Around The World, One Cup At A Time

May 31, 2012

By Alan Knott-Craig

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Coffee is a beautiful thing. Drunk by homo sapiens throughout the known world, it is unique in that it has the ability to entertain you through times of painful boredom, as well as support you when trapped in high-pressure deadline situations! I take the liberty of describing myself as a coffee-voyeur: not a true disciple of the coffee-deities, but sufficiently attracted to the products of the ubiquitous brown bean to possess an insatiable curiosity for all its shapes and forms.

To all those coffee fundamentalists out there who disagree with my conclusions, note that the principle of freedom of speech also applies to reading, and you may simply choose not to read these lines of drivel. Of course, if you are unfortunate enough to live in a country where such principles do not exist, ie: Zimbabwe, please feel free to rather spend your time intimidating voters and stealing land. Rob Bob before he robs you.

This is an account of my coffee experiences in Cuba, Mexico, Peru & Chile. Also on the itinerary is New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Indonesia. Keep in mind that this is based upon my own experiences and uncultured palate, and no offence is meant to any bean, nation, or taxi-driver.

To start out, I must provide some definitions:

Cuppa coffee: A standard cup of filter coffee with a dash of milk, and 1 sugar.
Espresso: A shotglass of pure machine-made coffee.
Caffe latte: Double espresso in a normal-sized cup, filled to the lip with milk.
Cappucino: Single espresson in normal-sized cup, filled to lip with frothed milk.
Cortado: single espresso with equal part milk.

Cuba: café doble espresso

The dark brew of Cuba is outstanding, but only if you are partaking of the machine-made variety. The manually-brewed variety generally tastes like sweat off the leg of a dead donkey, but with much less kick. Always ask the waiter how the coffee is made, and if any confusion exists, physically inspect the machine to ensure no shenanigans.

The beans appear to be locally grown (although the language barrier resulted in a lack of certainty in this matter), and there is no mixing of beans from other countries. Favourite amongst the locals is the famed double espresso. A common mistake made by the innocent gringo is to ask for “uno café” (for the mentally challenged that means “one coffee”), expecting a pleasant cuppa. Rookie error. Be prepared for an espresso guaranteed to put thick, greasy hair on your chest. Unless you are one of those afore-mentioned coffee fundamentalists and actually want more lovely tresses on your pectorals, always order “uno café con leche”. Although this will expose you as a tourist and result in ridicule, it will ensure that you do manage to leave the land of cigars without going to the vet first.

The Cuban brew scores a well-deserved 8 out of 10. Quite strong, but full of flavour, and, most importantly, affordable.

Mexico: café con leche

This may be a controversial statement, but the less said about Mexican coffee, the better. Although dominated by the Arabica bean (acknowledged as the superior species of coffee), the local stuff, excuse the pun, leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Instant coffee is, the puns seem to be everywhere, the order of the day, sometimes being added to a mixture of lukewarm water and milk. You may come across the odd espresso machine, but the brown, tepid, virtually caffeine-free liquid produced by these monsters is a travesty to the coffee-making profession.

Having said that, I did come across a coffee museum in San Cristobal, the coffee capital of Mexico. Very impressive and full of interesting information about the domestic industry, it should be commended for the initiative taken. Ironically, the museum guidebook actually ends with the line, “The Mexican coffee industry has recently suffered from severe fluctuations and deterioration in quality.”

This remark is conveniently proven by the distinctly crud-like coffee sold in the museum café.

In Puerto Escondido, chill-out capital of the Caribbean, I was lucky enough to meet an Italian who owned his own coffee shop, Café Pacifico. He also gave me my first insight into why Italians are the uncontested masters of coffee-making. Its simple: They are BORN to it! It’s a passion, and in the same way that “ze Germans” can’t leave a book unaligned with the corner of the coffee table, the Italians just can’t help making great caffeine receptacles. He also confirmed my fears as to the parlous state of Mexican coffee, the reason being, according to Pepe, that the beans are not graded properly.

For those coffee novices out there, here’s a quick rundown of how, in the coffee-world, size DOES count. Before the beans are prepared for roasting, they should be carefully sifted in order to ensure that only beans of the same size end up on the roasting tray. Should there be beans of varying sizes, then the smaller ones will cook faster and burn before the larger boys are finished. As a result, your carefully manufactured filter coffee ends up with an unpleasant bitter taste.

According to Pepe, the secret to great coffee is to firstly, sort the beans carefully, and secondly, blend beans with complimentary flavours. In his opinion, no single bean is perfect and can be improved by adding the characteristics of other localities.

To prove his point, he served the best cuppa this voyeur has ever had the pleasure of imbibing. A mix of Mexican and Guatemalan beans, it was delicious! So at least there is some purpose for the cultivation of coffee in this part of the world.

It is with some disappointment that the Mexican beverage scores a lowly 5.

Peru: café americano

Caffeine-addiction is widespread here, the espresso once again being the most popular form of intake. The gringo-favourite cuppa is mysteriously referred to as Café Americano. The method of preparation is slightly unusual, in that you are served with a cold espresso and a jug of steaming milk, which you personally bring together in matrimony within the romantic confines of your mug.

Seeing as Peru is situated so close to Columbia, Venezuela and Brazil, its not surprising that the local brew is of a very high standard. Strangely enough, there does not seem to be a distinct Peruvian taste to set it apart from other countries.

It scores a tasty, but otherwise unremarkable 7.

Chile

This coffee is of the highest standard, although there seems to be some confusion as to the exact definition of café con leche. Some souls will serve you espresso with milk, others will serve equal parts espresso, water and milk, and some will even serve a cappuccino. There seems to be a total lack of experience in the preparation of an espresso topped up with hot water and a dash of milk.

This, combined with the unfailingly haughty stares drilled into me every time I ordered “café con leche”, caused an evolution of my tastes to the infinitely more acceptable and respectable “grande cortado” (aka: double espresso with equal part milk). The Santiagans also share the Italian pastime of stand-up coffee bars.

I had the good fortune of befriending the owner of Café Nefertitis, a friendly old bugger who became virtually apoplectic in his efforts to introduce me to Chilean coffee. After ensuring that I would not be able to sleep for at least 3 nights, he explained that the favourite cuppa for the locals is known as a ristretto. A double espresso topped with frothed milk. For those interested, he’s situated in front of the Manual Montt metro station.

Overall, it seems to be a real coffee-culture. That is, until you move 1cm south of Santiago.

Never has this voyeur had such consistently terrible wannabe concoctions. In the same way that the Catholic Church had no idea that the world was round (and strenuously resisted all such suggestions), the southern Chileans have never heard of filter coffee and religiously stick to Nescafe.

So in conclusion, the Chilean beverage can be divided into 2 categories, Santiagan and non-Santiagan. The Santiagan scores a solid 8. The non-Santiagan gets a generous 1.

New Zealand: Aotaorua, land of the flat white coffee.

Landing at 4am in Auckland, I was flabbergasted to find a counter advertising FREE COFFEE at the baggage claim area. Surely not? Surely this is some sick joke? Surely no country can afford to provide free caffeine upon arrival? But there it was, open at 4am, and serving a really decent filter beverage. Being South African, and hence completely at the mercy of all things free, I spent some quality time in the baggage claim area.

That was my first taste of the surprisingly strong coffee culture of the Kiwis. Although the odd Starbuck parasite was present, most of the cafes seem to be non-chain sole proprietorships, run by passionate coffee-enthusiasts pandering to the tastes of the a rugby-mad nation.

The favourite battle cry is “one flat white please”. This is not some racist Maori warcry, but rather the term used to describe a double espresso topped off with steamed milk and a thin layer of froth.

I for one have been confused by the seemingly infinite varieties of coffee in Oceania. But this is where it ends. Right here. Today. Nonchalantly, I strolled into a coffee shop in Wanaka, going by the name of Kai Whaka Pai. “Food made good” is the translation from Maori. As fate would have it, I came across a very helpful Scot, who gave me an exhaustive description of the various NZ caffeine vehicles:

Flat white: double espresso, filled with steamed milk, topped with thin layer of frothed milk.
Cappuccino: double espresso, half-filled with steamed milk, topped with frothed milk.
Cafe latte: double espresso, filled with frothed milk.
Long black: double espresso, equal part hot water.
Tall black: local beer found in Otago province.
Short black: double espresso.
(In case you’re wondering, there are no long whites in NZ. Everyone knows that the only long whites are found in Africa.)

The kiwi coffee scores a satisfactory 8.

Australia: Land of Macciata

This may come as a surprise to those of you who have not been to the land of the ubiquitous kangaroo, but the coffee culture in this land can only be described as fanatical. Oz has taken the art of coffee preparation to new heights, and people prefer going to cafes simply because its so difficult to prepare coffee the way they like it.

If you feel a little skeptical over this observation, consider this: certain cafes in Sydney serve Baby Chinos. What is this invention with textile overtones? Its an espresso cup of steamed milk served to very young children whilst the mommas enjoy their cappuccinos. Obviously.

Without a doubt, the epicenter of Australasian coffee is Melbourne. All caffeine rays emanate from Brunswick Street in the bohemian precinct of Fitzroy. A stroll down this pavement will expose the casual tourist to at least one druggie argument, several chaps holding in-depth conversations with themselves, an occasional lady of the night, and coffeeshops galore.

I stumbled across the holy grail in the form of Jaspers Coffee Caffeine Dealers. Not only did they serve a instant-headache-and-dehydration-sickness-inducing macciata, but they also stocked the most sexy and titillating coffee accessories this side of Sicily. After a solid 30 minutes of drooling over chrome curves and whispering sweet nothings into filter mechanisms, the staff started regarding me with caution and the manager began to sidle up to the panic button. So I departed before any former convicts arrived to escort me to the nearby housing project.

During my Oz sojourn I visited Cairns, Brisbane, Byron Bay and Sydney, and there was not a single occasion where the standard of caffeine served was less than heavenly. In particular I can recommend the Belongil Beach Cafe in Byron Bay for a great cuppa whilst soaking in the rays.

The east coast of Australia scores a well-deserved 8.5.

Cambodia

It’s difficult to rate the coffee in a country where there are clearly more important things at hand. Like recovering from near self-genocide. Having said that, coffee is surprisingly popular, especially considering the ridiculously hot temperatures night and day.

There were several European-style cafes with pretty good cuppa’s, but the local fare is a tad different to what I was used to.

The standard form of caffeine beverage is a glass of hot black syrupy liquid, and a miniature saucer of condensed milk. The black stuff is strong, but the condensed milk is stronger. It is highly unadvisable to have more than one coffee a day, unless you enjoy eating sugar with a spoon.

Also, you can ask for ice with your cuppa. I know what you’re thinking: Who on this planet would possibly drink coffee with ice?

Wait until you’re sweltering in 35 degrees and 100% humidity, with torrents of sweat streaming down your body, and then see how keen you are for a steaming mug of coffee.

Although the Cambodian brew is never going to win any prizes, its deserves some points for novelty. It gets a sweet 5.

Vietnam: Land of Chon

Coffee propaganda capital of the world. But why Larry, why?

Well, the very first thing you notice upon entering Ho Chi Minh City, apart from the scooters, are the coffeeshops, coffee billboards, coffee markets and coffee vendors.

Why on earth is coffee so damn popular in a monsoon-lashed land like Vietnam where all you can think of is when next you’ll enjoy a chilled lemon juice?

Well, to start with, Vietnam is the third biggest producer of coffee beans in the world, after Brazil and Columbia. That may sound impressive, but what’s not so is that the beans cultivated are almost exclusively Robusta. As the name implies, these crops are hardy and reliable, and hence relatively cheap to cultivate. However, they do not even begin to compare with the Arabica beans found in Jamaica and Ethiopia in terms of flavour and caffeine content.

But that’s not what you’ll be told in ‘Nam. The average propagandist will wax lyrical about the virtues of the Robusta bean, they will endeavour to convince you that Arabica is, in fact, the inferior species, and to top off the dissertation you will be offered a cuppa of Blue Mountain.

For those poor fellas who are not part of the secret society of coffee voyeurs, Blue Mountain coffee can only be produced on 2 coffee plantations in Jamaica, and it is generally accredited to be the best coffee in the world. But you will probably never taste the real thing because the Japanese buy virtually all the production , thereby raising the prices to prohibitive levels and locking out coffee voyeurs like you and me. So the chances of being served true Blue Mountain in Vietnam are slim. The irony is that Blue Mountain is made from the Arabica bean.

I met a Vietnamese lad who was also into coffee, and he had some interesting stories.

This may sound a little far-fetched, but according to my new friend, Starbucks is the principal buyer of the Vietnamese coffee crop, mainly because it is predominantly Robusta and hence so cheap. Due to their immense buying power the price of coffee beans have been forced down to a 80 year low. That means that coffee beans cost the same 80 years ago as they do today.

Consider this: if the average cost of a cuppa has increased 20-fold over the past 80 years, but the cost is the same as it was 80 years ago, then where is all this extra profit going?

Also, because its cheaper to produce Robusta beans, Starbucks insists on only buying these beans, thereby encouraging struggling farmers to rip out their Arabica crops and replant with Robusta in order to survive. Columbia, which has traditionally been one of the highest quality producers is currently being forced to lower its standards because of the this.

The moral of the story is that Starbucks is simultaneously driving high quality producers out of business by pushing down the price of coffee beans, and degrading the tastes of consumers by serving inferior beans. At least, that’s what my new friend thinks.

Having said all that, you’ve got to credit the Vietnamese with passion when it comes to coffee!

The various local coffee varieties are graded according to strength. Its a bit confusing because the strongest bean is No. 8, followed by No’s 1 to 7, and ending with No. 9.

I had a No.4 and almost passed out from dizziness. My new friend explained that there is a popular challenge in HCMC that goes like this:

The challengee must drink three No. 8 coffees in a row. If he can stand up within 1 hour he wins the bet. (In case of confusion, a No. 8 is also called Cafe Chon.)

I could barely stand after one No. 4, so good luck to all those who take on the HCMC challenge!

When questioned as to what type of bean they use in No. 8, he explained that there is a weasel-like animal, known as a Chon, that lives in Central Vietnam and it only eats the coffee fruit. When it relieves itself the locals gather up it’s excrement and process the beans therein to produce No. 8.

Very interesting, but not a the greatest marketing pitch I’ve ever heard.

If you are in HCMC, and you enjoy coffee, you should visit the Ben Thanh market to experience the quantity and diversity (and seriousness) of Vietnamese coffee. If you’re keen to take on the HCMC challenge, go to any Trung Nguyen cafe and ask for three No.8’s (Chon). Bring your pacemaker.

The Vietnamese score a 5 for quality, and a 10 for passion!

Laos

There is a proverb in Laos that goes like this: “Vietnamese plant the rice, Cambodians watch the rice grow, Laotians listen to the rice grow.” That pretty much sums up the Laotian attitude towards life in general. For them, coffee is simply a means of passing the time whilst they listen to the rice.

So it’s not surprising that you can get coffee pretty much everywhere, and the quality is not too bad. Again, the predominant coffee is Robusta and the locals have no fear of saturating your morning cuppa with condensed milk.

The coffee here was better than the varieties in Vietnam and Cambodia, probably because the Laotians don’t have much else to do with their time. It scores a fair 6.5.

Conclusion

It’s been an interesting and, at times, dangerous 158 days for this coffee-voyeur, but now I’m back in the land of tame coffees and cappuccinos. Yep, I’m back in South Africa.

Unfortunately the coffee-culture has not quite caught on with the majority of my countrymen (an observation usefully supported by the fact that South African Breweries is the second biggest brewer in the world), but hopefully a knight in light brown armour will come along soon, bringing enlightenment and insomnia to the masses.

In the meantime, if you want to read an interesting book on how coffee civilized the world, have a look at “The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee” by Stewart Lee Allen.

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