There are certain things in life that we barely recognize as the cultural icons they are. Coffee is one of those things. I love coffee; love it, love it, love it. Every morning and a couple times during the day, coffee is with me.
As a kid, I had tried coffee here and there, taking a careful sip out of one of my parent’s or grandparent’s steaming mugs. It smelled great, but tasted terrible. Awful. My mother told me that drinking coffee as a child would stunt my growth. I think she was just making that up cause she didn’t want to share her coffee. But coffee-drinking was something the adults in my life engaged with breakfast or after a meal, therefore, being a coffee-drinker was something to which I aspired.
My relationship proper with coffee began when I was about ten years old. I’d been getting into Louis L’Amour books, stories of the Old West when men were men and women were too. In such western novels, L’Amour always described coffee as “the black liquor” that a real man drank thick and black. According to my grandad, drinking coffee and eating the crust on your bread would put hair on a boy’s chest. These things struck a chord in my boy-ness that wanted to be like that. Only problem was, I couldn’t handle the taste. It was terrible.
When I was fourteen, my grandad built an addition on to his house and a big carpentry workshop out back. I spent the summer of that year working with him on those projects. Between the Louis L’Amour books and my boyhood worship of Grandad, it was time to take the coffee plunge, and I said as much one warm summer morning.
“OK,” Grandad replied. ”But if you’re going to drink coffee with me, you’re going to drink it like a man. Black, no sugar.” Incidentally, my grandfather was the lender of my L’Amour books.
So I drank it. Had to willfully force it down with every swallow, but down it went. I repeated that discipline every morning in June. By July, it was simply bad, and by August, it was downright tolerable. Because of his training, I’ve always taken my coffee black, and yes, I do think I am better than people who put sugar and/or cream in theirs.
I wasn’t a regular coffee drinker at that point. Once the ninth grade started up, coffee wasn’t on my mind every day. But it made no difference…I had broken the barrier and was now in this elite fraternity of the coffee-drinker.
Over the last twenty years, coffee has really taken off. This is primarily because of the brilliant marketing and cultural understanding of Starbucks. This coffee giant figured out two things:
1. How to charge $5 for something only worth $1 and make people not only happy to pay for it, but needful of paying for it.
2. How to take one choice and make it forty choices so that you feel like you’re getting something special.
Seriously, do you really need a tall, one pump, decaf, soy, dolce de leche latte with no whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon for $5? Our parents didn’t drive through town, pass a diner and say to one another, “Want to get some coffee?” They made coffee at home and went to a diner for pie, with which they had a cup of coffee. Back then, gas stations sold gas, not frappucinos. But when we drive through town, and pass a Starbucks, we say to one another, “Want a Starbucks?”
Note: we don’t say, “Want a coffee?” We say, “Want a Starbucks?”
It’s different…personal, conforming, accommodating. Coffee via Starbucks (and their ilk) has become an exhibition of personal style and taste. And this certainly isn’t about quality. When I go to Starbucks, I generally order a tall Americano with an extra shot. I pay $3.27 for what is a few teaspoons of ground dark coffee and some hot water. I can make better coffee at home in my french press because I buy locally roasted, direct purchase beans, grind them fresh and make the coffee right away using carbon-filtered water. But for some reason, Starbucks calls to me and I answer even though God only knows how long those beans have been sitting around, when they were roasted and ground, how much air they have been exposed to for how long and the quality of the water being used. And it’s not just Starbucks, it’s also the plethora of other coffeeshops that have taken their cues from Starbucks.
But clearly, this is not about the quality of coffee; it is about the experience of coffee.
Which is what I’d like to write about after this ludicrously long introduction to the subject. Thanks for staying with me (I should buy you a Starbucks!).
This is a call to all you coffee-drinkers out there to redeem your coffee drinking experience by returning to the deeper experience of it. Coffee is not about earth-tone painted walls, faux leather couches and a twenty-something, trendy barista making a coffee drink for you and your friends to enjoy while discussing the merits of blogs about theology and culture.
A coffee experience should be about one thing: the bean.
If you and your friends hang out and have a great time while drinking a coffee drink made personally for you by a twenty-something, trendy barista while sitting on faux leather couches surrounded by earth tones, that’s fantastic. More power to you. But that’s not a coffee experience. It’s a friend experience, a culture experience, a furniture experience, an earth tone experience. A coffee experience is about coffee, and coffee is made from beans.
Alton Brown, the Food Network guru of all things culinary, defines coffee as a spice. It is the fruit of a flowering plant from the Rubicae genus producing beans that are roasted and then ground, releasing essential oils that flavor things…in this case, water. He also notes that coffee is one of the few spices that can be found all over the world. It is grown semi-near the equator in tropical and almost-tropical climates on every continent and somewhat prominent land mass.
To me though, here’s the magical thing about coffee: it smells and tastes as that from whence it came. Coffee is essentially the same thing everywhere, a bean grown from a coffee plant. But the earth in which the plant is rooted changes, depending on where the plant is located. And that is the magic of coffee. When you drink well-made coffee from fresh roasted beans that have been properly packaged and distributed, you are tasting the continent and region from which it grew.
East African coffees are medium-dark and robust, carrying with them a distinct boldness and strength that mirrors the mildly acidic soil from which they were grown. And they stay with you…you can breathe a good cup of East African coffee all morning long.
Asian coffees are strong and dark, very favorable for espresso usage. They often carry with them floral notes rooted in a dark chocolate base.
European coffees carry a woody aroma (sometimes scorched wood, as in the case of French roast), and a harsh start with a strange mouthfeel. Keep drinking though, and the aromas take over, masking any harshness with a smooth nuttiness that is unique. Don’t take another sip too quickly; a smoky finish is on the way.
South American beans are bright and light, complex in body and clean in mouthfeel. There is an authority in these beans, though, they’re not weak, with a rich, rewarding finish. A beautiful breakfast coffee with which to start the day. One of the cool things about the South American beans is that the higher up in the mountains they are grown, the less acidity is in the bean due to runoff and the more focused and intense the flavors become.
Latin American beans are sweet and silky, often the most manipulatable in the roasting process. A lot of American roasters that do crazy things to beans during their roasting processes start with Latin American beans. Regardless, there is a muted acidity present with a bright, clean finish.
Kona, from Hawaii, is often considered the greatest of the coffees. It’s crazy expensive, but is very delicious. Because it’s grown on an ancient volcanic island in the middle of nowhere, it comes from soil that is absolutely unique. There is no other coffee that is like Kona. It is intense, complex, woody and tart all at the same time. Very delicate with a chocolate finish. Brew Kona wrongly and it’s just another coffee. Brew it correctly, and you’ll never be the same person again (only a bit of an overstatement).
These regions all speak of who they are in their soil through their coffee beans, and you can listen to their language by simplifying your coffee experience. Here’s my encouragement to you: choose a region and drink their coffee for three months. Then change to a different region and taste the difference. Lather, rinse, repeat, every three months.
Now it’s true, if you go throwing all kinds of hazelfrenchsnickerspumpkinalmondjoyvanillanutty, rooty-tooty-frooty, creamers and crap into your coffee, you’re not going to taste anything but rooty-tooty-frooty crap so you may as well buy 8 O’Clock coffee from WalMart. That’s cool with me if that’s how you like to roll.
But just once, try making a French press or vacuum siphon pot of coffee with locally roasted, direct purchase, regionally specific beans. Make it as light as you want, but let it be the real deal, no additions except maybe a little cream. Put your nose right over the rim of the mug after you pour it and slowly move a spoon through the black liquor, inhaling deeply as the spoon releases more of the oils from the coffee brewing process. Then, take your spoon, fill it with coffee, and slurp it as loud and hard as you can back over your teeth and tongue, lots of air being introduced into the experience. The flavors will explode in your mouth and you’ll get a true hint as to what it is a land thousands of miles away is telling you about itself through its coffee beans.
In my opinion, the best coffee money can buy is from Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco. When you order online from them, they roast it, certify it and send it to you in two days with the date of roasting imprinted on the bag. It’s killer. If you live in central PA, I highly recommend Appalachian Coffees, available in many locations, but the best way to buy is from Tessa Golgowski at the Lebanon Farmer’s Market or Queen’s Natural Market on Cumberland Street in Lebanon. For a professional introduction to coffee tasting from regions all over the world, hang out at Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg around noon. From time to time, one of their staff will give a coffee tasting class introducing you to aromas, flavors and methods that are sure to blow your mind. Plus, it’s the best bookstore I’ve ever frequented.
Coffee is the most widely traded commodity on the commodities market. When something great becomes a popular commodity, the experience thereof can lose its purpose and identity (see: the Christian Church). Don’t let this happen to your coffee experience.
Experience coffee again, maybe for the first time.