I lowered my camera, sniffing the air around me like a dog. Jim and I looked at each other with the same silent question reverberating between us. Where was the smell of roasting coffee coming from? We wandered around corners and down cobblestone alleys, never quite finding what we were searching for, that elusive scent seeming to ebb and flow with each turn. Reluctantly, we returned to our hacienda for dinner, unsure that we hadn’t dreamed the entire olfactory experience. Tired, we called it an early night, sure that our quest for the coffee of Alamos was for naught.
Recently, our life mostly revolves around work, commute, work on the house. Eat. Sleep. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. The mind-numbing dredge of same old, same old. We bull-headedly focus on the end game. And we drink coffee.
Jim, never a morning person, gets his dose first thing in the morning. I admit readily to being more of a tea connosseur, often waiting for the weekend to enjoy my cappuccinos with relish. I am also a self-proclaimed coffee snob. You see, caffeine, itself, does little for me. I could drink an espresso or two and go to sleep immediately after. Perhaps because of this tolerance for the effects many crave, I am a late convert to the world of gourmet coffees.
Of course, we live in the Pacific NW, coffee capital of the United States, home to Seattle’s Best, Peets, and, that little start-up called Starbucks. It is travel that taught me the joys of an amazing cup of coffee, just as it has taught me most of the important lessons in life. While I certainly have always appreciated a cappuccino at a sidewalk cafe in Florence, or the hint of cinnamon in an after dinner coffee in Mexico, it wasn’t until our first trip to South Africa that I truly understood the brilliance of an excellently roasted and brewed cup of coffee.
We were staying in the luxe Commodore Hotel, near the harbor in Cape Town. Our first morning in town, severely jet-lagged and out of sorts, a knock on the door ushered in a morning paper and a french press of Kenyan coffee. As we sat on our balcony, looking out over Table Mountain, taking in the swirling fragrance from our cups, I finally really “got it”. Okay, okay, you’re thinking it had more to do with the overall setting and experience than the coffee. Fair enough. But I tell you that french press forever changed my perception of a beverage I had, for the most part, never put much thought into.
Since then, we have searched out excellent coffee far and wide, while appreciating the regions we found ourselves in. We generally stick to tea in SE Asia and China, apart for the occasional Starbucks Frappucino in the sweltering heat of Bangkok. In India, Chai rules and it’s exotic, spicy, sweet flavor haunts us still. But for most of the planet, coffee it is and we determinedly search out the good stuff. Jim, ever in need of his morning fix, will drink, if reluctantly, whatever is available. I, on the other hand, will generally eschew an inferior beverage in favor of a fruit smoothie or water.
But that next morning in Alamos, we enjoyed a fascinating walking tour of the colonial town, and, once again, found ourselves trying to follow the scent to coffee nirvana. At the end of this search (and with the help of our local guide), we found Kelley Hale, an ex-pat who owns the quite gorgeous Hotel Colonial, where he spends his free time perfecting the art of coffee roasting. He sells his beans, mostly of Chiapas origin, in 1 kg bags for a mere $23, a fantastic deal by any standards. We spent some time with him, discussing his roasting process and checking out his roaster, set in the corner of his spacious hacienda kitchen. Unfortunately, our coach was leaving town and we had to purchase and rush back to our hacienda to depart, our treasured buy firmly tucked away in my backpack.
Upon our arrival back home, the next week, we opened our Alamos roast, luxuriating in the intense coffee bean aroma. That weekend at camp we enjoyed our first cup, carefully hand ground, seeped for exactly four minutes in our french press, and topped with a freshly frothed bit of cream. Although a relatively recent convert, I assure you that, in that moment, I fully appreciated the magic of a perfect cup of coffee.
*** you can find Kelley at the Hotel Colonial in Alamos, Mexico. Spend some time in his magnificent hacienda, drink his freshly roasted coffee, and experience the magic for yourself. If a trip to Alamos isn’t in your near future. Feel free to contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org **