It’s no surprise that the world’s most popular beverage—coffee—typically assumes the taste and character of the region in which it’s being served. People in most countries have built their food building blocks out of whatever basic carbohydrate-rich staple—rice, wheat, corn—is most readily available, and combine that with the best source of protein—beef, pork, goat, fish. Regional dishes are created when people add vegetables, herbs and spices according to what the land can produce.
But an American hamburger, a gyro bought on the streets of Athens and a taco de bistec from Panama—while mostly made up of the same basic ingredients—have completely different characters, due entirely to the cultures that created them. Around the world, local culture still has perhaps the loudest voice in food taste and presentation, and coffee is no exception.
Coffee reached Europe in the early 17th Century, but it took another 200 years for two Italian businessmen, Luigi Bezzera and Desidero Pavoni, to patent a piece of equipment that would go on to conquer the coffee universe—the espresso machine. Using an idea developed in 1884 by Angelo Moriondo, Bezzera and Pavoni debuted their creation at the 1906 World’s Fair in Milan, Italy. Twenty years later, Pier Arduino, an inventor and astute marketer, began exporting the machines to Paris. Thanks to Arduino’s famous promotional posters, espresso quickly became fashionable. Years later it would take the United States by storm—becoming the basis for a wide variety of creative drinks, using steamed milk as a foundation for the strong espresso taste.
Cuba, Central and South America
By the middle of the 20th Century, espresso machines had not only made their way to Cuba but had changed the landscape of coffee culture. The practice of adding sugar during the espresso brewing process was invented in Cuba with the famous café cubano (though in Cuba it is known simply as traditional Cuban espresso). It’s typically prepared in a stovetop espresso maker from coffee beans that are part of a government ration for all Cuban citizens.
The addition of sugar and milk is typical of coffee preparation in Central and South America. Venezuela’s tetero combines a whole cup of milk with just one shot of espresso, while a single serving of Mexican Café de Olla calls for nearly a quarter cup of sweetener (piloncilo) and four cinnamon sticks!
Historically, tea has been the preferred beverage of Eastern cultures, though coffee has recently been making inroads. Western businessmen brought coffee to China in the 19th Century—for a time Shanghai even enjoyed a reputation as the “Paris of the East”—but a growing coffee scene was stamped out by the communist regime in 1949. Only in the 1980s did coffee begin a comeback; predictably, its popularity steadily increased, and today China is a viable player on the global coffee scene.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Asians have found a way to enjoy coffee without forsaking their continental beverage, tea. The beverage called Yuanyang (literally “coffee with tea”) is composed of three parts coffee with seven parts milk tea; popular in Hong Kong, it is served hot or cold.