If someone dumped a dollop of cayenne pepper into your morning caffeine ritual, you would probably protest. But that won't be necessary at Cocoa Cinnamon, where one of the shop's best signature drinks, the "Simón Bolívar," keys on a sudden shock of heat, providing a welcome jolt for drab winter days.
Cocoa Cinnamon co-owner Leon Barrera de Grodski says the drink began with the name of the Venezuelan revolutionary who helped free several South American countries from Spanish rule. Barrera de Grodski and his partner, Areli, then reverse-engineered the drink to match that story.
"We started with 'Simón Bolívar,'" he says, "and had fun trying to come up with what kind of cool drink we could get out of it."
The components are all individual nods to Bolívar's history: Its base is yerba maté, a high-caffeine tea that, like the drink's namesake, has South American roots. Allspice is native to Jamaica, to which Bolívar was exiled in 1815, and cayenne pepper alludes to the hot peppers Bolívar would have found as he pushed through Central America to Panama. Honey has been a part of native South America for millennia.
Many coffee shops offer tea-based lattes—that is, the leafy or herbal mix of your choice, steeped in water then blended with steamed milk. Few, however, make maté varieties; only a few spots in the Triangle, such as Carrboro's Krave, even have maté on their menus.
I usually avoid lattes made with espresso, as the flavor and density of the milk often feel too heavy against the coffee for me. But as soon as the Simón Bolívar is ready (given Cocoa Cinnamon's frequent long lines and slow service, that may take a bit...), the difference is obvious from its near-white color, streaked across the top by spice. The drink is light and silky, too, so that the milk smooths out all of the tea's boldest aspects. The maté and allspice combine for a light woody note, while the honey tempers most of the tea's bitterness. It's sweet but mild, with the milk's microfoam offering a subtle texture.
But it's that small shake of cayenne that makes the Simón Bolívar exceptional. There's not enough cayenne in the drink to make it hot, but the pepper lingers at the edge of your inner lip for a moment. And if you let yourself get distracted by your book or laptop (or cops handing out "good tickets" outside), the heat mixes with the allspice at the bottom of the cup, making for an ultra-emphatic finale.
It's best, then, to sip steadily, which I've never found to be a problem with this spiced surprise.
Eat This is a recurring column about great new dishes and drinks in the Triangle. Had something you loved? Email email@example.com.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Revolutionary spark"