Before travel, coffee was a morning comfort and, I’ll admit, a minor addiction packaged with unsettling withdrawal symptoms when absent from my life. Honestly, though, I can’t tell my Folgers from my French Roast. This is probably owing to years of abusing my taste buds with copious amounts of salt. Nonetheless, a cup of joe is never far away when I sit in front of a computer screen or have a book in my hand. It’s an extension of me because I love the experience of coffee: listening to pot percolate, smelling the aroma, and wrapping my fingers around a warm mug. I prefer my Mr. Coffee over the new-fandangled “pod” coffee. The pod people can keep their joyless technology; I’ll take an endless pour of coffee at a local greasy spoon. Of course, I can get fancy sometimes, too. I’ve been known to order melted-ice-cream-in-a-mug-larger-than-my-head at my favorite coffee shop in Akron. Angel Falls, you know what I’m talking about; that dulce de leche is the stuff of dreams and early onset diabetes. But I digress.
Travel, despite taking me to the coffee mecca, the land of $50 cat-poop coffee itself, has ground me down, compelled me to write this unfiltered examination of coffees I’ve met on the road. While I try to be unbiased, at times I was so steamed it may appear that I’m roasting the competition.
Okay, okay, I’ll stop. Here’s how the coffees of the world – or what I’ve seen of it so far – stack up to this American’s best part of waking up.
Singapore and Malaysia – These two bordering countries are all about the “White Coffee.” Originating in Ipoh, Malaysia, Nate and I got to try it at the original roasters while we were there. Wikipedia describes the brew as thus: a drink made from beans roasted in margarine, ground, brewed, and served with sweetened condensed milk. To me, this both sounds and smells like a winning combination, and it is! It is especially delicious when served with an egg tart. Mmmm. My opinion of a coffee may be or may not be highly influenced by a sweet accompaniment. Oh and, pro tip, if you don’t want your coffee to come with a heart attack in either of these countries, order “Kopi O”, the “O” means black.
Thailand – Thais like their coffee iced. It only comes this way. And by iced, I mean that 3/4s of the cup will be ice. This leads the unsuspecting to be left with only ice and disappointment, trying to stab the coffee out of ice with their straw mere minutes after purchase. Like its neighbors to the south, Thais also sweeten their coffee with sweetened condensed milk. So, while short-lived, it’s still mighty tasty.
Vietnam – Nate and I sat down to our first meal in Hanoi to see the words “Egg coffee” printed on the menu. First butter, now eggs? This made so little sense that we had to try it. Wikipedia explains that the drink is “traditionally prepared with egg yolks, sugar, condensed milk and robusta coffee. The drink is made by beating egg yolks with sugar and coffee, then extracting the coffee into half of the cup, followed by a similar amount of egg cream which is prepared by heating and beating the yolks.” What Wikipedia doesn’t say, is that it is exquisite. Annoyingly, they only give you a small portion, but it’s so rich, that this is probably for the best. This is a Hanoi specialty, so don’t expect to find it outside of the north.
Indonesia – As I alluded earlier, Indonesia is one of the great coffee meccas of the world. It is the home of Starbuck’s Sumatra and Komodo beans. It is also where the famed Kopi Luwak, or as it is more affectionately known – cat poop coffee – is located. This crapuccino is named so because the beans are only roasted after they have been – ahem – digested by a civet (in Indonesian “Luwak”), a cat-like animal. For $8 (a steal!) in Indonesia, it comes in a gold bag, delivered on a gold platter, and served in a tiny, gilded cup. And it is disgusting. To be honest, my tastes have been exposed to enough sweetened condensed milk to alter the sensors in my brain, but still. If you can get past the fact that this treasure is another animal’s excrement, you still have to really, really know your coffee to make this worth the price.
Australia and New Zealand – This was my typical experience ordering coffee in both of these countries:
Me: I’d like a coffee, please.
Barista: Long black or flat white?
Me: Long black? (Thinking “long” must equate to “more”)
Barista: *Hands me tiny cup*
Me: Sad panda.
Coffee disappointment is compounded when even gas station coffee in these countries is nearly $5 a cup. After almost a month and a half of traveling around, I finally realized that a long black is an Americano (expresso plus water), and a flat white is an expresso with steamed milk. The confounded adjectives tripped me up every time, though, causing me to order politically incorrect short whites and flat blacks. By the end, I generally appealed to the sympathies of the barista and would dejectedly ask for the closest thing to a brewed coffee they had. Why must coffee be complicated?
Greece – My percolation preceptors were on high alert when we arrived in Greece. Just during our walk to our Airbnb, we must have passed half a dozen people on the street with coffee in their hands. These are my people, I thought! After settling in, Nate and I got to work finding a café in which to order our first cup of Greek coffee. It was here that we made a critical error. I was so relieved to not be forced to describe the height, curvature, and color of my coffee, that I didn’t bother asking what exactly “Greek” coffee was. In fact, in Greek coffee the grounds are not filtered from the water and milk, so the drinker must be patient while the grounds settle unless she prefers to chew rather than drink her coffee. Nate and I, in our haste, chewed. Later, when recounting the tale of woe to an Airbnb housemate, she explained the error and kindly offered me a mulligan. I’m pleased to announce, that when done properly, Greek coffee is appropriately the coffee of the gods…and goddesses. A word of caution though, when asked how much sugar you’d like in your coffee, “medium” level will cause all of your teeth to rot immediately. I’m not sure what the proper way is to order less than medium, but I suggest asking for one packet of sugar.
So, you may be asking yourself, what’s the takeaway for this coffee aficionado afflicted with less-than-sophisticated tastes? Travel has taught me that coffee can mean more than a hill of beans. It can have diversified dairy, be outsourced to animal-labor, or even be distinguished by lengthy descriptors or wait time. All in all, though, I’d take my Mr. Coffee over all of it. I suppose that which is home trumps that which is exotic in the end because home means comfort, and that’s what coffee means to me: Comfort. I won’t stop trying new cups with each new land, but each will only serve to fortify my first love. Until we meet again, Mr. Coffee!