Coffee culture Sri Lanka


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.

26 comments

  1. Well actually a certain popularity towards the tea market, can also linked to the working class smokers. There is nothing like a Plain Tea and a Ciggy (I’m told). So much so that certain ppl in the tea industry, have told me that the ban on smoking in the road side boutiques have had an impact (not sure how big.. but still) on them too.🙂

    Also Coffee is the “in” thing among the well-to-do teens and well younger crowd. Offering to meet up at the said places all over colombo, spending exorbitant amounts (IMO) for a drink that my mum makes best any day.🙂 Hence I prefer to spend the lil money I earn on junk food that my mum is not known for😀

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  2. chaarmax:😯 smoking and tea? Well i guess it makes sense – its all about dried leaves… Feel free to fire up a comment here or a post on your blog if you hear more on this

    Yes I’ve heard about the posh coffee places that have sprung up. Sort of like $tarbucks like. Apparently the coffee they brew is awful. junk food! if your mother heard about it, it would be a scandal.😉

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  3. A post after my own heart!😉 I picked up the habit when I was about 8 (scandalous, I know!) because my grandmother had a coffee tree from which she made her own brew (needless to say, it was amazing enough for the 8 year old me to start sneaking instant coffee into my morning milk). Now it’s at least 3 cups a day, like a prayer!

    ps- There isn’t a beverage I dislike more than milk tea :S

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  4. hansa is superb! i love the freshly ground stuff available at arpico.

    but even better was some coffee that i had in a small place in unawatuna called zimmer rest. the guy who manages the restaurant is from kandy and he said the beans are from kandy and its freshly ground at the place. top stuff!

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  5. Pretty cool stuff! It is interesting to me how we all have such vivid memories and feeligns about coffee! We remember when we first drank coffee and who gave it to us and how they drank it, etc!

    I do a monthly, inspirational newsletter and one of my favorites has been my first coffee edition…if you would want me to send it to you, please respond and let me know.

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  6. I can’t remember the name of the shop but my father used to buy a few pounds of coffee beans in Colombo to take to Kandy and the coffee people used to ask if we ran a hotel!. My family was coffee drinkers and now I have become one too. I always buy my coffee from Peet’s, http://www.peets.com/shop/coffee.asp, which is 100 times better than $tarbuks.
    I have also come to love green tea but dark tea is too strong for me, flavor wise.

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  7. […] Now when I get off the BART, I will have to walk to Peet’s get coffee as today I ground the last bit of a pound of Sumatra, that I love. But I know whom to ask for a cup of coffee, when ever I get to SL. Coffee culture Sri Lanka […]

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  8. As I comment, I am having my 5th cup for the day and it’s only 3pm in NZ!

    Personally, I like the fact that it takes time to make a proper cup of coffee (drip, plunger or espresso). Maybe it’s about the “pleasure delay” effect. I live listening to my favourite artists on vinyl rather than mp3 for simliar reasons🙂

    Sidebar – its not illegal to smoke at a “road side” boutique. The law in SL only prohibits smoking in “enclosed public areas”.

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  9. Wow didn’t expect this level of interest😀

    Vindi😀 glad to see you hanging out in the blogosphere again. Your grandmother had her own tree?!! That is ultra double super good😎 😉 I’ve managed to whittle myself down to 2 cups. Wasn’t easy. Do you get withdrawal headaches? I used a while back but then i was doing about 10+ cups a day. (Not a joke). Totally with you on the milk tea front.

    ddm: Another Hansa fan!😀 Did the you get a name of the zimmer rest guy’s coffee?

    Ted: A fellow addict ?😉

    songsfromthevalley: Post a link to your coffee edition if its online🙂

    kalusudda: Seems there’s a theme with Kandy and Coffee🙂 Agree with you on Star Bucks. I remember that their stuff had a horrible burnt taste – undrinkable unless you poured sugar into it. I bet it was a trick to get people to buy more expensive frapola or what ever drinks. A friend of my used to appropriately call it “charbucks”

    Sean: You are quite right on about the ritual of making the brew. Its part of the pleasure of the process. its become part of the rhythm of the day as well. Then there’s the personality of the coffee machine as well🙂 hmm.. I sense a blog post brewing.. Many thanks for triggering the idea😀

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  10. There is a place in Hikka which has a proper Gaggia machine complete with bean grinding attachment which makes a decent cup of coffee.
    I also find Nescafe Gold an acceptable replacement when I cannot use my lovely Krups espresso/coffee maker.
    As for Starbucks, they’re the best of a bad lot unless you can find an Italian place where Mario will make you a cuppa. I think the problem is not the beans but that the personnel aren’t trained to make the coffee right. Too many choices in the spot.

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  11. I will try my best to pester my sources and leave a more detailed comment on their effects. I have yet to try Hansa coffee, the only decent blend I could find was the stuff at Island Coffee. I get the Vanilla flavoured just for kicks. Need to try the Hansa. Maybe I have been missing out on the real thing all this time.😦

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  12. Curious Yellow: Very correct on the Starbucks thing. You ought to map those coffee places on Google Earth if you get a chance.🙂

    Char: You are a deprived child! Island Coffee is so so – the last resort when the Hansa is over. You should definitely give Hansa Coffee a try.

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  13. Sri lankans should try cold brewed coffee.
    (Read about cold brew in NY Times some time back).
    I just put the coffee in a big glass container (no plastic please) and leave it in the fridge. Overnight at the very least, at times a couple of days.
    If cold/iced add some sugar and splash of milk (as a treat at times condensed milk).
    If needed warm/hot (like on days that need a pickup to get to work) I microwave a cupful.

    Seems like the best solution for Sri Lanka, no expensive percolators needed.

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  14. ado CY seems you’re in londres now no? if you ever head towards east finchley (northern line z3), step out of the station, cross the road, take a left and walk along till you find a place called Cafe Amici (not the chain) – fantastic italian coffee spot run by a family- and pukkah food to boot. i used to buy my fortnightly rations of ground coffee from there. it is the excreta!

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  15. yum! I luv both tea and coffee. but forced to drink sugar-less green tea (gag) at work, since the tea-girls insist on giving us diabetes with the tea they make.

    My dad loves brewing Jacob’s which he gets down from my uncle in Switzerland. Mm….yum! he also insists on pronouncing it Yaa-cobs…spent some years in Germany u see.😉

    My favs are mocha…nothing can go wrong with good coffee with a shot of chocolate. bliss!

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  16. DeeCee: Glad to see a rare middle path walker🙂 Totally agree with you about the Mocha thing. Swiss coffee – didn’t realise they grew it up in those Alps😉

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  17. Boy … it is a good thing the “average” Sri Lankan does not have to discover your hob-nobbery about coffee. I’ve had no trouble getting a nice cup of coffee at one of those “road side” stands. No one seemed to go into a tail-spin when I asked for coffee.

    As to Condenced Milk, Sugar and a drop of tea … never had that experience either. I like strong tea … and even the least sophisticated ‘joint’ has not disappointed me.

    As to coffee — impored, local, Basita’s … or any other “fancy joint” … all of this is certainly is a far cry from the reality of a war torn country that continues to create a wider chasm (if that were even possible) between the working brave and the entitled few.

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  18. somewhere in Texas Thank you for the comment🙂
    Not sure what you mean like “hob-nobbery” but I get the feeling that I have painted myself as a coffee snob😐

    You are quite lucky to escaped the condensed milked tea🙂 Thankfully most places in Sri Lanka are unlikely to disappoint when it comes to tea. I think I might been going over the top by painting the condensed milk tea was a norm.

    Didn’t mean to imply that all the people I’ve ordered coffee from got into a tail spin over it. Most “kopi-kadey” places seem to manage it quite well.

    Totally agree with you about the Basita’s. Thankfully I’ve yet to bump into politician types there. Than again, I haven’t been to such places in last couple of month so I wouldn’t know🙂 Home brew is a lot cheaper.

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  19. Cerno – totally appreciated your blog!

    I am in the U.S. and in urgent need of coffee from Sri Lanka.
    Any idea, or resources I can tap in to purchase this coffee?

    Thank you.

    Rachel

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  20. Nowhere in Colombo can I find a good cappucinno,not a cup sooo hot I cant hold,no froth overflowing please! I’d like to drink a regular with correct amount of milk froth,nice coffee art on top etc.
    I think hansa gives me a headache or was it my bf?

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    • Never had any issues with Hansa coffee at all. Might be the bf🙂 As for finding good Cafe Coffee in Colombo I’m afraid I’m not much help. Can’t think of the last time I was at one of those Colombo Cafes🙂 Given that my standards are so low when it comes to cafe brewed coffee these days I won’t be much help🙂

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