In 1987, Forbes listed Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar as one of the wealthiest men in the world. For us Colombians, that recognition carried the stigma that one of the country’s most notorious citizens was not just rich but also a violent criminal.
That same year, there was a TV ad by Nabob, a Canadian coffee company. The sophisticated voice of a man in the commercial claimed that after many years of evolution, farmers grew the best coffee in the northwest corner of South America called Colombia. Using only 100% Colombian beans, Nabob produced ‘Summit’ the best coffee in the world.
I remember seeing those ads and thinking that coffee would finally be the product that allowed the world to understand that Colombia was a country full of traditions and culture and not just cocaine.
I begin drinking home-roasted coffee at the early age of five. This was the daily ritual in our family home in the Andes Mountains. The powerful effect of fresh roasted coffee immediately consumed is not negotiable.
Whenever I travel, I am in search of the perfect cup. I am not talking about coffee with aspiration to someday be desserts—the kind mixed with whip cream, drizzles and caramel or even, God forbid, pumpkin spice.
The problem is that the industry around the world is driven by shelf life filled with old and stale coffee.
I decided to take my coffee quest in search of the perfect fresh cup to Seattle, Washington, the coffee mecca in North America.
Here are my suggestions on some of the best places to hit, depending on your brew behaviour.
It was a surprise to find the first gourmet coffee house is smack in the middle of downtown. Cherry Street Coffee House is a family owned café with five locations around the city and is ‘Home of the United States Barista Champion.’
The menu offers pastries, sandwiches, soups, salads and specialty coffees served with certified organic milk. Ali Ghambari owns the coffee house, his daughter Laila Ghambari was the 2014 United States barista champion.
“People in Seattle love coffee because my personal feeling is because we don’t get enough sleep in this city,” says Cherry Street barista Lance Lorton. “We need it every day to get us through the day because we’re so busy doing other things. And we’ve figured out that you can get good and bad coffee and people here are figuring out what makes good coffee.”
Lorton suggested that the place to go to check out the widest variety of good coffee is Capitol Hill, which is walking distance from downtown. From their Olive Way location up the hill, my second stop was Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery at 1650 Olive Way.
The minimalistic and modern building is inviting and pleasing, with high ceilings and seats far apart in an open space. If you’re in the mood for something cosier, take your coffee outside where they have an outdoor fireplace.
Molly Atom, the barista, was manning the coffee station and the blowtorch and prepared a perfectly thick espresso full of flavour and accompanied that with a S’more square with torched melted marshmallow.
“I don’t think people in Seattle are coffee snobs,” she says. “But they do understand there’s a time for coffee for when you’re sitting around on a rainy day with friends and having a great time catching up and there’s the kind of coffee that you drink to get you through the day.”
Not far from Hot Cakes Molten is Analog Café where the coffee is simple and there’s not a blowtorch to be found. Instead of the usual scene of people typing intently on their laptop, most of the coffee drinkers that day were reading comic books.
Thomas Dunlap, who has lived in Los Angeles and in Washington D.C. says in Seattle, he has noticed residents have a great loyalty to small independent coffee houses like Analog.
“It’s the neighbourhood place you go every day and in some cases, some days, a few times a day.”
Still in Capitol Hill, Victrola Coffee Roasters has a loyal, devoted following because of its focus on small-batch roasting process of blends and single origin coffee.
Down the street, Ada’s Technical Books is a nerd heaven bookstore offering books and gifts relating to computer, math & physics. You can also find great coffee and in-house bakery. The atmosphere full of natural light invites to socialize and the outdoor patio with just few tables makes the space very intimate. The place, named after Ada Lovelace, who some considered the world’s first computer programmer, prides itself on being geek-friendly.
At Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting, pride in its coffee takes on a more boastful tone here. The one-storey building on Pike Street builds itself as a coffee temple for connoisseurs to experience the roaster, enjoy coffee brewed in multiple ways and learn from knowledgeable baristas about unique and rare flavours that belong to the exclusive 1% of beans that qualify for the Starbucks reserve label.
Here is where you will find real live coffee plants growing on the side of tables. For me, those plants tell stories that can’t be read about in the 200 coffee-related titles in the library on site and being able to touch those plants was a sensation that brought back memories and an immediate connection from the Pacific Northwest to the mountains in Colombia.
The next day I took the light rail to visit the Seattle neighbourhood called Columbia City. It took just minutes from downtown to arrive at Café Umbria. Espresso with Nutella was the perfect treat to start the day. The coffee was so rich and filling, breakfast was unnecessary.
Food writer friend, Joe Ray, recommended Empire Espresso Bar. Ray, who is used to deadlines, says Empire is the fuel he often needed.
“You will have electricity coming out of your fingers after an espresso there,” he promises.
The espresso did have an electrical zing that was not expected and gave a jolt of memories. In Columbia City was where I found the awareness that Colombia can be more than a memory but taste, smell and recognition, all contained in a cup of coffee.