Coffee


Anyone who has lived in cities like New York or D.C. understands the theory of some that, without coffee, the economies and productivity levels of each location would pretty much screech to a caffeine-deprived halt.  Every morning I brew my cup of coffee and head to the Metro station armed with the all-important travel mug, floating by other commuters blearily clutching their travel mugs as well.

So, as I was sipping on my cup of Sumatra dark roast this morning in an attempt to perk up my Wednesday, I noticed a Facebook post by my friend Rose about coffee and was immediately intrigued.  The article was very interesting indeed–today a report came out about the most caffeinated cities in the United States.  My own city, D.C., ranked in sixth place, which wasn’t really a surprise.  I don’t think I’ve ever attended a conference, meeting, or even date (when I was single) that didn’t involve coffee somehow, let alone the fact that all you have to do is pass by a coffee shop during rush hour and feel a little bad for the overwhelmed baristas.  The coffee crowds here are like scenes from zombie films.

According to a 2011 study conducted by the National Coffee Association, more than half of American adults drink coffee every day (again, not really surprised), and even more grab a cup of joe on occasion.  Coffee shops also remain wildly popular in the U.S.–that is something that I like about my country, I must say.  I enjoy living in cities/countries in which coffee shops are part of the culture, as meeting places and locations to get a favorite beverage and hang out with friends or just grab and go.  When I was studying in Santiago, Chile, one lone Starbucks had opened in my neighborhood and served amazing dulce de leche lattes.  Plus they had really comfortable chairs and a study room, which is the mark of a truly great coffee shop.

According to the coffee study, the top ten most caffeinated cities in the U.S. are as follows:

#1 Chicago (home of Intelligentsia coffee, which my friend Esther introduced me to during a visit–it is quite delicious)

#2 New York (home of every kind of coffee shop imaginable)

#3 Seattle (never been but they are the home of several popular American coffee brands, after all)

#4 San Francisco

#5 Los Angeles (it does seem like everyone walks around L.A. with their coffee cup as a fashion accessory)

#6 Washington, D.C. (I’m a proud contributor to the study I suppose!)

#7 San Jose

#8 Portland

#9 Miami

#10 Minneapolis

There you have it, the top ten most caffeinated cities in the U.S.  I’d be curious to see which countries in the world are the most caffeinated–I’m guessing Italy, France, and Spain, and the UK if you count tea consumption as well.  I also drank a lot of coffee in South Korea and Japan; coffee companies have found a way to ease themselves into Asian consumer markets and are proving pretty effective over there, as evidenced by all of the coffee shops springing up in cities like Seoul and Tokyo.

It would also be interesting to compare coffee consumption rates in countries that export coffee, namely in Africa and Latin America.  For instance, do Brazilians or Kenyans drink coffee often, or are the coffee industries removed from the culture?  Hm…I smell a dream coffee study.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a quote from Mike Phillips, from Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee (he was interviewed by Bundle, which reported the study’s findings):

“If you think about it, coffee is the most affordable luxury that people have on hand…You can spend a little bit of money and treat yourself extremely well.”

When I first began to travel, I thought that going to another country meant that you were obligated to play the hectic tourist.  In order to maximize your time overseas, you needed to walk around at a clipped pace, arms outstretched holding a big map, crossing the “must see” sights off of your list and ending each day exhausted.

Yeah, that didn’t last long.

While studying abroad in Spain, I lived in Madrid but spent a large amount of time traveling around the country between Spanish classes.  Naturally, I had to study for my classes.  I lived with an older Spanish woman and a roommate, and between the typical European lack of air conditioning and tight space, studying in my little room was not ideal (unless I wanted to have a heat stroke while conjugating verbs).  So, one day I decided to do a little sightseeing around Madrid and hunt for a good place to study.

Enter the coffee shop.  In most countries, coffee shops are places to go when you need air conditioning, when you need a casual place to meet friends and chat, or when you need to arrange a non-threatening place for a first date.  They have everything you need-outdoor tables when the weather is nice, indoor tables when you need to escape from the weather, different coffees to keep you alert, assortments of teas when you want something lighter, and of course sweets and other food.  Usually there is music playing, or at least the rhythmic sounds of coffee grinders humming or people typing away on their laptops.

After checking out some of the beautiful sights of Madrid and just getting to know the city (it’s important, in my mind, to just walk around and explore), I found a coffee shop and hunkered down to write a paper in Spanish and brush up on vocabulary.  Before I  knew it, several hours had flown by, my homework was done, I felt a little more confident to engage locals in conversation, and I was ready to go home since the evening brought cooler temperatures.  My love affair with coffee shops around the world had begun.

No matter where you go, coffee shops are international houses of conversation, fellowship, relaxation, contemplation, and overall delight.  I thought about some of my favorite coffee shops around the world and wanted to list a few below:

–Chocolateria San Gines, Madrid:  Okay, so it’s not technically a coffee shop, but it has the same feeling as one.  I was told that I had to visit this place while studying in Madrid, and I was definitely glad that I did.  This was my introduction to real churros con chocolate–churros are availalble in the U.S., of course, but they are so not the real deal.  Real Spanish churros are light, crisp, and have the perfect blend of cinnamon and sugar.  When you dip them in the warm, thick, drinking chocolate, it’s a match made in heaven.

–Cafe Tortoni, Buenos Aires:  Founded in 1858, this is the oldest cafe in Argentina and immediately transports you to another time and place when you enter through the doors. I had wonderful churros con chocolate there and just hung out and enjoyed people watching (watching South Americans have coffee is truly entertaining–they do everything with a little extra flair).

–Antico Caffe Greco, Rome:  This coffee shop was founded in 1760 and is considered Rome’s fanciest coffee bar.  It’s not necessarily the greatest place to plop down with a book, but sipping a caffe latte there while enjoying the gorgeous antique decor makes you truly feel like you’re in the gilded days of Italian prominence.  The Italians certainly know how to impress, and between the incredible quality of the coffee and the history of the cafe, it is a memorable experience.  Plus, Antico Caffe Greco is located on Via Condotti, the poshest shopping street in Rome with designers ranging from Prada to Chanel, so after a cup of coffee it’s fun to stroll down the street and window shop (or buy something, if you want to spend a significant portion of that month’s salary).

–Caffe Florian, Venice:  Far and away one of my favorite places on earth.  The cafe is located in Piazza di San Marco, in the shadows of St. Mark’s Cathedral, and is even older than Antico Caffe Greco in Rome (Caffe Florian was established in 1720).  I know that some people think that Venice is a little cheesy, but I love it.  The gondolas, the canals, the Venetian palaces…I can’t get enough of it.  Caffe Florian has a live orchestra several nights a week, and the orchestra players wear tuxedos and play their instruments with graceful gusto. Add that to the fact that you’re in Venice, sipping a vanilla latte, and it’s surreal.

Chain coffee shops around the world can also be a source of great delight.  In my homeland of Texas, I like Saxby’s coffee shops and am always looking out for local mom and pop shops as well.  In Washington, D.C., I go to Caribou for a good cup of dark roast.  While studying in London, I spent a lot of time at different Caffe Nero and Coffee Republic shops around town.  When I lived in South Korea, I got hooked on 7 Monkeys and other random coffee shops that are springing up in the country.  In Santiago, Chile, I found a great Starbucks that served really good dulce de leche lattes and had a great study area.  Russia has Starbucks now as well, and I enjoyed visiting one in Moscow with some friends.  Poland has a great chain called Coffee Heaven which serves good caffe mochas.

In the end, it’s all about exploring.  Obviously, coffee shops are not part of the culture everywhere–in Cambodia, Thailand, and Egypt, for instance, you won’t really run into a plethora of coffee shops.  Each place has its own version, though, often in the form of tea houses (especially in Asia) or restaurants that serve tea or coffee after your meal.

So, let coffee shops serve as a reminder to take a break, sip on a delicious beverage, and enjoy your location, whether you’re at home or far away.

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.