When time is limited and coffee is a must, it pays to spend the time finding that one place that delivers it all. Sometimes it’s pure luck. Sometimes it’s on the recommendation of a friend. Kefa-Kafe in Naxxar doesn’t need to advertise. Malta is a small island. Word gets around. Those serious about their coffee make the journey and spread the word.
I’m in Malta for a quick couple days of workshops with little time to do anything but work or to go any place other than up and down the hotel stairs. On the drive in from the airport last night, I was struck by how much new building is going on. It seems as if every square inch of land is fighting for its life. As the inimitable MA pointed out it, if the Maltese could figure out how to build on water, they’d build as far as Sicily. I’ve written before, wondering where the planners are when the building permits are being handed out – and I’m still wondering.
Usually, when I’m here, I have time to visit somewhere new. MA never disappoints. He’s always on the hunt for somewhere and it’s a credit to this small island nation that each time I visit, he finds somewhere interesting that I’ve not been to before. I’ve been coming to Malta for years, often as much as every other month but the last few years it’s been more of an annual pilgrimage.
We had an hour – a quick catch-up over a coffee between sessions. He told me that he’d found a quirky café that I’d appreciate. It was up there among the more expensive cafés on the island but worth the time it took to get there and worth the money when you got there.
Perhaps it was an optical illusion or perhaps it was because I’d started my day with the usual tepid hotel coffee, but when we walked into Kefa-Kafe in Naxxar, it felt a little like entering another world. It isn’t big. Two steps from the front door and you’re at the counter. Arms outstretched, you’d be hard-pushed to turn around without touching someone. It’s eclectic. It’s inviting. And were I given to flights of fancy and whittles of whimsy, I might even say it was like stepping into a hollowed-out coffee bean.
MA introduced me to Steve, the owner. I complimented the place and asked how long he’d been open. I wasn’t being polite. I was genuinely interested. With so little seating and so little space, I was wondering how he could make his money. It’s a far cry from the Starbucks or the Costas or the Café Nero’s of this world. There are no tables to set your laptop on that I could see. No corners to retreat to. No sprawling couches or fashionable armchairs. If you’re there, you’re really there. Front and centre.
The reggae music adds to the atmosphere. Those who dropped in and out while we were there were dreadlocked, coiffed, suited, and jeaned; all sorts, all ages, all having at least one thing in common: a love of good coffee.
Steve is on a mission to save Malta’s coffee-drinking public from the clasp of the corporate chains that have taken over the island. He wants coffee to be about community. He wants it to be about values. He wants it to be about change. Sourcing ethical coffee from shade coffee growers south of the Equator, his artisan café is part of a growing international movement to redirect the coffee spend from the big guys to the small community shops that trade with small farmers in Brazil, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Columbia, Brazil and such.
He told me how the governments reputedly give land to the Coffee Giants, who then operate a monocultural system using the same land to grow the same crops year on year. And each year, as the demand grows, the land has to produce more and more. So they resort to artificial minerals and herbicides – in effect growing artificial plants in dead soil.
Steve and his ilk are more about shade-grown coffee – what he calls the third wave of coffee farming. Grown under the canopy of trees in high altitudes with cleaner air and purer soil, these beans retain their natural oils and taste. He spoke passionately and eloquently about this type of community, saying that if you cut a tree and plant another to replace it, even another two, you miss out on 100 years of community as those two grow to the age the first one was at. Coffee hunters, a term I’d not heard before, roam the sub-Equatorial lands in search of small growers with whom they can deal directly. He himself imports every two weeks or so, ensuring a steady supply of fresh beans that he then roasts himself. Coffee, he says, sits between oil and water as one of the top three demand-driven products the world has to offer.
A native of Malta, he’s old enough to have watched the demise of local farm shops where farmers would come to sell their produce directly to the consumer. Today, with the advent of big supermarkets and EU regulations, these shops are a rarity. Labelling and packaging cost money. The same happened with coffee shops – and today, hang-outs like Kefa-Kafe are waking people to the reality of their spending decisions. They offer places where people can go to taste good coffee and learn about how it was sourced, where it’s from, and who benefits from their buck.
Kefa is the Kingdom in Ethiopia where a goatherder noticed his goats jumping around the place after eating berries from a particular plant. That was around 800 BC. It would take centuries for coffee to become a staple, but once baptised by Pope Clement VIII, it went from being the devil’s drink to being socially acceptable.
When coffee was first brought to Christian Europe, it was greeted with a great deal of suspicion since it was the drink of the Muslim infidels with whom Christians had been at war for centuries. Some even went so far to call this exotic beverage “Satan’s drink.”
Inevitably, coffee made its way to the Vatican, where it was introduced to Pope Clement VIII. While many of his advisors clamoured for the Pope to ban the controversial drink, he refused to do so before trying it himself.
The Pope was brought a steaming mug of java and he took a sip. He was immediately delighted, and according to legend, he declared, “This devil’s drink is delicious. We should cheat the devil by baptising it.”
And the rest is history. Due to the papal blessing, coffee quickly spread throughout Europe and eventually the world, where it remains a perennially popular drink. – Blessed beans: How the pope baptized coffee
But, truth be told, fascinated though I was with the lively recounting of the history of coffee and the future of the humble bean (since a trip last year to Costa Rica, I have a healthier appreciation for good coffee), I was more interested in how Steve got into it all. Back in the day, he was a software developer – or a data deconstructionist – or someone whose job it was to take copious amounts of data and distil it into meaningful chunks. A lot of this work involved connecting dots, making links, seeing the consequences – not unlike sourcing ethical coffee today. He worked in real estate, too; he spent time at sea; and he worked in a reggae bar. Then, two years ago, when he decided that life was there to be lived, to be enjoyed, he opened this little cup of coffee heaven in Naxxar. Now, he has the best of it all. He’s sharing his encyclopaedic knowledge of all things coffee, converting people to his way of thinking and to his coffees on a daily basis, and raising awareness of the need for conscious spending. He enjoys what he does. He looks forward to getting up in the morning and sleeps easy knowing that he’s doing his bit – and doing it fairly. Add his certainty that the world can be changed one coffee at a time, to the fine taste of his coffee and you get a buzz that won’t go away.
Across the road from the cutely named Paws 4 a Cause – the MSPCA charity shop – and in the shadow of the rather splendid seventeenth-century Twelid tal-Vergni Marija (Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary), Kefa-Kafe is the perfect people-watching spot. We sat outside at one of two small box tables, on two cushioned boxes, enjoying a cortado and a cappuccino as we watched the world go by.
MA pointed out a narrow three-storey house opposite, the width of the front door. He then pulled up Google Earth and we had a look to see if it got bigger at the back. It was all a tad surreal. Here we were, drinking a coffee blend whose constituent parts started life in Guatemala, El Salvador, Ethiopia, and Lagoa do Morro in Brazil; sitting in the shadow of a seventeenth-century church, in a part of Malta that was already settled in 60 AD when St Paul was shipwrecked off the coast, while taking a virtual peek into the house across the road. And we have Pope Clement to thank for it all.
I was well happy with myself. My only regret was that we couldn’t stay longer.
If you’re on the island, it’s worth the effort. Kefe-kafe, 2, Triq Santa Lucija, Naxxar.