There is a unique flavor to Mexican coffee that can only be described as ‘earthy’. It also has a certain amount of body. Fortunately, only a few American-style coffee shops are found below the border, other than in the very tourist-loaded areas like Cabo.
These businesses are patronized by Americans who need and demand their high-priced coffee-flavored drinks Some of the locals, on vacation, who want to partake in the experience, can also be found here, as well.
I’m a simple guy when it comes to coffee. I ‘m not a big fan of the ‘half-caf’, ‘double-shot this’, single-shot that’, mixture that has some coffee in it. For me, thee are just three ingredients that go into my mug – coffee (never decaf), some form of milk or half-and-half (a.k.a. ‘coffee bleach’) and a sweetener.
In many places in Mexico that sell coffee, and some restaurants, powdered creamer is available, sometimes in the familiar foil and plastic packets and other times served up in a standard syrup dispenser. I’m enough of a coffee-hound to prefer the liquid creamers, when available.
Sweeteners in Mexico fall into two broad categories; pure cane sugar and turbinado in one group and the low-calorie types like Splenda, Stevia and Equal that come in the yellow, green or blue paper packets.
Pure cane sugar, in the familiar white envelope or the glass containers with the little metal flap you pour your sugar through, is pretty much the same sugar we all grew up with. It comes from two sources – sugar cane and sugar beets.
Cane sugar does not start out as the familiar white crystals we are used to. To extract sugar from sugar cane, pressure, steam and heat are used to extract the sugar syrup from the pulp. The mixture is medium-brown in color and tastes of molasses.
For the American market, this mixture is further refined to remove any traces of flavor and is bleached to remove any color. By regulating the process carefully, small, evenly sized crystals are created. You now have your table sugar, ready to be bagged in various sizes and shipped to your local bakery and supermarket.
Mexicans tend to like their coffee sweetened with ‘turbinado’, sugar made from the second step of the sugar extraction process. It has a tannish color with a molasses taste, and is processed to form larger, coarser crystals. This flavor adds a different taste element when used in coffee.
If you want to try turbinado, you can find it in may stores as a lollipop, usually sitting individually wrapped near the cash register. This type of sweet is usually a mixture of turbinado and milk. The topping on flans, traditional egg custards, has a very similar taste.
Mexican bakeries tend to be smaller and offer fewer choices than their American counterparts. Many panaderias offer a ‘coffee and’ deal for about a dollar and a quarter to a dollar and a half. This is a popular choice among many of the locals walking to work. The ‘and’ part of the deal can range from a variety of sugar-coated cookies (with a coarse crystal grain) to fruit- or cheese-filled dough pockets.
Coffee is thought to have originated in Ethiopia. Originally, coffee was a food, and not a drink. Early East African tribes mixed coffee berries (the un-hulled bean, also known as a coffee cherry due to its’ rich red color when ripe) with animal fat, possibly creating the world’s first energy bar.
Coffee also grew on the Arabian Peninsula, and it was there that it was first developed into a hot drink, sometime around 1000 AD. By the 13th century, Muslims were drinking coffee in large amounts. It is thought that the ‘whirling dervishes’ of early Islam may have been fueled by coffee, along with religious fervor.
As Islam spread, so did coffee. The Arabs closely guarded the coffee plants. No fertile seeds were found outside Arabia, with the exception of the only other place where coffee grew naturally – Africa.
As European traders returned from exotic locales like Turkey, they brought back a love of coffee. It was the Dutch who created the first coffee estate on the island of Java (now part of Indonesia) in 1616. This location is why a popular nickname for coffee is Java. Another name for coffee is Joe, playing on the J in Java.
Much of the popularity of coffee is due to the boost people get from consuming the naturally occurring caffeine. For some people, the first cup of coffee is known as the ‘caffeine communion’ due to the high reverence consumers have for it.
Caffeine is technically known as trimethylxanthine. It is an addictive stimulant that operates in the brain, in the same way amphetamines, cocaine and heroin do (albeit at a much lower level than those drugs). Part of the trimethylxanthine name can be found on a number of weight-loss drugs where it is seen as Xanthin (pronounced zan-thin).
Caffeine occurs naturally in a number of plants, including coffee beans. The average 6-oz. cup of coffee contains approximately 100 milligrams (mgs) while the average 12-oz. can of cola soda contains around 50 mgs.
Naturally growing coffee trees reach about 9 feet in the wild. The tree is a woody perennial, covered with dark green, waxy leaves growing opposite of each other in pairs. Trees grown for production are trimmed to lower heights for easier harvesting; which is done by hand.
Coffee trees produce continuously. One plant can have flowers, immature beans and mature cherries all at the same time. Depending on a number of factors, a mature tree can produce 1 – 1.5 pounds of roasted coffee every season.
A coffee tree prefers rich soil and mild temperatures with a lot of rain and shaded sun. It grows best in a band surrounding the equator, bounded by the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer. This area is known as the Bean Belt. Soil, altitude and altitude all affect the flavor of the beans.
Coffee comes in two main varieties: Arabica and Robusta. Arabicas are descended from the Ethiopian coffee trees. These beans produce a mild and aromatic drink. It accounts for 70-80% of the world’s coffee production. Arabica coffee has .08 to 1.4% caffeine.
These trees grow best in higher altitudes between 2,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level, mild temperatures of 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit and sixty inches of rain. Heavy frosts will kill these trees.
Robusta beans make up the other 20-30% of the market. These beans are smaller and rounder. These trees are heartier and can tolerate higher temperatures up to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. It can also thrive in lower altitudes than Arabica trees.
Caffeine content in robusta beans runs from 1.7 to 4.0%. The coffee these beans produce is more bitter and stronger in flavor. This variety thrives in Southeast Asia and Brazil.
The United States imports more coffee than any other nation. In 2009, the average American consumed 9 lbs of coffee beans.
Many coffees are blends of the Arabica and robust beans, producing more complex flavors. Mexico is one of the Top Ten coffee-producing nations in the world.
What we know as a coffee bean is actually the seed of a cherry-like fruit. It is found in clusters along the branches of the tree. Trees produce berries, called coffee cherries because they turn red when ripe and ready to pick.
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