Review: Coffee, coffee everywhere, but not a drop to drink

Almost everywhere you look in Male’ you can see coffee shops. From cosy little places that barely seat 10, to trendy hangouts with sea views and prices quoted in dollars. The one thing that binds all these disparate establishments together, though, is their consistently bad coffee.

The most common outing in Male’ is going out for coffee. Lavazza, Melitta, Danesi, Illy, the names rolls off local tongues as easily as yellow fin or skip jack. On a few occasions, you might be served a good cuppa. But this happens so rarely you might be forgiven for thinking it a freak accident, in which the barista was distracted by a shooting star and forgot to burn the coffee beans.

Are Maldivians addicted to burnt coffee, or is the lack of entertainment so severe, that sipping bad coffee in good company is better then sitting cooped up in your room?  The latter seems most probable; coffee shop regulars complain non-stop about poor food and drink. However, like the English, we Maldivians are loath to return bad drinks, meaning eateries continue to serve rubbish and get away with it.

When Maldivians visit resorts or travel to foreign countries, we are generally discerning customers, able to tell the difference between a good cup of coffee and a burnt one. Alas! The dearth of good Male’ cafés has condemned local denizens to make do with what is on offer.

Here we offer a few examples of Male’s consistently bad coffee drinking experience:

You might assume that a café called Shell Beans would know how to make coffee. You would be mistaken. The trendy water front café frequented by Male’s ‘it crowd’ use expensive imported coffee machines for their brews. When we order cappuccino, though, they arrive as a brown soupy liquid with a scum of discoloured bubbles on top. The coffee is burnt and foul.

Next we try Shell Bean’s namesake, a new establishment called Coffee House. The café is more akin to London or San Francisco than Male’. Floor to ceiling glass windows, comfy chairs and cool wallpaper give this place a fresh, funky feel. The interior might lift the spirits but the coffee dispirits the soul. Those that inhabit the house know not how to make coffee.  Our cappuccino arrives burnt, revolting and utterly undrinkable.

One of the most visible cafes in the capital is Panini, in the lobby of Male’s swanky Trader’s Hotel. In Trader’s previous incarnation as Holiday Inn, Panini was an oasis of a café, where you were always guaranteed a well-rounded, good coffee.

When Holiday Inn sold the hotel to Shangri-La’s Trader’s brand, we rejoiced. After all Shangri-La is a leading luxury hotel brand in Asia, renowned for its gastronomy. But reputation does not match reality. Nowadays, Panini’s coffee is hit and miss. Our filter coffee arrives looking as black as the devil, and strong enough to fill your week’s caffeine quota in one cup.

Our latte, by contrast, looks almost angelic in its pale, milky appearance. It’s a perfect drink for those craving a warm glass of milk, but café latte it is not. Panini is a good example of how different people can make wildly different coffee from the same machine.

There is one member of Panini’s staff – a hangover from the Holiday Inn days – who makes perfect coffee. So to get a decent cup, you must stalk the lobby and wait for this lady’s shift to start. It seems she is the only server who knows her way around the Nuova Simonelli coffee machine.

In our quest for a drinkable coffee, we splash out on a meal at Sala Italia, one of the city’s most expensive restaurants.  We order cappuccino. What arrives borders on the bizarre: an espresso cup with a shot of espresso and another of milk, with about a dozen bubbles on top.

“What on earth is this?” we ask.

“Espresso-Cappuccino,” says the waiter.

A lack of training, or maybe the right cup, has spawned a new breed of coffee. We send it back in exchange for (perfectly prepared) filter coffee. It seems even in an Italian restaurant, few know much about coffee.

The problem of Male’s poor coffee does not lie in the expensive machines or the well-sourced beans most cafes seem to have. It is the know-how that is missing. The essence of making a good cup seems an anathema to most cafes: clean the coffee machine regularly; don’t re-heat the same water over and over again; heat the milk only when an order is placed; use fresh milk not powdered; and above all make sure the water is heated to the right temperature so the coffee isn’t bitter.

In a desperate, last ditch attempt to find good coffee, we head off to one of the Maldives’ most exclusive resorts. We are sitting on the beach at Soneva Gili, sipping the perfect cappuccino; well-roasted Arabica beans, blended perfectly, with a good half inch of creamy foam on top. At US$8 the coffee is pretty good value but to do this again, we would have to stump up US$1,200 per night for the room charge. At US$1,208 per cup, this is an expensive cappuccino.

After three months touring the capital in the quest for the perfect cup of coffee we have drawn a blank. The only way to guarantee good coffee is to head off to a resort. A cheaper option might be to go to the travel agents and book a flight to Rome.

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34 thoughts on “Review: Coffee, coffee everywhere, but not a drop to drink”

  1. beer wine spirits = problem solved, no more boring cafes, just gotta enforce how much gets consumed so u dnt get crazy mo fos getting wasted

  2. I doubt many working class Maldivians, trying to raise a family, would think $8 a cup 'good value'. That's a fortune even by rip-off Britain's standards.

  3. Well said about the coffee.

    I have stopped going to cafes as too many places are completely full of smoke. I do not want be a passive smoker.


  4. @Ahmed on Sat, 18th Jun 2011 12:29 PM

    You need to get yourself one of those auto machines (not that expensive), resort supply stores in Male sell them, cheaper than buying a cup everyday; ie if you drink coffee for your caffeine fix, not just for socializing.

    "don’t re-heat the same water over and over again; heat the milk only when an order is placed; use fresh milk not powdered; and above all make sure the water is heated to the right temperature so the coffee isn’t bitter"

    The authors' forgot the coarseness and the "tamping" of the grind - this is the only control the "barrista" has in making or screwing a good brew, the rest is a matter of flipping the switch. Milk for a cappuccino is of course another matter.

    Also the oils in the beans oxidise very quickly in humidity and high temperature, therefore need to be stored in an airtight container inside a refrigerator once opened, or consumed the same day. The temperature of the water cannot be controlled by the user, the machine has to be serviced and caliberated.

  5. I think the writers are expecting one specific taste in coffee which they are used to or comfortable with. from this writing what I understood was the writer is not very well informed about the different flavors and types of coffee. Neither they knows how and what the real brewing is. Working in a luxury resort near Male, i'm fortunate enough to try and experience few restaurants which serve quite good food and excellent coffee similar to what we enjoy back home and in the resorts. You should never expect the same taste from different brands of beans and machines. The taste of beans will differ from where it origins and how it is roasted.

  6. Right about the taste and right about the reasoning behind going out to coffee as well.

    As an average Maldivian citizen I will be the first to admit that the taste really does not matter that much for me and a lot less for a lot of my friends.

    The point is that we do not come from big-name families or clans and our residences are veritable mole-holes. So we go out to places where we spend exorbitant amounts of money just to unwind. Such is the horrible cycle our lives are stuck in.

    If only our daddies owned big business conglomerates. Oh woe is us!!!!

  7. totally agree! overpriced low quality coffee where ever you go in male'!

  8. Good points!
    It is useless to have expensive machine and coffee beans but does not know how!

  9. True. The coffee in the capital city is bad. But food served in the "fancy" restaurants of Male', are usually just horrible. I can only name around 2 or 3 restaurants with good food, others are just bad. Maybe many lack the passion which is required to make good food, and yeah, most people somehow have gotten used to eating such food from restaurants. And yes, there is a huge lack of entertainment in Male, and so, drinking coffee seems like the only substitute for people.

  10. Dear nathasha
    You miss the point. Most Maldivians enjoy the coffee scene not because of the coffee! It gives an opportunity to sip on something bitter and laze your time on self important and pseudo-intellectual topics. Pathetic really.

  11. Thanks to Natasha and Shimla for writing about a life style article about Male. Its well written and above all non-political.

    Everything in Maldives is not politics and you two have shown that there is some soul beneth the bickering.. Do plwase write more along these lines

  12. Agree with the above comment!! It's so rare to come across healthy, non-political and non-tear-inducing news these days.

  13. I think the only reason why you have written this article is to pretend that you know a lot about coffee and to show that you are one of those people who could spend everyweekend in a resort. I totally agree with bernard. and there are places in male who offer great coffee. ...

  14. hahah!! i totally agree.

    i hear that good coffee is coming on our way very soon.

    by the way, where on earth can we find fresh milk? it's got a shelf life of 1 month and need to keep it refrigerated at all times. 🙂

  15. A very genuine article. Safe to concluded that we are a tasteless lot, living in mole holes. The moment we step out, we want to be italian, french, english, arabic or the Taliban.

  16. An article with grammar and spelling mistakes talking about coffee shops serving bad coffee.

    Oh, the irony.

  17. If the writer's idea of a perfect coffee is a cappuccino, then no wonder she's having trouble finding it. Cappuccino isn't the standard bearer for coffee!

    As Bernard Reichmann pointed out, there are so many different varieties and flavours of coffee with subtle differences that depend on many factors.

    I suspect the writer cannot distinguish one bad from another seriously bad one! Anyhow, much ado about nothing...

  18. ahem ahem, my alcohol idea is good guys, cmon!! what better way to spend an afternoon at a beachside cafe , looking out into the ocean with a nice cold one. sigh...

  19. The Bangladeshi and Sri lankan waiters did not come trained as baristas. In fact, there are no baristas that i know of in this gormet coffee sipping island.

    Once when i rejected burnt coffee in Dinemore Garden, the waiter came back and said, " We dont make coffee, the machine makes the coffee!". What means is that there nothing better will come out of me complaining, coffee wise.

  20. If the writers' idea to get perfect coffee for $1208 from Soneva Gili, I wonder if there can be more than handful of Maldivians who could afford it. In this over crowded city of Male', coffee shops are the only place where we can meet and chat friends peacefully. Coffee may come after that and we still enjoy good coffee and food (may be not to the taste of the writer). I'm sure you can't see those crowed coffee shops with same customers all the time if people don't like the coffee. If you are a real coffee lover you would never order a cappuccino and you can't taste real coffee from it. My advice for the writer is don't try to show people here don't know anything and you know everything and all.

  21. Narrowly speaking (as most commentators think), this is about cofee.

    But why cant Maldivians think broadly on things like life and living and finer tastes. Does everything has be judged like black and white

  22. Its true the coffee is awful almost everywhere in Male. If a good Cafe with good proper coffee comes into being in Male one can only imagine the amount of coffee it will make.
    And yes its to socialize we put up with bad coffee, after all beggars can't be choosers

  23. Thanks Again makes a good point: how would the average Maldivian know what a quality coffee is if they have never tasted quality? Its very easy to point fingers at the untrained Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan waiters but like they said above, restaurants wouldn't keep serving rubbish if there wasn't so much demand. Here's a tip next time you go to a so-called coffeeshop: instead of all that caffeine, just order a cold bottle of water, no ice. Its the one menu item they can't screw up.

  24. @anon: so sure about the water- see the article about the recent firing from Hilton, where one of the staff says, he changed the expiry date labels...
    they might not screw you up on the quality of water, but they screw you with the price of it!

  25. There is a lot to improvement in coffee shops in Male', but to dont try to compare a less than 2 dollar to a coffee brewed for people who could afford a 1208 dollar coffe. Try to broaden ppls mind on life and living styles and do give some credit to coffee shops who try to offer something good for a reasonable price.. be real

  26. 1. Taste preferences, of any kind it may be, are very subjective. My cup of coffee may not be your cup of coffee.
    2. Completely appreciate the opinion but unfortunately I find this article quite... mmm.. pretentious? arrogant?
    3. The coffee is consistently bad in Male' compared to...?
    4. Complaints and criticism is essential but when it is constructive. Especially when it is about a particular societal culture, it needs to address the general public. Recommending coffee at a 1000+ $ resort is not for every-day Maldivian youth.
    5. Thumbs up though.

  27. Arrogant and pretentious indeed!! beauty and good taste are in the eyes and the taste buds of the beholder. I would recommend that the writers put down their quills and stick to drinking their bad coffee and not writing about it

  28. nathasha and shimla are from maldives? go to a village and complain about crappy food there, at least some are trying to provide good coffee and good environment, go and publish you ideas elsewhere where people don't appreciate things, we appreciate the little we get!


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