Tag Archives: coffee

This Coffee Tastes Like Shit!

Ivan had a root canal beautifully done in Taichung, Taiwan but there wasn’t sufficient time to complete the permanent crown before traveling to Amed, Bali. To complete the crown, we had to hire a driver to take us to the 911 Dental Clinic in Denpasar, Bali, 2-3 hours away from where we were staying.one-of-the-best-dentist-ever-seen

The road to Denpasar seemed too narrow to allow traffic to flow in both directions. Our driver approached pedestrians, scooters and children playing by the roadside perilously close. At any moment, we wouldn’t have been surprised to see bodies flying. We were exhausted just from sitting on the edge of our seats for the entire trip to Denpasar, so we asked our driver to stop for a coffee before setting back to Amed.

He mentioned that he knew of a good spot for coffee 1 hour away. We thought it was a long time to wait but figured it would probably be really worthwhile if it was so far away. I don’t know what kind of reasoning we used to come to that decision … it’s probably akin to someone spending five times more at an exclusive restaurant because “it must be superior if they charge that much more!”

photo by Marcus Schoepke
photo by Marcus Schoepke

We climbed into the mountains through ever-winding roads that became narrower and less trafficked. We are inveterate believers and figured it must be a terrific cafe with stunning panoramic views of the sunset because it was starting to get dark.

We were warmly received as we pulled into a parking lot and were escorted out of the car as royalty. We still didn’t realize what was up! Only when the uniformed staff began pointing out the coffee and cocoa plants did we realize that the driver had called ahead to let his friends know that he was bringing a couple of tourists for a Luwak coffee plantation tour.

This was laughingly not what we expected. All we really wanted was a simple cup of coffee. We reluctantly agreed to a hurried tour as if we had never seen how coffee was grown. We were shown a few token, scraggly coffee plants and sorry staff members grinding coffee beans by hand and slow roasting beans in a wok over a small flame.

Asian Palm Civet and Coffee Cherries
Asian Palm Civet and Coffee Cherries

The famous and ultra-expensive Luwak, or Civet Coffee, is actually comprised of the seeds of coffee cherries that have been eaten and then defecated by the nocturnal, Asian Palm Civets (cat family). They wander out of the Sumatran jungle at night onto coffee plantations and select the finest, ripest coffee cherries to eat. They are not able to digest the stone (coffee bean) which is then defecated. The beans are picked out from the fecal matter and cleaned off before roasting. The animal’s anal glands impart that elusive, musky smoothness, uniquely rich aroma and smooth, rounded flavour to the resultant roasted coffee. That’s the theory anyway.

This coffee sells for $30 to $100 per cup in New York City and London. Beans can be purchased on Amazon for about $150/pound. Harrods packages civet coffee in a Britannia-silver and 24-carat gold-plated bag selling for over $10,000 advertising that their coffee is sourced from wild animals and that only 500 kg of it is collected annually.

We ordered one sample cup of this infamous Luwak coffee for 50,000 rupiahs, or about $4, which is highway robbery in a coffee-growing country. (Indonesia is the fourth largest coffee producer in the world.) A normal cup of coffee in Bali costs less than 70 cents in US currency.

We were looking forward to trying the world’s most expensive coffee. (Perhaps you remember the Morgan Freeman / Jack Nicholson scene about this coffee that was in the movie, The Bucket List?)

“Disappointed” doesn’t begin to describe our experience. The cup had no distinctive top notes, no brightness, no complexity of flavor, no body and no lingering coffee taste. In fact, this coffee tasted like shit.

photo by Stefan Magdalinski
photo by Stefan Magdalinski

The truth is that Luwak coffee was originally produced by following the cats around and collecting their fresh droppings, which is the only authentic and humane method. The horrible reality is that now civets are kept in cages in unnatural conditions which often results in them dying within six months. Civet coffee is a cruel hoax to both the animal and the coffee aficionado. PT Barnum would have been proud of Harrods’ $10,000 scam.

Needless to say we didn’t buy any Luwak coffee, and certainly the driver made no commission for bringing us to this tourist trap. We never established how well our driver understood English. We were driving at breakneck speed along winding roads too close to the cliff’s edge. Not for a moment did we consider distracting the driver with questions about a cafe that seemed to be well off the beaten path.

 

Ah, Coffee, +1

DSC00018As it turns out, the best coffee shop in Taichung is just around the corner from our place. Julie, the owner, has a small roaster and maintains a freshly-roasted collection of various single-origin beans.

She and her friend prepare great pour-overs as well as iced espressos, and just about anything else you could ask of a coffee shop.

Of course, for us, it’s all about the people, and CoffeePlus is a plus one for that too. We’ve met warm, Taiwan locals here. And sometimes we meet them for lunch in the coffee shop.DSC00015

 

We ♥ Taiwan!

Deena and I both believe that people everywhere are basically good and friendly. The Taiwanese so greatly exceeded our expectations that we were amazed and touched.

From our cruise, we had a one-day stop at the port outside of Taipei.  We wanted to visit a couple of places in the mountains. One was a former gold mine turned into a nice little shopping street, called Jiufen.Jiufen, Taiwan

The real challenge was finding the right bus when neither of us could read or speak Chinese. Our on-board Taiwanese friend, Lucy, gave us the bus map with the route highlighted, brought us to the station outside the port and made sure we knew the bus number to take. When we tried to buy the ticket, though, the clerk mimed for us to go outside to “7-8-8!” Apparently, the bus company and bus number for Jiufen had been changed. Oops!

After wandering all around, we ducked into the train station and inquired at the information booth. The man, who spoke no English, knew exactly what we were asking. He hunted all over his crowded office until he found the little piece of paper where someone had written in English the new directions to find the #788 bus. “Up the stairs over the road, turn right, turn left, down the stairs, wait in front of the medical clinic for bus 788.” That unbelievable helpfulness was a mere foreshadowing of what we were about to experience in Taiwan.

Arriving at the group of bus-waiting Chinese, we tried to confirm whether we were in the right place. One young fellow who spoke English responded with “We are going there too. Why don’t you sit near us and we can make sure that you exit at the right bus stop. We will also show you how to find the correct bus for the way back to the port.”

Joe and his girlfriend, Alice (who didn’t speak any English), adopted us at that bus stop. We walked around Jiufen with them. They introduced us to sweet taro ball soup.

Grandma Lai Sweet Taro Ball Soup, Jiufen, TaiwanAfter our walkabout in Jiufen, they suggested we continue with them because it would be more fun than where we had planned. We enthusiastically agreed. No tour, no guide book, no Internet page can ever replace experiencing a place through the eyes of its own inhabitants.

On the way there, we stopped in Ruifang to change from a bus to a train. We enjoyed some street food with Joe and Alice, including an odd fried sandwich peculiar to Ruifang. It was a ham, tomato and egg sandwich on a long, deep-fried donut. Odd? Yes. Good? Um, the magic eight ball says “ask me later”.

Jiufen, Taiwan
Joe and Alice introduce us to cold, sweet Taro Ball Soup
A shop in Houtong, Taiwan
The paper says “This Cat Is Not For Sale”

We accompanied them by train to Houtong, famous for its cat population. Apparently, a woman who has since died started rescuing cats there. The cats continue to be fed and cared for by the few, remaining inhabitants. The feral cat population seems to own the village, and it’s become a tourist spot for cat lovers, complete with a few shops that sell everything cat-related.Houtong, Taiwan

Houtong itself is an otherwise defunct coal-mining town with a colored history. It was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. There are food shops, a park, an information center about the mine, hiking trails and a tourist center. Not much is in English and to be honest, we were the only caucasions there.

Coal Factory, Houtong, Taiwan
Houtong’s defunct coal factory

In the afternoon, we had to start back toward the ship, and the young couple were going on to another city. To make sure we didn’t get lost, they accompanied us to buy the train tickets, took us to the correct platform and carefully explained where to exit and find the bus outside the Ruifang train station. We were sad to part company with our new Taiwanese friends.

We stopped for a coffee in a mom-and-pop storefront called Grind Coffee between the train station and bus stop. They didn’t speak English but understood “iced lattes”. Indeed, the lattes were excellent and refreshing, but what was even more amazing was the experience. The other customers in the shop kept stealing furtive glances at us, probably wondering what we were doing there since we were (a) white and (b) not with one of the many tour buses that passed through on the way to somewhere else. Finally, one who introduced himself as Tom, asked us where we were from.

Grind Coffee, Ruifang, Taiwan
We meet friendly people in the Grind Coffee shop in Ruifang, Taiwan

We chatted with everyone and took pictures in the coffee shop. Awen offered to drive us back to the port in his car. He dropped us off and then surprised us with a gift of Taiwanese tea in a beautiful red gift box and bag. This act of welcoming to his country was beyond our wildest expectation!

If you ask us which country impressed us most so far, we both firmly answer Taiwan. The mountainous landscape is beautiful and the people are the warmest and friendliest we’ve ever met. When we taste the delicious gifted tea, it warms us and our hearts. A return to Taiwan is definitely on our bucket list.

Jiufen, Taiwan
Jiufen, Taiwan

 

Micro-Roaster in Jaco, Costa Rica

As some of you know, coffee is not just an addiction with me. It’s a passion. Some years back, while searching the Interwebs for a better coffee, I discovered that it was possible to buy green beans and roast them at home. I did, and never looked back.

I’ve learned that freshly roasted and ground coffee has a significantly different taste. What do I mean by “freshly”? Ground coffee begins to oxidize immediately. I’m talking about minutes here. I haven’t conducted any personal tests, but I’d guess that within thirty minutes to an hour, it’s already stale.

As far as roasting, the roasted beans often peak in flavor after resting for a day or two. After that, they start to go downhill. Five to seven days later, they’re almost finished. The flavor has changed to that bitter, tasteless, acid and acrid stuff that we’ve all come to know from almost every coffee we’ve ever had.

What makes a great coffee? First, the beans have to be picked only when they are ripe. They are then processed naturally to remove the outer fruit. The fruit is called a cherry because at the peak of ripeness, it’s dark red.

Starbucks thinks these are great beans. Most of them are not ripe.
Starbucks thinks these are great beans. Most of them are not even ripe. They buy cheap beans using exploited labor.

Deena and I had a good laugh at Starbucks (to which we are often forced while driving solely because of their ubiquity on the road) the other day. They put up this poster of their coffee farm. Notice that the coffee fruit are all different shades including even unripe green cherries. THAT is the very first reason that Starbucks coffee sucks! They don’t even bother buying ripe coffee because they can buy garbage beans (while exploiting foreign workers) for less than one dollar a pound. Yes, they do make obscene profit by selling their horrible beans for more than fifteen dollars per pound. Want to make a difference? Try buying FTO, or Fair Trade Organic coffee. It may not be any better than Starbucks, but at least you’re not exploiting poor people and encouraging the use of harmful chemicals in the world.

After a coffee is roasted, it’s best if used before maybe seven to ten days. Of course, that’s impossible unless you’re roasting small batches yourself. Or you live next to a micro-roaster. On the road, Deena and I are ever watchful for great coffee shops. A great coffee shop is one that not only has a good source of freshly roasted beans, but also has a great barista. (Making a really good espresso is another story/blog entirely!)

Jaco_5422The whole point of the above back story is that while we’re traveling, we are always on the lookout for a great coffee. In Costa Rica, many of the drip coffees, espressos and lattes were fine. The best latte and espresso however, were at La Casa del Café in Jaco, Puntarenas.

We were not expecting a small town like Jaco to have a micro-roaster. This coffee shop not only had a roasting machine in the back shed, but also had not one, but two of the better baristas we’ve encountered so far in our travels. Our first day, we met Oscar who made us a couple of incredible capuccinos. We talked for a while about coffee and roasting, and he invited us to come over the next day to watch him roast.

The next day we met with Juan, the owner of La Casa del Café, and Oscar who had fired up the roaster for a couple of batches. It turns out that Juan had purchased a small coffee plantation in the Tarrazú area some years before. He had no intention of making a business out of it, but, well, sometimes those things happen with hobbies, don’t they?

Jaco_5426The Tarrazú beans that they were roasting were consistent ripe cherries collected from one or two small farms. The greens were beautiful, almost translucent on the outside. The Tarrazú region is at an altitude of over 4000 feet. Because of the high altitude, the beans are concentrated and compact. In the industry, they’re called Strictly Hard Bean or sometimes Strictly High Grown.

When prepared as a pour-over (drip), the Tarrazú has a bright acidity with a little bit of spice and a wonderful cocoa undertone. Can you tell I’m really missing this amazing coffee?

Juan also was the one who recommended that we spend a little time in Monteverde on our way north. We’re glad he did. If you find yourself in Jaco, stop in for a great coffee and say hello.

 

 

A Monteverde Cabin on a Working Family Farm

After our ordeal of not being able to find our AirBnB rental in Manuel Antonio, Deena and I decided not to book anything in advance for the rest of the trip. We would just go look at places and try to negotiate a price if we liked it.

When we arrived at Monteverde, we stopped at a number of places starting outside of town at something that looked like a Motel 6. They gave us a good enough price and seemed clean but so sterile. We went into Sta Elena and started looking at cabinas. Each one we tried was moldier than the next.

Monteverde_5947
Sunset in Monteverde from our cabin

Using Open Street Map, we found a place called Valle Campanas that had a few adorable cabins. We originally thought the price was high for the area but a few more inquiries confirmed that this was an awesome value. The only reason that they had a cabin available was because they had originally planned on going away so no one was booked into their cabins.

As it turns out, the place was so much more than we thought. Valle Campanas is a working family farm with sugar cane, coffee, a cow and pigs and many vegetables, herbs and fruits. For breakfast we were served their own coffee, fresh eggs, fried cheese that they made from the cow’s milk, their plantains and homemade tortillas with homemade jam. What a treat!

(not) Daisey resting after a long day producing milk
(not) Daisy resting after a long day producing milk

Leo and Raina were absolutely a delight. We saw the picked coffee drying in the sun. Raina gave us a tour of the farm starting with a glass of fresh sugar cane juice pressed on Leo’s father’s old machine. They had a vat for boiling down the sugar cane juice into a syrup. Some people had banana pancakes for breakfast using their syrup (and of course made with bananas from the farm).

The whole experience was so much better than traipsing around looking for a place without an address!