Jan, 2017: Antigua has stunning volcano views, beautiful colonial architecture and a pretty damn good market, but does it have good coffee? While Fi enrolled in Spanish classes I took it upon myself to try and find out. Selflessly throwing myself at the plethora of cafe options available, over the course of a few weeks I sampled espresso from 10 different places. Here are my views on exactly which is Antigua’s best coffee…
In general the availability of decent coffee in cool little cafes is quite impressive in Antigua. Compared to when I first came to the city in 2004, the quality of coffee and variety of cafes has exploded and provides ones with lots of choices. However, when forced to score and rank the 10 I assessed, I discovered a clear winner, a close follower, a bunch about the same and then unfortunately 2 clear losers. That winner was Refugios.
My kind of coffee
Purists might argue that any coffee assessment should be based solely on the quality of the espresso. I would contest that the ability to complete a coffee with a hit of perfectly creamed milk at the right temperature is a key indicator of how good a barista is. As a result I based my assessment of Antigua coffee on a cortado simplé where a shot of espresso (could also be a double) is topped up with an equal amount of hot steamed milk. For me, the perfect cortado should have rich espresso with well balanced acidity (but no bitterness) and milk that is creamy (versus frothy), at a temperature where I can drink it straight away.
Theory behind the scores and the ranking
My coffee score is based solely on the ability of a cafe to make a cortado to my taste and this score is the primary driver of the ranking. However, where I found the quality of coffee to be about the same in multiple places then other factors influenced the overall ranking e.g. comfort, ambience, standard of service, quality of wifi. Where other factors are at play I call this out. The ranking does not consider food as I never ordered any.
Antigua’s best coffee: the scores (out of 10)
1. Refugio (7A Avenida): cortado score 9.5 / price 11Q
The clear winner for me. Refugios is a minimalist style, hipster kind of cafe. It’s not as comfortable or cosy as some of the other places I visited but the quality of coffee more than made up for this. The wifi was also the best I encountered around town. Staff are reservedly cool, but friendly. I did hear one report that one of the guys was a bit over friendly to women but this wasn’t my experience. For my taste the coffee was bang on and exactly the way I like it i.e. a rich espresso with well balanced acidity, perfectly finished with silky smooth, well steamed milk. On the menu it was listed as a machiato simplé but it came as just the right kind of cortado for my taste. Other methods like pour overs and cold drip filtered were also available. I didn’t note any food available.
2. Fat Cat (No. 14 A, La, 4a Calle Oriente): cortado score 8.5 / price 12Q
Three blocks east of Parque Central, this light filled cafe serves up an impressive array of caffeinated beverages from v60’s and chemex to the full array of espresso coffee. Fat Cat provides a more comfortable array of seating than Refugio’s including a cushioned nook backing onto the street. This comfy little nook was our favourite position and provided the best sun lit spot when it’s a little chilly outside. My cortado was rich and strong with just the right amount of acidity with the only very slight let down being the milk, which wasn’t quite up to scratch. The other downside of the place was patchy wifi.
3. La Parada (6a Avenida Norte): cortado score 8 / price 10Q
Hole in the wall type cafe with a lovely view onto La Merced and which doubles as a laundromat for your clothes washing convenience. It’s not the most comfortable with limited bar seating around the bar but you can just easily grab your coffee and walk 5 metres across the road to the park. Staff were really friendly and the wifi was good. My cortado was good but if I’m being really picky the espresso wasn’t as rich as others and the milk wasn’t quite right. La Parada was equal cheapest with Don Cafeone.
4. Fernando’s Kaffee (7a Avenida Norte #43 D): cortado score 7.5 / price 12Q
Fernando’s is often the favourite for Antigua coffee drinkers and Spanish students due to it’s personable staff, big sun-filled, garden courtyard and of course it’s coffee. Unfortunately on my first visit I found the coffee to be sub-par, a little burnt and a little watery. Given it’s reputation I decided to give it another go and found my second cortado much better however still not in the same league as Refugio’s. Fernando’s appeared to have the most extensive food menu I saw (I didn’t sample), and apparently they have an amazing brownie. The smells from the kitchen would attest to some tasty food and also quality chocolate which gets roasted on site. The wifi wasn’t the greatest.
5. Guatejava (7a Avenida Sur): cortado score 7.5 / price 12Q
I really liked Guatejava but more for it’s awesome, sunlit view of Volcan Agua and it’s really friendly staff, versus the quality of the coffee. My cortado was still solid but ever so slightly let down with watery milk and the tiniest hint of burnt espresso. Still, sitting at the corner table with a perfect view of Agua while sipping my cortado was amazing. It’s also a gorgeous little place decorated with varying posters and paraphernalia of the espresso trade and a good mix of alternate tunes hums lightly in the background. Decent wifi.
6. Bella Vista (6a Ave. Norte #1): cortado score 7.5 / price 12Q
The best thing about Bella Vista (literally means ‘good view’) is it’s big rooftop terrace which provides great views of the town and surrounding volcanos. You walk through an alcohol shop and up a winding stair case to get up to the terrace but it’s worth the climb. My cortado was decent but the espresso was a bit bitter, the milk wasn’t creamy enough and the balance of espresso to milk wasn’t quite right.
7. Cafe Union (6a Calle Oriente, # 10): cortado score 7.5 / price 14Q
Cafe Union is a cute little cafe serving coffee, juices, craft beers and food. It’s set out on two levels with some limited bar seating on street level and then a bigger loft space up stairs with plenty of seating and walls adorned with an interesting array of local artwork. The local pop music playing which wasn’t really my style but it wasn’t loud enough to really bothe. Wifi was down at the time getting fixed, but usually is on offer. My cortado was pretty good if not a touch watery and slightly hotter than I would usually like.
8. Coffee Bloom (7a Avenida Norte): cortado score 7 / price 15Q
Coffee Bloom promises good things as you walk down a low lit corridor towards the main part of the cafe. Unfortunately this lack of light downstairs detracts from an otherwise lovely seating area. Upstairs things get a little lighter but with no one else in there it felt just a tad sterile. Latino pop music played in the background and after a false start the wifi was OK but not great. My cortado was decent but slightly bitter and given it was the most expensive coffee I tried at 15Q I would have expected better.
9. Cafe Boheme (5a Calle Poniente): cortado score 6 / price 13Q
This little place probably wins the cuteness prize with a tiny little, street side cafe with coffee sack covered cushions, comfy couches and faded tiled floors. There was a large atrium kind of space upstairs but I didn’t go up there. Unfortunately my cortado was a bit average being slightly watery, slightly burnt, bitter and not with great milk. Perhaps this wasn’t overly surprising given the small rancilio machine tucked in the corner.
10. Don Cafeone (1a Calle Poniente): cortado score 4 / 12Q
There always needs to be a last place and sadly for Don Cafeone, it clearly took out the wooden spoon. When you first walk in it promises good things with an array of different coffee making contraptions on show and an attractive light filled room adorned with colourful armchairs and low tables. Unfortunately the cortado was really rather average with espresso that was burnt and the milk too hot.