Owen O'Neill gives us the lowdown on the adventurous and not-quite-fruitless search for quality coffee on the island of Cozumel, in Mexico.
December 2002 found the Northeastern U.S. with 5 degree Fahrenheit temperatures and mounting piles of snow - a winter wonderland for some but a near mortal blow for others. Having reached the saturation point where yet another perfect double latte from fresh-roasted beans and my trusted espresso machine could no longer take the edge off of the winter doldrums, this New York City area coffeegeek did what any self-respecting person would do if possible: run like hell!
Planning the Trip
Voluminous research for the perfect combination of good weather, reasonable prices, charming surroundings and great scuba diving led me to Islas Cozumel. This Mexican island, a dozen or so miles off shore from Playa del Carmen and a bit south of Cancun, promised all that I sought but the great question that plagues us all still loomed.... once I'm there can I get good coffee?
An abundance of information was forthcoming as I planned for the trip but one recurring phrase that surfaced in my research continued to echo in my head.... "It's difficult to get really good coffee on the island". The proprietor of the accommodations we'd reserved at Villas las Ancles assured us that he had "the best coffee on the island" and a small supply would be left for us each day to use in our kitchen's Krups four cupper. Ever the skeptic, I packed some freshly roasted beans and set off for warmer climes with my sweetheart Lorraine by my side.
Arriving in Cozumel
A first day visit to Chedraui, the island's "superstore" (they sell everything from bicycles and tools to clothing and produce), left me wondering about the availability of the essentials. To my surprise, refrigerated milk is unavailable and half 'n half is only a dream. Armed with a can of evaporated milk for our morning coffee and advice from a friendly American that we encountered on the boxed milk aisle, we returned home to rest and prepare for a few days of fun. Our new acquaintance advised us that good espresso drinks were available at The Coffee Bean, Rock'n Java and Zermatt Bakery. Further research had also turned up Guido's Pizza as a likely suspect.
My trip last year to an island off the coast of Belize had led me to recognize that when on unfamiliar turf, a good Italian restaurant (preferably one operated by Italians from Italy!) may be your best bet for a passable espresso drink but the jury was still out on Cozumel.
Before assessing the results of my quest, let's establish some basic facts about the state of coffee and espresso on the island of Cozumel. I suspect these facts may hold true for most of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula but we'll restrict our judgment to the island itself.
- Cafe Caribe is by far the most predominant brand of coffee sold. It was the "best coffee on the island" that our villa proprietor mentioned and seemed ubiquitous in the better cafes and restaurants on the island. I have no idea of the provenance; consumed black it was better than a typical American supermarket coffee but not especially memorable. It's best described as being a few notches below the old A&P Eight O'clock roast - most likely commodity arabica or a blend of that and some better quality robusta. The taste and body leads me to suspect a healthy percentage of cheaper Columbian beans but that can't be confirmed as fact.
- Preparation and serving method is a key factor in good coffee - the rules go out the window in Cozumel. The most common machine used in restaurants and cafes is the prototypical $15 discount drip coffee maker, a la Proctor-Silex. Those places serving a larger volume just line up a few extra machines to accommodate their needs.
- Thermal carafes are just a dream - apparently the assumption is that the scorching hot warming plate of the drip makers is adequate. Hope and pray that you don't order one of the first few cups of coffee many places serve on any particular morning. I was advised by a knowledgeable local that in an effort to avoid "waste", many establishments save the left-over coffee from any particular day and heat it up again the following morning to serve to customers (I was definitely served at least one cup of this mud!).
- There is little to no consistency in equipment, technique or preparation among the various places serving espresso based drinks. Some tamp and some don't, espresso blended and roasted coffee may be used here and there but not consistently, some shots are made when the drink is ordered and others appear to be pre-made and "waiting" for a drink to be ordered. Equipment in use ranged from shopworn old one group machines of indeterminate origin to a shiny new two head commercial machine and everything in between. Machines in use included Faema, La Cimbali (most common) and a Euro. The machine that proved to be the star of the show will come as a surprise to all (it certainly surprised me).
- Boxed milk is the standard and specifying fat content doesn't appear to be an option. Improper steaming and frothing techniques could be part of the cause but in at least a few places the milk tasted to be of the very low-fat or non-fat variety. Most places, with only a few exceptions, use too large a proportion of milk to espresso. Results may vary but requesting an extra shot of espresso will often improve the drink and in some cases you won't be charged more.
Finding the Good Stuff
Okay... the suspense is unbearable... let's move on to the results of this painstaking research (remind me to do my future research in such pleasant surroundings!). Starting with the undrinkable, we'll move on to the barely passable, drink our way through the tolerable and hope to find at least one place where a good drink might be consumed.
If you take the ferry to Cozumel rather than flying in, there's a small espresso stand next to the Cambio (money exchange) on the ferry pier. They had a beautiful old hammered copper domed machine (a one group Rancilio if I recall correctly). The drink looked good and tasted abysmal - I poured it out in disgust after one sip.
Moving on to the island, on our first day I spotted a small local coffee roaster on Calle 2 just north of the main plaza. Wow - imagine - a real microroaster on the island! Surely I could get a good drink here. The elderly man at the counter understood little English but I finally got him to agree to make two cappuccino's. After steaming the milk directly in the cup (apparently a common practice in this area), he started to pour regular drip coffee in the drink - yuck! We managed to bridge the language gap and convince him that a real cappuccino required espresso. Mission accomplished and we were soon in the car with our first cappuccino's of the day and.... blech! Undrinkable! Both of these were promptly disposed of in an unceremonious fashion and my spirits were sinking. Could it be possible? Might the only good caffeine fix I'd have for the next seven days be my morning brew back in the room?
Early in the afternoon we happened upon the Zermatt bakery. The selection and quality of breads, rolls and pastries is the best on the island. The cappuccino was an improvement but still far off the mark. A full packet of sugar made it tolerable enough to drink but character was lacking.
Later that day we arrived at the Coffee Bean on Calle 3 just around the corner from the villas. This is a modern and functional place - akin to an American coffee shop but more nicely decorated and with an incredible looking selection of baked goods out on the counter to choose from. Cappuccino here is served in a tall glass mug with pedestal base and handle. It was acceptable but could have used an extra shot. Certainly not a noteworthy drink but it was another step up on the scale of quality. The consistency of the milk and foam were markedly improved but true character was still lacking. As previously mentioned, most of the local providers are not using an espresso blend or even an espresso roast - it tastes like regular coffee ground finer and made in an espresso machine.
By the way, if you use a bit of sugar in your cappa (usually a necessity in this locale), the local sugar is of the semi-refined variety - coarse granules that are ivory colored and in between refined white sugar and turbinado in character. I found it to be quite tasty and it may contribute to the qualities of the baked goods I tried (what Cozumel lacks in the realm of coffee it compensates for with excellent baked goods and pastries). The chocolate cake we tried at the Coffee Bean was simply the best I've ever eaten anywhere - absolutely incredible.
| The coffee and the coffeehouse at Coffeelia's. |
Day Three found my sweetheart returning to the States for work while I remained for the rest of the week to do some scuba diving and relax. What better time to let my coffeegeek flag truly fly? Out comes the digital camera and now the pursuit begins in earnest. Those of you who've stopped to take a digital pic of a cappuccino in public and tried several different angles before getting the exact "right shot" know that trainspotting behavior of this type is not to be revealed to just anyone - they'd best know and love you well before they find out just how far off into the deep end of the coffee pool you have really gone.
On to Coffeelia's for breakfast. This is an arty little cafe on Calle 7 (also conveniently located very close to the villas). Wonderful breakfasts, genuinely hospitable hosts and authentic local food in addition to a great variety of Belgian style crepes. It has a back courtyard and big wooden shutters and doors that stay open to the outside when they're serving. No bottled hot sauce at this place - they serve a plate of habanero peppers that are dripping with homemade hot sauce - just scoop up the juice and dollop onto your food - tasty! Coffelia's gets major points for presentation and it was acceptable but just drinkable - about like the one the Coffee Bean served. The extra shot I requested did help a bit but we're still far from perfection or even a truly passable product.
On the evening of the fourth day I was restless - had finished most of the book I brought and wanted to get out and do something. Rumor had it that a brand new movie complex had opened in the plaza attached to the Chedraui store - I took my rental bike and pedaled off to see what might transpire.
Movie titles showing were a few months behind current offerings in the States but shown in a state of the art facility at a cost of only $4 US. Most were in English with Spanish subtitles. After choosing a film I wandered into the snack bar area. What's this I see? An espresso bar with a dessert creperie and a full blown two group commercial machine?
Not only were their prices the lowest I'd seen yet at $1.90 for a cappuccino (coffee and espresso drinks on the island typically sell at stateside prices - $1.50 for a cuppa joe and $2.50 - $4.00 for a cappa) but they had one kick-ass setup. I settled on a mocha cappuccino - Mexico is known for its excellent chocolate.
At this point I hoped that the extra sweetness would help. Upon requesting an extra shot I was happy to see my request accommodated in a friendly way and better still, there was no additional charge. Although an auto-frother attachment was used the drink was actually pretty good and the milk texture a great improvement.
The sweetness of the chocolate made for unfair comparisons but I had to pronounce this as the best drink yet! (note: stopped here the following day and got a straight cappuccino - it was acceptable by Cozumel standards but didn't match up to the mocha). Imagine - the cheapest and best espresso drink I've yet tried on the island comes from the snack bar at the movie theatre - can it get any weirder than this?
Oh yes... it most certainly can!
Di(e)ving for Espresso
The following afternoon I pedaled by Rock'n Java on Melgar, just south of the Punta Gorda shopping plaza and cruise ship pier. The cafe is a bit on the sterile side in atmosphere - formica tables and fluorescent lighting abound. The cappuccino I was served was similar in presentation to The Coffee Bean and Coffeelia's but despite the addition of an extra shot, had a rather anemic quality and was less acceptable than the previous drinks.
As one day of diving began to blend into another, the next day afforded me some afternoon time to wander the neighborhoods north of the plaza. Based on a recommendation from my scuba instructor, I stopped in at the Diamond Cafe on Calle 2, just south of 15th Avenida. The staff is friendly and solicitous - one feels like a welcome guest rather than just another tourist (due in part to the fact that getting a few blocks past the cruise ship tourist zone usually promises a better experience).
Their New York style cheesecake is noteworthy and the Cafe Americano I ordered with it was the best cup of "regular" coffee I had on the entire trip (outside of my own). The following day I returned and ordered a cappuccino but requested that it be served in a standard coffee cup (once again the glass pedestal mug with a disproportionately large volume of milk was the standard serving style). Unfortunately, their cappuccino had the same anemic qualities that Rock'n Java's did - perhaps one or two clicks better on the big Caffeine-O-Meter but not in the zone.
| The Manati Cafe - could the good drink be found? |
Only a few days left... time is running out... will this quest end tragically as an unfulfilled dream? My daily wanderings continue, leading me into a residential neighborhood near Calle 8 and 10th Avenida. Rounding the corner I spot a classic Caribbean style building in bright blue with a manatee on the sign. Hmmm... interesting looking cafe called La Manati and it's fallen under the radar - none of my information sources ever mentioned it. Moving closer, my heart began to pound - could that possibly be an Illy Espresso sign above the door? I rushed in to investigate and was charmed by what I found. The open air feel of the space, the background music and the decor could best be described as reminiscent of Ibiza or some other exotic destination. The proprietor confirmed that they do indeed serve Illy - my dinner plans were now confirmed!
Saved by Illy!
By chance, the late afternoon return walk to the villas took me past Guido's Pizza on the northern end of Melgar near Calle 8. Rumor had it that they served the only real brewed decaf coffee on the island (everyone else serves Sanka). Brick oven pizza and authentic looking northern Italian specialties graced the menu. Might a decent cappuccino also be in the offing?
A pleasant surprise soon arrived on my table. Despite the milk texture typical of the auto-frother in use, this one tasted more like a real cappuccino than anything I'd yet tried and was served in what has to be the coolest cupholder holder and glass I've ever encountered. I enjoyed this thoroughly while sitting at a terrific vantage point that looks out on the turquoise blue waters and the reef. The bar has been raised and my hopes lifted - could something even better be just around the corner?
Returning to La Manati that evening, I enjoyed a delightful dinner of French onion soup, warm bread with herb butter and fresh grouper with a ginger-mango salsa. Excitement mounting, I ordered a cappuccino to follow. My trepidation level increased when I noticed a general sense of confusion on the part of the young waiter. He was obviously inexperienced - his questions to the owner resulted in her jumping in to make the drink. Five to ten minutes later it appeared - a REAL cappuccino in an Illy cup! Perfect proportions of milk to espresso, a reasonably velvety texture to the milk and a nice sprinkling of powdered chocolate.
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| Excellent dining, good espresso, what more could you ask for? |
| A capp served in an authentic illy cup, with chocolate on top, no less! |
Are you ready for the shocker? My drink was made with Illy pod espresso in an old Gaggia Classic! The milk was heated in the kitchen and frothed with one of those little hand operated plastic cylinder frothers. All things are relative but the lesson learned is this: with the proper care and ingredients, anyone can make a decent drink. The standard by which we judge espresso quality is, by necessity, a moving target when traveling to unknown destinations. By the same token, the best beans and equipment will always be useless in the wrong hands.
My final day arrived and I visited La Manati once again to confirm my results. On this visit I ensured to ask that the machine be turned on in advance to warm up (on my previous visit the shot was pulled as soon as the Gaggia's "boiler ready" light came on - not enough time for the portafilter to warm up properly). I enjoyed their delicious "Comida Corrida" (meal of the day) - soup, salad, warm bread, rice and a generous portion of chicken with mushrooms and wine sauce - all for the princely sum of $5.00! My cappuccino arrived and was even a tad better than the first one - my quest was complete!
Happy Roasting Endings
My walk back from the restaurant that day resulted in a happy postscript. I happened by the aforementioned microroaster and noticed a younger man working the counter. As it turns out, he is the owner's son, quite fluent in English and was delighted to talk with a coffee enthusiast. Their business is called Caffe Chiapas and specializes in roasting, packaging and selling a quality Mexican bean from the Chiapas province, about 30 km from the border of Guatemala. The plant varieties used are bourbon and cataui, both originally of Guatemalan origin. This particular Chiapas coffee is a shade-grown organic shipped under the name Tollan Organic. Their mainland operations sell through a variety of outlets but on the island production goes almost exclusively to local stores catering to cruise ship passengers. I was fortunate enough to buy a kilogram of green beans for $4.00 US and will soon begin incorporating some into my espresso blend.
Did I find the perfection I sought? A wise adage comes to mind: "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king". With diligence, patience and a sense of realism, a good drink can be found in even the most unlikely places. Admittedly, our expectations need to be adjusted based on the circumstances but my quest ended on a happy note. I met some charming and friendly people, enjoyed good food and furthered my quest to find the ideal balance of relaxation and activity.
The good, the bad and the ugly of the coffee bean's potential served as an integral part of my days, providing a welcome focus for the solo portion of my travel. Naturally, I'll bring an electric moka pot and frothing device of my own on the next trip but my efforts were not unrewarded (not to mention the happy coffeegeeks who'll know where to focus their energies should they ever visit this blessed isle).
O'Neill is an avid traveler, aspiring writer and self-professed coffeegeek. A career spanning roles as diverse as "Mr. Peanut", ski instructor, tomato ranch laborer, photo equipment salesman and art materials buyer inexplicably led him to a position as a sales engineer in the world of network fault analysis and management tools. He continues to combine his career with coffee evangelism, fervently preaching the gospel of good coffee to unsuspecting colleagues and customers throughout the U.S.
A coffee drinker for over thirty years, he became attuned to the pleasures of freshly ground and roasted quality whole bean coffee in 1980. He has only recently begun to appreciate the subtleties and pleasures offered by a well blended, roasted, ground and pulled espresso shot blended with perfect micro-foam. Apart his passionate relationship with the triumvirate of home roasting, a sexy Isomac Tea and the beloved Mazzer Mini grinder, he is the proud father of a college aged daughter. Presently residing in the New York City area, he plans a relocation to North Carolina in late 2003.
He is also the proud father of a new espresso travel web site at www.espressotravelguide.com. O'Neill can be contacted at email@example.com .