Coffee comes home: How the cappuccino conquered South Africa

Coffee comes home: How the cappuccino conquered South Africa

Instant coffee in a restaurant? In Cape Town that’s what you used to get. Not anymore
cafes in cape town
No more instant. Cape Town coffee huts now offer a higher quality brew.

Not so long ago, if you ordered a cup of coffee in South Africa you needed to specify "filter" to avoid getting instant.

A decade ago, there was no cafe culture, nowhere to go for a flat white and certainly no expectation of locally roasted beans.

Those days are gone. Specialist coffee shops did nearly four times the business here in 2012 as in 2007.

The epicenter of the country's coffee revolution is Cape Town, whose population has a reputation for being trendy and aspirational.

These days, to-go cups from the right coffee shop are displayed like choice accessories.

A few companies are willing to take the credit for spearheading the trend, though it's more likely the combined result of several that had the foresight to anticipate interest in better coffee and the ability to interpret it for a local audience.

From bad to good to great

Coffee expectations, till recently, have been very low. Instant coffee, often cut with chicory, was a vehicle for lots of milk and sugar to warm the body and provide a minor buzz.

Capetonians who used to drink instant coffee, tea or no hot beverage at all, have since discovered the cappuccino.

Wimpy, KFC, BP Garage and other chains offer cheap and cheerful versions for the masses.

"They've got these coffee machines. But you don't smell coffee," says Anthony Swarz of Anthony's Golden Cup. "I don't know if it's instant. But it's not the same as if people walk into my shop, as if they've been pulled by the nose."

Swarz links the end of apartheid to the demand for better quality coffee.

"Now that all races can travel, wherever they go, they get good coffee," says Swarz. When they return, he says, their expectations are higher, and they seek out local roasters.

Swarz is old school. His small shop has tiny tables for two and is decorated with an assortment of flags (both for coffee and soccer countries, he says) and antique coffee makers from various cultures.

Swarz, who is in his 70s and drinks several full-strength cups daily, prepares the drinks himself, serving them in zebra-striped mugs.

"Sometimes they take all the fun out of making coffee with those little coffee pods. When you start grinding your own coffee, it's fun."

Swarz listens to the coffee beans to decide when they're done.

"Different coffees have a different cackle," he says. "You know exactly when to let it out, to get the best aroma, the best taste. These days people roast by computer."

It’s not about the caffeine, it’s about the experience

cafes in cape townCape Town cafes are no longer places simply to get a sugar fix. Vida e Caffe is the most visible of the new breed of cafes, with 65 shops and an aggressive expansion plan taking them from Cape Town into Johannesburg and beyond.

Grant Dutton, Vida's managing director, says they're against the globalization and Americanization of coffee, with no massive venti offerings a la Starbucks.

Until now they've eschewed flavored syrups, though he says they might try vanilla.

There's a high see-and-be-seen factor associated with Vida cafes, which strategically selects locations in affluent shopping areas.

Vida is a twist of Afrioptimism (workers chant their thanks to customers who tip) and Angolan colonialism (menus are in Portuguese), served up in shiny red and white stores with an artsy in-house magazine and strong ties to other aspirational brands -- a mini Lindt bar comes with a beverage.

The vibe is high-energy, a bit loud, but friendly and happy.

"It wakes you up," says Dutton about the Vida experience. "It's African, genuine, fun, sincere. We like our guys to use their personality, to have fun and be themselves."

Vida's beans are all roasted in the basement below their Cape Town headquarters.

Detractors say that Vida is less about the coffee and more about the experience.

By contrast, Origins is dark and cool, a cave-cum-cafe even on a hot day.

It's an urban scene with its painted brick, exposed pipes, oversized sacks of beans and monster of a grinder.

Long, communal tables are shared by laptop commuters and chatting friends. There's a continuous stream of people coming in for a cup to go.

Bernisha Moses, wearing a T-shirt that says, "Some like it BLACK," is one of the few women working behind a counter. She can readily identify with her customers' shifting palates, as she's been educating her own while working here.

"Some people come in and ask for a 'normal coffee,'" she says. "So we have to ask questions to figure out what they mean by that -- maybe a filter coffee with milk on the side."

Origins has led the way as an artisanal roaster. Although it has just one cafe, it supplies beans and barista trainings to independent venues all over the city.

Owner Joel Singer estimates that Origins has trained 800-1,000 baristas. Many of the other roasting company owners and employees were trained at Origins.

Beans for Africa

cape town cafesJosé Vilandy: "People are starting to recognize that Africa is the mother of coffee."Coffee beans are one of Africa's premium export products.

"Coffee has a long life of about a year," says José Vilandy, who won the country's 2008 barista competition, and who now works for Truth, one of the city's new boutique roasters.

"But once it's been roasted, it only lasts four or five weeks."

In other words, buying coffee roasted in Europe means paying premium prices for stale coffee.

Customers have a keen interest in beans from Africa.

Just as chocolate is often associated with Switzerland rather than Ghana and Madagascar where cacao beans are actually grown, coffee has long been synonymous with European culture -- even though no coffee beans grow in Italy or France.

There's been a shift away from this Eurocentric perspective.

"People are starting to recognize that Africa is the mother of coffee," says Vilandy. "That's something that people appreciate a lot."

Up next

Cape Town remains a city deeply divided by race and class and the new cafes have opened up almost entirely in middle class and wealthy areas.

One promising new cafe recently opened up in Khayelitsha, the city's largest township. The Department of Coffee bills itself as the only place to get a cappuccino in Khayelitsha.

Located near a train station, the DOC has plenty of passersby, though on a recent summer day, only the occasional person stopped for a cold fruit drink at midday.

In traditional African culture, hot coffee is seen as a winter drink, and for adults only.

cape town coffeeThis kind of care and attention to detail is a recent thing in South Africa. "People say, 'No, it's hot, I can't drink it," says Wongama Baleni, who jokingly refers to himself as the Department's Minister.

Baleni and his partners Vusumzi Mamile and Vuyile Msaku are three young entrepreneurs who were looking for a business idea in the neighborhood where they grew up, but where they wouldn't have any direct competition. Earlier ideas were a car wash and laundromat.

They did their market research on foot, scoping out available spaces and proposing the idea of a takeaway cafe to potential customers.

Responses were positive; many people who live in Khayelitsha work downtown and have turned on to the coffee scene, but have no options close to home. And many others are espresso virgins.

"We're bringing coffee culture to black people," says Baleni. "We give them a taste. It smells nice. We brought it to the mall, explaining that we will come to you in the morning with coffee."

Mornings start early and are busy, with a set list of repeat customers who have their morning drinks delivered in stylish orange and white cups to their workplaces.

Singer says coffee culture has just started in South Africa.

Roasteries haven't been opening up all over Johannesburg and Durban with the same intensity, although the wave is clearly moving north.

In the next five years, Singer expects people will ask more questions, get very fussy, and generally be excited about fine-grain coffee details.

"First people discovered cappuccino. Then they discovered well-made cappuccino," he says. "Now people want to start exploring subtle issues."

Cape Town cafes

Anthony's Golden Cup

Anthony offers flavored coffees, such as amarula, largely in response to customers who have traveled overseas and requested them. If you're looking for American-style syrup flavors, this is the closest you'll find in Cape Town.

59 Loop St., Cape Town; +27 21 426 1268;

Bean There Coffee Company

The first Cape Town branch of the Johannesburg cafe that emphasizes fair-trade coffee.

58 Wale St., Cape Town; +27 87 943 2228;

Department of Coffee

At R8.50 (US$1) for a top-notch cappuccino, theirs is definitely the best bargain in town.

158 Ntlazane St., Khayelitsha (corner of Ntlazane street and Khwezi crescent, near Khayelitsha train station); +27 73 300 9519/+27 78 086 0093/+27 78 316 2918;

Origin Coffee Roasting

Origin offers coffee appreciation courses -- not unlike Wine Tasting 101.

28 Hudson St., Cape Town; +27 21 421 1000;


Exacting standards at a location ideal for walking tours.

36 Buitenkant St., Cape Town; +27 21 200 0440;

Vida e Caffe

Popular local chain in various locations around the city.

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers social justice, the arts, and the environment.

In addition to, she writes for CSMonitor, Dwell,, USA Today, the Washington Post, and other publications.

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