Improving Your Caffeine Fix

Posted on February 17, 2012 by

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I come bearing good news for coffee addicts: Georgia has just as much of a caffeine culture as, well, any other place in the world. For those of us used to Venti Caramel Mocha Frappuccinos, it can be a little rough adjusting to the various varieties of coffee that are more widely available and the means of making coffee that are popular in Georgia, but armed with a little knowledge you can improve your caffeination experience a thousandfold.

My first coteacher in Georgia, at the Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, was giving a lesson on coffee last September. I had been in Georgia for only a few weeks, and was finding my caffeine options highly limited – I couldn’t drink Georgian Coke or Pepsi, because they made me nauseous; there appeared to be zero options for espresso-based beverages, like the latte; drip coffee was completely unheard-of – and I had functionally switched to tea as my primary morning kick. Earl Grey has been my favorite tea since before I even drank Earl Grey (thanks to one Jean-Luc Picard, consummate gentleman and Earl Grey enthusiast) and fortunately for me, they have tons of it in Georgia (in fact it’s basically the only flavored tea actually made in Georgia, as far as I can tell).

So this coteacher asks me, “Neal, do you prefer instant coffee or Turkish?” which my brain, cynical, bitter, and overly critical of everything due to 28 years living in New York, immediately translated into “Neal, which undrinkable sludge do you prefer?” I proceeded to explain lattes, cappuccinos, cafe Americano, and cafe au lait, including the proper proportions of milk to foam to espresso (or water, in the case of Americano) and threw in a bit about “latte” and “lait” both meaning “milk” and deriving from the Latin word “lacto,” at which point I realized that I was teaching an Elementary class of cops and lawyers and not training new baristas for a coffee boutique in Park Slope, so I figured I should also throw in a description of drip coffee too.

The point of this sordid tale is that to many Georgians, “Turkish” and “instant” are the two kinds of coffee. In Tbilisi many people know about espresso, but it’s generally something that you get in expensive cafes and I think that those cafes are generally targeted at expats who already have a taste for espresso. But don’t let them fool you into thinking that those are the only options open to you, the intrepid volunteer.

So without further ado, I present the guide to improving your caffeine fix:

1. Instant Coffee

Instant is the easiest option and it’s one everyone will be familiar with. If you’re forced to drink Instant, choosing the right brand can help. Sample different brands to find your preferred taste – I actually kind of like Jacobs, but Davidoff is probably the gold standard. For Davidoff you might have to travel to a city.

If you’re stuck with instant, try brewing it into milk instead of water. Add cinnamon and sugar. Trust me, it’s delicious.

2. Turkish Coffee

Learning how to make Turkish Coffee plays a big role in making Turkish a viable option. Everyone in Georgia basically knows how to make Turkish Coffee, but there may be significant variation between approaches.

A well-made Turkish coffee should have a thick foamy substance floating at the top – generally this will contain coffee grinds, but the less noticeable these are, the better. If that sounds disgusting, try to remember that many of life’s great pleasures are an acquired taste (see: beer). You can drink this foamy substance, wait for it to subside, or blow it out of the way to get to the delicious coffee underneath.

Most people who make bad Turkish put in too much water. Turkish is supposed to be a thick, and about as strong as espresso, so if it tastes really weak or thin that’s the problem. Common wisdom is to heat Turkish on low heat for several minutes (boiling it for a long time causes bad flavors to develop) but I personally find high-heat, quickly made Turkish coffee to be just as good.

Turkish coffee is really good with cardamom. If you’re looking to enhance your Turkish experience, that’s the first thing I’d recommend. Cinnamon, vanilla, and whatever other flavors you like are also viable options, but cardamom is probably the most popular. Don’t use too much – literally, a tiny pinch of cardamom will flavor the whole drink; too much and you’ll only taste the cardamom.

There are tons of different brands and roasts available – of the mass market, widely-available in Georgia brands, I recommend Lebo’s Africa blend, but your mileage may vary. If you happen to fly through Istanbul, pick up some Selamlique at the duty free. Mehmet Efendi is also good.

3. Moka Coffee

Ah, now we’re off the beaten path. A Moka Pot is one of those little Italian-style home “espresso” makers. The coffee is stronger than drip but not a true espresso – but it is delicious. You can buy a Moka Pot at various places in Tbilisi – including the Lavazza outlet store next to School #51, and at the coffee shops near Vagzlis Moedani/Station Square. One will run you around 40 lari.

I use Lavazza Rossa coffee for my Moka – you can buy a can with 250g of coffee for 16 lari and a vacuum-packed bag(same amount) for 10-13. Each can/bag lasts me between two weeks and a month, depending on whether I make one pot a day or two and how hard I pack the grounds.

Making good Moka coffee is pretty easy – fill up the bottom chamber with water, put the filter in, pack the filter with coffee (I tamp it down with a spoon – not too hard, but enough to get it evenly packed), screw the top on, and heat. Generally my best results come from using medium-high heat until the water starts to boil, then lowering the flame a bunch once the steam starts shooting out.

A good pot of Moka coffee is good enough to drink black, no sugar, but if you want to get fancy, you can heat some milk in your Turkish coffee pot, stirring briskly until the milk gets a little foamy and hot, and have yourself a Moka latte.

4. Espresso

By far the most expensive option, the hand-held espresso maker bears mention but is hardly in the spirit of volunteering in Georgia. On the other hand, if you plan on making a go at a life of travel, this could be worth it in the long run. For $100 and up, you can buy a Handpresso or Mypressi handheld espresso machine. These operate with either a hand-pump or a gas cartridge, depending on the model, and take espresso pods, which make the whole process incredibly clean and easy. They produce real espresso and get rave reviews. As far as I know these are not available in Georgia, but you can buy one off Amazon and ship it using USA2Georgia if that’s what it’ll take to get you through a year here. Just make sure you also buy plenty of pods; I don’t know if they’re available here either.

5. Drip Coffee

This is probably another “import” option since I’ve never seen a drip machine for sale in Georgia, but you can certainly buy a European-voltage drip coffee machine from various places (for instance if you have a layover in Warsaw) or get one shipped from the internet.

6. Tea!

Tea is not coffee. However, as I mentioned earlier, sometimes it’s what you’ve got. Tea is actually highly caffeinated and will work to alleviate the physical effects of lacking coffee, if not the psychological ones.

Gurieli is a Georgian brand of tea that is really quite delicious. I recommend you try it at least once before leaving Georgia, if you have any interest in tea at all. It’s available in black, black with bergamot (the aforementioned Earl Grey), and green.

Epilogue: Fresh Ground Coffee

The Turkish, Moka, and Drip preparation methods I mentioned here can be combined with the fresh-ground coffee that is, in fact, available in various places in Georgia. There’s a place in Vake with like thirty different varieties of bean and roast, and they will grind it for you in-store, to your specifications (Turkish, espresso, etc). I’ve also seen less impressive selections elsewhere – at bazaars or other coffee stores.

The point is, if you’re really suffering from the lack of good coffee, don’t despair! Ask around, ask your host family, or drop a comment and ask me!

Here’s a map to the some of the coffee shops near Vagzlis Moedani. There’s a courtyard that has a number of coffee stores, a Dollar Store (worth checking out) and some candy shops as well. The star marks where the courtyard is – it’s easiest to access from Tsereteli (the unmarked street between the star and the stadium).

coffee map

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