When ordinary coffee won’t do

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Organic coffee beans at Universal

I don’t know about you, but coffee is the highlight of my mornings and afternoons. Granted, I may be more fortunate than most caffeine lovers—I’m married to a man who orders green beans from small farms around the world and roasts them over flames in a popcorn popper.

Although living with a coffee alchemist is magical, when I’m out with family and friends I often usher them over to the closest Starbucks for a cappuccino. And even though we have many charming spots in Albany that specialize in espresso drinks, what I’m looking for is a dedicated coffee experience.

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A shady spot to sip coffee

Much like Oregon vintners use their knowledge to craft a perfect wine, coffee tasting (and making) is a fine art. In my quest to share my passion for coffee with Albany’s visitors, I discovered Universal Coffee on Santiam Rd.

Although Universal is tucked away from our city’s main thoroughfares, it is a jewel in the coffee crown. As I pulled up in front of the shop, it was obvious that adventurous spirits are welcome here.  A quirky bicycle and cart decorated with coffee sacks serves as a landmark, while enormous umbrellas shade those who appreciate sipping al fresco.

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A colorful explosion of art

The interior of the shop is an explosion of vibrant Latin art, complete with a corner devoted to musical instruments and plenty of space for groups or individuals to settle in for a leisurely coffee break.

I visited with barista Juan Ruiz, who has worked alongside Universal’s owner, Alexander Contreras, for the last two years.

“We are all about educating people on what coffee tastes like,” says Ruiz, as he lets me smell the beans he will craft my Americano with. “Most people think there has to be sugar or lots of dairy in their coffee, but then they cannot taste the differences in the varieties.”

Professional Barista Juan Ruiz

Professional Barista Juan Ruiz

As Ruiz busied himself grinding the beans, I asked him about their source. He explains that most are “single origin,” a term often associated with one specific family farm or geographical region. And each day at the shop, a new bean is featured. This means if you are serious coffee aficionado your taste buds will never be bored. In addition, all beans used at Universal are organic.

Today’s variety is sourced from Ecuador, from the family farm ‘Nossa Familia.’ The resulting brew? Citrusy notes mellowed with hints of chocolate that kept it from being too sour. It was smooth and mellow, not burnt or over-roasted.

Traditional Aztec drinks

Traditional Aztec drinks

Ruiz shows me a full rack of dairy alternatives, including soy, coconut, and almond milks. “We have a full range of non-dairy ingredients that we can use to make lattes and other drinks with,” he tells me.

In addition to unbelievably delicious coffee—Universal specializes in a Latin American historic concoction known as Champurrado—once the sacred drink of the Aztecs, made with corn and cacoa beans. Universal infuses their modern version of this ancient beverage using cinnamon, white or dark chocolate, corn flour, brown sugar, coffee, milk and other options. It is served in a special vessel.

Other specialties of the house include organic coffee ice-cream drinks, apple pie (made by a local baker), and tasty Latin American treats. Ruiz mentions that the shop is now sourcing a local baker to provide gluten-free goodies so that everyone can enjoy a delicacy along with their organic coffee.

The shop's landmark

The shop’s landmark

If you haven’t yet tried Universal Coffee, enliven your local coffee experience by visiting Alex and Juan soon. It’s an opportunity to learn more about how coffee is produced, how single origin defines flavor, and the art of tasting the brew’s true identity. One sip will ensure that even the most discerning coffee critic in your group sits up with delight.

Information for when you go
Universal Coffee is located within the Carriage House Plaza at 1157 SE Santiam Rd, Albany, OR, 97321. Hours: Mon, Tues, Fri, Sat: 7:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Wed and Thurs: 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. Closed on Sundays. Telephone 541-981-2126. Website: http://universalcoffee.co Or follow them on Facebook.

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