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Coffee Talk Kenya – meet Esther Otieno, barista trainer, coffee consultant and coffee lover

After posting a coffee guide listing specialty coffee shops in Nairobi late last year, and still having my base in Nairobi where I decided to expand my coffee knowledge, and arguably expertise, it’s time to introduce you to some of the coffee people I’ve met along the way on my Kenyan coffee mission.

First up is Esther, who is actually responsible that some of the coffee shops I mentioned in my last post have great baristas. I first met her when I was given the chance to be one of the judges at Kenya’s National Barista Championships. My next (coffee) honour was being a judge at the Nairobi Latte Art Throwdown, which Esther organises each year. Having been impressed, not only by Esther’s expertise but also her passion for anything concerning coffee, I decided to take some classes with her to up my barista game.

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Esther already worked in coffee for numerous years before she started her own company, BaristaPro Ltd, mid 2014. BaristaPro specialises in providing professional barista skills training and coffee education. Their aim is to develop professionally trained baristas who will promote the quality of brewed coffee wherever they go. Having had good feedback about her courses, it was an easy decision for me to enrol with BaristaPro. After a week’s course, consisting of 5 days with 3 hours of class a day I can highly recommend it to anyone who wants to become a barista or improve their already existing skills. After this possibly too lengthy introduction it’s time to hear what Esther has to say…
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Nairobi Good Coffee Guide

Of course good coffee is arguably very subjective. But when it comes to finding coffee shops serving good coffee in countries which grow coffee, it’s a lot more of a mission than many people would expect. In the meantime my travels have taken me to a good handful of countries where coffee is one of the main exports, and now currently being in Kenya for my second time, I think it’s time I share my findings with you. People who know me, know that I avoid Starbucks, and being in Kenya that means that I also do my best to avoid Java House. With both Starbucks (especially in the USA) and Java House in Kenya, it’s not that I think that they’re completely bad. It’s just that I like to avoid chains, and to be honest, the coffee they serve probably wouldn’t quite be to my liking either. On the other hand I do think both companies massively helped to grow coffee consumption, and it could be argued that the 3rd wave coffee movement wouldn’t be where it is at the moment without these massive coffee chain companies. Luckily in Nairobi, probably also partly due to the numerous expats from all over the world, it’s easy enough for me to avoid Java House, and my focus will be on these locations which make sure that my day gets off to a good start…

Connect Coffee Roasters

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My 1st (coffee) love in Kenya. Connect Coffee Roasters was the first place I truly enjoyed a coffee when I first came to Kenya in spring 2018. Of course I’m aware that people from different countries enjoy their coffee in different ways, and that Kenya despite growing some of the best coffee, is still more of a tea drinking country. It could be argued that Connect is a coffee shop, like many others in many other corners of the world, in New York, London, Paris or other cities which have nice specialty coffee shops, but for me there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. I don’t mind experimenting and trying things, but when it comes to coffee, I like to know that I can rely on the quality of the coffee beans as well as the skills of the baristas and if it’s in a nice surrounding then all the better. At Connect I get all of this, and so whenever I’m in Nairobi it will always be one of my first choices to get my caffeine fix.

A sign of the success Connect has been enjoying can clearly be seen with their expansions. At the original location on Riverside Drive they opened a lovely rooftop space earlier this year. It is not only home to where the roasting magic happens, but also a very chilled space to escape the city crowds and enjoy a great coffee or attend one of various events which take place there. A second location has also recently opened in Gigiri.

Location: Ground floor Riverfront building, Riverside drive road, Nairobi

Barista & Co

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Barista & Co is one of the newest coffee shops in Nairobi, having just opened a few months ago, in August 2018. Some Nairobi locals might already have been familiar with coffee from Barista & Co though, as they started by serving coffee at events back in 2016 . They are still doing this now, alongside having become one of the top addresses in Nairobi for anyone trying to get there specialty coffee fix. Unlike most coffee shops these days, Barista & Co opted for an old-fashioned lever machine, which along with the prominent 20kg Bühler roaster and the numerous brewing devices for filter coffee are the main eye catchers for anyone who visits the coffee shop. Apart from the well prepared coffee drinks, the friendliness and expertise of the staff when it comes to coffee, clearly stand out. Based on this, it’s no big surprise that many workers from the nearby offices decide to escape their desks and prefer sitting at one of the half dozen tables with their tasty coffee drink and relaxed bossa nova beats in the background.

Location: Keystone Park, Riverside Dr, Nairobi

Kesh Kesh

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For me Kesh Kesh Roastery is the final piece in the puzzle of my top 3 coffee shops in Nairobi, which also roast their own coffee. Ready to roast their own beans at any given time and exposing their customers to where the roasting magic happens, Kesh Kesh has their Bühler roaster right behind a glass window, right next to the bar. Design-wise I like Kesh Kesh for being quite different to many other coffee shops, highlighting their Eritrean roots, not only with it being run by Fenkil who’s from Eritrea, but also with the decor and serving, or better said celebrating coffee with a typical Eritrean coffee ceremony.

Well trained baristas and plenty of choices when it comes to food, including both pancakes and French toast, have made it another one of my favourite places to hang out or use it as my coffice for a few hours.

Location: Argwings Kodhek Rd, Timau plaza, Kilimani, Nairobi

Roasted Truth – IKIGAI

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When writing about Roasted Truth, it’s impossible to not also mention IKIGAI. IKIGAI is a co-working office space in Nairobi, better said two spaces as they have two locations. Both amazing spaces! While I’m here to focus on the coffee side of things, it’s quite difficult for me to hide how much I like IKIGAI. I’d probably even die happy, if that was the only place I worked from for the rest of my life. Yes, that’s how much I like it..

So… Roasted Truth is the coffee shop which is part of the IKIGAI co-working office spaces, the first in Westlands and now a second one in Lavington. Roasted Truth at IKIGAI Westlands is set in a valley, surrounded by trees, a lawn and operating out of a shipping container (yes, pretty hipster..) with an attached wooden deck terrace with plenty of tables and chairs.

Roasted Truth at IKIGAI Lavington is quite different. This was the first location I visited, so I had no real expectations, I’d only heard rumours that the coffee should be good. It’s based out of a fairly new business centre, nice enough but maybe a bit sterile.. However when I set foot into IKIGAI my perception changed completely and I can barely stop telling people about it, I really love the space. I love the concept, a lot of wood, a lot of plants, everything seems to have been thought through, has its reason for being.. It’s really probably the nicest designed co-working space I’ve been to, and thank god they didn’t cut corners by not focussing on the quality of coffee. At both locations the sight of a LaMarzoco machine was a good sign for what was to come. Roasted Truth currently get their beans from Connect Coffee Roasters (see above) and the baristas I’ve been served by are also very well trained. Even in the cases when the latte art might have been a bit abstract, the cappuccinos still had a great consistency and were served at a perfect drinking temperature, which unfortunately is not a given.

Location: Westlands: General Mathenge Drive, Nairobi & Lavington: 90 James Gichuru Road, Nairobi

Mwendis Specialty Brew

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Luckily I’m far away from being a fast blogger. Lucky, because if I’d been “in the zone” and posted this blog by late November as I’d initially hoped, I would have missed out on Nairobi’s latest addition to its growing number of specialty coffee locations. Mwendis Specialty Brew is the most different to any other on this list, just for the fact that anyone looking to get their coffee fix with an espresso based beverage will need to look elsewhere. Here there’s no LaMarzoco, LaCimbali or Nuova Simonelli for the baristas to hide behind. Instead when entering there’s a hot brew bar to the left, a cold brew bar to the right and for those who are hungry, a bagel counter in the corner. At the left bar one can choose from pour over (V60 or Chemex), press or syphon. On the right the cold choices are steeping, rapid cooling and water drip. To be totally honest, I’m not even sure if I’d been tempted to try a place like this out as recent as a year ago, but now although I still like my espresso drinks, I think there’s also a time and place for other coffee drinks. Mwendis is certainly making a strong case for me to change my coffee drinking habits a bit, not only by offering so many different options, but also with the design of the location. It’s all made and designed locally, predominantly using wood and stone and huge glass windows at the front and one of the sides.

Talking to the owner, who’s a farmer, with his own organic coffee farm in Meru, it was very interesting to hear his vision. No intentions to have multiple locations or export his coffee. He just wants to offer his coffee to Nairobi.  Hopefully this will be another step, to get coffee in Kenya nearer to be appreciated the way I think it should be. Considering how well Kenyan coffee is known around the world, I really don’t think it gets the recognition it deserves in Kenya itself.

Location: Lenana Road, Kilimani, Nairobi

Tin Roof Cafe

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Out in Karen, Tin Roof Cafe may be slightly out of the way for some people for their daily caffeine fix, whilst in Nairobi. For those living, staying or visiting the giraffes in Karen, Tin Roof Cafe is definitely worth a visit, not just for the coffee but also for its surroundings. The Tin Roof Cafe is part of The Souk, which compared to some of Nairobi’s numerous malls, is more of an understated retail space in a natural green setting with a lawn, many trees, bushes, flowers and birds for those interested in bird watching. Apart from the Cafe, a few smaller stores, an art gallery and a tattoo shop are also part of the space.

The café’s lovely outdoor dining area, includes both a covered terrace as well as wooden picnic tables by the lawn.

Of course, for me the coffee was of utmost importance, which I had along with some pancakes for breakfast. Although the cappuccino I had wasn’t quite in the same league as some of the other coffee shops mentioned above, it was still enjoyable. I would be more than happy to return to Tin Roof Cafe, even if I have to admit that it might be a bit more for the lovely relaxed surroundings than the coffee itself.

Location: Dagoretti Road, The Souk, Karen

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6 ways to keep your COFFEE COOL this summer

According to some, like Donald T., of course there’s no global warming, but with temperatures soaring, fires occurring, heat records being broken and people all over looking at ways to keep their cool, here are 6 ways to keep your COFFEE COOL this summer – and recommendations on where to get your cool caffeine fix in my current home town Zurich. If it’s not just summer coffee options you’re after in Zurich, then you can also of course check this post.

I’m not sure how it is for you, but when it’s hot in summer I often find myself drinking less flat whites, cortados, cappuccinos and espressos. On the one hand I still feel myself craving coffee, but on the other hand when it’s hot and sweaty I don’t find the idea of drinking a hot beverage quite that enticing. So, with summer temperatures currently a bit milder, I thought I’d come up with a list of drinks for those of us who don’t want to cut down on their caffeine intake when temperatures go back up and over the 30°C mark.

  • Freddo Cappuccino aka Iced Cappuccino

In Greece, where I discovered my love for this drink, and which is also where it’s consumed more than anywhere else, when ordering it, you are asked if you’d like it sweet, semi-sweet or unsweetened. A classic Freddo Cappuccino is basically an espresso poured over ice cubes and then topped up with some cold frothed milk. The creamy rich texture of the milk is created by using a shaker, which unfortunately many coffee shops outside of Greece don’t usually have.

ViCafe – isn’t only known for arguably being the most popular place in town to grab a coffee on the go, but it’s also one of my favourites to get an Iced Cappuccino.

  • Freddo Espresso

Freddo Espresso

Freddo Espresso

A typical Freddo Espresso consists of a double shot of espresso (usually about 60 – 70 ml). Depending on how much foam is desired, the espresso is mixed with 4 ice cubes in a shaker for 10 – 20 seconds. Then the liquid is strained into a glass with ice cubes. Often when ordered the customer is asked if the drink should be sweet, semi-sweet or unsweetened.

Ynos – a Greek food/drink location, minutes from Zurich’s main station also serves great quality coffee. Especially for people who are familiar with the Greek style Freddo Espresso and Cappuccino drinks won’t be disappointed!

  • Iced Chai Latte

Iced Chai Latte

Iced Chai Latte – Bros Beans & Beats

Of course, I realise that this isn’t a coffee-based drink, but it is widely served in coffee shops. And despite not really being a tea drinker, this summer I’ve really enjoyed this drink. Iced chai latte is basically cooled chai (black tea infused clove, cinnamon and other warming spices) poured over ice cubes and topped up with milk.

Bros Beans & Beats – still one of my absolute favourite locations in Zurich, serves a very nice Iced Chai Latte, of course along with their other great coffee drinks.

  • Cold Brew

Cold Brew

Cold Brew

It’s been popular now for a while, but its popularity seems to be growing even further, with even supermarkets jumping on the bandwagon and stocking bottles of cold brew.

This cold coffee drink is made by steeping ground coffee in water at room temperature for over 12 hours, before the grounds are filtered out. It is then cooled in the fridge, and can be drunk in many different ways, with ice cubes, ice cream or tonic.

In the meantime, cold brew is basically everywhere, so there’s no real need to emphasize any places. Two of the first places I noticed highlighting their cold brew offering in Zurich were the Milchbar and Henrici.

  • Affogato

Affogato

Affogato – Gelati Tellhof

For me, a good affogato is like a ticket to heaven. What could be better than a tasty combination of two of the loves of my life, coffee and gelato. For those who don’t know it, a traditional affogato is a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a shot of espresso poured over the top of it. The warmth of the coffee melting the ice cream, creating a soothing and comforting mix of yummy. If one goes to a gelateria for an affogato, you will have the luxury of having numerous flavours to choose instead of the classic vanilla. My favourite flavour for affogato is stracciatella, but many other milk-based flavours can also be quite tempting, such as pistachio, hazelnut or chocolate.

Gelati Tellhof – my go-to-place in Zurich when it comes to enjoying an affogato to the max. Not only is the gelateria itself a great escape from the nearby hustle and bustle of Langstrasse, but the affogato is also always served with a smile and style on a lovely little tray. Apart from coming for the gelato on offer, with coffee beans from local roaster Stoll Kaffee, it’s also certainly not the worst place to go and relax with a nice coffee.

  • Coffee Gelato

Gelato

Gelato – Rosso Arancio

In a way this is the simplest. Coffee gelato or if need be coffee ice cream, and yes, there is a difference. If you want to know the difference between gelato and ice cream, read one of my older posts. Although it’s the simplest to explain, it’s certainly not that simple to get right. Luckily there are some great gelaterias around which do a great job, and luckily not only in Italy!

Rosso Arancio Gelato Italiano – my favourite place in town when it comes to gelato. Many flavours to choose from, with the freshest, usually locally sourced ingredients. Always some new different flavours to give a try and the coffee gelato certainly comes as close as possible, for gelato to taste like you’re drinking a freshly brewed cup of coffee!

Any drinks missing? Or any advice on other places to visit in and around Zurich, or even for my upcoming trip to NYC and California? Let me know..

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Zurich coffee shops – episode 1

After having started writing this list way too long ago, lucky enough a couple new places opened up lately in my current home town Zurich, giving me the needed push to finally finalise this first episode..

Like many cities, Zurich has numerous places to drink coffee. Some better than others and some certainly nicer than others too. I don’t plan to list them all, nor do I plan to rank them either. These are just the first ten coffee places in Zurich I’d like to mention. They might have caught my attention for different reasons, the design or atmosphere, or the friendliness (or attractiveness :)) of the staff, but the thing they all have in common, is that I can count on getting a decent cup of coffee at these places. Compared to cities like London, New York, Cape Town, Paris, Barcelona or Athens I believe that Zurich lacks coffee shops (and food and drink venues in general) which are a bit different or quirky, and have a noticeable concept in place. Therefore I will try to start with ones which for me, stand out a bit more, especially if they are a combination of some kind of shop and coffee shop.

Coffee Shack

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Gelato Talk – meet Stefano Moro, maestro gelataio at Cape Town’s Moro Gelato

Moro Gelato is a real piece of Italian dolce vita in Cape Town and in the process of bringing Italy’s gelato culture to South Africa. At the Woodstock based gelateria, gelato is produced the same way as in Italy and in line with that their artisan produce is sold from pozzetti installed in a beautifully designed cart.

For my first gelato talk session, I had the pleasure talking to gelato chef Stefano Moro of Moro Gelato. Moro Gelato still seems like Cape Town’s sweet Italian secret, hidden away in Woodstock’s Masons Press. Luckily the Moro gelato team can also be found on Saturdays at the Oranjezicht City farm market, as well as their gelato also making it on to an increasing number of dessert menus of restaurants across Cape Town.

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Coffee Talk Cape Town – baseline coffee, because bad coffee shouldn’t happen to good people

After spending a few months in Spanish speaking countries it was nice to return to Cape Town for my second time. Not only was it nice to be back in a surrounding where it was easy to understand and be understood, but also being back in a more familiar food and drink scene was comforting. For me this especially means being able to order a flat white or a cappuccino without being too concerned that I get something completely unexpected, as well as even if I have to go out of my way for it, being able to get some more than decent gelato.

As previously posted, for me, Moro Gelato was THE place to go, to get my regular gelato fix. At first this was the only reason for me to cycle, mini bus or uber it to the Mason’s Press in Woodstock. With baseline coffee being practically next to Moro Gelato I had passed it and acknowledged it, but at the same time I was usually on a gelato mission so it took me a while and multiple reminders from both Stefano and Heine from Moro Gelato until I finally stopped by baseline coffee. Since my first visit I haven’t looked back, and Mason’s Press became a perfect balls’n’beans destination, allowing me to kill two birds with one stone, getting both a gelato and coffee fix.

baseline coffee became one of my regular Cape Town spots, not just because of the great coffee, but also because I felt at “home”, both Stacy and Deon are very welcoming and friendly, the music’s good, it’s not too big, loud or crowded, so also very well suited for a coffice location, which I took full advantage of. I’d like to share baseline coffee with you, even if you’re not in Cape Town. So read below to find out about the baseline story and see what the camera shy baseline coffee team have to say about giving back to the community and coffee in SA.

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First of all, how did your coffee career begin and how did the idea for baseline coffee come about? What’s your actual background if you haven’t always worked in the coffee industry?

Deon first became interested in coffee when he lived in the US – although not the speciality coffee scene (Starbucks right?!), the love of this liquid that helps all of us “non-morning people” operate was real. On returning to SA in about 2007 it didn’t take long to see that there was a real gap in the market when it came to really great, locally roasted coffee that South Africans could connect with. And so, the journey began with a goal of not only making great coffee, but also giving back. The brand was originally launched as Kupa Coffee (pronounced “koopah”, Swahili meaning “to give”) with the idea of involving local community members in the process & using an eCommerce store to sell to consumers. Unfortunately the idea was a little ahead of its time, with the average coffee drinker not yet ready to embrace online shopping & the expensive logistics costs involved. So Deon continued to run the business on the side whilst he worked in a full-time job (Digital Marketing) and instead of involving the community directly, he began working with a few select foundations to donate and channel the business’ giving. Deon took up the reins full-time with coffee roughly 4 years ago and I (Stacy) joined him 2 years later. The business was re-branded in early 2014 to the brand it is today: baseline coffee. The idea came about after a long discussion between Deon and myself about where coffee in South Africa was and where our coffee stands. A “baseline” represents both a unit of measurement and a level to strive for, and this is what we are about: our mission is to raise the bar when it comes to quality, consistency and flavour in coffee. We pride ourselves in bringing our customers the absolute best with green beans carefully selected and imported from around the world, and crafted to perfection with care right here in Cape Town.

But you can only fly under the radar for so long, so in early 2015 our Espresso Bar and roasting operations were opened to the public in Woodstock in the new Mason’s Press building, so here we are…

What made you decide to open up your own coffee shop/roaster? What challenges have you faced with owning your own business?

The growth of our business has been more organic than aggressive over the years (we don’t see ourselves as typical “sales people” and self-admittedly, are pretty bad at “sales pitches”), and because of this we flew under the radar for quite some time. When the coffee scene really started exploding in Cape Town we were encountering more and more people who didn’t know who we were. It helped that we were already partnered with a number of well-known restaurants & coffee shops, so the coffee could stand on its own, but we eventually decided that we needed to stick our heads (and our brand) above the fray. Thus, the decision to open an Espresso Bar. We searched for the right premises for about a year and a half and eventually found the space we’re in now. We were so incredibly keen to start that we began trading when the building was still a hard-hat zone and we were the only shop-fitted space, with our main customers being the construction guys!
Setting up and running the Espresso Bar, which operates like a café-style establishment, has of course not been without its challenges. With us being situated in a more industrial-type location one of the major challenges has been getting our name out there – you wouldn’t expect to turn up off of Woodstock Main Road and, amidst a number of business parks, find a Coffee Roastery & Espresso Bar! Even after we’ve been here for a solid year we still regularly meet people working/living in the area who didn’t know we were here. We love it – it’s like making new friends every day! The other major challenge is one which is shared by all operating in the hospitality industry: staffing. Finding and keeping the right staff is a challenge, especially when you’re looking for skilled staff of a higher than typical calibre. Oh, and finding time to take a break – your business is very much a part of your everyday and doesn’t always keep office hours!

How does it feel to have your own coffee shop and what do you like most about your job?

Some days we get that “aha” moment: you look around the space and all the seats are full, there’s a queue at the bar, the music is jamming and you get this big, stupid kid-grin on your face because “Hey, this is OURS”. Owning the Espresso Bar has been different from operating our wholesale business because we spend so much more time interacting face-to-face with our customers. I think that’s one of the things we love most about it – the interactions we have every day with our community of coffee lovers.

What’s the soundtrack in the coffee shop, if you have one?

Hmmm, it’s pretty hard to narrow it down as we play a wide variety of music. It depends on the time of day, how full the shop is, who is in the shop at the time and what kind of a mood we’re in. It can be anything from liquid drum-and-base to Blink 182, to deep house. We have been known to throw it back too, and love a little Dire Straits and The Police in the early morning. If we can get our hands on good local music, we give that a spin as well, and we have some customers who occasionally bring us some cool mixes to play too.

Is there any advice you can give to people who might want to follow your foot steps and also open their own coffee shop or also start roasting coffee?

Do your research. There is a big difference between the idea of owing your own coffee shop or roastery, and the reality of owning it. Some of the things they don’t tell you when you start your own business is that you don’t get “off” days (at least not for a long time into it); no matter how you feel, you have to show up, always. One of the greatest rewards about doing your own thing is effort in = rewards out, but this is also one of the biggest challenges. Oh, and be prepared to say goodbye to your weekends J

Some people see roasting coffee as an art or a science. Is there a philosophy behind your coffee?  

We like to think that artistry is one of the by-products of great passion. Think about something you’re passionate about – let’s say photography, or writing – when it’s driven by passion you endeavour to add your own mark, flair, make it your own. So, you’re an artist too in the love you take in weaving your craft.
Our philosophy, something we firmly believe, is that life is filled with moments. We fill our everyday with all of these moments, and most of them just pass by, so if we can “make” a moment for one of our customers – make it great, make it memorable, make it easy, make it an escape – then that’s our job done. And also, really great coffee should be accessible to all coffee lovers, from the “aficionado” to the “instant convert”… Because bad coffee shouldn’t happen to good people…

Is there anything in particular which you think makes your roasted coffee stand out from others in Cape Town?

You tell me 🙂 To be honest, we’ve just tried to stay focussed and real. Coffee without the pretention. We’ve stuck to a few coffees and made sure that we do them well. We’ve played a bit more over the last year and will continue to do so, especially with single origins. When we hit on something that we think is special we release it out to our Espresso Bar customers… but generally you won’t find us standing on hilltops yelling that our coffee is the greatest. Taste is so subjective – we love the way our coffee tastes and to us it’s very distinctive, but everyone is in a different space in their coffee journey and has different preferences, so all we can do is encourage people to try our coffee and decide for themselves.

How do you brew your coffee at home? Why?

Until recently we had one of our spare 2-group Wegas on the kitchen counter (which was great for the coffee, not so great for the electricity bill!). Why? Because it’s awesome 🙂
At the moment we have an old school La Pavoni that we use to extract espresso for our Americanos, mostly because bigger equipment doesn’t last long until we put it to more serious work somewhere else. Otherwise we’re still fans of the good ol French Press, especially for testing our single origins.

What about coffee inspires you? Where does your passion come from and what keeps it going?

Probably the fact that it’s always changing: new trends, new ways of roasting and brewing, new crops… We love the fact that we haven’t “arrived”. So, as long as we have more to learn, experience and experiment with, we’ll continue to be inspired!

Thanks baseline coffee team, for your time answering my questions as well as providing me with a coffice whilst I was in Cape Town. 

Bad coffee shouldn’t happen to good people… So if you’re visiting Cape Town, make sure you take some time to venture off the beaten path, get to Woodstock and visit the Mason’s Press, for a coffee break at baseline coffee followed by a delicious gelato a few steps further at Moro Gelato, or a gelato first followed by a great coffee!


baseline coffee (homepage)

baseline coffee (instagram)

baseline coffee (Facebook)

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Coffee Talk “pura vida” – meet Juan Carlos, barista at Cafeoteca (San Jose)

Having crossed the border from Panama, Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side was my first stop in Costa Rica. Following the same route of many fellow travellers I then spent some time on the Pacific coast, after heading up North first. I’m very happy I decided to not listen to many of those travellers I spoke to along the way, who recommended to avoid San Jose. If I had followed these people’s advice I would have completely missed out on one of my trip’s coffee highlights, being Cafeoteca, a lovely coffee shop situated in a more residential area of San Jose. I actually have to thank the barista of Emilios Cafe in Manuel Antonio, who told me that Cafeoteca is a must visit for coffee lovers in Costa Rica.

Having originally just stopped by for a coffee, I ended up spending an entire rainy afternoon at Cafeoteca, enjoying Tico hospitality, tasting coffee from the different coffee regions of Costa Rica, as well as talking coffee with both baristas, Juan Carlos and Remy. Both are very down to earth (unlike plenty of baristas out there) and were extremely passionate when it comes to coffee. Luckily Juan Carlos was also very patient and was happy to be my next coffee talk guest. Along with being thankful to Juan Carlos, I’m also grateful to William Viquez for sharing some photos of my coffee talk guest.

Juan Carlos, going by the full name of Juan Carlos Vargas Soto, comes from San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. The 22 year old has spent the last four years working in restaurants and cafes, and while he and his brothers didn’t care for coffee whilst growing up, remembers how his mother dipped pieces of cheese in her coffee while his father dipped pieces of buttered bread in his cup of coffee. Since then things have changed and Juan Carlos’ passion for coffee is second to noone’s. He tells me of his fascination for the stories behind each grain of coffee and how he loves the experience of meeting people all along the bean to cup journey. As a barista he has met the families growing coffee whilst visiting coffee farms, learning from their spirit and passion for coffee, and passing this passion on to customers buying and drinking coffee. Working at Cafeoteca he has also been impressed by the increasing number of people who want to know more about the background of what they eat and drink.

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 Juan Carlos, how did your career coffee begin and what made you become a barista? Why at Cafeoteca?
At the age of 20 I started working as a baker at a very successful bakery in San Jose, which had the best baked goods in the area. The coffee we had however, was of very low quality, so we had many unsatisfied customers complaining. My question was: Why does one even have bad coffee in Costa Rica? Seeing several clients get to the bakery for breakfast with a thermos of hot coffee in hand, I gave myself the task to thoroughly research and learn how to prepare a good coffee and that’s how my adventure began. Arriving at my first barista class and trying for the first time a cup of specialty coffee increased my desire to investigate why coffee has that particular taste and how the difference in flavours relates to the country or region of origin. The fragrance and the aroma of coffee got me and made me enjoy every day. In Costa Rica coffee has a very important value in the country’s history, which fuelled my interest to further explore the world of coffee. In 2014 I became a certified barista of Costa Rica for the ICAFE (Costa Rican Coffee Institute) which was one of my best experiences. After being a certified barista I chose to work at Cafeoteca as this cafe is also a small coffee museum, with a focus on helping and teaching more about the culture of coffee. At Cafeoteca you can taste over 20 varieties of coffee, using various different preparation methods. It is a place where baristas give personalised customer service, and do the most they can to satisfy their guests with different coffee-based drinks. We are always looking to innovate and create new coffee products. Here everything revolves around coffee.
What do you like most about your job? What do you dislike?
With my job I enjoy having contact with people from all around the world, educating and teaching people to appreciate Costa Rican coffee. I like to innovate and create new dishes and drinks using coffee. Every day I am in search of new things. To be honest there’s nothing about my job that I dislike, but it does upset me that industrial coffee companies are gradually swallowing up the smaller businesses. I also find it depressing that a lot of coffee producing families are working so hard, yet they are earning very little. And know that coffee producing families are working harder and are earning less.

At Cafeoteca, what kind of coffee beans do you usually have, which regions do the beans come from and from which roaster/s? Which espresso machine and brew methods do you use?

At Cafeoteca we work with 23 different coffee varieties produced in Costa Rica. We buy 17 different kinds of beans directly from the farms, some using the honey and others the dry process. They all are distinctly characterised by their height, climate and soil. Mario Salas, our roaster, is well known in the industry, used to be a professor for coffee roasting, and now has his own company. At Cafeoteca we prepair coffee using 14 different methods. My favourite methods are Chemex, Kalita and fabric filters (blasting), and for our espresso based drinks we use a Rancillio Epoca machine.

What are the most popular coffee drinks at your coffee shop and what’s your favourite?

The most popular are the coffee drips, (Natural and honey process) espresso, cappuccino and cold beer. My favorite drink is cold beer on the rocks, and my favorite coffeehouse is the Geisha Bat Coffee, a coffee produced in southern Costa Rica, which is that bats a national park area feed the mucilage of geisha coffee fruit farm (Coffea Diversa) which limit the interesting thing is that the fruits are dried on the ground and fermented with the animal’s saliva, which creates a very unique and delicious flavor.

What are your impressions of Costa Rica’s coffee scene, a country known globally for producing some of the best coffee (beans)?

The coffee has evolved throughout the history of Costa Rica and we have very good specialty coffee, but the coffee culture is very poor in which large companies often use sugar to hide the poor quality coffees. The good news is that more and more families are producing more specialty coffees and are preferring quality over quantity. In Costa Rica 98% of quality coffee is exported, and 50% of low-quality coffee is imported for domestic consumption (blends), which is an alarming figure. It’s very positive for Costa Rica as a whole that the specialty coffee culture is growing, and increasingly more international companies visit the country in search of the best coffee.

What kind of customers visit your shop, who are your favourite customers and who (celebrity, e.g. Madonna) would you most like to serve a coffee to?

At Cafeoteca we welcome people from all over the world, tourists as well as many people involved in the coffee industry. A lot of locals also really enjoy specialty coffees at Cafeoteca. My favourite customers are those who really appreciate specialty coffee and customers who always carry a new bag of coffee to share with friends. I would be very happy if I could serve my mother a coffee soon. It’s been a long time that I haven’t seen see her. She is my celebrity and the person who supports me every day.

What advice can you give to people who want to follow your path and also become a barista?

I would advise people to never think they know everything, people learn every day, if you do not know, learn, and if you know, teach others. If you like a coffee, investigate why it has that flavour and welcome to this wonderful world of coffee. Humility is the most important of all, it always helps people who need it most. Never believe that you can’t, knocks down walls, don’t get stuck, and always enjoy what you do

Do you have any exciting plans of your own regarding coffee? Is there anything in particular you would like to do if you had the time and/or resources?

I’m currently finishing my coffee cupping classes, in order to further extend my coffee knowledge. In the future I plan to go to study in Austalia to improve my English, and of course also to work in the Australian coffee industry, to gain more experience. While I’m still young I hope to travel, see new places and cultures and meet people from all over. Further down the road, together with my family, I expect to have our own business.

Juan Carlos, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and teaching anyone who visits Cafeoteca about coffee, especially about Costa Rican coffee. With being so humble and keen to also listen to what others have to say about coffee, I’m sure you’ll go your way successfully in the world of coffee. I hope our paths will cross again, where ever that may be, and that we can share some more interesting coffee stories again.


If you’re visiting Costa Rica and even just vaguely interested in coffee, don’t make the mistake of skipping San Jose and make sure you visit the “coffee museum” Cafeoteca. Whilst enjoying one of the numerous different kinds of coffees on offer, prepared using your chosen brewing method, feel free to be lectured about Costa Rican coffee or share your own coffee knowledge/experiences.

Cafeoteca (homepage)

Juan Carlos Vargas Soto, barista (instagram)

WillPhoto – photographer (instagram)

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