One thing that might surprise you when traveling in SE Asia, where a lot of coffee in the world comes from, is that you cannot find a really good cup of coffee very easily. Most of the coffee is the freeze-dried kind that tastes bitter at best, and is completely unpalatable at worst. Sure, in some of the more touristy areas you can find a Starbucks, but you will not find a local coffee shop serving anything other than the freeze-dried coffee.
The main reason for this, at least I am told, is that the quality coffee is exported—most likely to America, where we consume 3.1 cups a day on average. That is not the highest level of consumption, Finland actually consumes almost 10 cups a day, but the US does import the most coffee in the world by far (in excess of $4 billion).
Being from Seattle, I have an appreciation for a good cup of coffee. Seattle has an extraordinary number of coffee shops. Over a third more than Manhattan or San Francisco, and well past the national average. Starbucks is from Seattle, though we have many great local coffee companies here like Vivaci. Seattle’s Best and Tully’s are also from Seattle, but Seattle’s Best is now owned by Starbucks and Tully’s is always on the edge of failure. Starbucks is the clear leader in Seattle and around the world. Consequently, did you know that Starbucks is named after a coffee drinking character in the novel Moby Dick?
I did not grow up drinking quality coffee. My parents preferred Folgers coffee that came in a metal tin. That was quite normal then and gourmet coffee would have been too expensive, if it was even available. My father had an old percolator that he still pulls out when the regular drip coffee maker fails (and they seem to fail rather often). Usually two coffee makers ran at the same time. One for my dad to drink before work and another to fill his thermos. He would run one of them again before he left so my mother would have coffee when she woke up.
They both drank coffee throughout the day and my father still does (my mom passed away years ago, though I have no doubt if she were still alive she would be drinking coffee all day long). Modern coffee makers keep the warmer going for about two hours before they shut off. My dad hates this feature—he wants the coffee on all the time. This makes for a rather awful cup of coffee, but I still drink it when I am visiting.
Of course, my dad still buys relatively cheap coffee from the grocery store and makes it really weak. He will add two or three teaspoons of coffee for a pot, whereas I will add two or three for a cup! I like my coffee really dark and really strong. Actually, I like it exactly the way it is supposed to be brewed. The National Coffee Association (yes, there is one) gives some guidelines. The key is that you use quality, fresh coffee with clean, fresh water. The ration is about 2-3 tablespoons to 6 ounces of water.
No doubt my European friends, especially the Italians, are wondering what the hell I am talking about, and not just because of the measurements. Americans drink drip coffee which, as far as I can tell, is not the norm across the world. There is Italian espresso and the French press, but Americans have Mr. Coffee. The Europeans try to be sympathetic to us by creating the Americano, but that’s just a watered down espresso. Drip coffee is so much better. It is stronger, richer and fuller. And more of it than what comes in a little shot of espresso.
Many Americans adulterate their coffee with cream and sugar. This is probably due to our English roots, where they dump that crap in their tea. In my family only my grandmother did that, and she was English. She hated the taste of coffee but wanted the caffeine boost. She would switch to tea in the afternoon. As children we had the choice of joining her for tea or sitting in the corner watching her have afternoon tea. I opted for the tea rather than just watching, especially since it usually included some sort of cookie or little sandwiches. There is something to be said about the proclivity for tea in the afternoon, though coffee is my real love. In the morning and after dinner are the best.
My parents preferred coffee and they preferred their coffee black without any cream or sugar. It is the only way I drink mine. Once in New York City I asked for a bagel and coffee from a vendor. I got my coffee, but it was pre-made with milk and sugar. I asked for it black and he swapped it. I took a sip and complained their was sugar. He thought I was crazy to want it without anything (probably because New York coffee tastes like dirt). People started complaining, and in true New York fashion I snapped at them, “Shut up! I need my fucking coffee!” They simmered down and I felt rather good about that New York moment the rest of the day, even though the coffee was terrible.
On very rare occasions I might add cream, but never sugar. The Thai have street vendors that sell iced coffee nearly everywhere in Bangkok. They use freeze-dried coffee and load it with heavy cream and sugar. It’s a dramatic sugar boost, but it tastes okay in small doses. You cannot drink it too often because it is just too much. I rarely drink it, just as I rarely have a latter, mocha, or triple skinny extra foam caramel macchiato, whatever the hell that is.
Perhaps the best coffee I have had while traveling is from Indonesia. Most of the good stuff is exported from there too, but they do have some available for tourists. Kopi luwak, or civet coffee, is coffee made from coffee beans that have passed through the wild civet cat’s intestines. It is believed that the coffee berries are of higher quality (apparently the cat’s have a discerning palette) and the digestive process improves the flavor further. Once you get past the fact you are drinking coffee made from cat shit, it is pretty good. The only problem is that it costs about $10 a cup. It is good, but not that good. And let’s not forget, it came from the anus of a cat.
So I just stick with my Peet’s Coffee. I prefer a mix of Sumatra and Sulawesi coffees. While my preference is for drip coffee, but I did not want to buy a coffee maker so I use a French press. I get a nice, robust cup of coffee. I really like drinking it out my Iittala coffee cups that I bought while in Finland for nearly $20 each. Crazy, I know, but a good cup of coffee is important to starting the day right.