Drinking coffee: snobbing my way around the world

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul. Turkish coffee is hard-core.

Being an addict is hardly ever something to boast about, but there are far worse things to be a habitual user of than coffee. I’ll admit that it isn’t the healthiest of beverages if consumed steadily for long periods, and overdoing it might leave you looking quite similar to hard drug pushers; but like everything (except maybe heroin, AIDS or spinach), a little bit in moderation is no bad thing.

The thing with coffee is that it’s a bit of a gamble unless you know your way around whichever neighbourhood you find yourself in. For example, I know there’s good coffee to be found in Tanzania, but Tanzania’s rather a large place. Honestly though, I’d love to go to Tanzania or Kenya and hunt down some of their best beans.

Tea is the easy way out, and often a safer bet than trying the coffee if you’re in any doubt. Unless you’re a religious organisation or a prison, it’s pretty hard to make tea badly. On the rare occasion that I do find myself on hallowed ground, (or in prison) I’m always surprised at how revolting the tea is. I reckon if you’re willing to withstand that, then surely your reward in heaven awaits. But generally speaking, tea is just tea. Chuck a bag in, top it up and throw some milk in. Done. But for coffee snobs like me, finding a good cup is all about taking – ahem – pot luck.

Coffee is actually quite easy to mess up. And for the purposes of this blog, I’d prefer to disregard any kind of instant coffee, because there’s only so far you can go with that stuff. But even here, you can make it better by mixing a teaspoon of it with cold, whole milk and a small amount of sugar. Top up with hot (not boiling) water and that’s about as good as it gets. Hot chicory beverage. Mmmmm.

With proper coffee, it’s another world entirely. Warning: unabashed snobbery ahead. In my world, good coffee depends on:

Equatorial Africa: coffee-growing country

a)      The quality of the beans. Coffee comes from all over the world, with some of the best farms located in Central / East Africa and South America. You’ll never really be able to tell just by looking at them in the cafe, but if you get your beans from a reputable supplier then chances are it won’t be the sweepings off the supermarket packing floor.

b)      How long ago it was roasted. Coffee doesn’t last forever. Once it’s roasted, try to drink it within the month.

c)       How long ago it was ground. You should only grind enough for each cup, not go crazy and grind the entire bag. Once ground, coffee starts to get stale quickly. Some companies only sell beans and won’t even offer the option of grinding them. It’s better this way.

d)      The temperature of the water. You’ll know if you’ve got a burned coffee. Basically, you should never put coffee anywhere near boiling water. It just kills all the flavour, leaving you with a sharp, bitter cup of brown dirty water. No-one likes that. Unless you’re a fan of Starbucks. Then you love it, especially if it’s topped with half a litre of milk, and topped with (oh God) chocolate sprinkles.

There are also many ways to make coffee. Some people think an espresso machine is the ultimate way to go, but that’s only true if you actually know how to use it. Most baristas are as well qualified to use their machines as a gibbon is qualified to pilot a helicopter. And I’m not being a snob here – I’m one of those gibbons. Personally I stick to filter or traditional stove-top at home, unless I’m in a place where I know that they know what they’re doing.

Then of course there’s Turkish coffee (which is a totally different animal) or old-fashioned coffee made on the camp-fire. Have you stumbled upon an extraordinarily good coffee while travelling? What are some of your worst coffee experiences?

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