Coffee drinking in Sri Lanka feels like an odd preference. Eccentric if not foreign. Particularly outside the Colombo cocoon. I once ordered a coffee at a road side snack bar in rural Sri Lanka – just out side Naramala – since it was the menu. It threw the poor kid behind the counter into a tizzy. I eventually got my brew with a pot of milk and sugar. He couldn’t believe that I didn’t want sugar. The coffee was brewed like tea with a sediment of grounds at the bottom of the cup. Drinkable – mainly because I’m not snooty connoisseur.
Tea by contrast has long since been rehabilitated from a colonial imposition to a “national beverage”. Its now part of Sri Lanka’s “brand” and daily life. Similar to the ipod’s association with Apple. Coffee drinking Sri Lankans (the odd crowd that brews their own)- are an invisible group in popular culture. Like French people who avoid wine – they are hard to visualise. When encountered they are Interrogated like vegetarians by a certain type of tea drinker.
Doesn’t it taste awful ? they ask while flavouring a cup of condensed milk and sugar with a few drops of tea. I empathise that it can be hard to accept deviants who prefer drinking boiling water poured through powdered coffee plant beans. As opposed to having it poured through shredded dried tea leaves. To spare myself from explanations I say “no”. Then add a tiny splash of milk into my sugarless coffee and change the subject. Some obscure detail about the charge of the light brigade does the trick. I blame the Hemileia vastatrix (Coffee Rust) blight of the1860s for such majoritarian ignorance.
My earliest memory of coffee is associated with foul home remedies Along with on of my grandmother’s recollections of the men in HER grand father’s generation using coffee (Ko-pi) as a opium (Ah-bing) delivery mechanism. Vivid description of old men with trembling hands begging for their coffee.
Thankfully coffee wasn’t all dark and bitter associations. I eventually encountered the wonderful sweetness of Sri Lankan Ice Coffee (not ICED coffee). Mostly dispensed as treat at birth day parties and weddings. Later realised that Sri Lankan Ice Coffee is a respectable way for very proper aunties to consume scandalous amounts of brandy and cognac.
My first recallable encounter with brewed coffee was at an aunt’s afternoon tuition class. Someone had supplied home grown beans that resulted in a powerful brew. It cut through the inevitable sugar and milk to pull me through those dull sleepy afternoons.
I’m convinced that tea drinking in Sri Lanka is an excuse for a condensed milk and sugar infused high. Particularly in offices after an anaesthetising rice and curry lunch. Admittedly this onion is not based on rigourous research but on two anecdotes. The one is the memory of my first office tea aka sugar rush. Its a tan coloured brew served hot. Gives sleepiness a mule kicked in the teeth. For about 10 mins.The other is my father’s claim that his first taste of REAL tea occurred during the socialist shortages of the 1970s. When the office was forced to serve its tea plain.
Despite the having to mix in all sorts of sweeteners, Tea is less complicated to brew which I think counts for its popularity. Brewed coffee is a more cumbersome. It requires expensive complicated gadgetry (percolators, filters, etc.) and effort to prepare.
Specially compared to the ease of putting a few teaspoons of instant crap into a cup of hot water.
Another consequent hit against brewed Coffee is that its not as widely available as tea.
Thankfully we live in an enlightened age where Coffee drinking is endured along with the traffic and LTTE suicide bomber. Hip cafes like Baristas brew quite a good cup at a price (even though I have only gone there a handful of times). Even in “outstation” places like Galle fort 😉 . Us in the lesser classes are served with instant concoctions and decent beans.
For the minority that brews its own at home, there are good brands like Hansa coffee. Hansa coffee is sadly not paying me to write this but I will say it anyway: Hansa coffee is the best I have tasted in Sri Lanka. Its up to par with some brands in coffee drinking lands. I’m not the only one praising hansa Coffee. Dominic has to – with a delicious shot of the Hansa Coffee beans. Of course there is plenty of crap too – which doesn’t help the cause of Coffee on this island.
Tea loving spousal unit is sporadic coffee drinker. Usually drinks it at cafes when meeting up with her girls for a catchup gos. I’m not much of a cafe person prefering to the cost effective option of brewing my own. Even though we first met at a cafe. Neither of us ordered coffee that day. But that is history – classified of course.