Quick!: name a city that’s surrounded by the exquisite natural beauty of mountains and seas, with brightly painted houses that decorate quaint neighborhoods, with great food everywhere you turn, with a nearby wine country consisting of hundreds of vineyards and many nationally renowned restaurants, with hipsters who frequent farmers’ markets in transitional neighborhoods, with a diverse racial mix from black to white to Indian to Southeast Asian, with the nation’s most vibrant gay population, with a touristy waterfront featuring seals on piers and a ferry that takes you to a famous prison island, and with a whole lot of really good coffee.

Why, it could only be Cape Town, South Africa.

Alright, that was a trick question: San Francisco’s Pier 39 has sea lions, not seals per se. But the point being that for anyone from our fair city, many aspects of Cape Town will seem very familiar. But there are also significant differences.

Cape Town from Table Mountain Cape Town and Table Mountain from Robben Island

Cape Town's Bo-Kaap neighborhood Cape Town's Victoria Harbor

Familiar and not

World Cup events in Cape Town's V&A Waterfront on the day of the Final, July 11, 2010If you’re talking liberal laws, it’s probably not a major surprise that gay marriage is legal in South Africa. What may be more of a surprise is that, for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the South African constitution had to be temporarily suspended around the soccer stadiums for FIFA security purposes. (We can’t say enough good things for how festive the South Africans were as hosts to the World Cup, btw.) Years of abuses under Apartheid made many personal searches — ones we’re quite accustomed to in the U.S. — illegal. The 14-year-old South African constitution is one of the most liberal in the world.

On the other hand, there’s the old local joke that rock and roll never dies, it just tours South Africa. (“Hey, was that really Bryan Adams I just saw in town the other day?”) And given the nation’s history of economic disparity and its 25% unemployment rate, there are the major issues of poverty and security.

Cape Town's FIFA Fan Fest for Germany vs. Argentina, July 3, 2010 Nelson Mandela mural along Church Street, Cape Town

Soccer fever hits Cape Town for the World Cup

Some expected us to witness crushing poverty and aggressive homelessness in Cape Town, but it’s hard to say that it is any worse than SF. In the month we spent around Cape Town’s central business district (CBD) — a.k.a. the City Bowl — we were approached by all of one person for money. Yet security is a big concern among the locals and it’s an even bigger industry.

Even with all the truly great options in town to satisfy any SF food snob, food is handled a bit differently here. Some of the best sushi in town can be found in Italian restaurants — sushi being a decidedly California thing in Cape Town, and less of a Japanese thing. Which also explains why the grocery stores sell flour tortillas under the name “California wraps”. (To make matters worse, in turn, one of the more famous Italian restaurants in town has a German name.) This theme of playing a bit fast and loose with labels and names will again come up with coffee later in this post.

Beach mansions in Cape Town Springbok, the national animal (and a tasty one at that), in the fields hours outside of Cape Town

To be a young black man anywhere, including Cape Town, has its issues Only the World Cup tourists needed this sign of etiquette

Coffee standards in Cape Town

Speaking of coffee, like Italy or Australia or New Zealand, the baseline quality standards in South Africa are clearly better than in the U.S. You can walk into just about any random store and trust that you’ll get a rather acceptable espresso, whereas this practice is still ill-advised even in San Francisco. But, as in places such as Italy, examples of very good espresso are a rarer find — even in the biggest cosmopolitan cities. But with a little research and a few contacts, we were able to identify some of the best places in Cape Town.

A few things come to mind specifically about the espresso here. WEGA machines are ubiquitous. The coffees tend to emphasize more rich-bodied flavor than the wilder, bright coffees you may come to expect from Africa, but there are exceptions. And the cappuccino here almost always comes with a very Portuguese dusting of cocoa powder; you quite literally ask to have for one without it.

And somewhat contrary to an earlier post of ours, you can find the cappuccino quite often on café menus — even perhaps moreso than flat whites, and especially at the cafés that are a little less obsessed about their coffee. However, most places do treat the cappuccino and flat white interchangeably. Which leads us to our next topic of discussion…

Cappuccino at Espresso Lab Microroasters Origin Coffee Roasters' drink menu

Camps Bay and the 'Twelve' Apostles, suburban Cape Town Hout Bay from Chapman's Peak, suburban Cape Town

South Africa’s wine analogy: coffee-flavored wines

After spending a month in South Africa, it made sense that this is the nation that gave us “red espresso” — or Roobios tea. Even if you like the tea, as we do, the term “red espresso” comes off as unnecessarily deceptive and has never sat well with us. Just because you can stick something into an espresso machine does not make it espresso. Which reminds us a little of eggspresso — or should that be “yellow espresso”? And yet “Red Cappuccino” is also a registered trademark.

Now if you thought coffee’s wine analogy was a bit over the top, over the past several years South Africa has developed something of a niche market for coffee-flavored wine. They’ve been growing wine grapes around Cape Town since 1655, but it wasn’t until 1925 that a Stellenbosch professor crossed the fragile pinot noir grape with the heartier cinsault (known locally as hermitage) to create a local cultivar called pinotage.

In 2001, noted pinotage maker Diemersfontein Wines came out with the original “coffee chocolate pinotage”, and they’ve popularly released one every year since. Meanwhile, imitators came to the fore in the form of Cappupinoccinotage from Boland Cellars, Café Culture from KWV, the Vrede en Lust Mocholate (a malbec), etc. The original Diemersfontein coffee pinotage wine maker, Bertus Fourie — literally nicknamed “Starbucks” for that reason — has moved on to Café Culture and now Barista Wine (we are not making this up), where he holds the title of “Head Barista” and their Web site offers a Nespresso Le Cube D180 sweepstakes.

Stellenbosch wine country, outside of Cape Town The Vida e Caffè in Stellenbosch

Coffee pinotage is sometimes called the red wine for coffee addicts, and it certainly doesn’t come without some controversy from the purists, but it’s really more the red wine for coffee drinkers who don’t like red wine. That said, there’s room for everybody’s tastes. We’ve long stated that Starbucks’ stroke of genius was in convincing millions of customers who don’t like the taste of coffee that they actually do. While coffee pinotage doesn’t use any actual coffee for flavoring, the taste aims for the consumer are the same.

Wall of coffee cups at Mugged on RoelandNow despite all the wine-growing activity around Cape Town and a number of its very good wines, many South African wines are still (IMO) global underachievers and/or acquired tastes. Having tried a 2007 Diemersfontein coffee pinotage and a 2009 Barista pinotage, we were reminded of all the beer + coffee combinations that have failed over the years … the “coffee stouts” where the results were second-rate as a beer and second-rate as coffee, rather than something better than the sum of its parts.

Of course, we live in a diverse, global culture that sometimes wants their wine (or beer) to taste like coffee, their coffee to taste like chocolate and hazelnuts, and their chocolate to taste like bacon. So why not skip the middleman and market bacon wine? Sure, it might be a curious novelty to hear Céline Dion perform an album of songs by fellow Canadians Death from Above 1979, but it’s no stretch to presume that it will optimally satisfy neither fans of Céline nor Death from Above 1979.

As Oscar Wilde famously once said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” This South African dimension to the coffee-wine analogy largely fails coming from a different angle.

Now why don’t we do that?

Origin Coffee Roasting's three stories of coffee heavenA little more towards the authentic in the African continent, in the category of “now why don’t we do that in America?”, we did enjoy the occasional Ethiopian coffee ceremony — even if it originates on the continent’s opposite side of the equator. At a restaurant such as Cape Town’s Addis in Cape, we enjoyed an odd mix of Frankincense, popcorn (?!), and coffee served from a Jabena pot.

While the coffee undergoes some of the oldest and crudest handling and brewing known to man, the resulting cup is quite flavorful. Perhaps more importantly, the ceremony uniquely resonates with coffee culture, capturing much of the wonder that’s truly native to coffee without the creatively lazy marketing contortionists who squeeze coffee’s square peg into wine tasting’s round hole through the mutant coffee cupping fad in America. But alas, Californication applies to coffee cupping here just as it does to sushi and flour tortillas in South Africa.

At the coffee chain level, Vida e Caffè serves as an example of how Starbucks and even Peet’s fall short. Even Woolworths W Café serves both espresso and cappuccino in a paper cup that run circles around Starbucks.

While at the “artisan” end, there are places like TRUTH. that seem to go through the Third Wave motions, but with much success. And then there are places like Origin Coffee Roasting, who not only broke quality coffee ground in Africa in 2006, but they established a roasting and training operation that most American coffee entrepreneurs have only talked about. And then there’s Espresso Lab Microroasters, who show some of the most cohesive and comprehensive vision for what a quality coffee operation could be — while making espresso as good as anything in SF.

The wine may have room for improvement compared to what San Franciscans are used to, but everything else about Cape Town makes it a fantastic and compelling place to be — including the coffee.

Jabena, Frankincense, popcorn - an Ethiopian coffee ceremony at Addis in Cape TRUTH.coffeecult kiosk in Cape Town's V&A Waterfront

Woolworths surprising W Café Vida e Caffè espresso with Portuguese pasteis de nata


Name Address Neighborhood Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
95 Keerom 95 Keerom St. Gardens 6.40 7.00 6.700
Blue Cat Cafe Shop 10a, Gardens Shopping Centre, Mill St. Gardens 6.60 5.00 5.800
Bread Milk & Honey 10 Spin St. Gardens 7.30 7.50 7.400
Café Chic 7 Breda St. Gardens 3.40 4.50 3.950
Cookshop 117 Hatfield St. Gardens 7.10 7.80 7.450
Crème Café & Espresso Bar Shop 11, Gardens Shopping Centre, Mill St. Gardens 4.60 5.00 4.800
Deluxe Coffeeworks 25 Church St. City Bowl 7.40 7.80 7.600
Depasco Café Bakery Shop 5, Buitenkloof Studios, 8 Kloof St. Gardens 6.80 7.00 6.900
Espressamente Shop number F&B1, Cape Town International Airport Cape Town Intl Airport 6.90 7.20 7.050
Espresso Lab Microroasters 373-375 Albert Rd. Woodstock 8.60 8.80 8.700
Fego Caffé Shop No. 6160, Lower Level, Victoria Wharf V&A Waterfront 5.80 6.00 5.900
Jardine Bakery 185 Bree St. City Bowl 6.70 6.80 6.750
Jardine Restaurant 185 Bree St. City Bowl 6.90 7.00 6.950
Melissa’s The Food Shop Shop 6195, Lower Level, Victoria Wharf V&A Waterfront 5.20 5.50 5.350
Mugged Style Cafe (aka “Mugged on Roeland”) Shop 1, Perspectives Building, 37 Roeland St. East City 6.70 7.00 6.850
Origin Coffee Roasting 28 Hudson St. De Waterkant 8.20 8.00 8.100
Osumo 49 Kloof St. Gardens 6.80 7.00 6.900
Saeco Caffè 15 Orange St. Gardens 6.70 7.50 7.100
Sevruga Restaurant Shop 4, Quay 5, Victoria Wharf, V&A Waterfront V&A Waterfront 6.80 7.00 7.200
Tribeca Bakery 106 Main Rd. Kalk Bay 7.40 8.00 7.700
TRUTH.coffeecult Depot Dock Rd., V&A Waterfront V&A Waterfront 7.60 5.50 6.550
TRUTH.coffeecult Roasterspace 1 Somerset Rd. Green Point 7.40 7.20 7.300
Vida e Caffè Wembley Square Gardens 7.00 7.50 7.250
Vida e Caffè Shop 6100, V&A Waterfront V&A Waterfront 7.00 6.80 6.900
Vida e Caffè Shop 1, Mooikloof, 34 Kloof St. Gardens 7.00 6.80 6.900
W Café 72 Longmarket St. City Bowl 8.00 6.20 7.100