Serious coffee-drinkers on a two-day, two-week or two-year junket know how it starts. You wake up, groggy and vaguely nibbly, but what you really want is a cup of coffee. Thick and strong, brown bordering on chestnut, with a smell that wafts to you from the table below, pleading like a tiny bottle in Alice in Wonderland, “drink me.”
We want coffee that will wake us up, start our day, keep us alert, signal to our tastebuds and our brains that the day may officially begin. And our traveling companions—even the non-coffee drinkers—want us to get that java jolt, to put off the headaches, the slow walking, the crankiness, and the complaints.
There’s an old Peanuts cartoon where Linus has prepared a hot chocolate for Lucy, who receives it grudgingly. The dialogue goes like this:
Linus: How do you like the chocolate I made for you?
Lucy: It’s terrible! It’s too weak! It tastes like some warm water that has had a brown crayon dipped in it!
Linus: (tastes it.) You’re right. I’ll go put in another crayon.
Replace the word chocolate with coffee and you can sum up a frequent traveler’s coffee conundrum. Not enough crayons (flavor). On a recent family vacation to the Dominican Republic, a nation that is famous for its coffee, I was subjected to a cruel version of caffeine ultra-rapid-detox. The coffee at the hotel was watery, practically tea-like in color, and almost completely devoid of taste. And I drank cup after cup of it, hoping it would add just a little zing to my day.
Not all trips lead you to the land of tasteless and just plain bad coffee. Sometimes coffee on the road is mouth-awakening, aroma enticing and a real morning treat. We’ll talk about those first. Later we’ll address the unfortunate coffee-related items that just plain miss the coffee-snob mark, and finally, solutions for the caffeine-starved.
Fortunate coffee-related situations
Sometimes while traveling, you hit the coffee lottery. It could be delicious, plentiful, and maybe even cheap, sometimes accompanied by a cookie or little half-glass of soda water. This is a true delight, coffee you can write home or twitter about.
If the coffee started as a bean, was ground and had nearly boiling water poured over it and then filtered, you’ve got what many Europeans call “filter coffee.” Wherever you go, seek out a European-style café, and you’re likely to find a variation of this elixir that will energize you for the rest of the day, or at least until your second breakfast.
Assuming the machine is reasonably well calibrated, and the beans decent, you can be assured a smiley start to the day with a cup from one of these machines. In a lot of Europe, especially Italy and Spain, this is the café di giorno/del día. But espresso-based coffee is not limited to Europe.
In Cuba you’ll be served an espresso with nearly equal parts sugar if you don’t specify otherwise. In Chile, the café cortado you get in Santiago is so adorable you almost want to pour it into a thimble and take it home. And you practically could. It’s essentially the tiniest latte you’ve ever seen. So drink two, they’re small, though reasonably potent.
Not often seen on the road, but well worth the wait if you can get it, this is that plunger-style coffee made in a tall glass carafe with (usually) stainless steel fittings. It’s best not to hope for this opaque suspension, as it doesn’t frequently appear. I must admit to having been first in line every morning and evening when it appeared at remote lodges in the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas. I never found out if this was part of the English or Argentine tradition (both nations lay claim to the territory), but in the interest of promoting antipodean peace, I just drank up and stayed silent.
Unfortunate coffee-related sitations
Here are the almost-coffees, the sold-as-coffee, the I-want-my-mommy “coffees” that hang before you like a mirage and disappear (or you wish they would) as you get closer.
As a child, you may have had an elderly aunt that visited your family’s home, and asked for a post-meal Sanka, the orange-packeted powdered decaf “coffee.” Once, when no one was looking, and before she dropped two saccharine tablets in (hey, it was the 70s), I took a sip. This is what every cup of Nescafe I’ve ever been urged to drink reminds me of. You’re optimistic, you order a cup of coffee, and a round brown tin of coffee dust (or granules, if you’re really lucky) arrives along with a cup of hot water. Stir and enjoy, or not. In Chile the coffee snobs among us have a saying “Nescafe no es café” (Nescafe isn’t, literally: Nescafe is not coffee.)
Cruet coffee is my name for the coffee that comes to your table, along with your tepid cup of water, in a vessel that in my home country is used to dispense salad dressing or soy sauce. It’s the essence of coffee, which has been boiled out of the grounds and strained, for your drinking pleasure (or not). I’ve never been able to determine if this is a step above or below Nescafe, but the punch of regular coffee, along with its nutty deliciousness, seems to have been boiled right out of the grounds. This I’ve seen in both Peru and Ecuador, which your fourth grade world history flashback is currently reminding you, is one of the world’s great coffee exporters. Let’s chalk it up to mystery and move on.
Not-coffee (wheat and figs)
There’s a host of products available that are not coffee, but want you to believe that they kind of are. They’re usually made of roasted grains, like the recently discontinued American product Postum. This beverage had the double-plus bad problem of being powdered and not being coffee at the same time. “Coffee” made out of wheat or other products may have a place in lean times, or when the customer has been cruel to puppies or small children, but to me, it is a poor and pale imitation.
Chile has gone one further, by also making “coffee” out of figs. No powder this, it’s a little brick of dry tangly topsoil-looking crumble that you break into your cup of tepid (or maybe hot) water and stir. It gives the illusion of drinking a cup of coffee in that it’s brown, and toasty-tasting, and has the added benefit of twigs and things floating in the cup, like an after-coffee snack. While I would concede that it has a pleasant taste, coffee it is not.
So what’s the problem?
The main problem with the “coffees” above that I’ve labeled “unlucky” is that (in addition to the real coffee taste), they lack caffeine, or at least sufficient caffeine to power you through your hard-won trip through a backwater town, a famous museum, or down the banks of a river. And while I make noises about how I love coffee and how it’s so delicious (and it is), let’s get things straight: people who drink coffee in the morning do it for the caffeine. So in the absence of real coffee, what’s a person to do?
Many countries have a special little morning pick-me up that has caffeine (or another stimulant) that you can find more easily than good coffee. While they’re not coffee, some of them are delicious in their own right, and hey, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Coca tea: in highland South America, in some towns of Chile, Peru and Bolivia, people often begin the day with mate de coca. Coca is the plant from which cocaine is derived, but as of yet, no one has gotten addicted to coca tea. The romaine lettucey-tasting tea gives a little wake-up and can help minimize the wooziness the unaccustomed feel at altitude.
Mate or teteré: This is the bitter, grassy potion slurped through a sieve-like straw from a gourd or tiny mug. Stare longingly at someone’s mate (the gourd from which its drunk) or make friends with the person doing the pouring in Uruguay, Paraguay or Argentina, and they will usually invite you to cebar (share a mate). The caffeine is considerable, and after a few rounds, you’ll speedily tell your friends that you’reokaywithoutcoffee. Really.
Take matters into your own hands
Here’s where on-the-road problems cause you to innovate. One option is finding the local Redbull equivalent or other canned or bottled drink and making that part of your breakfast of champions. If you tied one on with cuba libres (rum and cokes) the night before, a coke even has a “hair of the dog that bit you” ring to it. And your dentist would be so proud.
Another possibility is to brew coldwater tea overnight. A tea bag or two tucked into your half-liter waterbottle will have leached enough caffeine by morning to at least get you vertical. After that you’re on your own. I know offering tea to a coffee drinker is cruel, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Travel heavy – You can bring brewed coffee, or coffee concentrate with you for short trips. I was visiting a coffee-addict friend in the great city of New Orleans when we were called upon to evacuate for Hurricane Katrina. The jar of cold-filter coffee concentrate my friend had distilled the night before we fled sustained several of us for a number of days in the trailer in Mississippi while we waited for news, and for the electricity to come back on.
The cadillac of solutions – Required materials: one thermos, one funnelly cone in which to place paper filters and the ground coffee of your choice. Beg borrow or steal hot water (or heat some on your camp stove if you’ve got one), pour gently and relax into the delicious steamy smell of home-brewed coffee. You can also travel with a small stovetop espresso-maker, but let’s not be excessive shall we?
Or maybe it’s time to go cold turkey
Of course there’s another option entirely, which is to use the experience of traveling as a break from your caffeine addiction, letting the toxins release from your body as you find a higher plane, take the hook out of your lip, live a life free of stimulants. Personally, I have a simple two-word reaction to these suggestions, accompanied by an eye-roll I learned from my eight-year old niece: Yeah, right.
Read about author Eileen Smith and check out her other BootsnAll Travel articles.
Additional photo credits:
Mate by blmurch on Flickr, Cappucino by Ahmed Rabea on Flickr