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A nod to Cape Town coffee

I love the English language. I love everything about it. The individual meaning of words. And the way you can string them together to evoke a particular emotion.

I mean, read this line by John Green from his book, Looking for Alaska: “So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was (a) hurricane.” A hurricane.

I love English.

The Nautilus and the Chapman

The language arrived in South Africa, where I was born, in 1820.

After the Napoleonic wars, Britain had a serious unemployment problem. To address this, the British government encouraged its people to immigrate. The first settlers arrived in Table Bay on board the Nautilus and the Chapman on 17 March 1820. From the Cape colony, they were sent to Algoa Bay, known today as Port Elizabeth. Lord Somerset, the British governor in South Africa, encouraged the immigrants to settle in the frontier area of what is now the Eastern Cape. To consolidate and defend the eastern frontier against the neighbouring Xhosa people, and to provide a boost to the English-speaking population.

And boost it they did. Today, South Africa has 11 official languages and its multilingual population is fluent in at least two. English is spoken at home by one in 10 people – 6 million people, most of them not white. Like me. I learned the rules of the language at school. Through writing. Essays. And speaking. I was a debate club nerd.

One in a million

It’s estimated that there are more than a million words in the English language.

A 2010 study by researchers from Harvard and Google, estimated a total of 1,022,000 words and that the number would grow by several thousand each year. This number, though, includes different forms of the same word, and archaic words (words we no longer use in modern English). The second edition of the Oxford English dictionary is more conservative, defining approximately 600,000 words. And confirming that only 171,476 of those words are in current use. I expected more but there you have it.

One of those 171,476 words that came to mind during my recent exploration of the Cape Town coffee scene is disdain.

If you feel that something isn’t worthy of your consideration, you may disdain (verb) it, or treat it with disdain (noun). In Old French, deignier meant “to treat something as worthy.” To disdain something, then, is to treat it with contempt. As a verb, disdain carries an air of self-righteousness not associated with similar words like despise, abhor, detest, loathe and scorn. So if you disdain something, you might reject it with an air of superiority.

The nod

My previous visit to Cape Town was pre-Covid. I’m not counting the two trips to bury my parents. Who died within 1 month of each other. No, I’m talking about my last visit to Cape Town to have fun. And, to me, sadly some might say, fun is visiting coffeeshops.

I’m a man of simple taste.

And one of four children to Louis and Julia. Three younger sisters. The oldest of the three made me promise that I would make time to see her. I was hesitant only because I didn’t look forward to talking about how much we miss our parents, or to relive the two funerals or to elaborate on life after their passing. Grief, for me, is a personal experience. Plus I pay a therapist good money to watch me cry on a video call once a week.

So, with a mission to lead the conversation so that I could steer it in more preferable directions, I agreed to meet.

I had already made notes of all the places I wanted to visit while in Cape Town. So the choice of where to meet was an easy one. It had all the ingredients of spaces I love. Earthy tones. Blonde wood. Minimal, yet warm. Serving coffee from not one, but two of South Africa’s most revered roasters.

The first sign of trouble came when I asked what they were serving. Instead of a warm welcome, or a welcome of any kind, the barista nodded towards the menu on the wall. I chose a flat white. With oat milk. His look of disdain left me confused. Was oat milk not cool anymore? Did I mispronounce oat? Was it too much trouble to reach for oat instead of cow’s milk? Usually, by this stage of the journey, I would have expressed myself with blind rage. But my therapist and I are working on that so I walked away. I had, after all, come to see my sister. Not fight about oat milk.

And it was good to see her. She talked about how much she misses our parents and how beautiful the funerals were. Thankfully, right before she could elaborate on life after their passing, our waiter arrived.

I asked for the menu. He nodded to the wall. And explained we need to order and pay at the cash register where his colleague was awaiting my inevitable return. I assumed from his stare that my absence did not make his heart grow fonder.

As I walked back to the counter, I could hear my therapist’s voice: “Find the good in people.” And to my credit, I did. For example, I was impressed with how he answered my 5 questions with 3 words. “Sourdough”. “Colombia”. “No”. And, to his credit, finding a way to make the word “sourdough” sound bad is truly a superpower. That’s the way I chose to see things. My therapist would be proud.

The food was great. The coffee was good. But service was worse than bad. It was indifferent. Actually, no. My two nodding friends seemed annoyed by my patronage.

At the height of the pandemic, the Cape Town tourism industry was losing US$12 Million a day. I assume the knock-on effects to all sectors were significant. Maybe this coffeeshop lost a lot of staff. Maybe the Nodders were new. Maybe they were not yet trained. Maybe I don’t care.

I was still wondering about all of these maybes when I walked into Rosetta Roastery’s Bree Street location the next morning.

Rosetta Roastery

Founded by Jono Le Feuvre, Rob Cowles and Jeff van Aswegen in 2010, Rosetta Roastery has for years been synonymous with the best of what Cape Town has to offer the global specialty coffee industry. Earlier this year, the Financial Times (finally) acknowledged this fact and called it one of the Best Independent Coffeeshops in the World. The world. In 2019 and 2018, they were named Roastery of the Year. And Rosetta’s Simnikiwe was crowned Barista of the Year in 2019.

She was the one who greeted me when I walked in. With a smile that felt like a hug. She asked what I would be drinking (a flat white) and recommended the bean (Peru). The shop was too busy to have a proper chat but she left me feeling that she would if she could. I felt taken care of. Charmed. So charmed, in fact, that I forgot about my diet and said yes before she finished asking if I’d also like a cinammon bun. Which, as it turns out, is the best thing to ever happen to cinnamon.

I stayed a while. Watching locals and their dogs being greeted by name. Happy faces all reflecting the glow of a happy Rosetta team.

Truth

Your visit to Cape Town’s best specialty coffeeshops would be incomplete without a stop at David Donde’s Truth. He opened his first public roasting venture in 2006 and established Truth Coffee in 2009. Renowned travel writer Tom Midlane, called it the Best Coffee Shop in the World. And it’s a feast for the eyes as much as it is for the palate.

Insider tip: complement your flat white with resident baker Kelly Mukendi’s sourdough. While some bakeries choose to accelerate the fermentation process, Kelly takes her time. A loaf of her sourdough takes two days to make. It’s no surprise that Truth regularly sells out of their breads daily.

Service was attentive. Without being intrusive.

Deluxe Coffeeworks

Deluxe was started in April 2009 by Carl Wessel and Judd Nicolay. They met in a Cape Town bar, bought a 2nd hand roaster which they installed in Carl’s backyard and 6 months later they opened their first shop at 25 Church street in the heart of the Cape Town.

That’s the location I visited.

It’s a small space. Encourages passers-by to grab and go. I sat myself in one of the very few seats and watched people pop in and out. The service was efficient. The coffee was excellent.

Today, there are 5 Deluxe shops in South Africa, 2 in Namibia and 1 in the UK. But you can’t beat the vibe of the original Church Street shop.

Origin

Origin is the OG of Cape Town’s (dare I say, South Africa’s) specialty coffee industry. Established in 2006 with one mission, to offer South Africans exceptional, quality roasted coffee from around the world. Founder, Joel Singer and team helped to form the Speciality Coffee Association of Southern Africa (SCASA) and to launch the South African National Barista Championships, affiliated with the World Barista Championships (WBC). And to date Origin has produced 5 South African Barista champions who went on to compete at the WBC.

It’s where I started to really understand specialty. It’s where I did my barista training. It’s where I always go when I’m in Cape Town. You should too.

Espresso Lab Microroasters

Renato Correia and Helene Vaerlien started Espresso Lab Microroasters in 2009. Inspired by Nordic principles, their coffee is lightly roasted. Their view is that “since coffee beans come from berries, it is only natural that we pursue the fruitiness, acidity and sweetness.” And you can taste that ethos in every cup from every origin they roast.⠀

Their pursuit of the brighter notes in coffee is reflected in the space. Think white walls, white porcelain tiles and a high-glass black stone floor.⠀

I love it. You will too.

The best of the best

I didn’t have the time to visit more coffeeshops. There are more good ones in Cape Town.

But I’m glad I chose to visit these five. They have each, for years, represented the best of the best specialty coffee in Cape Town. And the world. They’ve stood the test of time. And the test of a pandemic.

What is noteworthy to me is how each have done so by staying true to themselves. Each with their own philosophy. Each with their own approach. Each doing his own thing.

They do, however, have one thing in common. Nobody nodded at me.

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