Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Coffee and Travel

There was a time not too long ago when I didn't drink coffee. Coincidentally this was the time before I traveled as much as I do now. My first cup of real coffee was actually enjoyed on my first trip abroad. Since then I've grown to love coffee and see it as a good friend that is usually present wherever I travel.

That first cup of coffee actually has an interesting story to go along with it. It was about 5 years ago and I was installing some equipment in Spain. The first day I was offered a cup of coffee. Seeing as I wasn't in the habit of drinking coffee I declined the offer. My host looked at me strangely and the day carried on. After a very rough 18 hour day and a few hours of sleep I showed up to work and I was once again offered a cup of coffee. That second offer I gratefully accepted.

It was an espresso based drink that was made by one of the lab members and I recall that after the second coffee I started to shake slightly and I felt quite warm. It was an interesting introduction to the world of coffee and I haven't looked back since. I did think that it was a little odd that one member of the lab was the primary coffee making person but now I don't see this as strange at all as I am one of the main coffee makers at my workplace.

Since my early coffee drinking days I've come to the conclusion that scientific research runs on a magical combination of coffee and baked goods (and science conferences run on a similarly magical combination of coffee and alcohol).

This works out well for me as I can usually find decent coffee when I arrive at my destination. One of the few vital questions that I ask upon arriving at a new lab regards the location of good coffee. I do have to qualify the quality of coffee that I'm looking for because there tends to be really bad coffee lurking around at most universities.

When I'm actually traveling the coffee situation can be a little iffy. I've had some really bad coffee at airports but I have found that weak coffee is nearly always better than no coffee at all. The exception to this rule tends to be when the only creamer available is of the powdered, non dairy variety. If that type of creamer is offered then the coffee tends to be really bad; even if you don't use the creamer.

There are of course coffee vending machines that dispense coffee of varying quality. You never know what you are going to get with one of these machines but at least you get to use a vending machine. Loyal readers will remember that I mentioned this type of wonderfully complicated vending machine in Vending Machine Love.

What about those little in room coffee machines that you see in most a lot of the hotels in the States? I've tried these a couple times and I've found several problems with them:

1. The coffee that is provided is of unknown quality.
2. There is no way to tell how clean the machine is.
3. There is never fresh milk or cream for the coffee.
4. Every time I use them I somehow overflow the pot and hot water gets all over.

Needless to say I try to avoid the in room coffee machines.

My preference is to find a nice local coffee shop within walking distance of my hotel. Plenty of people visit the chains and while a local shop may not be familiar they do offer a nice slice of local culture and usually better service.

Of course I can't always depend on the local coffee. One of my coworkers and myself even went so far as to brew our own coffee in a hotel breakfast area with a couple of those one cup coffee filter holders. Unfortunately we only had access to the hot water used for making tea which wasn't quite hot enough for making coffee. It was still nice to have a plan to have access to coffee when the local coffee was lacking.

Traveling can offer some great experiences and the chance to try something familiar in an unfamiliar setting can be just the thing to get your day going.

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  1. I drink decaf. I know- dumb! But I can't stand the jitters and not being able to sleep. This was especially hard in Europe as they do not ususally brew decaf, so I got a lot of instant coffee packets, which real cream helps. But on one trip to Whidbey Island I discovered Useless Bay Coffee Company and Roc brews the best decaf known to man. I have to order it now. I very happy coffee memory for me is when I was a young girl we drove from NJ to MA on most weekends to see family. My parents would put us kids in the back seat and start driving in the wee hours. After some time, in my sleep I would smell coffee, right from the thermos. Man that thermos coffee smelled good! Thanks for the post, it brought back memories.

  2. Robin Sue: Funny you should mention the smell of coffee. For the longest time I was of the opinion that coffee smelled a lot better than it tasted. I will admit to enjoying decaf after dinner but usually I'll take the regular variety of coffee. Anyway, I need to go make the first pot of coffee for the day. Getting to the office early means no coffee waiting but at least I get to make it my way.

  3. When I first started drinking coffee in college, it was little packets of instant - and in the beginning I wasn't even organized to have milk in my dorm room to put in it!

    Then I went to Paris after graduation and we had this amazing breakfast/dessert place (same thing in Paris, anyway) that brought a pot of expresso and a pot of heated cream on a little tray.

    Loved Paris.

    Oddly enough, one of the best places for coffee amongst my travels was Australia - they have a whole separate vocabulary for ordering (flat white? short black?) and it was generally of very good quality, even when camping out on the Great Barrier Reef.