Coffee waltz? No. Just coffee.

coffee addict

(A short version of this appeared in Khaleej Times)

I love coffee.

We all do – so what?

Okay, I have a confession to make. My love for coffee transcends the occasional urge for latte and cappuccino and goes into the dimension called obsession. I am a coffee-fanatic and a writer, yes in that order, whose purpose of life is to find deliverance in a cuppa.

I have spent hours in cafes simply enjoying a cuppa. Or watching a coffee waltz, a distasteful yet common occurrence. Not for me this fashion of coffee-togetherness that leads to naught. I believe speaking to my coffee and to hear it respond is far more fruitful. Coffee understands. Which explains why I have successfully written four books while speaking to it in a café.

coffee in Yangon
When in Yangon, this is where I found my nirvana

And that is only the second reason I say so.

The first reason is bizarre. Few years ago, I put my life savings into a coffee plantation in the south of India and named it Coffee Slopes, because growing, harvesting and subsequently brewing my own coffee and drinking myself into a caffeine heaven every day for the rest of my penniless life was my end goal.

I live in hope that one day it will be achieved.

In the meanwhile, I continue to find comfort in coffee shops around the world whenever I have the occasion to travel, while also learning the art of roasting and brewing coffee, a task that gets harder with every attempt.But hope dies hard. That is the best thing about hope.

A city that runs on coffee

My earliest memories of coffee are that of Bru and Nescafe – and later, the filter-coffee South India is so famous for, which I thought tasted rather like sweet milk without the addition of extra shots of decoction. Then one day in my early twenties I discovered the black coffee. Pure, black liquid bliss in a cup.

I promptly fell in love with it.

When I moved to Dubai soon after, I had one desire – to visit every café in the city, both local and international and understand coffee through its numerous roasteries, blends and origins. Dubai with its vibrant coffee scene has kept me busy through my fifteen coffee-drinking years and yet, I still find it hard to decide what is best – a handcrafted coffee, home-roasted coffee, pour-overs or the commercial coffee that gets served in Starbucks and Costa.

Here I beg to digress. Before I proceed, I seek permission to bow out of the lives of cappuccino and latte lovers and those that are impressed with words like green, spice, egg or charcoal coffee. And those who reach for the milk and sugar.

Cold coffee? Are you kidding me?

I am in a serious relationship with The Black. In my dictionary, coffee can only have varying shades of black. That is the only exception I can make. Everything else is a mockery. But I am tolerant towards blends – although single origins are favoured. I lean towards single origins from Guatemala and Colombia. And Rwanda. And DR Congo.

In Bukhara

That is my coffee.

I shudder at the word decaf and have a strong dislike for the plunger – it has to do with the temperature. I like a steam in my cup and a plunger doesn’t give me that. It is the same with Drip Coffee – it is painful to watch the slow drip and knowing well the horror of sipping luke-warm coffee from the collector.

It takes away my will to live.

climbing goat
The Climbing goat Roastery in Dubai has some fine single origins and blends – and information to go with it.

On a hot summer day in Dubai, you’d think I’d seek comfort in cold-coffee – but truth is far from it. Even when the outside temperature touches 50 degree C, I am the only person I know who finds solace in a steaming hot coffee to match a steaming hot day. I have made enemies of ordinary folks of coffee shops demanding “extra hot” coffee ever so often.

Do I like I my coffee with views of mountains, grappling with gorillas in Congo, or in a hammock by the sea? Do I care that the cafe isn’t decorated with Persian carpets or fancy leather sofas? Not in the least.

coffee on the sea
Once upon a time when I was heading to Komodo Island, Indonesia on a refitted fishing boat, this happened.

I like my coffee with only one view – of the cup spewing steam. But I said that already. As a traveler, I have had the chance to enjoy the brew in different parts of the coffee- growing world – meaning, I’ve literally enjoyed coffee at source – including Papua New Guinea and I can assure you no café in Port Moresby had any view to speak. You get my point.

And a civet cat changed my perception

One thing is for certain – and I quote Clark Gable here: “I never laugh until I’ve had my coffee.”

So, let’s talk coffee. It is but a fact that without it many of us would have trouble getting out of bed or simply being happy. But closer home, it was not a figure from history that changed my perception of fine coffee, it was a civet cat in Bali in the year 2008. And twelve years later as I sat soaking up the views of Dubai from At.Mosphere atop Burj Khalifa with a cup of Kopi Luwak steaming at my elbow, I thanked the civet cat and took tiny sips from a cup which held what the coffee-haters called cat-poop.

It was cat-poop that set the high standards of the brew for me – at least as high as the At.Mosphere and that is quite something.

Blistered fingers tell a tale 

The Arabs got to the coffee first -about 1200 years ahead of the Westerners. But the first wave of coffee hit the western world only in the early 1900s when brands like Nescafe put coffee on our tables; the “second wave” came when Starbucks and such like made it fashionable.

coffee bloom
This is how it all begins.

But today, with the Third Wave we have finally realized that coffee isn’t just coffee. It is the result of patient planters and thousands of coffee pickers with blistered fingers. I have some experience with this – remember Coffee Slopes? Yes, that one. The hand-picking process is not to be laughed at. I refuse to bring automation into the picture because a machine cannot tell the difference between green beans, unripe beans or overripe beans. But a human being can, and the blistered fingers of coffee-pickers is the evidence.

And that is why and how the best of coffee makes its way to your cup, thousands of miles away. Sadly, nothing can rescue even the finest coffee on earth if the roast is dreadful, if it has been stored thoughtlessly or if the barista simply dumps boiling water over the grounds, which roughly is what my coffee-making experience is about.

Coffee is a sensitive crop – like an artist. But when I am conversing with my coffee, I am, in reality, kissing every hand that was instrumental in filling my cup.

Well, at least three hundred hands.

Favourite coffee shops around the world 

Few cafés are as dear to me as the places I’ve travelled. For instance, when I go back to certain cities, like Vienna or Venice, I make straight for those cafés to celebrate my return. Now you understand and appreciate my stand. I have spent considerable time and money into my caffeinated globetrotting venture – like I did with my plantation.

  • Café Florian

Not only it is the world’s oldest continuing coffee house, Café Florian also does the best coffee in Venice. With 300 years of expertise, what are the chances of their stuff going wrong?
Location: Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy.

cafe florian in Venice
  • Café Central, Vienna

What the intellectuals and artists loved, so do I. I love their coffee so much that I could live and have my post delivered here if it came to that. Like Mozart before me, my order to the Tuxedoed- waiters is always the same. “A black coffee.”
Location: Herrengasse 14, Vienna

cafe central in vienna
  • Fong Da, Taipei

A 1956 café that brought quality beans and roasted them on site in Taipei’s busy Ximending area. Result? Sensational flavours in a cup. It is particularly famous for introducing iced coffee to the people of Taipei – but I’ll let that pass.
Location: Ximending, Taipei

  • Café Respirum, Karlovy Vary

Coffee made with thermal waters and dash of Becherovka is my favourite alternative to a dark roast. A dash of cream helps. Cream is not strictly milk, is it?
Location: Near Hot Spring Colonnade, Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic.

coffee with becherovka
  • Au Bon Pain, Goma, (Democratic Republic of Congo)

Au Bon Pain does excellent coffee. Period. No fluff. Nothing like a cup beautiful dark roasted local coffee draining into your cup. I spent six mornings enjoying every drop of full-bodied woody flavours of Gorilla coffee (yes, that’s what it is called) and tasting the country in a cup.
Someday I wish to return.
Location: Goma, DRC

  • Pierre Lotti Cafe, Istanbul

The Turks know their stuff alright. When you are served a cuppa so strong that it wouldn’t sink a buffalo, by a waiter in an Ottoman garment, it somehow makes good coffee better. I have two reasons to return here – coffee and views of the Golden Horn.
Location: Pierre Lotti Café, Istanbul

Coffee predicts the future
In Turkey, you can even have your future told in a cup of coffee.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *