A Good Coffee Doesn't Mean a Good Cafe.
By Andy Hayes
Wednesday, 15th July 2009
Recent post is from Cate, the Caffeinated Traveller, so yeah, you can guess what we're talking about....

Café culture may be viewed as being pretentious and money wasted but there is something about sitting in a café with atmosphere enjoying a delicious coffee, that can't be put into a few short sentences. To be able to understand why people like me seek simple pleasures in coffee is a matter of going out and trying it yourself.

Coffee and cafes is not about sitting around to be seen, it's about appreciating the talent and art of the barista, the perfect roasting and blending of beans and bringing the two together. It tells a story of how the café came about, influencing factors, and even the owner's background can come through if you look close enough. A good café is well worth a visit no matter where you travel: homeland or distant shores.

A feature in my travels is to find cafés with "personality". Places that from the moment you walk into them, makes you want to stay for as a long as possible. Places that can not only produce quality food and good music, but can make some of the best tasting coffee ever.

Personality also means sizing up the people controlling the espresso machine. With luck it's a trained barista, maybe a perfectionist; or someone who is passionate about coffee. Language, age, gender don't come into play. A person who knows how to make a fine coffee doesn't need to have other credentials except to be well versed in beans, brewing techniques and ashamed to serve up an insipid brew to anyone; including their mother.

New Zealand Café Culture

Being from New Zealand has given me plenty of opportunities to experience good and bad coffee. Over the years New Zealand's café scene has grown and matured. Coffee has become a part of the New Zealand psyche, tea features highly as well. Quality coffee is expected and when a barista doesn't deliver a quality cup it is usually sent back.

I don't have a special type of café preference, décor is nice but it doesn't really matter. In New Zealand I tend to avoid the overly modern style and seek out the older eclectic looking places, because I know it has a specific clientele who like character and of course good coffee.

Café culture in Asia

Living in Asia has given me a front row seat in the development of café culture. Southeast Asian countries have their own coffee known as kopi, which is a mix of coffee and condensed milk; and there are some great boutique cafés worth visiting. Singapore's Coffee Connoisseur is famous for its gourmet coffees like rose latte.

Korea's capital, Seoul, is one of the newcomers to this scene. It is a fledgling market still finding its feet, coffee chain stores currently dominant, but the small boutique cafés are fast becoming focal points in the city. Baristas, once a rarity, can be seen more often behind the controls, and finding a café that can serve up quality coffee is also becoming easier.

Café culture has yet to filter down to the smaller provincial cities in Korea, just like other areas in Asia—Japan, China, SE Asia. People's preference for tea particularly green tea, means teahouses and shops are more popular; or postwar style coffee shops once designed to serve US servicemen, continue to brew up a dirty water type of coffee.

How Coffee Will Travel

On a recent trip to Beijing, it was a pleasant surprise to find cafés other than the US coffee giants. Small café chains have opened their doors, slowly working their magic on international visitors and the younger Chinese generation. Even though I enjoyed visiting Chinese teahouses, to be able to sit down somewhere in a city like Beijing and enjoy a good coffee was also a treat. Finding a café that made coffee blends found largely in Australia or New Zealand showed just how far coffee travels; not only the beans, but the ideas and concepts.

It did take me over a day to find a place that didn't have a mermaid sign on it, but when I discovered that place, in the basement of a large shopping plaza, both delight and relief crossed over me. Call me an addict, particular, whatever, but discovering a good café can turn a trying day into a great day and have something to share with like-minded coffee lovers who also love to travel.

About Cate
Cate (aka ‘the Caffeinated Traveller') originates from New Zealand and has spent the last six years living and travelling around Asia. Her passion for photography, travel and coffee keeps her broke but content. Cate has recently relocated to the US ready to explore and write about the Americas, and indulge in caffeine.

Andy's Note:

Thanks for those insightful comments. You didn't mention Europe, but I'd have to say each country is pretty different. The UK is full of brand names but also has some amazing boutique places; but in places like the Netherlands or Belgium it's mostly boutiques where it's a treat to linger.

Andy Hayes is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He helps small businesses in travel and tourism with online technology. To get in touch or see Andy's other travelogues, visit his website, Sharing Experiences

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