Words by Iain Evans
In a recent discussion with a close friend of mine, I became acutely aware that there are coffee drinkers and then there are coffee drinkers, plus a whole realm in between. How often have you heard someone say something like: “I love coffee, I only drink the good stuff like (insert instant coffee brand here)” or “I love coffee, I have 15 cups a day!” and one thinks, well, yes, you certainly do love coffee (read: are significantly addicted to) but what kind of coffee? Coffee. Koffie. iKofi. Kaffee. Kopi. Khavi. This all-encompassing term for the beverage we love and need, led us to look at what South Africans really think about coffee and particularly the coffee that they drink.
The conversation I had with my friend started with instant coffee. He loves instant coffee. Drinks mug-full’s of the stuff every day. Why? Because it’s cheap and it’s easy. If you’re an instant coffee drinker, like my friend Mike, and like most people in our beautiful country, It’s what you know and it’s what you like and it gives you the kick you need. I explained to him the context in which instant coffee in South Africa became a household staple, and to this day, makes up the largest market share of consumed coffee. I tried to explain to my friend, in very simple terms, that in the Apartheid days, because of the hectic trade embargos on South Africa, we became a dumping ground for cheap robusta coffee. Mix that in with some chicory root, freeze dry it and you have a cheap, soluble coffee that has a long shelf life and is easy to prepare. The downside is that a lot of people in this category are adding 3-4 heaped teaspoons of sugar, plus some Cremora and lots of milk just to tolerate the high bitter compounds found in the main ingredients.
INTERESTING INFO courtesy of Dylan Cumming of Beaver Creek Coffee
Due to our political position in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s South Africa was not a member of the ICO. The International Coffee Agreement (ICA) is an international commodity agreement between coffee producing countries and consuming countries.
The agreement was first drafted and signed in 1962, with its aim of keeping coffee prices high and stable in the market by maintaining exporting countries’ quotas to influence the price. The International Coffee Organization (ICO), is the controlling body of this agreement, and represents all major producing and consuming countries. As South Africa was not a signed member, South Africa became a dumping ground for poor quality coffee and our imports at the time reflecting this. 2750 000 bags imported with 15% Arabica and 85% Robusta. The legacy of this can still be seen today with South Africa have a higher than average instant coffee over pure coffee consumption.
Our Suggestion: Try a coffee that is made from Arabica only, or has a higher ratio of arabica to Robusta/chicory. Arabica coffee has twice the sugars and half the caffeine of Robusta! If you have to add milk, try heating it first, as milk sweetens naturally at around 65 degrees C.
After I had explained all this, my friend, the instant coffee drinker, then cocked his head to one side and challenged me. “So you’re saying that if I bought some decent Arabica coffee from the supermarket and brewed it, I wouldn’t need to add any sugar and it would taste sweet?” Not exactly. No. Nothing will taste sweet compared to a beverage with 3 heaped teaspoons of sugar, but it will taste more like coffee. The easiest way to graduate to this category, I explained to my friend, is to kick the instant coffee habit altogether and invest in some fresh coffee beans and a simple manual brewing device. The simplest and most common method is the plunger. Chuck the coffee in, add hot water and plunge. Taste it first, add a little sugar and milk if you absolutely have to. It will taste better than instant and you will at least have an opportunity to actually start to taste the wonderful variety of different flavour profiles that coffee can have.
Our suggestion: Plungers are easily available and most supermarkets have them, but there are some really fun brewing devices like the AeroPress, V60 pour-overs and Chemex’s too. Try and invest in a grinder, there are some great hand grinding options or you can go for an electric burr grinder of some kind. Do this, and you’ll be on track to tasting coffee in a whole new way!
I could see my friend shifting uncomfortably as I started to become excited about brew ratios and taste profiles. I was beginning to lose him. “Look Mike”, I told him. “I know you’re not interested in the brewing part, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy good coffee” One of the most successful coffee companies of all time, who happen to associate themselves with George Clooney, recognised this and changed the way millions of people, like Mike, enjoy coffee. They solved the brewing problem by making it easy. You pop a capsule into a machine, push a button and you get a shot of espresso. Convenience coffee is not only the capsule market – there are some really amazing fully automatic machines that grind the coffee, extract the espresso and even steam milk for you at the touch of a button. These are called “bean-to-cup” coffee machines and are certainly worth investigating if you want great coffee but you don’t want to have to learn how to make it.
Our Suggestion: Many local coffee roasteries are now packaging their coffee in environmentally friendly capsules that are compatible with most capsule coffee machines. If there isn’t one in your area, many of the best coffee roasteries have online stores that you can order from and they will deliver to you. Alternatively, the bean-to-cup coffee machines are pretty impressive, so depending on your budget, you should be able to find a solution that will give you wonderfully different coffee flavours without having to know anything about brewing or espresso extraction.
This is one of the most exciting areas of coffee in South Africa. I mean, you can literally buy anything from tampons to firelighters at our Garages (or Petrol Stations, if you’re reading this anywhere other than Southern Africa). And you can get pretty great coffee too. Even my friend Mike, the self-proclaimed instant coffee lover, admits sheepishly that he will fill up his car at a certain garage because the “Mucho Grande Latte” there is better than the one up the road. Look, this article is about identifying coffee drinkers who gravitate towards a specific type of coffee and why. The “why” here is obvious - busy people on the go need caffeine. If it tastes good, that’s great. If it doesn’t, well there’s plenty of other options, and those on the move, know and share these spots like dirty secrets.
Hence, the reason this segment is growing all the time. Usually, the better spots are when it’s a barista-made coffee. Be it from vida e, Seattle Coffee Co, Weisenhof or McDonald’s even, there is usually an actual, trained human in control of the coffee you’re drinking. These companies also invest in pretty high-end espresso machines and grinders, water filtration equipment and a reasonable mix of quality arabica coffee beans to give you a better tasting cup of coffee.
Our Suggestion: There are literally millions of coffee drinkers out there who absolutely love a good take-away coffee from their local Garage. I urge you to take a look at the Listings page in this magazine and try a coffee from any one of them. Two things will happen: Firstly you’ll probably get a chance to meet and have a conversation with the person making the coffee, known as a barista. And usually they are very knowledgeable about the coffee they are serving and how it’s made. Secondly, it’ll taste very different, to your usual garage take-away coffee because of this.
This kind of coffee drinker is where the fussiness begins. They want a decent espresso or a cappuccino with or after their meal. They care what brand is used and they have expectations. Rightly so. Usually this kind of coffee drinker will be satisfied with a brand name Italian Coffee like Illy, Lavazza or Kimbo. They like the consistency of knowing what they’re getting. The coffee companies that distribute these brands to restaurants aim to ensure that no matter where in the world you drink an (insert Italian brand name coffee here) the taste and experience is the same. The staff are trained to prepare the coffee and they usually know how to serve it consistently. Again, the critical factor here is the investment in the people making the coffee, the strict product parameters of the coffee brand and the quality of the coffee equipment in the restaurant. What is very interesting in current times though is the gradual migration of restaurants towards supporting local Coffee Roasters. Some coffee drinkers will switch allegiance from their local favourite restaurant, especially for Breakfast, in favour of a specific restaurant that serves a great coffee over anything else.
Our Suggestion: This category of coffee drinker is mostly concerned by consistency and good service. Everyone has their favourite tasting coffee and their favourite restaurants. They want the coffee made the same way every time. If you are traveling to a new town or visit a new restaurant - ask the wait staff which coffee brand they are using or which coffee company supplies the coffee. If those names are ones you recognise or the company appears in the pages of this publication, you’re bound to get what you want!
Now we are getting to the discerning end of the coffee drinking spectrum, and admittedly, the smallest of the coffee consuming public. Like fine food or wine cost and interest are the biggest determining factors. Cost, because in order to taste the true potential of a high end coffee, one needs specific accoutrements and Interest, because now one is well and truly entering the coffee-connoisseur realm, and the knowledge behind the flavour becomes more important to this coffee drinker than in the categories discussed earlier in this article. There are two scenarios here – Firstly, the coffee drinker that enjoys making coffee at home and secondly the coffee drinker that enjoys drinking their coffee at a Coffee Shop or a Coffee Roastery (and these establishments are different, by the way, to restaurants that also happen to have coffee on the menu) The home coffee connoisseur will have indulged in both cost and in Interest – splurging out on coffee gadgets, scales, grinders, brewing devices, kettles, filters, and so on, and either done a home-barista course, coffee appreciation course or spent many hours gathering coffee trivia online. This coffee drinker will most likely spend a good deal of money and time in their favourite coffee establishments too, chatting with baristas, roasters and like-minded customers. Maybe even attending public coffee cuppings. If you are interested in this kind of thing, you will be amazed at the absolute complexity and myriad of flavours that coffee, yes, coffee can possess.
If this is you, then you are one of very few people lucky enough to be able to spend time and money on great coffee. The fight to improve the quality of coffee on the market, to uplift the lives of baristas and to grow the specialty coffee market is your mission. Ironically, now that you’ve arrived, the knowledge journey for you has only just begun. Speak to any Barista, Roaster, Barista Trainer, SA Coffee Champion or Coffee Professional here or around the World and they will all tell you the same thing: The more you learn about this wonderful thing called coffee, the more you realize how little you know!
As a postscript to this story, my friend Mike loves beer. He likes wine too, but only certain kinds. He started drinking gin a couple years ago when the craze hit and now has a range of favourites. The journey is the same with coffee, and it is in the sharing of the experiences that we all become richer for them. If you know a Mike, take him or her along next time you go for a coffee, koffie, iKofi… and start that discussion!