On coffee & the best coffee I ever had

Where can you get the best coffee in the world?

Haunting question, isn’t it? What do you search for in the undertow of tastes when it comes down to drinking this dark liquid?

To me, coffee is a cause for many an unsolicited advice coming my way and it is exactly the kind of well-meant advice you get from your friends, who don’t like your shambolic girlfriend, because with certainty of sun rising in the east they foresee the calamity inevitably happening in the future and breaking your heart.

This is pretty much my story, since I am averaging four to five espressos per day, softened by green tea from time to time. Coffee has been a part of my life ever since I, a little kid back then, began visiting my grandmother on regular basis. She – a coffee enthusiast herself – would prepare drip coffee couple of times a day, and therefore fill her apartment with the distinctive and beautiful smell of coffee. Apple strudel on the table, the smell in the air coming from steaming cups, two mugs of hot chocolate for my brother and me – all laid out on table with a blue-chequered tablecloth, and of course, some small talk to accompany us throughout the afternoon.

Naturally, I doubt whether I actually like espressos, since sometimes I make funny expressions as the sour taste twists my face. Other time, it’s kinda bitter. Never mind, I keep coming back. Today, whilst drinking double espresso in a cafeteria, I thought – where did I have the best coffee of my life?

Few questions are as tough to answer.

In my hometown of Prague we have a decent coffee culture. Back in the days, the joke ran that if you wanted to have a good coffee in Prague, you had to go to Berlin. Times change and after a bit of research, you can enjoy many fair-trady, hand-picked, straight-from-the-farmers, in Prague-roasted coffees. And they are delicious. But are they the best?

When I did Erasmus in Porto, I drank lots of coffee. Portugal is a coffee lover’s paradise, because you have cafeterias everywhere, coffee is cheap and reasonably good. Oh, and it packs a punch. In Portugal, I suspect, I became a coffee junkie, which is an addiction I am not particularly interested in overcoming. And yet, the coffee over there lacked something…

In April 2014, I visited my brother, who did Erasmus in Stockholm, and let me tell you, Swedes know a thing or two about coffee. It was tremendous! Stylish cafeterias (with low level of hipsters), blonde baristas and waitresses… Swedish ladies took my breath away and I admit it may have affected my judgement. After a week of what turned out to be pure joy, time came to fly home. I therefore hopped on a bus bound to Arlanda airport. There, I had two or three espressos, and as is probably written in the collection of Murphy’s laws, just as I approached the security check I suffered jitters and shakes propelled by caffeine anxiety. Luckily, I got through no problem. I still had an hour or so before boarding and as a creature of habit, I immediately strolled to Starbucks, the only cafeteria in sight. I ordered an Americano (blasphemy, I know), and contemplated my time in Sweden, the sight of Icelandair Boeing 737, which made me doubt my choice of Erasmus destination, and people moving about, heading for adventures. Then I boarded a plane to Lisbon and automatically ordered coffee. My heart almost went on strike.

So those were all great coffees in fabulous places, served by interesting people. And yet, I felt I needed to drink more, see more, chase more…

Three weeks ago, I returned from China, and China is difficult. Youngsters prefer coffee (mostly lattes and Americanos) over tea (which is becoming a business of retirees) and the market reacts. Starbucks stormed China and, depending on the city, they are either frequent or simply everywhere. Duh. Decent cafeterias… they are a rare breed. Stylish – you can find those, but serving a good quality coffee? Not so common.

I discovered one lovely place in Beijing (should you find yourself in Beijing, search the shopping streets around Hou Hai park). Fellow roasted coffee right inside and the smell signalled they mean business. It caught you unprepared as you passed by, and lured you inside as will-o’-the-wisps do. Their double espresso was so good I had to buy 250g of Guatemala beans right on the spot, and since it was the first of many cities I planned to visit, I looked forward to an exciting coffee ride through China. This assumption turned out to be wrong. In majority of cities, I had problems to come across a decent café. All I could find was Starbucks… Then, the last city I visited before returning to Beijing and catching flight back to Prague was Qingdao, and every single coffee place I missed in China was there. 8-10 cafés in one street? No problem. Unfortunately, the quality fluctuated, however I have a hunch they’ll figure it out and then, oh boy, they’ll win over your heart.
And so I returned to Beijing, the one and only place I felt could compete for the best coffee in the world. Now it is fair to say I have seen only little chunk of the world, which skews the final results. I sat outside on a bench, sun was setting down (of course), people hummed in the street below, I thought: could it be it? What do you think?

It wasn’t, I can tell you. For the best coffee I ever had so far was on a flight from Frankfurt to Prague, when returning home for Christmas during winter 2013/2014. After bouncing back from the worst depression of my life, I sat on an Airbus A320 with Ed Sheeran’s I see fire tuned in my headphones, gliding over layers of grey clouds and drinking simple airline coffee from a paper cup. The feeling I had as I clutched the cup is hard to describe. And I don’t even feel it’d be just to describe it. It’s too intimate. But hell, it made for the best coffee I ever had.

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About Petr Klíma