What Is Horchoffee, and Why Is It So Controversial?

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An icy mix of horchata and coffee at Colina Cuervo in Brooklyn.
Photo: Melissa Hom

Yana Volfson, Beverage Director at skip in Noho, admits she hates the name of one of the cafe’s favorite coffee drinks. Atlas Horchata Latte is half a shot of espresso mixed with the rice-based, cinnamon-scented drink familiar to anyone who has been to a taco truck. Traditionally, horchata is made by soaking, grinding, and pulverizing rice into a milk, which is then sweetened and flavored. Atla coconut milk is added to increase the creaminess without dairy products. The resulting drink with the added dose of coffee is really delicious. But there is still that name that would technically be translated to “horchata milk”.

“Coffee has its origins in more Spanish-speaking countries than Italian-speaking countries,” admits Volfson. “Even though I hate the name,” she adds, “we decided to create this funny, guilty treat.”

I’m impressed with the fact that she describes the drink as guilty pleasure – a term usually reserved for prepackaged snack cakes or romantic comedies on Netflix. But horchoffee, as it is sometimes called, has grown in prominence across the country, and people are trying to figure out the simple combination of coffee and one of Mexico’s most popular agua-frescas: is it an abomination or is it evidence that it is Culture it can? transform and still remain true to an idea of ​​authenticity?

Anyway, Horchoffee is popular on both coasts, and it makes sense to flavor Horchata with espresso, because Horchata itself isn’t too far from what some high-end coffee shops are already concocting with homemade nut- or grain-based ones “Milk”.

When Cesar Vega opened Integral coffee at Nolita, he insisted on making all of his nut milks himself, frustrated by the fact that industrial milk alternatives were often highly processed beverages sold under the guise of a vague health label. After experimenting with a few horchatas based on brown rice, Vega and his team created an almond milk that contains a blend of spices to give it that characteristic cinnamon feel. He also serves horchata with espresso.

In Vegas, home of Nicaragua, horchata is made from rice and jicaro seeds. Vega explains that serving a more traditional Nicaraguan version probably wouldn’t be that popular in New York because the taste is very unique and many Americans are used to Mexican horchata. “But it’s closer to Nicaragua than if I were to serve a pumpkin and spice latte,” he jokes.

The thought of wanting to drink something delicious and at the same time maintaining the connection to the past, comes up again and again when it comes to listening coffee. at For all the best In Bed-Stuy, the main objective of the owners Matt Diaz and Carlos Macías is to use their café to educate and expand the understanding of American customers about Mexican food.

Horchata and a version with coffee at For All Things Good.
Photo: Melissa Hom

“As much as we want to be educational, we want to keep things playful,” says Diaz, adding that he hasn’t tried too hard to be true to every type of traditional horchata, whatever that may be.

“It’s not just a Mexican drink,” he explains. “There are so many different horchata recipes and our horchata recipe is our horchata recipe.”

Everyone I speak to values ​​their horchata-coffee hybrid, because after all, wherever there is specialty coffee, there is the specter of gentrification. And some horchata purists argue that adding coffee to the classic Latin American drink is blasphemous. What would our Abuelas think? (Before she died, my own Mexican grandmother said that coffee-infused horchata was “an interesting idea,” but that she would rather keep the two of them apart.)

“I just have a feeling that all of these traditions have lived in our families for generations and are now just being kind of exploited,” says Mónica Pérez, a second-generation Mexican-American horchata lover who lives in Phoenix. “It’s like the next kale or the next kale,” she complains, worried about the rising prices for what is usually a very cheap drink.

The $ 6 Listening Coffee at Sqirl – Los Angeles notorious all-day brunch destination and a Mascot of gentrification on the east side of the city – doesn’t help. The “dirty” horchata is also not served at the Guisados ​​taco chain in LA, which is made from both milk and cold brew concentrate. If that Recipe was adapted in the New York Times, certain corners of Latinx Twitter have been unforgiving in their response.

Horchata has such a long legacy. From West African origins to indigenous Latinx people for survival. Now it’s gentrified to accommodate rich people in LA. I am tired. pic.twitter.com/sVxm07avqC

– 𝑴𝒐𝒏𝒊𝒄𝒂 𝑴𝒆𝒏𝒅𝒆𝒛 🌙 (@monicam_mendez) 2nd June 2019

However, a closer look at the history of the drink and its widespread representation across Latin America makes it clear that experimenting with the limits of horchata may not be as transgressive as some critics believe; horchata is a perfect example of diasporic differences in the Latinx community.

While its Mexican version is best known in the United States, versions of the drink are traditional favorites across Central America and Puerto Rico that contain a variety of ingredients like coconut and pumpkin seeds. The horchata that is drunk in Latin America is a derivative of the Spanish horchata called horchata de chufa, which is not made from a nut or a grain, but from nutty tubers called chufas or tiger nuts. This drink comes from North Africa and was brought to Spain by the Moors in the 8th century. But when the conquistadors arrived in the New World, they did not bring tiger nuts, so the drink took on new forms in Latin America.

For example, in Ecuador, horchata refers to a light pink tea made with flowers and herbs. But when the Ecuadorian American Jorge Salamea opened Raven Hill, a Latin American café in Crown Heights, he knew that his childhood horchata wouldn’t be the best choice for his menu, which includes items like tortas, tamales, and empanadas. Some experimentation in the kitchen resulted in his interpretation of a horchata latte, which Salamea says is the store’s most popular drink today.

“It was like, Aha! Why don’t we bottle this for the rest of the world? ”While Salamea says his team came up with the Horchata Latte as a“ lucky coincidence ”, he says that he has now realized that Horchata and coffee combinations are in other parts of the country already have a large following. “My only fear,” he says, “is that Starbucks will catch up.”

Well, about that. In 2017, Starbucks has debuted a Horchata Almondmilk Frappuccino that was essentially a classic frappuccino with cinnamon syrup and grated cinnamon. Other chains have followed: Peet’s Coffee serves a cold brewed oat latte with horchata, and Jamba Juice serves a Lotta Horchata, which uses fat-free vanilla frozen yogurt and cold brew coffee with honey and cinnamon.

Cold and warm horchata lattes in Café Integral. Photo: Melissa Hom.

Cold and warm horchata lattes in Café Integral. Photo: Melissa Hom.

What’s so annoying for naysayers is that these chains essentially add cinnamon and call the drinks horchata, which doesn’t help people understand what horchata really is. But this convergence of tastes also creates new experiences for Latinx customers.

Amy Franco is a millennial American from Panama who grew up in Chicago. She was intrigued by a Salvadoran-style horchata she read about on Twitter but couldn’t find it. Finally, she could try the last place she expected: Portland, Oregon. At the Salvadorian American Run Café Reina, Franco tried the Horchata de Morro Latte: a latte made from a type of Horchata whose characteristic ingredient is ground Morro seeds.

#CentralAmericanTwitter it took way too long but i finally experience a horchata de morro latte and it is the truth, the way, the light pic.twitter.com/VzOT5oGYlM

– It makes me tired (@ThomasPoptart) June 20, 2021

For Franco, the changes in the coffee world are an extension of the coffee culture that she has always known. “When I do my pour-over in the morning, I think about where my parents are, where the coffee grows and how much work it takes to be picked and processed,” she says. “I think of all the things it took to get to me.”

At Atla, Volfson says something similar – that the combination of the mellow flavor of Horchata with the sharpness of espresso isn’t about turning a traditional drink into a white American palate. Rather, it’s about taking a drink that has always evolved to some extent and offering something new that is nonetheless rooted in thoughtfulness. “I don’t think we’re modernizing,” she says. “I think we’re celebrating.” Now all they have to do is come up with a better name for it.