I fancied myself on the side of tea for a very long time. I found it to be bearable, even in its most repulsive or difficult of forms, whereas coffee was always a struggle to keep down. But something has changed in this past year. I’ve found myself slowly warming up to bean juice and getting myself involved more in the rituals of brewing a hot cup of Joe.
Past Coffee Rendezvous in America
My first exposures to coffee were sparse: Bitter cups of Folgers or other instant coffees growing up, smelling great, but with the taste leaving much to be desired. I remember one of my first coffee experiences was cafe con leche in my middle school Spanish class. It was our final exam time, and we met to eat Spanish-style donuts with cafe con leche. I think the saving grace there was the chocolate we dipped our donuts in, which helped take the edge off of the coffee we were served by our caring instructor. I’ll be real with you: It tasted horrendous. I’m not sure what kind she used, but I’ll bet it was the cheap stuff you can buy pre-ground in the giant red or green cans. It certainly didn’t make me want to expand my horizons and switch from my usual caffeine source, soda. I was too into that sweet bubbly liquid to trade it for bitter bean juice.
I have also had coffee in Thailand, but those were the instant sticks that are 99% milk powder and sugar with 1% coffee. I don’t think those really count, so we’ll skip those and carry on to my big coffee revelation in Europe.
Awakening to Coffee in Iberia
While I visited in Spain and Portugal in February, just as the Diamond Princess was making headlines across the globe and Coronavirus was but a strange unknown in most of the world, I did some integration with the local culture and dove into drinking coffee. With the wide availability and affordable prices (oftentimes it was cheaper than tea. Go figure!), I would have a cup after lunch or around the mid-morning to break up a long walk.
I have to say I’m very happy I took a chance on those humble cups, because they tasted unlike any of the coffee I’d had before. They tasted, dare I say, pretty good! This is when that spark of inquisitiveness lit up in my mind: What’s the difference here? Why is this coffee pretty nice and what I’ve had before made me feel not so great? Was it that vacation high? Was it the ambiance? The company? When we returned to Japan, I vowed to learn more about what I had tasted in Portugal and Spain in those wonderful bakeries and cafes.
Deepening Appreciation in Japan
We returned to Japan and a thought struck me: How wonderful would it be to have a nice open kitchen? Complete with clear plastic and glass containers to hold our spices, hard pasta, coffee beans, and the likes? I, of course, dreaming of this while stuffed into the coffin of a kitchen that is our cooking space. I thought more about coffee, seeing as my wife got a lot of joy from being able to share that experience with me. If I wanted to continue these experiences, surely I could invest the time necessary to find something to drink that I enjoyed?
The task of learning about coffee appealed to me the same way my informal studies of whiskey and beer did: There was a science– a mix of chemistry and biology– underlying the art, which I found appealing. I started finding coffee people online to listen to their thoughts, opinions, and read their words. I learned about how altitude affected the beans, how the method of removing the fruit from the bean changed the flavor, and how roasting and the size of your grind affects your final cup. I learned about the changes coffee undergoes in cold brew, drip over, and, my personal summer favorite, ice drip.
I’ve found that I tend to prefer natural process coffee versus washed coffee. I also tend to like beans from Brazil, with a medium to dark roast. I’m not very big on high acidity as that tends to leave an aftertaste in my mouth that reminds me of the Folgers I had in middle school. I like the coffee to have a bit of body to it, and I like to brew it slightly weaker than most people. I also enjoy drinking it closer to a cafe au lait style, with around 1/3 of the cup being milk with half a tablespoon of sugar and the rest being coffee.
I’m glad I’ve gotten more into it. Using science to figure out what I like and learning the vocabulary to express why I like it is very empowering. Especially in the times of Corona, having that bit of empowerment, even if it is coming from something so small and humble as a cup of hot bean juice, can be deeply satisfying. I am excited to push forward with my informal coffee studies and continue to brew some incredibly satisfying cups of Joe.