Before I started traveling, I didn’t put any thought whatsoever into what kind of coffee I drank. I didn’t even really drink coffee until I was in college and found that chugging some random dark brew from the cafeteria would help me stay awake to study for finals. Taste was not relevant, and it didn’t matter if the coffee came from Idaho or Vietnam.
Traveling, however, has the tendency to turn one into a coffee snob. Whereas before I traveled I thought that a cup of regular Starbucks coffee was fancy stuff (the price alone seemed to imply that), after seeing more of the world I learned what quality coffee was. Once you’ve sipped a hearty Italian espresso in Rome, savored a cup of Balinese coffee on the island of origin, or enjoyed a cafe au lait in Paris, it’s tough to go back to the can of $4 coffee at the grocery store.
I’m still learning about the art of coffee and which countries produce which kinds of coffee. It’s a fascinating, complex field of study, and I know it will take time to gain more expertise. In the meantime, however, I’ve learned a few interesting things so far.
For instance, coffee trees are divided into two classes: robusta or arabica. Arabica beans tend to have a sweeter, smoother taste and have to be grown in certain climates/temperatures, while robusta beans tend to grow even amidst harsher conditions and have a more burnt flavor to them. Depending on the quality of robusta beans, though, it can be wiser to buy a nicer batch of robusta beans than the cheapest arabica available.
In my personal experience, I tend to prefer arabica beans. When I lived in Italy and took my first swig of espresso (and almost choked), I marveled at its strength and bitterness, but it also didn’t have a burnt aftertaste like I’d experienced at some big chains in the U.S. My favorite coffee to date, however, is hands down Balinese coffee. I spent a few days on the Indonesian island and pretty much spent that time drinking the coffee. I visited a coffee plantation and talked with a local about the roasting process and how the Balinese keep most of their coffee on the island. Words cannot do justice to the flavor and smoothness of the coffee there–it had a flavor that reminded you of chocolate mixed with every delicious flavor on earth, plus a smooth consistency that left a sweet aftertaste in your mouth. I was so wired by the time that I left Bali that I had to detox for about two weeks, but it was definitely worth it.
To give an overview of different roasts, my favorite types of coffee are darker roasts because I like a stronger flavor. I prefer more earthy tones, like those found in Indonesian and some African coffees. Latin American coffees (Brazilian, Columbian, Guatemalan, etc.) tend to be used for lighter roasts, or so I’ve seen, so I tend to drink those if I want something lighter during the day. European coffees (Italian, French, Viennese, etc.) tend to be more concentrated and aren’t for the lighthearted.
The beautiful thing about coffee, as well, is that the language of caffeine is a universal one. Whether you’re in Buenos Aires, Warsaw, Seoul, or so forth, it’s pretty easy to find local cafes where you can grab a cup of coffee and people watch or meet new friends. Whenever I found myself a little homesick while in a foreign country, I’d almost always head to the nearest cafe for a little caffeine therapy–there’s something comforting about holding a cup of coffee. Call it the universality of caffeine.