Coffee is one of Africa’s great gifts to the world. Originating in Ethiopia, shepherds noticed that the berries made their goats frisky, or so the story goes. The Ethiopian Church banned its secular use, but Muslims found it an acceptable alternative buzz to alcohol. Coffee soon spread through the Middle East. The bean only started being profitably cultivated in Brazil, the biggest producer today, in the 1800s. Today it is the most traded world commodity after oil.
Our appreciation of coffee has become ever more sophisticated and specialised. Not that long ago, most South Africans knew little about the bean and drank mostly chicory granules. (Incidentally, instant coffee was invented by an Anglo-Belgian with the unlikely name of George Washington.)
Coffee has caught on with the speed of an addictive substance. Massive multinational companies have popularised myriad styles and flavours — espresso, macchiato, latte, cappuccino, café au lait and so on.
From Shanghai to Beirut, Starbucks almost rules the world. There is even one branch in the hallowed Louvre in Paris and Starbucks is served on many European trains. South Africans are more familiar with Mugg & Bean and Vida e Caffè, chain stores.
The 21st century has brought artisanal, on-site roasteries to our metropolises. There are now a number of these in Cape Town. A pioneer was Origins in De Waterkant, followed by Deluxe Coffeeworks and Truth (reviewed in this column in April 2011).
If you visit the latest of these ventures, Bean There, at about 10am you can view the roasting process. The warm smell embraces you — heaven-sent on a winter morning. Nine kilograms of green beans are poured into the rotating metal drum, a Probat L12 roaster from Germany, pre-heated to 200°C. You can watch the thermometer steadily plummet to about 100°C and then it starts to climb again. Other gauges measure the gas and air temperature.
The open-plan café has the friendliest staff. Clean white counters and shelves, parquet flooring and striking pastel-coloured lampshades combine to create an attractive space. An old bicycle that looks as if it has been through the tropics is mounted on one wall.
The Bean There Coffee Company prides itself on its African, single-origin, unblended coffee beans. They are acquired through “direct fair trade”, as opposed to “global free trade”, and agreements with the coffee farmers are not affected by market fluctuations.
I particularly like the Americano made with Kivu Rwandan, imported from Coopac, a co-operative of 2 200 Rwandan coffee farmers on the fecund volcanic mountain slopes and the rainy shores of Lake Kivu in the west of the country.
The co-op was initially created by Emmanuel Rwakagara Nzungize’s father in the 1950s and resuscitated by his son in 2001.
The house blend is Sidamo Ethiopian, produced by the Fero Co-op, which has 3 094 member farmers in the south of Rwanda. More than 27 000 people are dependent almost solely on this coffee production for their survival.
Other coffees include Burundian Musema, produced by the Nyarurama and Musema Co-operatives and coffee from the Kithungururu Farmers’ Co-operative in Kathingari, Kenya.
There is free wi-fi and, if you fancy a bite, try the delicious sandwiches, a favourite being the bacon and avocado on a salty pretzel roll.
Arguably one of the best cups of coffee in the city can be found at the unobtrusive premises of barista Anthony Swartz, who has been in the business for 45 years.
Anthony’s Golden Cup Coffee Shop moved to its current location seven years ago. Roughly panelled with knotty pine, it is cutely old South African. Flags from all over the world decorate the premises, a hangover from 2010 World Cup fever.
Swartz stocks coffees from many countries — Malawi, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Burundi, Kenya, Colombia, Costa Rica and Guatemala — and blends such as Blue Mountain, Old Vienna, French and Mocha Java. He also sells an earthy, strongly aromatic Zimbabwean coffee I favour for making coffee ice cream.
The business is largely a beanery, but there are a few tables. The house coffee is a Costa Rica Mocha Java blend served in a bright yellow cup with caramelised brown sugar to sweeten it.
It may be presumptious to say that Anthony’s serves the best cup of coffee in town, but one thing is certain: coffee has never been more popular and it is leading the café culture of Cape Town.
Anthony’s Golden Cup, 55 Loop Street, Cape Town
Bean There, 58 Wale Street, Cape Town and 44 Stanley Avenue, Milpark, Johannesburg
First published in the Mail & Guardian August 2012.