Caramelized Café Combate


photo by Roy Hampton 

Blacker than the inside of a box buried in a cave one mile below ground, caramelized coffee (sometimes referred to as the brand name Café Combate) is the northern Mexico style of roasting green coffee beans with azucar, or sugar.  The sugar cooks (then burns) into a black tar giving the beans the characteristic caramelized flavor of this nectar of Mexico’s north.

Yes, that bag in the photo actually says “MASA”, but it was only used to measure.  Villages and families have differing ratios of coffee beans to sugar—some use one kilo of beans to one kilo of sugar, some use more sugar than coffee, some less.  For the sake of ease let’s say this was one-to-one.  This is el campo way to roast coffee so the open fire underneath the pot was small, it was needed to slowly cook and not be out of control.



photo by Roy Hampton

This roasting session was a sunny day in the village of San Nicolas in northern Mexico circa January 1982.  My sister Alice, friend Betsy, and a woman from Hermosillo are the stars of this photo shoot as they patiently wait out the cooking process for the benefit of everyone else’s morning imbibing.  There is an art to hanging out with any slow-cook method: good visiting, enjoying life, not worrying about what else is not getting done, being with people—these are some of the most important ingredients in the recipe for life that we learned during our times in Mexico.



photo by Roy Hampton

My father has indulged his love of photography for most of his life.  He bought a German Voigtlander camera in Poland to document his travels around Europe in the late 1940’s and his years in Mexico and El Salvador in the early 1950’s, and eventually shifted the focus to producing countless photos of his five daughters as they grew up in the 50’s-80’s.  After taking photography classes in the 1970’s he upped his game, bought a Pentax K1000, and began printing his own negatives by setting up a darkroom in the basement of our farmhouse and enjoyed over 30 years of playing with the printing process.

I’ve been taking digital photos of some of his prints to share in this site. There will be more…



photo by Roy Hampton

To test the doneness of the coffee bean they would use a spoon to scoop out a small amount then let it cool enough to touch.  Biting the bean in half will show if the perfect moment had arrived.



photo by Roy Hampton

The top of a 55 gallon barrel works great for spreading out the asphalt-coffee to cool.  Don’t drip any of the scalding lava on your huaraches…


Once the charred mass has cooled it can be broken into chunks and smaller pieces that fit in a hand crank grinder.  The last step involves filling a coffee sock with the blacker than black ground coffee and pouring hot water over to make a delicious cuppa to share with your amigos… but I cannot find the photos of this most important and delicious last phase!  You will have to use your imagination for the best part of the process.



photo by Roy Hampton

10 thoughts on “Caramelized Café Combate”

  • Oh wow! Memory lane! Cafe Combate was the ‘cheap’ campesino coffee, looked down upon in the city, but it was a way to stretch the expensive bean by adding sugar which was cheaper. It never turned out sweet (until they put 2-3 scoops of sugar in your cup)and always very smooth and delicious. There was always that time of day when *ding* you’d get a craving and decide it was time to go visiting to satisfy taste buds as well as desires for conversation. Especially precious was when scalded milk was used instead of water to make Cafe Con Leche that was out of this world. Thanks so much for the recollections, Ruth!

  • LOvely to share family memories and your Dad’s pictures – keep them coming. Alas, I want to eat and drink it all – just not to prepare anything – age? Perhaps or just an excuse!!

  • Well, now that we got that shnazy new Bunsen burner we just might have to try it! Who will dare to bite those beans to see it they are perfect?

  • I used to be able to buy the beans con azucar down in Nogales, MX but can’t find them anywhere now. Can one still get them???

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