You’ve probably heard that Costa Rica coffee is ridiculously good. That’s true to a certain extent: You can walk into just about any establishment, pour yourself a mug of brewed coffee that’s been sitting around for hours, and still not need to put any cream or sugar into it.
Espresso is another story, and espresso-based drinks are my bag. I judge establishments by their ability to make a cappuccino – and I like the new-fangled style that has latte-style microfoam and arrives in your hand at drinking temperature. This sort of thing is pretty rare in Costa Rica. Most of the caps I had were too hot, which made them bitter. Many of the baristas nailed the foam pretty well.
Anyway, let’s take a stroll through the places where I drank some coffee and espresso. (Note: I usually only drink coffee four days a week. But I seriously indulged myself for all 10 days of my trip.)
Cafe Milagro in Manuel Antonio
Cafe Milagro in Manuel Antonio and Quepos is well-known. It’s not just a coffeehouse, but a full-service restaurant that keeps going well past dark. It’s a great place to grab a fish sandwich.
They also serve a tasty brewed coffee, probably my favorite of the type that I drank in Costa Rica. Their cappuccinos are so-so.
The short craft beer – or cervezas artisenal – list, is a nice feature for visits later in the day. Not extensive, but still a good start.
Downtown Coffee Roasters, San Jose
Downtown Coffee Roasters is in a pedestrians-only section of San Jose. And it is by far the best place to get espresso. Their cappuccino is absolutely perfect – right temperature, foam and taste. They also do a fine nitro cold brew -- I actually drank both on the same day, and you can imagine the result of that much caffeine. But I regret nothing. Would do again, 12/10.
I know this is a shorter write-up than some of the others. But Downtown Coffee Roasters was my favorite, and there are only so many ways I can say that.
Doka Estate, Alajuela
I was a little skeptical of a coffee plantation tour. It sounded like boredom to me. But we wanted something to do that afternoon, so I went along with it. And I was proven wrong.
It was very cool to see the amount of care and energy that goes into a drink so many of us love. There’s also a good bit of innovation. Ray, our tour guide, was engaging and knowledgeable -- and he let us try some of the tasks. Hands-on activities are always good! I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I’ll say that it’s worth your time, even if you think you know coffee.
Speaking of which, the tour included samples of four different types of brewed coffee. And I plunked down an extra $3 for a shot of espresso. It was a good shot – nice crema, which is always a good indicator. The Doka plantation is too far away to drop in for a casual morning cup, but it was still a nice place to sample some drinks.
Cafe del Barista, San Jose (Aranjuez)
I had some high expectations from the vibe at Cafe fel Barista. I expected them to be as good as Central Coffee Roasters. They were not. They were a cut above Cafe Milagro, though. Be careful if your Spanish is rusty: They serve spiked coffee drinks, too, at all times of day. That’s how the wife wound up with her crazy concoction.
The cappuccino was pretty good, definitely more of a modern style with the latte-style foam. For me, it was a bit too hot and a bubbly. Still one of the better ones I had in Costa Rica, but not a match for Downtown Coffee Roasters.
We recently escaped the summer heat to spend a few days near Denver. I wanted to go mountain biking, and we all wanted to stroll around as a family without getting flayed and fried under the sun. We also didn’t want to drive a lot, and we wanted to visit some friends living in the southwestern part of Denver.
By the time we weighed our options, we wound up with three nights in Golden, with the last night in Denver. Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind if you travel to the Denver area.
Cool Hotels – Not Easy to Find Near Golden
Maybe it was because we picked the weekend of the Buffalo Bill Days Festival (which is a far bigger deal than we possibly imagined), but we just couldn’t find a place to stay right in the middle of Golden. This put us a few miles away, so we had to drive to the city center. That’s a huge bummer because it’s always better to walk – and parking in downtown Golden isn’t exactly easy.
Even early planning won’t help you avoid getting relegated to an anonymous chain hotel in the middle of a strip mall complex. You’ll find some B&B places if you book early – but I know not everyone loves B&Bs.
Railroad Museum is a Hit
Our 2-year-old had been consuming a steady diet of the train-themed cartoon Chuggington on Netflix. That made a stop at the Colorado Railroad Museum a must. And it was a pretty solid hit. She loved taking a ride on a narrow-gauge train pulled by a steam engine, and she couldn’t get enough of watching the model railroad.
And she was clearly paying attention: We showed her a lump of coal for the steam engine – and a month later while camping, she held up a black rock she found and asked if it was for the train. Clearly, the place made an impression. And you’ll like it even if you don’t have a kid. My favorite part was watching locomotives get restored in the roundhouse: There’s clearly some knowledge and skill at work at the Colorado Railroad Museum.
Beer Falls a Bit Short
Colorado is known for its microbrew culture. Think of all the awesome breweries like Oskar Blues, Avery and Great Divide that call Colorado home. I had high expectations and they didn’t exactly get fulfilled in Golden. Maybe it’s because I’ve developed an insatiable thirst for the juicy New England-style IPA, and that still-emerging style wasn’t prevalent.
I just didn’t get a hold of many brews that blew me away; the exceptions were a gluten-free IPA that tasted way better (at the Holidaily Brewing Company) than you might expect, and a barrel-aged Belgian (at Barrel & Bottles). You can check my untappd activity to see if there’s anything around Golden or Downtown Denver that will appeal to you. On the other hand, I did find a lot of enthusiastic and friendly brewery employees.
And Where’s the Good Coffee?
Small towns like Golden often have great coffeehouses. And Golden does have nice coffeehouses that are welcoming and comfortable. But they don’t seem to have figured out how to make a decent cortado or cappuccino. Maybe it’s because the typical customer is coming in ordering quad-soy-extra-foam-eighteen-pumps-of-flavoring lattes. Whatever is going on, we had to go to Boulder to find a decent cappuccino at the Laughing Goat. And there was a perfectly terrific coffeehouse in Denver called The Little Owl.
Great Mountain Bike Culture
You will literally stumble over great bike shops in Golden that are eager to rent you a bike. For the most part, the rental fleets seem to skew a bit enduro rather than cross country. That, and my own procrastination, are how I would up with a Surly Karate Monkey sporting 27.5+ wheels from Golden Bike Shop. I suppose this bike would be great in snow, or on a fairly flat trail. But if you’re going to climb like 1,600 feet in five miles, you’ll hate this bike. Which I did. The only thing this bike did well was descend in a straight line.
The trails I rode were pretty decent; there’s a gradual climb out of town, and then a pretty steep grind to the top of a Mesa. From there, the trails circle the mesa with some options to cut across the center. If I’d been on my Santa Cruz Superlight, I would’ve had a way better time.
Do yourself a favor: Reserve your rental early.
If I visited this area again, I’d probably lean toward Boulder. It’s a much more busy, crowded area. But it might be worth it for better trails and a good chunk more options for those who also ride road bikes.
Back to the Dinosaur Days
I enjoyed a reunion with a great friend and former band mate – we decided to split the difference in locations and meet at Dinosaur Ridge in Morrison. So we had two adults, a toddler and a drummer to entertain – not an easy order to fill, considering a drummer’s lack of intellect and attention span!
We opted for the bus tour instead of walking the whole thing. We don’t mind walking, but we weren’t 100 percent sure what the route was like. This wound up being a good thing because the driver/docent/tour guide had a lot of great info. He even presented it in small words for the percussionist among us.
I won’t spoil any surprise – let’s just say that there’s a lot of enlightening info presented in a very entertaining way. You’ll come face-to-footprint with the past, and the whole experience is one of the better deals you’ll find. Eight bucks for the whole thing. Super cheap! (As Alfred E. Neuman might say.)
A Little Museum Action
Our last official stop in Denver was the Children’s Museum of Denver. It is entirely possible that the little person would’ve stayed there until she fell dead asleep at an exhibit. The pretend vet clinic and fire truck were enough to be a hit, but there was also a cool bubble-blowing room that would keep people of any age occupied for a good long while.
(Side story: The fire truck area had a photo montage of A Day on the Life of a Firefighter. I recognized something missing, and asked my wife if she noticed what major firefighting activity was missing. She nailed it at a glance: They’re not hitting on women.
There was also a camping exhibit that had people of all ages pretty happy. In short, visitors to Denver won’t go wrong if they kill some time here with their little people.
What About Food in Denver?
Well, we can’t honestly say that any of the food in or around Golden blew us away. There was a nice, friendly sushi place called Maki that got everything right … but it was pretty much what you’d expect from a good sushi restaurant. Back in Golden, though, we found some great places. We literally walked by Ali Baba Grill in Denver, and were amazed at the quality of the gyro, babaganouj and hummus. They were also extremely friendly, which always helps. If I lived in Denver, I’d be a frequent visitor. Our last meal in Denver was at Maci Cafe – I could also eat here regularly, plowing through the panini selection. They also have a terrific nitro cold brew on tap, along with awesome coconut macaroons for dessert.
I just realized that’s in been months since I’ve done a Cool Stuff Roundup. I aim to correct that today with a few very interesting tidbits I’ve culled from various locations online.
Let’s start with some air travel.
You know it’s a favorite of mine – and that I don’t love to hate airlines nearly as much as many people. And an airline like La Compagnie could make us both like airlines even better – it’s an all-business class airline operating between Charles de Gaulle Airport, London Luton Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport, New Jersey (which is the Paris of the Eastern Seaboard -- kind of. OK, not at all). La Compagnie also charges a barely even premium economy price.
For example, I priced a flight for one adult at less than $1,500. Word is a couple traveling together gets an even better price. Here’s what you get for that price: A Boeing 757-200 (previously owned by the excellent and meticulous Icelandair) holding less than 80 people; two by two seat layout with 180 degrees of recline; outlets at the seats; wifi; on-demand entertainment; seasonal menus; and a few other niceties I’d like to sample. The only downside I can see is that La Compagnie doesn’t seem to have airline alliances. So I’d have to book my flight to Newark separately, which creates a possible vector for problems. Still, I’d give La Compagnie a try next time I head to Europe. I’m sniffling and whinging a bit since I only found out about La Compagnie days – literally days! – after booking a trip to Europe on another airline for about the same price. In economy class. Grrrrr.
OK, let’s get a little closer to home with some coffee news.
If you’ve read this blog at all, you know that craft beer and top-quality coffee are my favorite beverages. When I was in Portland, I got hold of a super-delicious treat at Stumptown Coffee Roasters: a nitro-charged cold brew. It had the texture and look of a pint of Guinness, but tasted better (look, people, Guinness is mass-produced mediocrity – there are way better stouts out there).
Now, I no longer have to go to Portland for my nitro cold-brew fix: Songbird in downtown Phoenix is now pouring nitro cold brew. And soon, local newcomer Hazelrock will also be pouring nitro. This is a good time to be a coffee enthusiast in Phoenix!
Let’s shift gears back to transportation.
Sorry, but I have to mix my metaphors by bringing up trains. Amtrak clued me into a nice new feature for its business and first-class passenger service: They’ll be able to enjoy unlimited access to the New York Times and Washington Post newspapers via the trains’ free onboard wifi; previously, Amtrak had distributed paper copies. Amtrak views this as an environmentally friendly move that will save 25 tons of newspapers each year.
I’d recommend swinging a deal to get the Wall Street Journal – I love that paper for its mix of serious news from around the globe and its often snarky, sly humor. Still, from a green perspective, this seems like a very nice move. Let’s also not forget that the newspaper format is kind of an unwieldy pain to handle – I’ll take it in electronic format any day.
OK, I’ve mentioned planes and trains. Let’s get boats in here – or rather, container ships.
I piqued the curiosity of two of my good friends last night by mentioning that people travel around the world via container ships. Not as crew – just as self-loading cargo. This article makes it sound awfully interesting. I could see this being a very interesting way to pass some time to do some writing, exercising and sleeping without the distractions.
If you just graduated college and you’re looking for something oddball to do, this is your answer. Right here.
This one is about a pretty big change in my life – being that dad to a new little girl who I hope will follow my interest in seeing the world. She’s not even 9 months old, and already has a passport and been camping. This story about her first milestones is really what the blog and my style of being a dad is all about. Give it a look, and spread the word -- I’m hoping to connect with like-minded parents to see what we can all learn from each other.
When I was in Australia and New Zealand, I discovered flat whites and the joy of savory snacks along with coffee. Here in the U.S., flat whites are a rarity. And most of your coffeehouse snacks lean on the sweet side; the antipodean cafes, though, recognize the value of a spinach-mushroom-feta muffin.
If you live near the southeast corner of Shea Boulevard and Scottsdale Road, though, Maverick Coffee has you covered. You’ll get just-about-Australian coffee experience thanks to owners who are Australian. There are a few tweaks versus what I experienced (most notably, the cream and sugar are out for customers to use, where it seemed like all the Australian coffeehouses added them upon request).
Maverick Coffee serves flat whites, and also a super-nice drink called a piccolo. I guess a lot of shops would call it a cortado … but a lot of the different names are about splitting hairs, and there are fewer absolutes than anyone wants to admit. If you’re less into espresso drinks, Maverick Coffee also makes a terrific Chemex.
Now, about those Aussie meat pies on the menu – they’re delicious. The brownie is sludgy and moist, just the way I like a brownie. And even if you’re a coffee fan, trying the iced white tea sometime. Maverick Coffee also sells little bags of nuts called … Nut Sacks!
And parents, you’ll like this: There’s a room toward the back with a sliding wooden door. You’ll find games and books for them to enjoy (and there are books for regular ol’ grown-ups, too). This is a nice family-friendly feature.
The seating in the main part of Maverick Coffee is also comfortable, with couches, low tables and high tables, plus plenty of power outlets. The lighting is comfortably dim (and the fixtures are super cool and retro-industrial). I also like that the music isn’t overwhelmingly loud.
Maverick Coffee also keeps and icy jug of water for customers to chase the coffee – which is also very Australian. I didn’t see any restaurants in Australia or New Zealand that didn’t have a “serve yourself” water setup; I like that a lot better than A) waiting for a server to refill my water or B) servers filling my water when the level is down a half-inch.
Scottsdale, count yourself lucky to have Maverick Coffee.
I’m in Iceland.But I feel more like it’s high noon on Main Street in a dusty Old West outpost. The barista looks friendly, but I know I’m being sized up.
"What can I get you?" she asks – the shot-puller’s equivalent of "your move, pardner."
"A cappuccino, please," I reply – the espresso lover’s equivalent of "draw"
Ah, the cappuccino. It will quickly reveal with this Kaffitar place on the Laugavegur in Reykjavik is all about. There’s no sugar or syrup or fancy ingredients to hide behind. This is no double-mocha-latte-pumpkin-spiced frappe with sprinkles and extra whipped cream. Just espresso shots, milk and a bit of steam. And every smart barista knows it.
It took a few minutes for my cappuccino to emerge. Between the crowd and the care, that’s a good sign. Then I took a look: It was a wet cappuccino, which I prefer to the "dry" variety capped by about two inches of airy foam. Here, I saw a nice, dense microfoam.
I took a careful sip. The temperature? Perfect. Hot, but ready to drink right then and there. No trace of bitterness from over-roasted beans or nuclear-hot water.
There’s more to a cafe than just even the espresso drink, though. Kaffitar was filled to the gills, locals, travelers and tourists alike. Some pecked on laptops. Some Â read. Some talked to a friend. Others struck up conversations they didn’t know a few minutes ago.
We spent several days in Reykjavik, and we had to explore the other cafes. There’s no excuse for marching back to the same place. But Kaffitar set the standard. Some espresso drinks came close – but they couldn’t quite match the barista skills on display at Kaffitar. Some actually bested it in atmosphere: Cafe Rot is about as friendly as it gets, especially when the World Cup is being shown on a big-screen TV in the basement. The desserts at Sufistinn were spectacular.
But overall, Kaffitar is the one I’d bring home with me if I could magically transplant it walking distance from my house.
Three Great Coffeehouses in Reykjavik, Iceland
Reykjavik, the capitol of Iceland, is absolutely bristling with inviting coffeehouses. Kaffitar, Cafe Rot and Sufistinn Kaffihus are three of its best.
I think it’s really fun to find quality microbrews while traveling. I get a chance to try something tasty, and I often get a chance to mingle with locals (in the case of my recent visit to the Lost Abbey/Port Brewing tasting room, I even met a friendly black cat). It’s also not super-hard to find good microbrewers and brew pubs.
For me, it’s way harder to find good coffee shops unlessÂ I’m someplace likeÂ Portland or Seattle. I was 0 for 2 on cappuccino during my recent visit to San Diego. I won’t name the establishments here … mostly because the second barista really tried hard to produce a good drink. She took her time, and the micro-foam was spot-on. Unfortunately, the coffee itself was way too hot and had a much more bitter edge than I prefer. For the solid effort, I can’t leave her and her establishment hanging out to dry.
If you travel to Arizona, of course, Arizona-coffee.com will not steer you wrong. But I need to start doing better research when I travel. Does anyone out there have any resources for finding great barista people all across the nation?
In Australia, New Zealand and Costa Rica, I’m pretty golden. It’s easy to find great coffee there. From what I understand,Â AUS and NZ haveÂ mandatory barista training that’s pretty extensive. Australia is pretty awesome because it also grows its own beans in Queensland. In New Zealand, it’s impossible to roll into even the smallest town and not find a pretty classy cafe. Costa Rica? Easy. Just get brewed coffee and toss in a touch of sugar. Cream’s not needed.
Coffee is a shape-shifting drink. No matter what country you’re in, that country has added something distinct to the coffee bean and the way people drink it. Each time I travel out of North America, I find a little learning curve waiting for me.
Imagine an Australian visiting a cafe in California and asking for a flat white. You can count on that traveler getting a blank stare from the barista. Same for an American visiting a non-Starbucks coffeehouse in Costa Rica asking for a Frappuccino, and so on.
My first experience abroad as a coffee drinker was in Costa Rica. I was expected some awesome coffee since Costa Rica is famous for exporting quality beans. I couldn’t wait to drink some coffee – even after checking into our hotel at about 9 p.m., I found a pot brewing in the lobby. I scoured the area looking for cream, only to find out Costa Ricans don’t take cream in their coffee. Better yet, I learned it doesn’t really need it. I also found that just about any place that serves coffee serves it well, from a roadside soda to a full-service coffee pillar like Cafe Milagro. Most of it is brewed rather than served espresso style.