The café de olla is a historic Mexican coffee beverage made by combining spices and coffee in a clay pot. The exact recipe used for the drink will generally vary from family to family, and is passed down through generations.
The beverage was supposedly invented during the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century for the country’s soldiers. By mixing spices and coffee in a clay pot, soldiers could brew and enjoy a warming drink through long, cold nights in the war camps.
Today, the café de olla is recognised as a traditional Mexican beverage and an historic part of coffee culture in the country. Read on to learn more about this beverage and whether or not it might have a future in modern coffee culture.
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The Origin Of Café De Olla
To learn about the origins of café de olla, I spoke to Jorge Rodriguez Reyna, a Mexican coffee roaster and researcher. He’s also the co-founder of MUMO, a research platform that investigates and promotes Mexico’s cultural heritage.
Coffee has been cultivated in Mexico since the end of the 18th century. Today, it is the ninth-largest coffee producing country in the world, and a major source of all US coffee imports. Jorge tells me that it’s become a significant part of Mexican culture.
He says that while café de olla was invented in Mexico, there’s little concrete information on why or when. However, one popular theory is that it was created during the Mexican Revolution in 1910.
Supposedly, adelitas (revolutionary women) would prepare spiced, sweet coffee beverages to keep soldiers in the camps warm and alert through the night. “Although no documentation exists, it’s likely the soldiers were drinking old and reheated coffee, so they had to make it taste better,” Jorge tells me.
As for its name, that’s simple: café de olla literally translates as “pot coffee” or “coffee from a pot”. This pot is generally made from clay, which not only retains heat well, but also supposedly gives the coffee a pleasant, earthy flavour as it is very porous.
Tradition And Change Through Generations
Jorge says that there’s no right or wrong way to prepare café de olla. He says each recipe will differ from family to family, and that there are often major changes from region to region.
The grandmother in a household typically passes down a unique recipe for café de olla to the next generation, along with a number of other traditional recipes.
While each will differ, most recipes include coffee, unrefined whole cane sugar (piloncillo), cinnamon, and cloves. In southern regions of the country, brewers often add aniseed, and orange or lemon peel.
The drink is traditionally prepared by boiling water with a cinnamon stick and other spices before adding coffee, however preparation will differ from recipe to recipe.
In Veracruz (a major coffee growing region in Mexico), for instance, brewers commonly wrap ground coffee, sugar, and spices in a cloth which is steeped in boiling water. If citrus peel is being used, it will be added at the end.
After the coffee brews, it is left to rest for a while before being served in an olla.
The Café De Olla In Mexican Culture
Diana Patiño is the founder and co-owner of Kumo Coffee, a specialty coffee shop in Mexico City. She says that for Mexicans, café de olla is synonymous with home, cosiness, and tradition. “It reminds us of time spent with our loved ones,” she adds.
In Mexico, rural coffee producers have grown coffee in family units for centuries. Historically, the family matriarch would have overseen the entire process, from planting all the way through to harvesting and selling.
To this day, this still happens all across the country, and many of these producing families continue to operate in traditional ways with little to no modern technology.
Many go one step further, pan-roasting and then grinding their beans using a stone tool known as a metate, or a maize mill. The coffee will then be brewed and consumed in a traditional form – such as café de olla.
However, the number of Mexicans that still consume coffee in these traditional ways is shrinking. More consumers are moving away from traditional coffee consumption and placing more focus on things like a coffee’s origin, variety, and cupping score, all of which are indicative of third wave and specialty coffee culture.
Jorge says that while this shift encourages people to seek out and drink better coffee, it shouldn’t come at the expense of culture and tradition. He says: “It’s great to learn about a coffee’s journey from seed to cup… but it would be even better to balance it with our traditions.”
As a part of this, he says it’s important to remember that traditional beverages like café de olla is important. Jorge says that cafes aren’t serving it as much as they used to. “It’s something we need to talk about and share with newer generations to try and preserve it.”
Diana agrees, saying that younger generations in Mexico are drinking less coffee than ever. Even then, when they do drink coffee, she says they tend to prefer high-sugar drinks which have been popularised by café chains.
She says: “Younger generations see the café de olla as old and antiquated when it actually has gastronomic value.
“It would be a shame to lose it by trying to copy exactly what consuming countries are drinking – instead of drinking something from our country.”
Does It Have A Future?
Jorge tells me that he and his business partner Cristina have already been working on ways to integrate café de olla onto their menu. He adds that they’ve developed a cold brew version of it for use in cocktails; he says this is a throwback to when people combined the drink with aguardiente (alcoholic spirits) to create what is known as a “café con piquete”.
Diana says that when she designed her café’s menu, she felt she had to include café de olla. “We didn’t want to leave Mexican out tradition as it’s something our customers know and love,” she says.
She adds that she has created a deconstructed café de olla syrup made with piloncillo and cinnamon which customers can add to their drinks.
Diana and Jorge both tell me that customers outside of Mexico appreciate café de olla, and furthermore, many Mexican cafés found in other countries offer it. She says that she thinks local cafés in Mexico should do the same., and that she believes the drink helps to introduce people to coffee. Consequently, it could encourage them to try new drinks or take a step towards specialty coffee.
As the number of people who prepare this drink is shrinking, unless cafés keep offering it, it could start to die out. But just because this beverage is traditional, it doesn’t mean it has to be served in a particular way.
To move forward, café owners could balance tradition with specialty coffee to meet the needs of both audiences. Balancing the new with old could appeal to a much broader customer base and help educate both tradtional and modern coffee consumers
Ideas like cold brew café de olla or even a spiced milk-based drink that evokes traditional flavours could introduce consumers to this traditional beverage and boost its profile.
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