In case you weren’t aware, coffee is quite popular nowadays! The internet tells me that over 400 billion cups are consumed every year worldwide – rather a lot by anyone’s reckoning.
Buenos Aires certainly contributes its fair share to that total. Indeed, at first glance, Buenos Aires seems to be the proud owner of a deep and abiding coffee culture: meeting for a coffee is indisputably a pillar of Argentine social life. This is aided and abetted by the fact that the lines between café, bar and restaurant are blessedly blurred in Argentina, meaning that you can get a cup of joe just about anywhere that has waiters.
Personally, I love the experience of going for a coffee in Buenos Aires, particularly if it’s at a Café Notable like El Federal in San Telmo. I love the vaulted ceilings; the fileteado artwork; the waiters in bowties; the gloriously beat-up furniture, and the checkerboard floors. It all makes for a perfect café environment. Order a single café con leche and suddenly (well, not that suddenly) your table is overflowing with stuff: the coffee; sugar cubes; a linen napkin; a shot of sparkling mineral water, and a little plate of alfajores to boot. Now that’s value! Plus you can linger over that one cup as long as you like and no-one will ever pester you to order more.
Ahhh J. It’s a very nice experience, one that I never tire of and always share with friends when they’re here on vacation.
So: thumbs up for the Buenos Aires coffee culture.
All of this leaves us with a puzzling question though. Given that Buenos Aires has such a great coffee culture, why is the coffee itself so bad? Because it really is terrible. Bitter, watery and awful, it’s actually worse than a decent cup of Nescafé.
In other countries, Starbucks unfortunately is my fall-back, my go-to-guy for when I can’t find a decent independent café, or for when I want to be absolutely sure of being able to get Wi-Fi along with my caffeine. In Buenos Aires however, Starbucks provides some of the best coffee on offer (which isn’t saying much).
*Editor’s Note in response to some comments: Nowhere does this article say Starbucks is “good” coffee, just that it is a fallback when no other place with decent coffee can be found.
The reason can’t be the equipment, because most cafés sport beautiful, top-notch espresso machines, and anyway, it’s not just the coffee that’s served in cafés: the ground stuff that you buy in supermarkets is horrible as well.
The biggest contributor to the awfulness of the coffee here is that, unlike anywhere else in the world, in Argentina coffee beans are roasted with sugar. Look at a pack of Argentine coffee in a store and you’ll see the word ‘torrado’ written somewhere on the label. This means ‘sugar roasted,’ a process which interferes with (and I think, ruins) the natural flavors of the bean.
Why are the beans roasted in this way? Apparently there are two reasons: 1) to disguise the bad quality of the beans, which in Argentina are low-grade beans from Brazil; and to cut the expensive coffee with something cheaper (the sugar can represent as much as 15-20% of the weight of the batch).
Clearly this is not a good situation for coffee lovers.
Is there light at the bottom of the coffee cup?
There are some signs on the horizon that things are changing in Buenos Aires with regard to coffee. The city is now home to some specialty coffee shops that really focus on blending and taste. The café chain Establecimiento General de Café (www.estcafe.com.ar), for example, has a great reputation.
Personally, I love Matilda’s, the tiny hole-in-the-wall café in San Telmo at Chile 673 (near Chacabuco) that serves great coffee AND delicious cupcakes.
If you don’t live near enough to somewhere like Matilda’s, you might have to resort to bringing in a 5kg bag of your favorite blend from overseas, buying a French press, and drinking your coffee at home. And if you’re at a Café Notable, order a nice glass of Malbec instead – now there’s something that Argentina does well!