Caffeine Pilgrimage: Where to go for the World's Best Coffee
Addictions are like religions, and pilgrimages to find the source of your joy are the impetus for many a journey. My addiction affliction is the bean. The caffeine bean. So my personal pilgrimage would take me to the world's coffee capitals. I'm a coffee snob, but a purist also, if I have to trek high into the cloud forests of Guatemala, as well as strolling the classical streets of Rome and Vienna on my search for the world's best coffee I'm willing to serve my deity – just as long as I don't have to miss out on one of my three a day. That might make me a little cranky.
We don't all take our coffee in the same way, and one of the nice things about travelling to new places is finding out how the locals do things. In Turkey and Greece ask for coffee and you're served something short, thick, black and potent: that you can almost stand your spoon up in. In Japan it's acceptable to serve coffee with UHT milk on the side – that's right, the stuff they used to give you on planes, in Malaysia you'll get something pale oatmeal and watery, but Vietnam is a bit of a wildcard: their slowly dripped filter coffee is excellent. Even in countries like Italy, where you know there's not much risk of being disappointed, there's still a culture to mind: it's considered pretty un-cool to order a cappuccino after breakfast; after about 11:30 if you don't want to look like a tourist it's espresso all the way.
Coffee's nicknamed java for a reason: because some of the best beans come from Java, Indonesia – definitely on the list for caffeine pilgrims. The Javanese beans are loaded with a kick, and come with a tropical jungle island coating with a reputation for friendliness. For a really exotic flavour, the locals who can afford to sip kopi luak, which is made from beans that have already passed though the digestive tract of an indigenous cat. This is your first real test as a pilgrim.
Other favourite places, depicted romantically on the walls of coffee shops that want to suggest their beans are carefully selected and flown in from exotic destinations, are Guatemala and Costa Rica. Coban is the centre of caffeine worship in Guatemala, and is the place for taking a tour of the coffee making process: Finca Santa Margartia plantation is regularly recommended, probably for the generous amount of free sampling they offer; and in Costa Rica, coffee plantation, La Finca Escondida has a reputation for having an all-organic-goodness-caffeine-high, and fantastic views over the lush green forests. The Kotowa plantation in Boquete, Panama wins the award for 'Most Breathtaking Photo of a Coffee Plantation' – it's the altitude and the moist climate just down from the cloud forests that do it for both the photo and the coffee beans. Knowing this is where my beans grew up gives this mouthful an extra buzz for me.
San Juan in Honduras is a less well known coffee growing destination; their photos show happy people hand picking my beans. And Vientiane, in Laos, is in the same vein as wildcard Vietnam, but with an even more lively local coffee culture. The coffee with condensed milk local speciality sounds like it should be treated with caution, but apparently tastes like chocolate?
Kona, Hawaii is another place to drink your coffee straight off the tree. The beans from Kona Joe Farm are golden and shiny enough to be loved by the glamour-puss-set, and here you can watch the entire roasting process from tree...to cup.
These places have allowed you to pay homage to the pre-sipping side of the love of the bean, but what about the best places in the world to actually drink the stuff? Not every coffee addict likes the same thing, but let us assume the word 'best' appreciates 1) the quality of the bean, 2) the roasting process, 3) the storage of the bean, 4) the care taken in their grinding, 5) the freshness of the grounds, 6) an understanding of the temperature the water running over it should be - and 7) that the person making your drink knows what to do with the milk. A real pilgrim savours this information across their tongue in more detail than they would the taste of a lover.
Nowhere do they take the same care over a formal cup of coffee as they do in Vienna. Here the coffee house culture (Kaffeehauskultur) invites you to arrive painfully early and linger until late. The Turks started them off on kaffee and kuchen (coffee and cake) in the 17th Century and these days the Viennese consider it just plain uncivilised not to partake. This is my spiritual home. You do need crib notes to get the most out of it though: for an espresso order a mokka or Tuerkischer Kaffee, for a cappuccino try melange, for a white coffee or Americano with milk go for the brauner. For something more exotic an einspanner is a double espresso with whipped cream, a kaisermelange is like a mocha with egg yolk, honey and brandy and a Maria Theresa comes with a dash of Cointreau. The kuchen (cake) could be sacher torte.
Rome's, cafe and coffee culture is probably one of the most famous in the world, it's probably a national pastime to sit around with a tiny cup in front of you chewing the fat and admiring the pretty girls (or boys) going by, and there's no 'When in Rome'-type ritual more important than visiting a bar for an espresso. The locals stand at the bar to avoid the service charge hit on the tourists, and down a quick one-or-two-sip-cup every time they need a little perk up.
Amsterdam's cafes are known for satisfying another addiction, but the cosy, wood panelled bruin cafes are the ones for caffeine addicts, and in Amsterdam you've got a good chance of getting a little complimentary something on the side.
Other countries have inherited their caffeine addictions with their multicultural backgrounds. Buenos Aires has welcomed a lot of people from Italy which could be why the cafe culture here is the most ingrained in South America. They don't tend to do it on the run, but with company and something sweet on the side – maybe a café chicos or cortados with a dulce de leche cookie accompaniment? But if you do have to take away, use the Argentinian chain 'Havanna'. Australia has benefited from a post Would War II influx of coffee aficionados from Italy and Greece, and though expectations are high everywhere there's nowhere that takes it more seriously than on Melbourne's Lygon and Brunswick Streets. Mario's at 303 Brunswick is known for its purist Italian heritage. In Sydney, Darlinghurst is the area to cafe hop round – Bill and Tony's off Crown Street and the Vesbar on Crown Street are worth trying, but in both these Australian cities the independent cafe still reigns – it's not cool to opt for the syrupy regularity of the coffee chain.
Whatever you think about Starbucks it's like a huge pin in the coffee pilgrimages map, announcing the right of Seattle to be included. Drinking at Starbucks on a coffee pilgrimage might be the equivalent of bringing your own rosary to the Vatican and sitting in your hotel room with it, but they have given something to the religion of caffeine, and so, like a sect no one is really sure about, they still have to be included. It was 1971, and off Pike Place Market, that Starbucks came into being, and this store is definitely a pilgrimage site. You gotta appreciate a city that can produce this kind of caffeine fuelled behemoth, and give thanks to the real coffee culture still thriving in the smaller, independent coffee houses in Fremont and Ballard – try blends from local roasters like Espresso Vivace and Zoka.
The really good news is that the British Coffee Association say that: "coffee when consumed in moderation, 4 - 5 cups per day, is safe for the general population and may even confer health benefits.". Good, good.
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