Why coffee in Portugal is so bad

The title of this blog post is the text I entered into my google search bar at Lisbon airport, on my way back to London last weekend. What Google showed me on top was a blog post titled “why coffee in Portugal is so good“. The contents of the post, though, had given me the answer.

In terms of coffee cultures, Spain and Portugal are rather similar. Coffee shops usually double up as bars, unlike in England for example. This means that the baristas aren’t particularly skilled, and so you don’t get fancy latte art. The coffees you get are thus espresso, espresso with some milk and espresso with lots of milk. The milk being foamed gives the coffee a good taste, in Spain that is.

The reason coffee in Portugal tastes bad is the same reason that coffee in France tastes bad – it is a result of colonialism.

During the years of the Salazar dictatorship, Portugal was economically isolated. This meant that it could only turn to its colonies for coffee. And the Portuguese colonies (not sure if Brazil is included in this since it became independent way back in the 1800s) exclusively produced Robusta coffee. And Robusta coffee, being inferior to Arabica, is roasted slowly, and produces a bitter brew. Which is what we uniformly got in our trip to Lisbon.

France had a similar story. Though there was no economic isolation, imports from its colonies were subsidised, and this was again largely Robusta coffee. And so, as the roads and kingdoms post linked above explains, coffee in France is bad.

I’m not sure if Spain got/gets most of its colonies from its erstwhile colonies. If it does, it goes a long way in explaining the quality of coffee in Spanish cafes, despite them doubling up as bars and not necessarily having skilled Baristas. For the likes of Colombia and Ecuador and Honduras produce absolutely brilliant Arabica coffee.

 

Caffeine kick

Until June or July this year, I firmly believed that well-made South Indian filter coffee was the best form of coffee ever. This belief possibly had to do with my conditioning, having been exposed this to this coffee form from an extremely early age, and the belief sustained even in the face of pretty excellent coffees from quite a few artisanal “Aussie style” cafes here in London.

Then, around then, I decided to embark on “intermittent fasting”, which meant no calorie consumption from 8 in the night to the next noon (each day). The diet permitted me to drink coffee or tea in the mornings as long as no milk or sugar was added to it, and that presented a problem.

For South Indian filter coffee can’t be drunk black. The addition of the chicory, which slows down the pace through which water/steam filters through the beans in order to maximise flavour, adds its own flavour, which when unmasked by milk can be pretty revolting. Though I must mention that chicory powder is sold as a separate “health drink” here in the UK (maybe it needs to be marketed such because its taste is most revolting).

That I couldn’t add milk to my coffee meant that I needed to explore other ways of making good black coffee. Counter top space (or the lack of it) ruled out contraptions such as an espresso machine or even a Nespresso machine. There was an old Braun “coffee maker” (which my mother-in-law reportedly procured two decades ago) at home, but that dished out pretty bad coffee (which only Americans might appreciate).

And so I started exploring, asking around coffee-geek friends (not to be confused with the cafe of a similar name in Victoria). The French Press was quickly ruled out on account of taste. I strongly considered the Aeropress and the Hario V60, and in the spirit of “try before you buy” or even “learn before you buy”, I asked baristas at my favourite local artisanal cafe to show me how to brew in these methods.

I quite liked the output of both methods, but found the aeropress apparatus a bit cumbersome and hard to clean (one reason I didn’t want to use my trusty Bialetti Moka Pot to make non-South Indian coffee as well). The V60 on the other hand offered simplicity of making process as well as extreme ease of cleaning. So quickly after I had tried, I had bought the pourover cup from Amazon, and a bag of beans from Electric (they ground it for me) and I was ready to go.

I’ve since fallen in love with this form of coffee, though when I go to a cafe I order an espresso-based drink (Cortado/Piccolo or Flat White depending on the cafe). And though I gave up on intermittent fasting a month and half after I started it, I continue to make this (I’m sipping on one such cup as I type this). And this is because of the caffeine kick.

I think I had this realisation for the first time back when I was still fasting – I drank a cup of pourover coffee just before I hit the gym (on an otherwise empty stomach), and I was astounded by my own energy levels that day. And I have since tested this in several other situations – before meetings, while doing an important piece of work or simply to stay awake. The caffeine kick from pourover coffee is simply unparalleled compared to any other kind of coffee I’ve had (though espresso-based coffees in cafes come very close).

South Indian filter coffee optimises for flavour at the cost of the caffeine. The decoction is frequently stored for a long time, even overnight. The large amount of milk added means that a given amount of beans can be used to make several more cups. And the chicory addition means that brewing is slower and more flavour gets extracted from the beans, though it’s unlikely that the amount of caffeine extracted is proportionally large.

And all this together means you get incredibly tasty coffee, but not something you can get that much of a caffeine kick out of. And that is possibly why we are conditioned to drinking so many cups of coffee a day – you need so many cups to get the level of caffeine your body “needs” to function.

And this explains why South Indian filter coffee in the evenings has never interfered with my sleep, buy any coffee bought in a good cafe after 5pm has invariably led to sleepless nights!

Do you have anything else to add to this theory?

PS: The first time I made pourover coffee, I used Indian beans from Chickmaglur (that I bought here in the UK), so it’s not to do with the beans. It’s the extraction method.

Speaking of yellow

Last night, we needed to distract the daughter from the play-doh she was playing with so that she could have dinner. So I set up a diversionary tactic by feeding her M&Ms while her mother hurriedly put away the play-doh.

Soon we figured we needed a diversionary tactic from the diversionary tactic, for the daughter wanted to continuously eat M&Ms rather than have dinner. I tried being the “bad dad” by just refusing to give her any more M&Ms but that didn’t work. So another diversion was set up where the put on TV, and in that little moment of distraction, I put away the yellow packet of M&Ms behind some boxes in its shelf.

Evidently, it wasn’t enough of a distraction, as the daughter quickly remembered the M&Ms and started asking for it. I told her it’s “gone” (a word she uses to describe my aunt who passed away recently), but she wouldn’t believe it. Soon she demanded to inspect the shelf by herself.

Her mother held her high, and she surveyed all three shelves in the cupboard. I hadn’t done a particularly great job of hiding the M&M packet, but thankfully she didn’t spot the yellow top of the packet from behind the masala box.

Instead, her eyes went up to the top shelf of the same cupboard where there was the only visible yellow thing – a bright yellow packet of coffee powder (from Electric Coffee). She demanded to inspect it.

Both of us told her it was coffee powder, but she simply wouldn’t listen. I opened the packet to make her smell it, and see the brown powder inside (we get our coffee ground at the shop since we don’t have a grinder at home, else it’s likely she might have mistaken a bean for a brown M&M). She still wasn’t convinced.

She put her hand right in and pulled out a tiny fistful of coffee powder, which she proceeded to ingest. Soon enough, she was making funny faces, though to her credit she ate all the coffee. It seems the high was enough to make her forget the M&Ms. And suddenly she started running around well-at-a-faster-rate. Fast enough to go bang her head to the wall a minute later – I suspect the caffeine had begun to act.

By the time she had finished crying and recovering from the head-bang, she was ready to belt curd-rice with lime pickle.

And if you want to ask, she fell asleep an hour later. Unlike us oldies, caffeine doesn’t seem to interfere with her sleep!

PS: The title of this post is a dedication to Sanjeev Naik, for reasons that cannot be described here.

The skill in making coffee

Perhaps for the first time ever in life, I’m working in an office without a coffee machine. I don’t mind that so much for two reasons – firstly, having to go down 27 floors and then pay explicitly for a coffee means that my coffee consumption has come down drastically. Secondly, there is a rather liquid market of coffee shops around my office.

As you might expected, there is one particular coffee shop close to my office that has become my favourite. And while walking back with my flat white on Wednesday afternoon, I noticed that the coffee tasted different to the flat white I’d had at the same place the same morning.

Assuming that even artisanal coffee shops like that one are unlikely to change beans midway through the day, I’m guessing that the difference in taste came down to the way the coffee was prepared. Flat white involves some effort on behalf of the barista – milk needs to be steamed and frothed and poured in a particular manner. And this can vary by barista.

So this got me thinking about whether making coffee is a skilled task. And this might explain the quality of coffee at various establishments in Bangalore.

When the coffee bar is equipped with an espresso machine, the job of making an espresso involves less of a skill since all that the barista needs to do is to weigh out the appropriate quantity of beans, press it down to the right extent and then pop it into the espresso maker (I know these tasks themselves involve some skill, but it’s less compared to using a South Indian style filter, for example).

When you want milk coffee, though, there is a dramatic increase in skill requirement. Even in South Indian coffee, the way you boil and froth the milk makes a huge difference in the taste of the coffee. In Brahmin’s Coffee Bar in Shankarpuram, Bangalore, for example, the barista explicitly adds a measure of milk foam to the top of the coffee lending it a special taste.

And when it comes to “European” coffee, with its multiple variants involving milk, the skill required to make good milk coffee is massive. How much milk do you add.. How hot do you steam it.. Whether you add foam or not.. These are all important decisions that the barista needs to make, and there is a lot of value a good barista can add to a cup of coffee.

One of my biggest cribs about chain coffee shops in India is that the taste of the coffee isn’t particularly good, with hot milk coffees being especially bad. Based on my analysis so far, I think this could be largely a result of unskilled (or semi-skilled) and inexperienced baristas – something these chains have had to employ in order to scale rapidly.

The cold coffees in these places are relatively much better since the process of making them can be “fighterised” – for each unit, add X shots of espresso to Y ml of milk, Z ice cubes and W spoons of sugar and blend. The only skill involved there is in getting the proportions right, and that can be easily taught, or looked up from a table.

The problem with hot coffees is that this process cannot be fighterised – the precise way in which you pour the milk so that there is a heart shape on top of the cappuccino foam, for example, is a skill that comes only with significant practice. Even the way in which the milk is to be foamed is not an easily teachable task.

And that is the problem with chain coffee shops in India – lack of skilled labour combined with the need to scale rapidly has meant that people have tried to use processes to compensate for skills, and in most parts of coffee making, that’s not necessarily a good way to go.

BrEntry

So we moved to London yesterday. The wife has got a job here, and Berry and I have tagged along as “dependants”. My dependant visa allows me to work here, though it has been mentioned rather complicated as “Restricted no doctor/dentist training no sport”. Basically I can do everything else. The five-month old’s visa stamp simply says “work permitted”! Go figure.

This is not the first time I’m living in London. I’d very briefly (for the length of a mid-MBA internship) lived here twelve years ago, and as luck would have it, our cab from the airport to the temporary apartment passed under that office on the way (that employer has moved offices since, I’ve been told).

London welcomed us with some fabulous weather yesterday – I actually considered getting my sunglasses out! Wasn’t too cold (one jacket was enough) and mostly didn’t rain, so despite being sleepless and tired from our journey, we ended up setting out to put beats and meet some friends. While we were waiting at the bus stop, though, it did drizzle a bit, making me reconsider whether we should really go out. Then, my wife reminded me that we weren’t in Bangalore any more, and poor weather is no excuse to put NED.

We took Berry in her stroller yesterday. Walking around with it was peaceful – for the large part, footpaths exist, and though not as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks, there are no problems at all with taking the stroller around. It’s not a problem on buses either, but the tube is a real bitch. Most stations don’t have elevators, and you need to carry the strollers up or down stairs. And we haven’t yet figured how to hold it while climbing down escalators, which left little Berry rather scared as she got on for her first tube ride. Henceforth, when a tube ride is involved, we’ll most likely put her in her baby carrier rather than the stroller!

Keeping her warm is a challenge, though. As a good South Indian kid, she refuses to wear any warm clothes and we need to endure significant screaming when we make her wear a warm jacket. We also need to figure out a strategy for the rain. We’ve got this plastic cover for her stroller, but a different strategy is required when carrying her in her carrier (the carrier is also hard to wear when wearing a coat of any kind).

Finally, a note about coffee. Firstly, it isn’t that expensive – a typical coffee at Costa is around £2.25 (I’m still conditioned to thinking GBP/EUR = 1, though I realise I need to add 15% to convert pound prices to Euros, which I’m used to). But the coffee at Costa itself was disappointing.

They promised a Cortado, which is a Spanish concept where very little milk is added to a shot of espresso, giving a rather strong coffee. Costa advertised at their door that they served some three kinds of Cortado (a travesty in itself). And the cortado itself had way too much milk for it to be called a Cortado!

I hope to continue to make pertinent observations, unless I join an employer where continued blogging might seem too dangerous (I’ve worked for those kinds of employers in the past but don’t want to take chances again)! And you might remember that this blog “took off” in terms of the number of posts the first time I was in Britain!

Cafe Coffee Day doesn’t serve Espresso!

Yeah, you read that right!

A weird thing happened this evening. I was at the Cafe Coffee Day outlet on Richmond Road this evening meeting someone, and asked for an espresso. The lady at the counter said that espresso wasn’t available, and if I could have Americano instead.

Now, while the coffee at CCD is generally not of the highest quality (it’s basically a meeting space for rent, and the coffee is incidental), I like to have coffee that is of at least somewhat reasonable quality, and on that count their espresso generally does well. When they have it of course.

When the lady told me that espresso wasn’t available, it was hard to believe, and I pressed to find out why that was the case. They could serve Americano (which is Espresso with hot water), or Cappuccino (Espresso with steamed and foamed milk), but not Espresso.

How were they able to make Americano or Cappuccino without the ability to make Espresso. It turned out that the coffee machine was working fine, and they could turn out an Espresso, except that the cup in which Espresso is served was out of stock.

A short argument later (they agreed to make a “cappuccino without milk” but they’d charge the cappuccino price for that), I demanded to see the manager. And then I decided to take down the name of the person at the counter on my phone. At which point an even more bizarre thing happened.

She suddenly fled to take cover behind the counter! She just wouldn’t let me see her name tag, and she wouldn’t come out from behind the counter. And that also effectively meant that the cafe was refusing to serve us, since nobody was willing to take our order – thus forcing us to deny them of their business!

The person I was meeting presently mentioned that there was a Barista not far from there, and a quick walk later, I was sitting down with a cup of double shot espresso there (it’s one of the very few Baristas still operational in Bangalore).

The funny thing is that Barista served me the espresso in a mug that is not normally used to serve Espresso! Maybe there’s really a shortage of Espresso cups in Richmond town!

If anybody from the company is seeing this, this happened today (15th June 2016) at around 5:30 in the evening at the Richmond Road outlet (opposite HDFC Bank). It seems like it’s the result of some messed up incentive structure for employees. 

I have experience in designing salesperson compensation structures, and would be happy to structure a better incentive scheme for the company (for a fee of course)! 

Coffee, sugar and cream

A couple of weeks back, my wife and I had a long discussion on the operations of the coffee counter at Maiya’s in Jayanagar. It was an interesting discussion since while I was extremely familiar with the operations there (having gone there almost every other day for the last year), the wife was seeing them for the first time.

My hypothesis was that it was the structure of the coffee+tiffin combo and not accounting for multiple orders in one ticket that caused the congestion. The wife’s diagnosis was rather different – she recognised the sugar counter as the bottleneck.

Most South Indian restaurants have ready two kinds of boiling milk – one with sugar and one without, and your choice of milk (or a linear combination) can be added to decoction to make coffee of the required sweetness for you. Maiya’s does it differently. They only have unsweetened milk, and you need to add the sugar yourself.

So there is sugar placed in a bowl beyond the coffee counter where you add the sugar, get yourself a spoon (inconveniently placed before the coffee counter which means you stretch across) and go on while stirring the coffee. For non-regular customers (my untested hypothesis is that most Maiya’s customers are regulars), this is a novelty and leads to inefficiency of the full queue.

The wife argued that if Maiya’s were to keep both sweetened and unsweetened milk (like other restaurants), sugar could come pre-mixed in the coffee and the bottleneck could be eliminated. Since the barista doesn’t multitask (he fills exactly one cup at a time), there is no problem in miscommunication, etc.

The problem is that turnover of the unsweetened milk in other establishments is not high enough to maintain quality. The thing with the milk is that it needs to be constantly stirred, or at least poured from, for cream to not form in it (such cream can make the coffee gross). When the demand for a particular kind of milk (usually unsweetened) is low, it is not stirred enough, and cream forms. And then when you ask for coffee without sugar (or “less sugar” – remember linear combinations of the milks are possible) you end up with cream in your coffee.

This happened to me twice in the last three days. On Saturday I was having coffee at Hatti (opposite Maiya’s), asked for “strong, less sugar”, which meant I got some of the unsweetened milk, which means there was cream in my coffee. I had to spit out some to make it palatable. And the story repeated itself at the Vasudev Adigas in Jayanagar 8th Block on Sunday. Nice tasting coffee made gross by the cream.

It is to solve this problem that Maiya’s perhaps has only one kind of milk – it is constantly boiling away and being poured from, and there is no cream. And you get superior quality coffee. For which I’m willing to pay a premium.