Café de Olla –– Steeped In Resistance: The Story of Café de Olla
By: Javier Rojas
The smell of roasted cinnamon sticks wakes up of Vanessa Ortiz on most mornings. Or sometimes it’s the whiff of the roasted cacao beans coming from the kitchen. The scents are the product of her mother brewing up her daily cup of café de olla.
“The smell of it is just so inviting and it makes me think of Mexico,” Ortiz, 20, says as she takes in a sip herself. “For as long as I can remember café de olla has been part of my life.”
Ortiz, who grew up in East Los Angeles, is one of many Latinos that feel a sense of nostalgia or in her case, pride when it comes to café de olla. That may be due to the drink being passed on from generation to generation. Or it’s the story behind the drink steeped deep in Mexican history. But what many might not know if that women played a central role in the creation of café de olla.
Origins of Café de Olla
The drink’s origin dates back to the 1800’s during the Mexican Revolution where women made their mark on the frontlines. Those who participated in the war effort were called Adelitas, named after Adela Velarde Pérez, a nurse from Ciudad Juarez. She would become a central figure in how women were viewed during the Mexican Revolution due to her role helping injured soldiers. Pérez led the way for other women at war to be recognized for the contributions, one of the biggest being café de olla.
The roles women played during the war wasn’t easy. They had to carry soldiers' bags, set up and broke down camps and take care of all the food. But it was at these war camps during the Mexican Revolution that café de olla was born.
To keep up the stamina of these soldiers, the adelitas created a blend of spices, coffee, and sugar in giant clay pots which they would then hand out to all the soldiers for an energy boost throughout the long war. This blend of coffee would be called café de olla, literally meaning “coffee from a clay pot.”
Chuy Tovar, 50, the owner of Primera Taza, a popular coffee spot in East Los Angeles, says that the adelitas don’t get enough credit for the impact they had behind the scenes of the war.
“Without women there wouldn’t even be café de olla,” Tovar says. “These women played a huge role in those days and their influence was on the battlefield as well as in the café de olla that helped fuel soldiers. The women not only prepared the food but they also fought on the lines.”
“How the hell they did that? I have no clue.”
It was in areas like the port of Veracruz where coffee first made its appearance in Mexico and little by little coffee plantations emerged, mainly in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Veracruz. This played a huge role in the growth of the drink throughout the country with women in those communities all having their own unique take on café de olla.
Tovar says it was a collective combination of various indegnious coming together that all had their input on the drink. Whether it was the piloncillo or the cacao beans used in the drink, there’s influence seen from different states throughout Mexico.
While the details of who made the final decisions on what ingredients would go into café de olla are still up in the air, Tovar says they knew they had to put a stimulant that would have caffeine to fuel soldiers for the day.
He believes the drink was made as “precautionary beverage” that was made with medicinal purpose to help with hunger and supply nutrients for soldiers. He said a typical lunch would include beans and a cup of café de olla.
“It was something to suppress their hunger during the day. I think the ingredients were well thought out for it’s time,” Tovar said. “These women are heroes for many reasons but they’ve no doubt created a drink that’s still being enjoyed to this day.”
The Café de Olla Revival
For Ortiz, she can recall some of her most earliest childhood memories involving café de olla. That’s because when she was young her mother would leave a hot cup right by her bed.
“When I drink it today that’s all I think about and my mom tells me my grandma used to do the same back in Oaxaca,” Ortiz says. “The drink has been with my family for decades now.”
Café de olla is seeing somewhat of a resurgence. Many coffee shops are taking notice and putting their own spin on the drink, particularly in Southern California.
La Monarca, an artisanal Mexican bakery located throughout Los Angeles, is one of the biggest drivers leading this café de olla revival. The drink has become one of it’s best selling items which may be due to its effort to stay true to the traditional roots of the beverage as well as focus on diversifying the distribution of this product through retail and online channels, including Amazon where it is highly rated.
La Monarca bakery prides itself on being authentic and true to the brewing process in Mexico. That starts with sourcing their coffee from a single farm in Oaxaca, Mexico and using real Mexican cinnamon to give it a strong unique flavor.
“The recipe was perfected over the years, the brewing process was difficult as subtle differences in the ratio of spice to coffee and sugar created variability in taste. We settled on a high quality cinnamon sourced from Mexico and developed a cold brewed recipe for our retail locations. The result is our number one best seller, both in store and online,” La Monarca CEO Ricardo Cervantes said.
The process starts in Oaxaca with the coffee beans which then make their way (unroasted) to Los Angeles at a company Called LA roast inNorth Chinatown where green coffee beans are then roasted. Finally, the café de olla is blended, packed and shipped off to stores.
Even if you’re not near Southern California, getting your hands on some of La Monarca’s café de olla is still possible. The bakery sells the package cafe de olla online and at all of their stores.
The drink also took flight for this Hispanic Heritage Month as La Monarca partnered with AT&T. Their popular café de olla will be served at multiple “pop-up" cafes in retail locations in Houston, Chicago,Miami, New Jersey and New York and Los Angeles and AT&T corporate offices in New Jersey, New York and Miami. This past June, over 20,000 café de olla drinks were sold across the chain. It's a credit to La Monarca’s commitment to stay true to the drinks history and it’s growing popularity.
Tovar’s coffee shop, Primera Taza, has moved from different locations over the last few years but he still gets the same customers yearning for a sip of his Café de olla. He says he’s definitely seen the drink rise in popularity the last few years and he credits that to people seeing many of the benefits of the drink. Or some simply want to connect with their roots.
Tovar sources all of his coffee beans from Mexico and that may be why he draws in an older generation from the predominantly Latino neighborhood. He says by showcasing these ingredients he’s getting to share a taste of the quality regional coffee’s that Mexico is known for.
“I see the young ones come in and ask for an iced café de olla or even extra cinnamon (which he calls “spiced coffee”) but it’s popular and I appreciate it,” Tovar says. “People can connect to their parents or their ancestors just by the smell and that’s special.”
José Rodríguez is trying to create his own take on café de olla his coffee shop, Akat Cafe Kalli, in Lake Merritt, Oakland. He mixes the drink with heavy cinnamon and a light drip of honey that has quickly become his most popular beverage over the last two years.
“This formula has worked for me and it’s me trying to be true to the original drink but at the same time have my spin on it,” Rodriguez says. “Café de olla for many of us is a way to connect with our indengnouis roots and in reality, it reminds me of my mother.”
Growing up, Rodriguez would usually find his mother in the kitchen and a clay pot would usually be brewing next to her. He’d spend mornings picking her mind about Mexican coffee and learning the craft of making café de olla.
“It doesn’t matter your economic situation or what your political belief is, I could recall countless memories with friends and family and a cup of café de olla would usually be in my hand,” Rodriguez says. “We don’t give enough credit to the women that created this coffee because of them it paved a path for so many.”
This sentiment is felt for many Latinos who see the drink as a part of their family history or in Ortiz’s case, a bridge to the past.
“It’s a relationship with a coffee that is hard to describe,” Ortiz says as she one last sip of a cup. “It’s been in my family for generations and hopefully I’ll be passing it on to my kids one day too.”