Who’d have thought that Kyrgyzstan would have the most developed coffee scene in Central Asia? We even found a coffee shop in Bishkek where they roast their own beans, and we hadn’t seen that for a while on this journey.
But our first port of call in Kyrgyzstan was the country’s second city, Osh. And here we were surprised to find anywhere that even knew what a cappuccino was (Osh has a real small town feel to it).
Café Chocolate sits on the main street in Osh, a road named after national heroine Kurmandjan Datka. It’s only a small place, with a handful of seats, but it advertised its espresso, cappuccino and mocha on the board outside so we had to give it a go.
I’m not sure how much demand they get for coffee in Osh: this little café had an espresso machine that was barely bigger than the one we use at home, and five minutes after we’d ordered the waitress was still grinding the beans on her little hand-held grinder that did enough for one cup each time (that’s an awful lot of manual grinding if you’re used to those super-fast machines in most big coffee shops). But at least we knew it would be ‘freshly-ground’…
This wasn’t the best coffee in the world, but it certainly hit the spot after we had again gone several days without an espresso machine of any description in the towns we’d been through in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley.
And it was good enough for us to go back the next day for more, so Café Chocolate certainly gets our vote for coffee in Osh.
Coffee in Bishkek, on the other hand, was in a different league. Admittedly, this is the capital city, so you’d expect the best coffee in Kyrgyzstan, but things have moved forward so far in Bishkek that you can even start talking of a coffee scene there.
Sierra Coffee started the whole thing going a few years back, it seems, when an expat Californian decided (for some reason – that surely must be a story in itself why he chose Bishkek) to set up a coffee roaster and American-style coffee shop in the Kyrgyz capital.
In fact, Sierra Coffee feels so much like an American (or UK for that matter) coffee shop that for a moment I forgot that English wasn’t the baristas’ first language and I needn’t to slow down to place my order.
This place not only does an excellent cappuccino, but you can get all the fashionable flavoured coffees pushed by the big corporates or go down the real coffee lovers’ route and choose your pour over or V60.
And they do cake! One of my favourite memories of the US at this time of year is the taste of pumpkin muffins or pumpkin bread, and sure enough Sierra Coffee had a good enough supply to feed our hungry mouths for the four days we were in town. And, also like in America, they had a pile of pumpkins and hay stacked up outside the coffee shop, all set for Hallowe’en.
So top spot for coffee in Bishkek has to be Sierra Coffee (and they have three branches now, though we only managed to get to the most central one in Manas Street, the others being in other parts of town).
But Sierra has competition.
We’re not totally sure how to express the name of their chief rivals in Bishkek. Coffee House? Kofeyna? Even simply Kofe?
They too have three branches, and we managed to visit two of these. In the one down the road from Sierra in Manas Street, they also have a rather nice retail outlet where you can buy the coffee (or teas) if you like what they served you.
The shop sells coffee roasted in Russia and in Italy and since I’d never had a brew from beans roasted in Russia, I was a little disappointed the coffee in the espresso machine that morning was the Italian. It also made for a darker roast than I’d normally go for, but coming after our Sierra experience, by the time we’d left this Coffee House, we knew we’d had some caffeine that morning.
Coffee in Manas Street is the kind of quiet, cosy place you could sit all morning sipping your coffee and munching on their excellent (but quite fancy) cakes.
Their branch on Togolok Moldo had a much more open feel, with lots of space and nice quirky old décor with typewriters and sewing machines (we hear the third branch is different again).
We spotted more coffee shops dotted around Bishkek as we paced the streets for those three or four days. But we only made time to try one more: D’Coffee had a different feel again from either of the two local chains.
The excellent (and friendly) barista there actually didn’t know how the bar got its name, which is a shame since it’s such an intriguing title. But they serve up Sierra too so it’s definitely a top quality brew.
The décor is rather modern and minimalist, making it beautiful but the kind of place where a crumb out of place might be brushed quickly away if anyone saw it.
We liked it, though, and found the guy who served there not only good at his (coffee-making) job, but forthcoming in a way we hadn’t found in some of Bishkek’s other coffee shops.
We were the only customers in there that morning, but he explained that most people came in for coffee after they had finished their lunch in the restaurant next door (in fact the coffee shop is attached to that restaurant, and you could walk to the bar from the restaurant to place your coffee order before coming through into the coffee shop itself – a bit like 1000Faces coffee shop in Athens, Georgia – though that concept didn’t last and the coffee counter in that restaurant closed down not long after our visit).
So, Bishkek may not have many attractions to draw tourists in, but there’s a fair-sized expat community who all frequent these coffee shops, and by the look of things, coffee is a trendy, youthful thing for locals to get into.
If you’re a coffee lover, there’s enough variety to keep you occupied for a good few days. And if you’re in Kyrgyzstan for the trekking or hiking, allow an extra day in Bishkek – you won’t regret it if you’re into your coffee.