What is Café de Olla?
Ask anyone from Mexico about “Mexican Coffee” and they’ll tell you about the rich cultural and historical drink that fueled a revolution.
Café de olla — the traditional coffee of Mexico — is many things to many people. For some, this cinnamon-and-sugar-infused coffee drink can be a taste of home or a reminder of a vacation.
For Emiliano Zapata and his troops in the Mexican Revolution, the beverage was closer to an exceptionally delicious, morale-boosting MRE — and perhaps the world’s first “superfood.”
Café de olla translates to “coffee made in a pot.” The olla is a clay pot that imparts a special flavor to the brew. The drink is boiled and infused with cinnamon and piloncillo—an unrefined cane sugar with molasses left in it—for a delicious and rich flavour.
Preparations of the drink differ depending on the maker and their location. Common ingredients include cloves, chocolate, anise, and orange, but these will vary by region. For example, in the southern province of Oaxaca, where the non-dairy hot chocolate drink Chocolate de Agua is popular, you’ll likely also find cacao added to your cafe de olla.
A Brief History of Café de Olla
Long before Europeans brought coffee to Mexico, indigenous people had been drinking atole and pinole — beverages based on corn, vitamin-rich cacao, and spices. These drinks were flavored with honey, vanilla, nutmeg, and chili. They were consumed for centuries before the arrival of settlers.
Coffee came to Mexico in the Eighteenth Century from Cuba. Soon after, French and German immigrants set up plantations in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Veracruz.
It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that café de olla was born.
During the Mexican Revolution, women and men served together in the struggle to overthrow Porfirio Diaz. Some women fought and many others took on the equally-strenuous roles of preparing camps, organizing logistics, and feeding a hungry army. To fortify the soldiers and themselves, they drank café de olla.
Café de olla was prepared with cacao just like Atole and Pinole, but added a new combination of ingredients.
Their mix combined coffee from Mexico’s plantations, cacao, atole, pinole, cinnamon, clove, star anise, and sugarcane that originated from Southeast Asia but which had become common in Mexico by that time. Enzymes in the cinnamon and unrefined Piloncillo soothed the stomach, while the coffee and cacao provided energy and vitamins.
Best of all, this combination of antioxidants and caffeine were available through dry ingredients that were easily carried — important for an army on the move.
It also didn’t hurt that café de olla is delicious. Apparently, it was Zapata’s favorite drink.
Café de Olla Today
Today café de olla is popular throughout Mexico and in the US. For some, it’s a nostalgic taste of home. For others, it’s a comforting way to start the day, especially when combined with delicious pan dulce.
Demand for the drink has grown rapidly. “Once we opened the cafe people in the community started asking for it,” says Diego, a barista at Cafeina in San Diego.
If you have never tried café de olla, you may be able to find a coffee shop or restaurant in your town. You’d be well served to seek out an authentic version as made by a friend’s abuela. Or if you want to try making café de olla at home, it’s easy to do.
You can find piloncillo (a form of unrefined cane sugar) and ollas (the clay pot) at most Latin markets. In a pinch, you can also substitute piloncillo for brown sugar, and a clay pot for a metal one. “We make a simple syrup out of brown sugar and add some cinnamon to that and mix it with the coffee,” Cafeina’s Diego said.
But wait, where’s the booze?
While we’re never opposed to combining booze and caffeine (in fact, we recommend it frequently) Café de Olla has a rich cultural history and is a far cry different than simply combining tequila or Kahlua and coffee.
Feel free to add all the tequila and Kahlua to your coffee that you want!
But when you do, call it what it is “delicious boozy coffee." You now know that it’s certainly not Mexican Coffee — the drink that combined ancestral spices and cacao with imperial coffee in order to fuel a revolution.
Café de Olla Recipe
Cuisine: Mexican, Beverage
Take your Olla (or pot if you can’t access one) and heat up about 9 cups of water
- 2 Add 4 ounces of piloncillo and one whole cinnamon stick. Boil for 5 minutes (you can try varying amounts of cacao, clove, or star anise at this stage as well).
- 3 Add 6 tablespoons of coarsely ground coffee, dark roast works best here, and take the pot off the heat (adding the coffee later prevents the drink from becoming too bitter).
- 4 Cover the pot and allow the mix to steep for 5 minutes before straining (through a cloth or using a French press) and then serve.
- 9 cups of water
- 4 ounces of piloncillo (or brown sugar if you can’t find it).
- 1 whole cinnamon stick. Be sure to use Ceylon or “Mexican” cinnamon, this cinnamon is not grown in Mexico but it is the kind commonly used there. Cassia cinnamon, the more commonly found type, won’t be nearly as delicious. Ground cinnamon will be too strong.
- Optional: cacao, clove, or star anise
- 6 tablespoons of coarsely ground coffee, dark roast works best here.