Let me start by saying that coffee is an essential element of my life. While I groan at the endless “But First, Coffee” bric-a-brac that constitutes current U.S. coffee pop culture, I still love myself a nice cup or three every day. It’s an important part of my daily routine. So, when I decided to study abroad in Chile, I did some research about what the bean-scene is like there. I saw numerous articles saying that Nescafé instant coffee is king. Initially, I was kind of shocked. Any decent human would agree that instant coffee is inferior and only to be used in emergency situations. And yet, in Chile it is the go-to source of caffeine. Why is this the case? The country of Chile is so close to some of the best coffee in the world. Brazil? Colombia?? Has anyone in Chile seen a french press before? As I prepared to leave for Chile, I savored my last cups of drip coffee, and braced myself for months of only having access to the bitter grains that come from a can.
After over two months of studying abroad in Chile, there are two things I can say about the influence of Nescafé here:
People almost exclusively drink Nescafé here (almost being a keyword).
While it is true that you can order espresso in many spots, the overwhelming source of caffeine for the citizens of Chile is Nescafé. I can probably count on one hand the number of times that I have had “regular” coffee since I’ve been here. Every house has giant canisters of the stuff in their cabinets. Every block in the city has some vendor selling cups of it for only a few hundred pesos. I’ve seen grandmas in cafés mixing it with ungodly amounts of sugar, and commuters downing packets of the stuff at bus stops. It’s a plague.
Saying that, in Valparaíso there is a great café (called “Taller Café”) that is doing some really cool stuff. When I tried a shot of espresso from them, I was shocked at how citrusy-sour it was. Was this some really potent coffee, or had all of this Nescafé that I’ve been drinking been making me soft? Taller Café is really serious about creating a good product, and is the antithesis to the mass-produced, globalized Nestle coffee monsters. So, for those that need a break from instant coffee in Chile, know that there are options. Really good options at that.
Drinking Nescafé is a different experience, but not necessarily in a bad way.
While instant coffee is a different beverage than what I consider “regular” coffee, there are certainly some perks. For one, it’s quite convenient. Once the water is boiling, I’m only moments away from a hot foamy cup. The powdered nature of the stuff also allows me to tweak the intensity to my taste. Sometimes it’s only a one teaspoon kind of day. Other days, I’m wanting a three or four tablespoon punch to the nose. Nescafé allows me to tweak.
Anyway, I could spend more wordspace talking about the flavor of Nescafé, but this isn’t a food blog. I think what is most interesting about this phenomenon is the cultural value that Nescafé holds. Whereas in the United States—where instant coffee is generally frowned-upon—in Chile it is the main contender. While abroad I live for the moments where I am reminded that even in such an interconnected world I can experience a different kind of reality. How about a reality where instant coffee takes up nearly half a supermarket aisle?
I’ll drink to that.