Friday, December 09, 2005

Coffee Cultures

I'm officially famous! Over the last few days, Russell Brown has been collating comments from resident and expat NZ coffee-drinkers. After an initial post where he observed that you don't seem to be able to get a NZ-standard espresso in London (or most places), he was flooded with feedback saying yes, wasn't it terrible, no one (apart from the Italians) knows how to make espresso properly.

Several people pointed out that this was a case of typical now-we-are-so-sophisticated NZ "zealotry" and a "reverse cultural cringe". I agree to an extent that the boasting about our coffee has elements of that "our rugby team is bigger than your rugby team" attitude which you increasingly see from NZers, and is indicative of deep insecurity and ingrained provincialism (i.e. it'd be laughable if it weren't so embarassing).

However, it is based on a large kernel of truth. That was the one thing I really missed about NZ while in South America. Every now and again I'd have a fleeting, nostalgic vision of Aro St cafe with a good English breakfast and a super-strong flat white.

By the time I read the posts Russell Brown had already printed two rounds of comments. I figured I'd missed out, but would send him my tuppence worth anyway. And lo, then he said that he'd got even more comments, they were "improving in quality", and he'd print a third round.

So today he's done a final summation of people's views on coffee. I'm in there, about the third person quoted.

If you don't feel like following the link, here's what I wrote:

"I agree that across most of Europe and N.America the coffee is not up to the standard set in NZ, particularly in the main NZ centres. I've also spent quite a bit of time in S.America and, despite being a major coffee-exporting zone, things aren't much good there either.

In Peru and Chile you only find espresso in a few places in the bigger cities, and it's often sans crema. In even moderately expensive restaurants, "coffee" means a cup of hot water served with a tube-like packet of nescafe. Or it's a strong liquid concentrate in a little jug, which you pour into the water.

Colombia is better--brewed coffee there is called "tinto" and is de rigeur with most meals. As in (fellow coffee-producing nation) Guatemala, it's also quite fresh tasting. Most small bars have espresso.

Again, though, you just want to order the basic espresso--no one really knows how to make coffee with milk.

Only in Italy or places with direct Italian influence do you find the full range of espresso styles. In Italy itself, while coffee is the fuel of life, there's somewhat less preciousness about it than there is in NZ.

Cappucinos are normally made with lukewarm milk because people don't piss about drinking them--they go into a stand-up breakfast bar and toss one down on the way to work. Also, they understand even better than NZers not to add too much water to an espresso--in your standard short black there's usually not much more than a tablespoon of liquid.

There's one coffee experience, however, you won't find in Italy or NZ. This is "cafe cubano", which I discovered in Sth Florida a few years ago.

Cuban-stye coffee is made by expressing a quadruple-shot coffee directly into a cup containing several spoonfuls of raw sugar. It's served in a "colada", a (usually polystyrene) cup about the size of a small takeaway coffee cup, and you also get several thimble-sized little cups. You then drink it in "shots', sharing with two or three people.

They call cafe cubano "liquid cocaine", and if you try it you will see why. Next time you're in Miami, find a little neigbourhood Cuban place, order yourself a colada, and prepare to have your socks knocked directly off.

WRT to Starbucks [there'd been quite a bit of comment about Starbucks amongst the previous posts]: When In Peru, I lived in Arequipa, and on a trip to Lima my Arequipan girlfriend insisted on going to Starbucks, as she was nostalgic for when she spent time in the US. Not only was the milky coffee I ordered the most execrable, burnt, soapy thing I have ever tasted, but it cost more than it would have in NZ (in Peru, most consumables are two or even three times cheaper). My girlfriend didn't care--for her simply being in Starbucks was fulfilling her aspirations. "



Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm impressed by your analysis and understanding of international coffee practices. A suitable complement that Russel Brown should publish the passage, extensive as it is.

Re. this reverse cultural cringe thing you describe. Our rugby team *is* better than their rugby team. Our coffee *is* better than their coffee. Our food is better than their food. Our liberalism is better than their liberalism. No, wait...I'm getting too excited.

But the new (as of a decade or so) thing in NZ culture is that NZers are prepared to value and celebrate the things that we are good at. So it should be, every other country does it. Gone are the days people thought NZ was crap because our theatre was embarrassing. I mean, who cares? Our coffee is better than your coffee.

Simon D

Susan said...

Go Simon D - I couldn't have said it better. Our coffee and our food is second to none!

Simon Bidwell said...

Sure, but there's a difference between being prepare to value and celebrate the things we are good at, and engaging in chest-beating triumphalism.

A dividing line might be how necessary you feel it is to rub in these sucesses. Test question:at what point should an American feel compelled to point out that they are world's greatest industrial and military power?

Cultural chauvinism is pretty universal--witness the tendency of Americans, Australians, French, Argentinians (insert anyone better known for self-celebration than self-loathing)to declare themselves "best in the world" at something when they haven't really evaluated what else is out there.

But beyond that is the over-identification of individuals with the feats (no matter how trivial) of their wider tribe. Symptoms include a complete lack of perspective, no sense of humour, and a failure of common courtesy towards outsiders.

This can get ugly: some of the behaviour Lions fans were subjected to when they toured here was appalling and left me embarassed to be a NZer. Watching one of the Bledisloe Cup tests, I met a (NZ-resident) Welsh/Irish couple who were actively supporting Australia. After listening to their explanations, I fully sympathised with their choice.

The behaviour of some of the crowd in the recent cricket internationals against Australia was another example.

Having said that, as I have previously noted, our coffee and food is better than their coffee and food.

Cj said...

Very interesting analysis Simon. But what about the politics of drinking coffee?

I'm just about to rush at the door for Christmas celebrations but I thought I would draw your attention to Fair Trade coffee taken from

"The global coffee industry is in crisis. Although world consumption is growing, and the value of the coffee trade makes it the world’s second most valuable commodity after oil, many of the world’s 25 million coffee growers face immense hardship. How can this be?"

"Trade, unfortunately, simply isn't fair. The coffee producing countries have some of the lowest levels of income and some of the lowest GDPs in the world. Many coffee growers are receiving only a fraction of the value of their coffee."

"The most difficult concept for Western consumers to grasp is that growers have no real say in the price they wil be paid, nor an easy alternative to growing coffee as a cash crop. In effect, they are paid just enough to prevent them from pulling out their crops and growing something else, but not enough to earn a living wage."

Anyway - must dash. Merry Christmas Simon!

Simon Bidwell said...

Thanks for the comment, Cj. i've read a little bit on Fair Trade coffee, and there's some devil's advocate points that are made:
1. There's a world oversupply of coffee, which has affected prices. Guaranteeing prices to selected suppliers will just exacerbate the problem. (there's some grounds to believe in this "glut": a basic of coffee in the supermarket was $8 a few years ago; now you can get gourmet stuff for $6-7, while most things in NZ have got much more expensive.)
2. Most of the producers who have struck Fair Trade deals are in places like Mexico which are relatively wealthy and there is some chance of changing to doing something other than growing coffee. Propping up these growers can disadvantage the poorest coffee growers, such as those in Vietnam and East Africa, who have little hope of changing to anything else.
Having noted these points, the last two packets of coffee I bought while on holiday (at home I normally don't get plunger coffee) were Ethiopian Fair Trade.

The Fair Trade idea sounds good, and I really don't know enough about it, but overall it smacks a little too much of charity.

Coffee may have dropped in price a bit in the shops, but they're still not exactly giving it away. So who's getting the money? There's a clue if you go to the website that you recommended. What are the Fair Trade people buying? Yep, still green beans. In other words, the value adding (roasting, blending, packaging, marketing) is still being done in the West.

Wouldn't it be a better idea to encourage and support developng countries to add value to the products themselves? That way, they keep the profits.

Here's a really good article from the Guardian on a Ugandan guy who has started a company to do exactly that. Well worth reading.