@Fest Bean This Way: On the quixotic search for a good Festival cuppa

Bean This Way: On the quixotic search for a good Festival cuppa

A pleasing coffee is the result of the alchemy between the barista’s technique and the ingredients they’re using.


Working on Cue has allowed me to relive the varsity residence experience I never had. And what authentic res experience would be without the crappy coffee (does it even contain coffee?) that’s served in big stainless steel pots in the dining hall at breakfast every morning. At least it contains caffeine; it succeeds, at least, in prising open my sleep-deprived eyes. But what about ordentlike coffee – what if whatever is going to pick you up can taste rather nice, too? I went on a search to find the nicest cuppa I could.

Mi Casa, a van on the Village Green, is doing a roaring trade, despite the whopping R30 it costs for a double-shot flat white. It left me rather pining for Deluxe Coffeeworks in Cape Town which is twice as good and (just over) half the price. That said, Mi Casa’s coffee ain’t bad. Yeah, it’s milky – but that can be comforting on a rainy afternoon (and besides, it got stronger towards the bottom). The African blend used is air-roasted in Plettenberg Bay: velvety, and flavours of crème brûlée topping. I wanted to try the espresso with condensed milk, but, if I had, I might have had a caffeine overdose.

Thabile Vilakazi enjoys a book at Red Café, on High Street, whilst other customers drink coffee. Photo: Greg Roxburgh.

Thabile Vilakazi enjoys a book at Red Café, on High Street, whilst other customers drink coffee. Photo: Greg Roxburgh.

Homeground Coffee at 24 Somerset Street is run by the self-described “coffee Nazi” Leolita Maroun. Established in 2007, this is the outfit that brought Grahamstown its espresso Arab Spring, roasting an African blend of speciality Arabica. A double-shot flat white costs R20; it’s perfectly adequate, though tastes a little bit acidic and has a waxy finish – ideal if you’re more into savoury than sweet. You can buy beans to take away, as well as a variety of coffee contraptions.

If you’d like a sprinkling of personality with your caffeine, head across the road to Handmade Coffee in the Drostdy Arch (there’s also a van at the Monument). Barista Sisa Mapetu from PE is an ebullient character who takes painstaking care with your coffee (don’t come here if you’re in a rush). He’s all about making you feel good – when he discovers it’s the birthday of the girl in front of me, he gives her a chocochino for free. Mapetu tells me that he generally sells between 180 and 200 cups of coffee daily during Fest. It’s not hard to see why: the R20 flat white I order has the best latte art I’ve seen in town – a forest fern – and is strong and earthy: a decent cuppa, but perhaps not as complex as it should be. It doesn’t help that the milk is too hot and that the croissant I buy with it is dry and slightly burnt.

Handmade’s blend of beans come from a variety of the world’s growing regions (including South and Central America, Africa, and south-east Asia) and is roasted by Garvey McConnell at the mouth of the Keiskamma river.

For Banting fanatics, an intriguing (and potentially revolting) menu option is their take on the bulletproof coffee, which is made with butter from grass-fed cows and organic cold-pressed virgin coconut oil. How very Cape Town.

Near Eden Grove is the Provost Café, a nice lunch spot with a tight food menu and an OK flat white (milkier than it should be) with beans from the iconic PE roastery Mastertons. Pickings are decidedly slimmer near other Festival venues. If you’re near the jazz venues and are at risk of falling asleep, you could take your chances at The Highlander (10 Worcester Street), as its patio bar, I noticed, has a Nespresso machine.

Should you find yourself in Church Square (and I should hope you do – as the excellent Cape Mongo is in the Commemoration Church Hall facing onto it), the ice cream caravan has a Nescafe machine if you’re really desperate.

A pleasing coffee is the result of the alchemy between the barista’s technique and the ingredients (water, beans, milk) they’re using. It’s a difficult duet, one that doesn’t happen in sync as often as it should. Of course, it’s also worth remembering that our taste experience is constantly changing with each swallow, and is affected by food (if we’re eating at the same time).
With my search for a great Festival cuppa yielding rather underwhelming results, I reflected that sometimes it’s not the taste of the coffee which matters so much – it’s about who serves it to you, who you’re with, and what the place you’re buying it from makes you feel like.

Having decided not to chance Delizzia (even though they serve Lavazza coffee) after enduring, a few nights ago, a doughy heart-shaped pizza that tasted like a babysitter had microwaved it, I made my way over to The Red Café (127 High Street). It’s up a flight of steps: a (surprise, surprise) red room with a mural and glowing lamps. It was cosy, warm, delightful: the hippie African cousin of a Grand Viennese café, or a bohemian backpacker sans beds. Outside on the balcony, a few patrons soaked up the meagre sun. I immediately felt at home. Although it was pleasantly chocolate-y once it had eventually cooled down, my R24 doubleshot cappuccino, made with Sumatran beans, was scaldingly hot and not terribly good. With a setting as charming as this one, though, it really didn’t matter.

Alexander Matthews

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