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Here’s The History Behind One Of Mexico’s Most Iconic Drinks, Café De Olla

The smell of roasted cinnamon sticks wakes up 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 maybe it’s the story behind the drink that is steeped deep in Mexican history. But what many might not know is that women played a central role in the creation of café de olla.

The drink’s origin dates back to the 1800s during the Mexican Revolution where women made their mark on the frontlines. 

Credit: Javier Rojas

Those who participated in the war efforts 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 part in 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 weren’t easy. They had to carry soldiers’ bags, set up and broke down camps, and take care of all the food. 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.

Credit: Javier Rojas

“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 one of its first appearances 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 indigenous communities 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 a “precautionary beverage” that was made with a 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 its 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.”

Today, café de olla is seeing a revival. Whether that may be due to more people connecting with their roots or just the expansion of different coffees, there’s excitement brewing.  

Credit: Javier Rojas

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.

“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 high-quality cinnamon sourced from Mexico and developed a cold-brewed recipe for our retail locations. The result is our number one bestseller, both in-store and online,” La Monarca CEO Ricardo Cervantes said. 

For Tovar, whose Boyle Heights coffee shop has moved from different locations over the last few years, he still gets the same customers yearning for a sip of his café de olla. He says the drink has seen a rise in popularity for the last few years and he credits that to people wanting to reconnect with their Latin 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 has his own take on café de olla at his coffee shop, Akat Cafe Kalli, in Lake Merritt, Oakland.

Credit: Javier Rojas

Rodríguez mixes the drink with heavy cinnamon and a light drip of honey. Over the past year, his unique take on café de olla has led to the drink becoming his most popular beverage.

“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 indigenous 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.”

This sentiment is felt for many Latinos who see the drink as a part of their family history that in some ways acts as a bridge to the past. Ortiz can relate to this as she gets emotional when speaking about family memories in the kitchen during Christmas time. She wipes away a tear and recalls one of the few memories she has with her grandmother, who passed away when she was only seven years old. That memory involved her making café de olla from scratch with her, something she never forgets. 

“This drink has a special place in my heart that is hard to describe honestly,” Ortiz says as she sips on a freshly brewed cup of café de olla. “It’s been in my family for generations and hopefully I’ll be passing it on to my kids one day too.” 

READ: Coquito and Crème de Vie: How Are They Different And Where Did They Come From?

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