Coffee has been around basically forever. It’s one of the top four most consumed beverages in the world. In the United States, our coffee traditions vary depending on whether we’re brewing at home, stopping by Starbucks, or joining the hipster coffee movement and pushing the boundaries of everything we think we know about the brewed beverage. I’ve seen people do weird things with their coffee in my time. Butter/bulletproof coffee is pretty odd to think about. The nitrous-infused cold brew is a modern practice that’s still unfamiliar to most people; it results in exquisite coffee and isn’t far off from how most of us consume beer that it works. I’ve also seen people pay almost $7 for 6 ounces of a single-origin, Aeropress coffee, (the typical small is at least 8 ounces, Starbucks’ is 12 ounces).
These are some of the extremes in the States’ brewing methods and the metropolitan coffee-culture. Some of the typical brewing/preparation methods around the world seem just as far-fetched, if not more so, because of their unfamiliarity. I’ve done some research, and these are my favorite “strange” coffee traditions from around the world, that may not be that strange.
Coffee elitists will scoff at this first coffee tradition. It comes from Japan and involves a practice that is actually on the rise in the United States: coffee in a can. Go into any CVS or grocery store, and you’ll see the growing practice of selling coffee in a can. It started with coffee in those glass bottles, you know, the one’s that taste more like chocolate milk than coffee. These days you can get espresso in a can, coffee versions of canned energy drinks, as well as Starbucks’ iced coffee bottles in milk and sugar, just sugar, or black versions. In Japan, apparently, both hot and cold coffee has been sold in vending machines and grocery stores since the 1960s. Apparently in Japan in the 60s when you bought a beverage in the bottle you were required to return the bottle to the business when you were done. One man ran out of time when drinking bottled coffee one day and decided cans were the way to go for a coffee drink that people could drink whenever, wherever, and however slowly. Some US businesses are exploring this method for at-home and in public use; one company created a “hot refrigerator” for your home that holds the hot cans which are equipped with a label that acts like the coffee sleeves at your favorite coffee shop, keeping the beverage hot and protecting your hands. Personally, I find that beverages in metal cans tend to taste like metal, and I’m not keen on the carbonated effect canning coffee has, but convenience is convenience.
One of the main differences between coffee and tea is the ritualistic preparation typically associated with tea; making tea is a slower, often calming process. Tea is also generally consumed for benefits other than the caffeine kick, so the drinking process is also slow; around the world, tea-drinking is typically a social occasion. In the United States, coffee shops offer this type of socialization for coffee-consumers; and third wave coffee connoisseurs have been making efforts to slow down the brewing process and bring a more experiential nature to coffee.
In Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, this slow-down, and socialization have always been a thing. Ethiopians have rituals centered around coffee, its preparation, and consumption. In one, the women will take several hours to roast fresh coffee beans, brewing coffee into a spouted coffee pot that looks more like a traditional teapot, and then serve it to their family members and guests. In this way, Ethiopian coffee is closer to traditions associated with tea in the West. Contemporary coffee shops are incorporating this ritualistic and localness in their coffee preparation. Many metropolitan shops are connected directly to a roasting plant, sometimes with on-sight roasting and methods like Aeropress, Chemex or even cold-brew slow down the brewing process encouraging consumers to experience the coffee more slowly and comprehensively. If it takes that long to make, maybe I shouldn’t chug it on my way to the office. Of course, these shops offer more in luxury than functionality in the fast-paced capitalistic economy; but, the need to slow down because of that fast pace gives the experiential coffee market a place at the table.
I learned very early on in my barista days to not question an Austrailian about coffee traditions. They take their coffee very, very seriously. It became a moment of pride when an Australian tourist would try my shop’s coffee and give their seal of approval; they tend to believe that “American coffee” is, to put it nicely, sub-par. Their intense relationship with coffee may be linked to Italian immigrants establishing themselves on the continent after World War II. Australia’s most famous coffee drink is the flat white. It is prepared like a latte, hot espresso topped with steamed milk. They are very particular about the texture of the milk for a flat white, however. I have encountered many different American versions of the flat white in my time, with some customers insisting that you shouldn’t aerate the milk at all, some insisting that a tiny amount of aeration is necessary to create a thin layer of microfoam on top. Aeration is what makes that awful roaring sound when your espresso drink is being prepared; a steam wand is used to mix in different amounts of air (resulting in bubbles, or foam) depending on the drink. A cappuccino traditionally has a lot more foam than a latte. And the flat white has even less foam than a latte (or no foam if you believe some American flat-white elitists). It still tastes like a latte to me, though some customers insist it’s sweeter even if you’re using the same ingredients as a latte. I also haven’t had what I would consider a true flat white because I’ve never been to Australia (or New Zealand, which also lays claim to the flat white’s origins). I’d be curious to find out if there is a significant difference in a traditional flat white versus the slightly-less-foamy American version.
If you thought butter in coffee sounded too savory for your coffee tastes, what do you think of the Senegal coffee traditions of roasting and brewing coffee with a peppery spice called djar? This tradition reportedly comes from the founder of a specific branch of Islam in Senegal and is brewed similarly to drip coffee. Other spices like cloves are also added to the coffee. Cloves I can get behind; pepper, though? I’m not so sure. Adding savory elements to coffee is also a Thai tradition; they serve their iced coffee regularly with sweetened condensed milk while also adding spices like cardamom and sesame seeds. I supposed these spices are similar to cinnamon in that they are very aromatic, and some compare cardamom to mint because of its sometimes cooling effect. Spices like cardamom and djar (the peppery one from Senegal) are used to add dimension to food, so I imagine their addition to coffee could curb bitterness and elevate the natural flavors and aromatics in coffee. Weird, but I’m not totally against it.
And finally, something that is not actually that strange in the US is Irish coffee. That’s because the tradition of mixing coffee and whiskey then topping it with cream was reportedly begun when American tourists showed up in a pub in the 40s and asked for a drink that could warm them up and give them a nice buzz. They brought the drink back to the US and these days cross-buzzing caffeine and alcohol is a favorite especially among party-goers and college kids. The infamous canned drink, Four Loco, had to be removed from shelves because of its potent combination of caffeine and booze. Vodka and Red Bull is also a favorite combination. I have to admit that I often reached for a cup of coffee in my drinking days to counteract the drowsy-making effects of alcohol. The combination can be dangerous because of the conflicting stimulating and depressing effects of both substances as well as the dehydration that can result. Drinking caffeine with alcohol can also minimize the visible signs of intoxication, encouraging people to drink more alcohol than they should. That being said, a moderate amount of cross-buzzing can be pretty fun. Just, caffeinate responsibly, okay?
I appreciate that coffee tradition is so varied and exciting. I also understand that the United States and contemporary coffee people are incorporating more creativity, ritual, and innovation in their coffee production. I use coffee as a tool to boost my productivity throughout the day, but I also like having the option to slow down, experience something new and pleasurable, put the caffeine toward my social energy. Appreciating more gradual process of preparation also helps me to enjoy the entire process from planting and harvesting to roasting and brewing which allows me to appreciate the teamwork and step-by-step process that coffee and many other things in our world involve. It gives me confidence in my ability to create, collaborate, and contribute to something that could reach many people, even if that thing is as simple as a cup of coffee.