Editors note: A version of this article first appeared as a two-part series in Barista Magazine Online on August 7 and August 14, 2018.

Café de Olla: Native to Mestizo Mexico

In many places, coffee is a culinary newcomer, part of a relatively recent and still present colonial history. But whether it’s because of blossoming production and global trade, or because of the physical effects that a cup of coffee can impart, nearly every culture has developed its own particular coffee tradition. In places with strong pre-colonial culinary traditions, coffee was absorbed and adapted into existing practices, adding to the cultural miscegenation that colonialism always creates. Food and beverage traditions in particular, being intensely personal, have a way of absorbing new practices and making them their own. As an industry that prides itself on its global community and adventurous palate, Specialty Coffee has a great opportunity to learn from varied and tasty traditions of coffee consumption.

Café de olla comes to mind as an excellent example of this phenomenon of miscegenation and absorption. Made with coffee, piloncillo (often called panela, an unrefined sugar that usually comes packed in a cone), orange peel, cinnamon, and sometimes clove and star anise, it’s traditionally brewed in a clay pot from which it gets its name (olla means pot in Spanish). The earthenware is said to give this drink a particular flavor, and it’s often served in mugs also made of the same material.

Coffee is not native to Mexico and Central America, yet this beverage has become a symbol of traditional cuisine in this region. And not without cause: café de olla has roots in indigenous recipes and is uniquely tied to the Mexican Revolution. Even without its historical relevance, at this point café de olla has been served in grandmothers’ kitchens for long enough that no justification is necessary. This is a truly American drink.

Part I: Roots

Mesoamerica has a rich history of beverages made with corn, cacao, and spices. Café de olla has roots in drinks like atole and pinole. Atole (called Atol in some parts of central america) is made from a mix of ground corn and water served hot, and makes for a highly nutritional meal. The cornmeal is boiled to release the semolina, so the beverage becomes very thick. Mexicans often served it with cacao, chilies, and honey. As with so many colonized people, the first historical reference we have for this beverage comes from a western perspective: the infamous Hernán Cortés mentions the beverage in his Relation Letters to Emperor Charles V of Spain, although he names it incorrectly. It’s mentioned again in Francisco Hernández’s book on the native plants of the Americas and their medicinal uses, fondly called el Tesoro Messicano (the Mexican Treasure), published in 1651. In it he expounds on the healthful properties of atole, claiming that it was beneficial to people of all ages, whether they were in full health or deathly ill. To this day, atole is a beverage commonly drunk throughout Central America, especially during the holidays and at Christmas.

Pinole (sometimes called pinol, in keeping with the atole/atol linguistic pattern) is another traditional beverage from Central America; Karla McNeil Rueda of Cru Chocolate calls it the “first fast food”. You can see her talk about this drink in this video made with Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, who recently started serving this beverage in their San Francisco café. Unlike Atole, which was boiled, Pinol is made of corn, spices, and cacao all ground together into an extremely fine powder. The powder is easy to transport, and can be added to cold or warm water to make what we might call a protein shake, but which sustained pre-colonial travelers for centuries. Both these drinks rely on the incredible genetic diversity of corn in Mesoamerica; specific varieties at certain stages of maturation and drying are preferred for each drink. Corn and its myriad varieties is essential to Mesoamerican culture, and preserving heirloom seeds is essential to preserving this culture.

Clearly, there is a firm history of the kind of hot, spiced drinks that bear a general resemblance to café de olla in pre colonial Mesoamerica. These were usually made with corn, cacao, and spices, and offered significant nutritional value as well as being delicious. Coffee, with no calories to speak of but plenty of caffeine to fuel a day’s work, slid right into this niche. Coffee has a knack for taking over more nutrient-rich and culturally relevant meals. A similar phenomenon took place when became popular in Europe during the Industrial Revolution, when it swiftly replaced hearty breakfasts of broth and porridge.

Coffee arrived to Mexico in the 1790s from Cuba, and was already being cultivated and exported by 1802. Up until the 1860s, the mountainous and fertile area spanning the border between what is now Mexico and Guatemala had gone widely unexplored by Europeans. As newly independent countries, Mexico realized the importance of having a physical and geographical border with Guatemala and began measuring the area while simultaneously gifting large swaths of this land to Mexicans of European descent (criollos). The first Mexican coffee plantations arose from these estates in the late 19th century. Coffee production was a critical factor for economic growth for several newly formed nations in Central America. During colonialism indigo had dominated the economy, but with the advent of chemical dyes the market for this product suddenly died. Coffee production began to take its place, and the US became Mexico’s main customer.

Part II: Revolution

Spicing and sweetening beverages is so natural and traditional to Mesoamericans that it’s likely that something like café de olla already existed before its apocryphal origin story, but it’s such a good one that it’s worth retelling.

The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 as Mexicans demanded a change from the decades-long rule of Porfirio Diaz; it ended a decade later with the formation of the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which would remain in power for the better part of the next century (in fact, Mexico’s sitting president, Enrique Peña Nieto, is a member of the PRI). The ten year span between these two events saw multiple regional skirmishes, at least one political assassination, the rise and fall of several political parties, and the deaths of at least one million people.

A brief overview: Porfirio Diaz had been in power for consecutive terms since 1984, but announced in 1910 that he would not be seeking reelection. Not only did he seek reelection, he threw his opponent Francisco I. Madero in jail. Madero escaped to Laredo, Texas, where he started a revolution against the Porfiriato. Madero became president in 1911, but the victory was short-lived as both he and his vice president were assassinated in 1913. With US backing, Victoriano Huerta took power with the support of wealthy landowners. His attempts at maintaining the status quo unified the many factions of regional revolutionaries against him, and Mexico fell into civil war. Well-known leaders like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata formed formidable regional armies, but by the end of the decade they all fell to the Constitutionalists led by Venustiano Carranza. Carranza became the first president under the new constitution, kicking off the PRI party dominance that would last for most of the 20th century.

The Mexican Revolution affected the entire country; with the formation of regional armies, most men left their farmlands (or were forced to leave) to go to war. In some cases their wives went with them voluntarily; however the reality of being a woman alone in a rural area during wartime meant that there wasn’t much of a choice. There were some important milestones for women during this time. There were so few men left to report on what was happening that upper and middle class women who could read and write were able to work as journalists, professors, and secretaries. If they wanted to fight, they could become soldaderas; Petra Herrera, like many women, began fighting by disguising herself as a man while serving in Pancho Villa’s battalion. She gained such renown that she was able to reveal her gender and was promoted to Colonel.

The women who participated in the war effort are affectionately called Adelitas, named after Adela Velarde Perez, a nurse from Ciudad Juarez who even has a song in her honor. Many years after the war ended she received high honors for being a veteran of war. Thanks to to her service, and the incredible stories of the soldaderas on the front lines, the role women played in the Mexican Revolution has been widely celebrated and romanticized.

Despite this romanticization, the vast majority of women worked in service to the men of the camps; the fact that women were allowed to work for money was in itself a step forward, but the extent of their services and the treatment these women received is still unclear. In any case, being a camp follower was brutal work: they carried all the soldier’s gear, set up camps, and cooked all the food. It was here, in the war camps of the Mexican Revolution, that café de olla was born. The Adelitas served coffee to the soldiers each morning, dressing it up with spices and sweeteners just as they would do with a batch of atole.

It’s worth noting that none of the spices in this drink are native to the Americas: cinnamon, clove, star anise, and sugarcane are all from Southeast Asia. How did they end up in this quintessentially American drink? Traditionally, corn drinks were sweetened with honey and vanilla, and spiced with nutmeg and cacao, all native to the Americas. Cinnamon and clove, brought from distant colonized lands, became important ingredients in traditional Central American cuisine. As for honey, by the turn of the 20th century,processed sugar had become widely available. These factors all speak to the complex history of the Americas: a mix of indigenous and European cultures, with influences from other colonized nations thrown in seemingly at random, together forming a tapestry of cultural identity.

Part III: Revival

Over the past hundred years, café de olla has developed its own identity. It’s a staple at holiday celebrations, and people to this day serve it in their restaurants, taquerias, and cafés. But it’s never really broken through the stigma of the social structures of Latin America. Food can be a powerful status symbol, and in post colonial Mexico most Europeans and criollos preferred their coffee black rather than sweetened and spiced in the way they saw native people drinking it. In the countryside, traditional drinks might have been slowly overtaken by coffee, but were never really eradicated. For example, pinol is still served in rural Honduras, often with a splash of coffee added in. Pinol remains a powerful symbol for the people of Central America; it’s the kind of thing your family ships to you while you’re in the US to remind you of home.

There’s an important shift happening in our industry, and hopefully in the world at large, where we find ourselves enjoying beverages traditional outside of Europe, and making room for them on our menus. Dignifying the way people drink coffee at home in their grandmother’s kitchen is a big deal, but not a new phenomenon. Remember when the moka pot came into style again? It’s likely that for a large swath of Italian-Americans, this device reminded them of their family’s particular way of making coffee. There was no feeling of discovery or invention; everyone knew that we were simply elevating a brew device that had been relegated to the dusty corners of the past. The same is true here: café de olla is not new, nor was it invented recently. It’s been around a long time. We have the opportunity to elevate and dignify this delicious drink, honoring the people who made it and who drink it to this day.

We as an industry have a lot to learn from the way people drink coffee in their homes all over the world; coffee is a vibrant, crucial part of many cultures and can be a vehicle for incredibly diverse traditions.