.”
As more Russians acquired the means and desire to travel abroad, local entrepreneurs found new business ideas, and Russian patrons had new expectations when they returned home.
“I think the idea of training employees as super-friendly, always smiling and sharing experience, came from the US,” Orlova says.
“Baristas learned their work and attitude are very important.”
Pay by the hour
Karanyuk says coffee culture has connotations of open-mindedness and tolerance – characteristics he and his partners wanted to emulate at Jeffrey’s Coffee.
They decided to call it “Jeffrey’s” because it was the most American name they could think of.
Karanyuk says they also took inspiration from the American television series “Friends,” which is popular in Russia, and the comfy sofas in the middle of the café are similar to the ones featured in the show.
But visitors shouldn’t expect Moscow’s coffee shops to be carbon copies of those found in the United States or Western Europe; Russia has contributed its fair share to coffee culture.
The business model of Jeffrey’s Coffee is a Russian invention.
Known as a “time coffee shop” (similar Russian businesses are also called “time cafés” or “anti-cafés”), it charges visitors by the hour rather than for the coffee they consume.
The “Raf” is another Russian coffee shop creation, and ubiquitous on Moscow menus.
Short for Rafael – a patron who supposedly invented the beverage – the sweet drink consists of heavy cream steamed with sugar and a shot of espresso.
It’s sometimes supplemented with additional flavors, like Russian chain Double B’s signature Lavender Raf.
Milk-based coffee drinks are popular in Moscow, but convincing customers to enjoy coffee without literally sugarcoating it with syrups hasn’t been easy.
‘Third wave coffee’
While it may have begun in other areas of the world in the late 1990s, the so-called “third wave coffee” movement, which raises coffee production to a culinary art akin to wineries, is still developing in Russia.
“It was difficult to attract people at first,” Raylyan says of West 4.
“We talked a lot about what we offer. Our baristas explained every time why it tastes this way.”
When it comes to Russian specialty coffee shop success stories, Double B – short for “Babushka Batman,” a humorous hybrid of Russian and American characters – is king.
Since its founding in Moscow in 2012, Double B has become a global enterprise, reaching cities like Prague, Barcelona, and Dubai.
“Double B still provides probably the widest range of high-quality coffees,” says Melik-Karakozova, co-founder of Double B and founder of Smart Roaster & Smart Coffee, a barista training center and roasting facility.
However Melik-Karakozova feels most consumers don’t share their barista’s level of passion for coffee, so they need to focus less on coffee as an art and more on coffee as a consistent product.
“The barista is so creative,” Melik-Karakozova explains. “He cares so much, so he tries to surprise you every day.
“And that’s probably a huge problem as well, because that’s not what a customer would expect. They want to get what they’re used to getting.”
Although coffee is becoming more popular among Russians, it’s prone to financial hurdles.
According to a recent study on the cost of Starbucks lattes in different countries, Russia topped the list as the most expensive.
When the price is adjusted to reflect the relative cost of other goods, the cost of one small Starbucks latte in Russia is over $12.
For smaller specialty coffee shops, it can be especially tough to convince cash-strapped Russians to pay for this kind of indulgence.
A few years ago, just as Moscow’s coffee revolution was taking off, a financial crisis made it even more difficult.
“We got Crimea, and a bunch of problems with it,” says Melik-Karakozova. “Ruble just dropped. Everyone just stopped buying anything for maybe six months or a year.”
Karanyuk says the turbulent nature of Russian politics has created an environment where businesses have to fight harder to succeed than in the United States and Western Europe.
“There, you have stability. Here, you have to be really tough in terms of competition,” he says.
Like any trend, the affinity for American-themed coffee spots can’t last forever.
Dmitrienko and Raylyan see Moscow’s café aesthetic moving towards Scandinavian style, embodied in Moscow by places like LES (meaning “forest” in Russian), which has a rustic look and a feel evoking Denmark’s cozy notion of “hygge.”
Karanyuk thinks Russians are starting to look more inward for inspiration.
“Ten or even five years ago, if you named a coffee shop or diner or anything with a Russian name, you would collapse,” Karanyuk says.
“It was completely unfashionable. Now, we see a trend to Russian. I think that we are a bit fed up.”
Karanyuk points to his T-shirt, and shows off a sleek leather backpack, both manufactured by acquaintances in Russia.
“I think that we are Europeans, but we have our own culture,” he says. “We have our own history, and we have our own creative people.
“We want to have something Russian.”