Fine Coffee in Strange Corners

By Jess McGlothlin

Memorable Cups of Coffee Around The Globe

It’s no secret that coffee makes the world go ‘round. It makes early mornings (really, any mornings) possible. The brown magic make-go liquid is a universal thing of glory; present in nearly every culture around the globe, fueling work, adventure, and general misadventure on seven continents. Though over years of globe-trotting my coffee quality standards have dropped to “caffeinated and potable,” I still hold a quality cup of caffeine in high regard. 

But rarely in two places is a cup of coffee a similar experience. From posh European sidewalk cafes to roadside stands dotting African backroads (and often located conveniently next to some giant pothole that slows traffic), coffee has as many flavors as the people serving it have languages. And, more often than not, it’s just as memorable because each one serves as part of the pastiche of sensations that form those memories.

In South Carolina, photographing a week of tactical training in a decommissioned nuclear facility, I shared a trailer with a dozen guys I’d only just met. Our little “kitchen” (a fridge and a folding table) had no coffeemaker, but I liberated one from the next trailer over. Someone had coffee grounds. We made it as strong as we could, then decanted the steaming liquid into empty plastic water bottles (now there’s a quick way to knock a few years off your life expectancy) as we had no coffee cups. Paired with a single slice of red velvet cake two of the guys had in their truck from a drive-by birthday party, it was a shared meal to remember.

On a small dairy farm in Tasmania’s countryside, down the road from a giant platypus statue (because, you know, Australia,) I had a remarkable latte made with raw milk from the cows grazing in the pasture-turned-parking lot. The server didn’t blink at our fishing waders or muddy boots, but did a double take at my American accent.

Coffee has a way of making the unfamiliar comfortable. On the border between Jordan and Syria, during a brief pause at the top of a long, hot hike up a hillside, the local fixer produced a copper kettle from his backpack, along with coffee grounds and tiny metal cups, then proceeded to make a hot, bubbling crew while his friend kept watch to the north, a battered but very well-loved AK47 in his grip. We sat under a two-thousand-year-old olive tree and downed the caffeine before resuming our hike, relaxing and chatting, the hot drink a welcome respite despite the heat.  

In Kenya, French press black coffee, nibbled with digestives for a quick breakfast, never tasted better than after a night spent being repeatedly awakened by curious baboons trying to open my tent zipper and come in for a visit. I finally zip-tied the tent closed and got some sleep, despite another nighttime visitor in the form of a hippo placidly wandering through camp at 2 AM. The steaming richness of the dark coffee was a much-needed fog lifter.  

Sometimes coffee is the cure for over-indulgence in other drinks. Hungover on box wine and good beer after a big night while camping with friends down Chile’s backroads, I mixed boiling water in a pan with a handful of coffee grounds. My theory was the added, unstrained grounds would help wake us up faster. I can’t say it worked as postulated, but the fish started rising and the hangovers magically vanished.

At summer’s peak, the sun never sets in Swedish Lapland. It’s excellent for coffee consumption but bad for sleep. Countless cups of riverside campfire coffee, complete with mosquitoes incessantly splattering in the cup providing that extra dash of protein, helped with grayling fishing and photography at 3 AM.

Like many places in the world, you drink the local water in Murmansk Oblast, Russia once, get sick, and then you’re somewhat inoculated. While working as the assistant manager at an Atlantic salmon fly-fishing lodge, the daily dose of coffee consisted of a desiccated brick mixed into a bowl of simmering river water. The coffee’s origins were unknown; we suspected expired military fodder. Grounds piled up on the bottom like river silt, so there was a daily rush for the top strata of dark coffee. Fresh milk was not available for staff, so black was the service of the day.

At the other end of the spectrum, Japan offered me a posh coffee machine, with buttons all in Japanese. There were no black coffee options I could find, so I relied on the pretty pictures to select a milk-coffee combo that looked promising. Like most cuisine in Japan, it was weirdly good. And proved excellent alongside a breakfast of sashimi, roe, and sticky rice before fishing.

Italy is coffee. Up early every morning, I walked to the local café, set well off the tourist streets. My daily purchase consisted of a pistachio cornetto and a latte, then a stroll to the plaza for people watching. It was a 10/10 culinary experience; I would recommend it despite the lack of field setting.

There are moments with coffee so unique that the taste forever brings them back. Such was the case on a remote atoll in French Polynesia, on location to assess a potential sport fishery. The islanders ate poisson cru—raw bonefish with coconut milk—three meals a day and therefore, so did we. It felt weird to be eating the sportfish that’s protected in so many other countries, but it made a remarkably good breakfast paired with black coffee from a nameless tin canister, stirred into air-temperature water. 

Standing alongside a river in Idaho, fishing the second steelhead run of the day, I paused to make a Jetboil mug of plain ol’ cowboy coffee to run some down the bank to the guys. Once they were fueled, I made a second and refilled my mug, which I carefully tucked down the front of my waders as I fished, the caffeine vessel acting as both wake-up juice and a hot water bottle for the frosty morning.

With each job and each new location, the factors change. New clients. New on-the-ground partners. New languages. New foods. New places to sleep each night. But one constant throughout it all is coffee. Whether it’s an expensive cup in a bustling international airport, or a cup of old freeze-dried stuff on the Russian tundra, it’s a comforting routine that fuels the work. Perhaps the lesson is this: however you take your field coffee, drink it up. 

Then go do the thing.

About the Author

Jess McGlothlin sees her mission as a simple one: tell stories. Working as a freelance photographer and writer, she’s learned how to throw spears at coconuts in French Polynesia, dodge saltwater crocodiles in Cuba, stand-up paddleboard down Peruvian Amazon tributaries and eat all manner of unidentifiable food.