Typically a single espresso topped with plenty of steamed milk. As long as it contains milk, it can be a latte– even if it’s not made with coffee.
When I tried coffee for the first time, my nose wrinkled in adamant distaste at the drink that my parents seemed to enjoy so much. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but as soon as the medium roast black coffee hit my taste buds, I was overwhelmed by the focused bitterness swirling in my mouth and cascading down my throat. Pouring more than half the coffee down the drain, I filled up the nearly empty mug with cold milk and drank the rest in between bites of waffle and eggs, much to my parent’s chagrin.
There is nothing more Colombian than a treasured cup of steaming coffee, a drink that is present in nearly all facets of Colombian life. Officially named by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site in 2011, the Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia, located in the northwestern part of the country, is an expanse of “six farming landscapes… [and] 18 urban centres,” (UNESCO) characterized by their distinctive fusion of Spanish and indigenous architecture, unique coffee-based economies, and wealth of traditional coffee-related costumes and customs. In recognition of coffee’s cultural significance to the country, Colombia’s Parque Nacional de Café (National Coffee Park) located in Montenegro and containing 27 rides and rollercoasters as well as a beautiful global coffee garden and museum was opened in 1995. When two Colombian businessmen encounter each other at a soiree or on a plane anywhere around the world, you can bet that a conversation starter will usually be an observation on the coffee being served. One might inquire into the other’s preferred coffee preparation, or, if wanting to make a particularly good impression, launch an intellectual discourse on some technical aspect of coffee production. To put it simply, Colombians don’t regard coffee as a drug to get them through the day but as a beautiful craft, a drink that should be enjoyed amongst family and friends. Every coffee bean is harvested and refined from only the ripest, reddest coffee cherries (the fruit that contains the coffee beans) hand-picked from carefully nurtured coffee trees, ensuring that every sip is concentrated with tradition, love and community, and savoured with a warm heart.
For years I couldn’t seem to reconcile the strong bitterness of coffee with my yearning to take part in the most fundamental of Colombian traditions. Despite being born in Bogotá, I only lived in Colombia for the first year of my life before my family moved to Mexico. Two years after that, I moved to Houston, TX, and have lived in the US ever since. I have kept up my Spanish well enough, probably because it was my first language, but it took me years to truly appreciate the butterbeer-like effects of coffee (butterbeer is a drink from Harry Potter that makes you feel warm and buttery and just cozy in general). I think for the first few years of my life, my parents had resigned themselves to the fact that I had seamlessly assimilated into American culture and left my Colombian roots behind.
Espresso topped with steamed milk and milk foam.
My coffee awakening started in eleventh grade when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017. Although my house was among the lucky minority that didn’t flood, my family was nevertheless displaced for over a month. Nearly 80% of the houses in our neighborhood were being renovated and repaired, and the chalky white dust that sat in the air posed too much of a health hazard for my parents to feel comfortable living at home. We had to move into my grandparents’ house that was a grueling hour and a half’s drive to and from school every day. Trying to catch up with the two weeks of class material we missed because of the flooding and study for my upcoming PSAT and SATs while running on less than seven hours of sleep each day was more than I had ever had to handle before.
The hardest part of those weeks was the loneliness more than the exhaustion, missing the long conversations my father and I would have on school nights when he would poke his head into my room and end up staying an hour. The three hours of traffic every day left us frustrated and tired and sucked up all of my extra time, and I couldn’t interact with my family as much as I used to. Knowing I couldn’t stomach an espresso quite yet, my father offered to make me cappuccinos in the mornings, without the foam, to battle my exhaustion and put an extra spring in my step. The long commute provided me with plenty of time to take the bitterness bit by bit. Soon, I started finishing the coffee faster and with more gusto. The initially sharp bite that had been so off-putting to me before slowly morphed into a toasty, caramelly blanket that covered my tongue and slowed down my morning as I stopped to take in the flavor. By the time my dad dropped me off at school, the fuzziness of sleep would fade away, and my mind would feel clear and ready to take on whatever the day would bring.
According to Dr. Gary L. Wenk, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Ohio State University, coffee makes us feel good because “it is able to tap into virtually every reward system our brain has evolved” (Wenk 1). The stimulating effect of the caffeine in coffee is largely a result of its interactions with adenosine, a neuromodulator that builds up in concentration in your body as the day goes by, slowing down your neural activity and making you sleepy. In addition to blocking adenosine receptors, caffeine increases adrenaline, causing you to become more awake and alert. Lastly, it also heightens the production of dopamine in the brain’s pleasure circuits, making you feel at ease and happy (Wenk 2).
I was well-versed in the science of coffee at the time and felt certain that my parent’s fascination with coffee was purely a result of coffee’s biochemical effects. I felt happy that I was partaking in my parents’ and grandparents’ treasured morning routine and felt that I was never closer to feeling truly Colombian. At that point in my life, I don’t think I really understood what it was about coffee that had changed for me. I knew I appreciated it partially because of its delightfully toasty warmth and hearty caffeine boost that made up for all of my lost sleep, but I don’t think I realized until recently what it was that made the drink so special to me.
An espresso with a tiny dash of milk.
I first tried a macchiato in Germany during the summer of 2019, handmade by my host student’s mother, Birthe. It was the best drink that has ever graced my taste buds–perfectly frothy on top so that I got a mustache as I tilted the cup to get to the warm liquid beneath–and mixed in with just the right amount of milk that softened the sharpness of the coffee without completely taking away its taste. It was especially wonderful when paired with the raspberry-almond oatmeal that my host student prepared for me every morning, or with a Kinder Bueno–a kind of German chocolate wafer with hazelnut cream inside crunchy pockets of chocolate. Sipped from a tall glass cup that allowed me to see the individual layers of foam, milk, and coffee, the drink left me feeling warm and refreshed, ready to bike off to school.
My host family and I would sit on the patio on the weekends, and sip macchiatos as I tried my best to tell them in German about life in America, and the college application process that was still fresh on my mind. They would talk about their skiing trips, their scuba diving escapades, and their adventures in New Zealand. I would be nervous about my German skills, but their warm smiles and the cup of coffee in my hand never let the conversation die.
Drinking a macchiato one morning, I realized that I love coffee so much because, to me, it is the essence of family, of company, of shared time and conversations, of planning for the future and contemplation. As Jill Hernandez, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, states, “Good coffee draws people into a community which makes hope possible” (Hernandez 59). All social coffee drinkers are “existential optimists,” people who rely on their coffee communities to give them a sense of purpose, to make them feel that they play a valuable role in the lives of others. By creating an opportunity for people to interact with each other, coffee allows us to become receptive to one another’s experiences, dreams, and desires, and makes us feel less lonely (Hernandez 69). As I reflected back on my own life, I realized that coffee had nearly always been present when I had a meaningful conversation with my father, gotten together with friends at a cafe, or answered college interview questions at my local Starbucks. The heat of the demitasse in my hands warmed not only my skin, but my heart, with the knowledge that I was more than a solitary human being; I was a daughter, a friend, a student trying to create opportunities for herself.
A few months after my trip to Germany, I began to do more research on the power of coffee to facilitate community building and was surprised to discover how far back the drink’s impact reached. Since before the U.S. Revolutionary era, coffee has acted as a stimulus for intellectual and political dialogue. After the first coffeehouse opened in London in 1652, European streets far and wide were infected with a “coffee trend,” that soon made its way across the ocean to the American colonies (Bar-Tura 92). These centers of society were highly accessible to the middle class and became, as political theorist Asaf Bar-Tura puts it, “centers of intellectual critique, nests of insurgency and lively conversation” (89). After coffee was declared the national drink by the Continental Congress as a patriotic demonstration following the Boston Tea Party, coffeehouses increasingly became centers for revolutionary organization and economic activity. The London Coffeehouse in Philadelphia actually became so frequented that it was expanded into the “City Tavern,” which later became a regular meeting site for the Continental Congress (Bar-Tura 92).
After stumbling across Bar-Tura’s passage from a book titled Coffee: Grounds for Debate, the butterbeer-like effects of coffee finally dawned on me. Out of all the coffee literature I would encounter later on in my search, each would share a similar theme: people who drink coffee–really enjoy coffee–have realized its power to bring people together to solve problems efficiently, its strange ability to create strong bonds within a community. I’d like to think that coffee wasn’t made the national drink by the Continental Congress because it tasted delicious, but because the young nation’s leaders realized that the drink’s true value lay in the way it creates the space for people to interact with each other, catalyzes energetic conversation, and provides the spark for meaningful relationships to form.
Strong black coffee made by forcing steam through ground coffee beans.
To put it in my father’s words, a good cup of coffee is essential to starting the day off on the right foot, each sip adding an extra element of composure to his chaotic morning routine. On his long car rides to work, coffee acts as a stimulus for thought, and his mind is cleared to consider anything from his daily to-do lists to his happiest memories. Now that I have gone off to college, he remarks that every cup he brews reminds him of the weekend mornings when he would leave an enticing demitasse filled with espresso on my bed table after coming in to wake me up.
The coffee in MIT’s dining halls isn’t exactly comparable to the home-ground and brewed coffee from my family’s stainless-steel coffee maker, or the wonderfully foamy macchiatos I enjoyed last summer, but its toasty flavor nevertheless reminds me of my family, my amazing experiences in Germany, and helps me feel less alone. Its bold aroma seeps into my bones, and makes my heart beat faster with love, energy, and an anticipation for life.
Bar-Tura, Asaf. “The Coffeehouse as a Public Sphere.” Coffee – Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate, Edited by Scott F. Parker and Michael W. Austin, Wiley–Blackwell, 2011, pp. 89–99.
“Cappuccino vs Latte vs Macchiato: What’s The Difference?” Home Grounds, 24 Sept. 2019, www.homegrounds.co/cappuccino–vs–latte–vs–macchiato/.
Dubuc, Bruno. “How Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters.” The Brain From Top to Bottom, thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/i/i_03/i_03_m/i_03_m_par/i_03_m_par_cafeine.html.
Hernandez, Jill. “The Existential Ground of True Community.” Coffee – Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate, Edited by Scott F. Parker and Michael W. Austin, Wiley–Blackwell, 2011, pp. 59–70.
“Parque Del Café Invierte Más De $27.000 Millones En Nueva Montaña Rusa y Teleférico.” Nuevas Atracciones Del Parque Del Café En Quindío, 22 Mar. 2018, 6:31 pm, www.dinero.com/empresas/articulo/nuevas–atracciones–del–parque–del–cafe–en–quindio/256626.
UNESCO. “Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre,
UNESCO, 2011, whc.unesco.org/en/list/1121.
Wenk, Gary L. “Why Does Coffee Make Us Feel So Good?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 28 Oct. 2011, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your–brain–food/201110/why–does–coffee–make–us–feel–so–good.