No one was more serious about how he took his morning coffee than the classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Despite living in Vienna, whose coffeehouses are now considered an asset of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, Beethoven was unlikely to be seen actually ordering coffee in one.
The notorious LVB was obsessively particular about making his own coffee. Unlike many composers of his day, he was a commoner and had the culinary skills for the task.
Beethoven was the youngest member of the Habsburg Empire’s court orchestra at age 19. When the group was sent to play for the imperial prince-elector in Schwetzingen, they traveled up the Rhine by yacht. As the youngest, and without a noble title, young Beethoven was given kitchen duties, serving in the galley as a scullion.
Biographer, contemporary, pupil, secretary, servant, and “factotum” Anton Schindler was as close to the composer as one could get. After Beethoven died, Schindler literally wrote the book on all things Beethoven, which included his food preferences.
According to Schindler, Beethoven wasn’t very particular about his eating habits, often preferring macaroni and cheese over anything else. His biographer also noted that, save for his coffee, he was a terrible cook.
But the skills he picked up in that yacht kitchen would go a long way toward his dedication to the perfect cup of coffee.
It’s not known how he came by this personal recipe, but its measurements are exact. It starts with grinding precisely 60 coffee beans — no more, no less. He would even count the beans out to be certain, and if he made a mistake in his count, he would start over. He did it even if he had visitors watching him.
This was important to creating the coffee he wanted, and I don’t blame him. No one willingly drinks terrible coffee.
After counting the beans (and presumably grinding them), the composer then brewed the coffee in a glass contraption of his own design. These days, there are many kinds of glass coffee makers, including the Chemex pour over and French press (or, if you’re cooking meth, maybe a laboratory-level Florence siphon).
No one knows what tools Beethoven used to make his 60-bean coffee, but the amount of grounds provided by 60 beans could be an indicator. That exact number of beans produces about 8 grams of ground coffee. This would be enough to make a shot of espresso, which hadn’t been invented yet. A French press brew, known as cafetiere back then, requires twice as much coffee. So those two are out.
But since Schindler notes that Beethoven was “oriental” in his tastes, his coffee could have been prepared in the Turkish style, which would be extra strong using that much coffee. Another possible and more likely option is a glass balloon-style brewer, which is similar to today’s siphon brewers and featured a metal spigot on the lower chamber.
What would cause a grown man like Ludwig van Beethoven to obsess so much about his coffee every morning? Likely the same driving force that led him to become a classical composer in the first place: his drunken father.
Beethoven grew up in a house of performers. It was his father, a singer in the Habsburg Court, who taught the young boy musical composition. His dad was also an abusive alcoholic. Children of alcoholics are prone to developing obsessive-compulsive disorders, like the one Beethoven had about his morning joe. These children are also known to develop alcoholic tendencies themselves.
And Beethoven did that, too. As an older man, he loved drinking wine, and consumed it in large quantities, no matter what kind of wine it was. Later in life, his doctors advised him to avoid both booze and coffee — advice he completely ignored. It was, in fact, the alcohol that killed him. He died of liver damage in 1827.