March 15

What's Your Story

IMG 1014

At first glance, Cocoa Cinnamon (or Cacao Canela, depending on which side of the building you’re facing) in Durham, North Carolina seems your usual eclectic coffee shop with mismatched couches, random trin­kets dispersed on the coun­ters, and a funky crowd. But if you dive deeper, either into the menu or into conver­sa­tion with one of the baristas, you learn this small shop beau­ti­fully connects modern-day Durham to another world entirely.

To be fair, Cocoa Cinnamon is more than a coffee shop. It’s a coffee, hot choco­late, tea, wine, beer, and treat shop. Along with featuring single-origin and blend coffees from various roasters, Cocoa Cinnamon also sources single-origin choco­late, teas and tea infu­sions.

They have been gaining plenty of atten­tion, too. As winners of 2014 Indy Week for best coffee shop in Durham County, Cocoa Cinnamon is preparing to open a second shop in town within the year.

Also listed on their menu are eigh­teen organic spices and flavors used in drinks. Beyond your typical vanilla bean syrup and honey are cardamom, paprika, date sugar, and black strap molasses. The results are as unique as they are deli­cious; signa­ture drinks that make you rethink how lattes can taste, such as the Dr. Durham latte, “The signa­ture Cocoa Cinnamon drink.”

So how do co-owners Leon and Areli Barrera de Grodski tie these elements together? Each drink is a small piece of world history, as explained through the spice trade.

“Our inspi­ra­tion came specif­i­cally from the spice trade route and the history behind choco­late, coffee, and tea,” Said Areli in a video inter­view by the Durham Restaurant Guide. “[We honor] the tradi­tions and cultures that surrounded them and how they created our world.”

“Created our world” is no over-exaggeration. The spice trade was the first real example of global commerce. Centered in the ancient Middle East, Arab merchants and rulers managed highly-coördinated markets with high demand and controlled supply. While Arab ships were sailing directly to spice-producing lands before the Christian era, it was the European search for spice routes that connected Europe and Asia to the Americas.

Each signa­ture drink dons a name and tells a story from the Spice Trade or subse­quent history. For example, we have the Temüjin, a white choco­late latte topped with ginger. Temüjin is the birth name of the great Genghis Khan, whose Mongol expan­sion across Asia in the 13th century reestab­lished the Silk Road trading route.

The Moctezuma – a latte with Dulce de Leche and cayenne pepper – is named after the king of the Aztecs at the arrival of Cortés in 1519; and the Tenochtitlan is a hot choco­late drink with cayenne, vanilla powder, and agave named for Aztec capital city over which Moctezuma ruled. The spices used in each drink reflect the region from which the name is contrived.

Some history is a little more recent, but no less impactful. The Aleppo Souk is a latte with cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg and topped with paprika and Aleppo pepper. It is named after the ancient/modern city of Aleppo, Syria, one of the oldest contin­u­ously inhab­ited cities in the world that was once a key desti­na­tion on the spice trade route.

In 2013, Syrian govern­ment forces bombed a city market—or a “souk”—on a busy day, killing close to two dozen people. The Aleppo Souk latte memo­ri­al­izes those lost in that market and includes ingre­di­ents that would have been found there.

And still, some of Cocoa Cinnamon’s drinks honor the land upon which the shop—and the city—sits. During my visit, Baristas Kaley and Kelly recom­mended the Dr. Durham, a latte with home­made vanilla syrup, moka powder, ginger, and topped with black lava salt. It is named for Doctor Bartlett Leonidas Snipes Durham, who donated land for the city. The drink’s hot ginger, sweet vanilla, and savory salt all bid for the atten­tion of my taste buds, but in the end they were all quite satis­fied.

Both ancient and modern histo­ries are repre­sented here, as well as lands close and far away. Maybe Durham isn’t listed in any history books as a desti­na­tion on the spice trade route, but Cocoa Cinnamon has helped make this city a coffee desti­na­tion, period.

Ben Putano currently travels the country looking for great coffee and good times and blogs about it at To contact him, send him an email at

To Top