If the infamous kopi luwak, or civet cat, coffee is the only thing that springs to mind when you think of international coffee specialities, allow us to broaden your horizons. Countries such as Costa Rica, Ethiopia and Vietnam have maintained an impressive coffee culture for centuries. Let us take you on a coffee journey.
Central Europe is known for its coffee culture and the speciality coffees that go with it, such as the café crème, the café au lait and, of course, the espresso. But naturally, coffee is also drunk far beyond Western coffee shops – sometimes in the most surprising ways. Now let’s leave behind the countries that only prepare coffee and travel to the lands where the “brown gold” is actually produced: Central America, Southeast Asia and East Africa. There, we found some traditions that have little in common with ours – and made us ask: What is coffee drinking really about?
Costa Rica and Vietnam: a coffee filter steeped in tradition
For generations, coffee in Costa Rica has flowed through a rather rustic contraption called a chorreador, consisting of a wooden frame with a cloth filter stretched around a ring. The name comes from the Spanish verb chorrear, which means “to drip”. The technology is reminiscent of the classic Western method: Once the desired amount of coffee powder has been placed inside the fabric mesh, boiling water is slowly added. The freshly brewed coffee lands in a cup directly under the sieve. For the Costa Ricans, this is the best way to prepare coffee – it’s fast and creates an excellent taste.
Around 17,000 kilometres away, in Vietnam, coffee also drips through a filter into the cup. There, the filter is known as a phin, and it is made of a round stainless-steel container rather than a fabric mesh. Unlike its Costa Rican cousin, the phin can be used without the need for any additional equipment. It sits directly on top of the cup like a lid. The ca phe that the French colonists brought to Vietnam is very dark and strong, and is traditionally served with condensed milk. In those days, the sweetened milk was easier to come by than fresh milk. Now, the ca phe has become a classic in its own right, and is sometimes even served with yoghurt, with egg or in a smoothie.
Ethiopia and Colombia: where the coffee itself is just an excuse
Let’s continue our journey and move on to Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee. Ethiopians set a lot of store by coffee. It is prepared in a complicated ceremony three times a day. Next to a knee-high, elaborately decorated table, you will find the fireplace. The woman leading the ceremony roasts green coffee beans for around 30 minutes until oil starts to seep out of them. First, the coffee is ground using mortar and pestle, and afterwards is placed in a black pot called a jebena. The coffee is boiled in the jebena up to three times and is then served by the youngest child to the oldest guest present, along with plenty of sugar. Then come family, friends and neighbours. The reason that the number of participants is so large is because in Ethiopia, drinking coffee is considered an important social event in the village. There is always much to talk about – for instance politics, life and of course a little gossip. In short, it’s less about emptying the cup and more about spending time together. The Ethiopian saying Buna dabo naw, which means “Coffee is our bread”, reflects just how important it is. If you ever get the chance to attend such a ceremony, this is our advice: Join in and drink at least three rounds of coffee – the abol, tona and baraka. Anything less will insult the host.
Now let’s leave Africa behind and move on to Colombia – the third-largest coffee-producing country in the world behind Brazil and Vietnam, producing 14,500 bags. Like their African counterparts far away, for Colombian coffee drinkers, coffee is so much more than just a source of caffeine. Here, it is less of a luxury item and more of an excuse to invite your friends round to socialise. Admittedly, this might be partly due to the, erm, “unique” taste of their tinto coffee, which takes some getting used to. This small, black, traditional drink looks like the Italian espresso – but that’s where the similarities end. So what makes tinto so different? Almost all of the coffee beans that Colombia produces, which are some of the best in the world, are exported. The locals drink what is left: low-quality coffee. Colombians roast this leftover coffee until it is verging on being burnt. The result is an ink-like brew that you can find served out of vacuum flasks on every street in Colombia, with plenty of sugar. Even if it might be a little generous to call tinto “coffee”, the people in Colombia love it all the same. They will offer tinto to anyone who is passing by. It’s a mark of hospitality.
Spain and the Arab world: where coffee meets colour
Anyone who thinks that you have to go thousands of miles away to source extraordinary coffee is mistaken. How can we forget the great torrefacto coffee right on our doorstep? If you compare the colour of the beans used to make this special Spanish coffee with the typical roasts of the rest of Europe, you will notice that these beans are much darker than the European standard. In fact, you might say they are pitch-black. The unusually dark colour reflects a no less unusual roasting process, in which the green coffee is roasted with around 20 per cent sugar. The sugar coats the beans during roasting like a caramel coating. Thanks to this extra protection, they can withstand the heat for a particularly long time. This method of coffee roasting is also applied in France, Portugal, Costa Rica and Argentina. For a typical torrefacto coffee, the dark beans are incorporated into a blend – 20 to 30 per cent pitch-black beans with 70 to 80 per cent “normal” beans. The coffee brewed from these beans is strong and tastes bitter. That’s why it is drunk with lots of sugar. Sugar to counter sugar – it seems contradictory, but in Spain, it’s common practice.
The last stop on our journey, but by no means the least, is the Arab world. Most people are aware that you can get darker roasts and lighter roasts. But most people will not be familiar with coffee that is almost yellow. Qahwa is the name of the coffee that is served in Arab countries, and it has its roots in Bedouin tradition. The beans are given only a very light roasting. It is already evident at the ground-coffee stage that the coffee brewed from these beans will be nowhere near as brown as we are used to in the West. The light-coloured coffee powder is boiled in a pot of hot water. Whole or ground cardamom pods are also added, giving the finished qahwa an even more yellow colour. This coffee is usually poured after boiling and brewing, and unlike coffee in some of the other places we have visited, it is served without sugar, but with plenty of sweet dates.
Be transported at the push of a button
So how can you enjoy all these international coffee specialities that we have introduced to you? We threw ourselves into the task of locating a coffee shop that has chorreado, tinto and qahwa on the menu – and quickly found that this was something of a mission impossible. But even if one or two coffee specialities appear on local menus, it is still worth enjoying these specialities where they are at home. For example, in Vietnam, there is a proper “coffee street”, the Triệu Việt Vương. Here, cafés and bars are lined up one after the other. It’s a true hidden gem. But if such a big trip doesn’t quite fit into your schedule or your budget, fear not: our four exclusive single origin coffees, India, Guatemala, Ethiopia and Colombia, will cure even the most severe wanderlust.