Note: A “cuppa joe” is an American slang term for a cup of coffee. I’ve just been informed that people outside the U.S. might not know this.

When I left Washington D.C. for Joburg, I thought I was leaving coffee culture behind. I was under the impression that South Africa, like many other African countries I’ve visited, is ruled by tea drinkers.

I was dead wrong. People take coffee seriously in Joburg. And unlike D.C., where most people (including me when I lived there) get their caffeine fix from flimsy cardboard or styrofoam containers while driving or hurrying down sidewalks, Joburgers tend to drink their coffee from real, washable coffee cups, stirred with metal spoons, while sitting on actual chairs.

A cappuccino from Bean There Coffee Company (read more about Bean There below).

South Africa is a Starbucks-free country. (Well, almost. I’ve heard rumor of a lone Starbucks somewhere in Joburg’s far northern suburbs. But I won’t believe it until I see it and I don’t get up that way much.) Coffee to go, while occasionally available, is still a novel concept here. And when you order a cappuccino at a restaurant or café in Jozi, odds are you’ll get more than an espresso with foam on top. You’ll receive a work of art.

A cappuccino from the Odd Café in Greenside, painted with a protea (South Africa’s national flower). South African cappuccinos are much creamier than American ones — similar to what we call a latté, but with more pizzazz.

Yummy cappuccino and a dull-tasting brownie from Cramer’s Coffee on Main Street in downtown Jozi.

The closest thing to Starbucks here is vida e caffè, a South African coffee chain with Portuguese flair. Vida is nowhere near as ubiquitous as Starbucks in the U.S. though. Most South African coffee drinkers adore vida. I’d say it’s comparable quality to Starbucks, which in my book means okay.

Customers queue at vida e caffè in Greenside. Has a bit of a Starbucks-y vibe, don’t you think?

One annoying thing about vida is that the prices aren’t posted on the menu boards. By the way, an average South African cappuccino will cost you between R14 and R20 ($2-$3).

Sidewalk café culture at vida. Unlike Starbucks, you can get your coffee in a real cup here. The square of Lindt dark chocolate is a nice touch.

To be honest, I don’t have a highly refined coffee palette. But most serious coffee drinkers agree that Joburg’s best coffee comes from Bean There, a coffee house in the trendy 44 Stanley shopping district. (Bean There also has a location in Cape Town.)

Bean There’s coffee is all fair trade, all African, and all “single origin”, meaning the beans that Bean There buys are never blended from different growing regions — they come from one specific region, like Ethiopia or Burundi. (I’ve probably got this explanation wrong — corrections welcome.) Bean There is a popular hang-out for business people, academics and hipsters, and features a giant coffee-bean-roasting machine in the middle of the floor.

Beans roasting at Bean There.

Motherland Coffee, in the sparkly new Zone 2 shopping centre in Rosebank, shares Bean There’s African fair trade philosophy and is also wildly popular among coffee-drinking hipsters and business types. I see a national chain in the making. The atmosphere reminds me of Caribou Coffee, Starbucks’ toughest competition in the U.S.

Massive capps at the Motherland. 

I enjoyed researching this post and sampling cappuccinos from Jozi’s hottest coffee houses. But I must confess that the best South African capp I’ve had so far was consumed on a recent early-morning visit to OR Tambo International Airport.

A capp from the airport’s illy Coffee, a worldwide chain, served in a styrofoam cup with a cellophane-wrapped croissant on the side. Yum.

I don’t think illy is fair trade or single origin. It was delicious nonetheless.

So if you love coffee and are planning a trip to South Africa, don’t despair. There is good java to be found in this country, especially in big cities like Joburg. Just know that if you stay in a private home or a small guesthouse, there’s a good chance the coffee will be instant. I find this interesting: South African coffee drinkers enjoy high-quality coffee when they go out, but usually drink instant at home. I don’t get it; I’d rather go without than drink Nescafé.

Where do you go for a cuppa Joe in Jozi? I’m open to new suggestions.

%d bloggers like this: