Have you ever noticed that people all seem to have the same funny anecdote that marks their first foray into coffee?
It’s not a positive one.
Yet not only does most of the country go on to later embrace coffee in adulthood, but a colossal number of us – comfortably awash in generational or geographical culture shifts – seem to also develop this deeper relationship with the beverage that is also very similar, and weirdly specific.
Then finally, a left turn happens. Somehow we all end up liking…just what we like! Sure it happens with just about any consumable – none more so than alcohol – but something about the mechanics of this progression with coffee just seemed so unique that I had to appreciate it for what it really is. A relationship. One that manifests in three distinct phases:
Phase 1: The Universal
Science has proven that for all children, coffee initially looks like hot chocolate and smells like Christmas morning until the day they taste it and ohhhh what a downer. Tastes like chalk, like dirt; all the same reactions. How could our parents be so obsessed with the hot stuff, we ask. And how dare it be so deceiving? We’re never drinking it again.
Well, then life happens, and boy, do we drink it again. Maybe in college, maybe not until we’re young professionals. Maybe it starts with the sweeter, creamy variety as sustenance for finals, or a an excuse to leave the office with a colleague. And we feel that buzz, and/or it infects our routine, but in any case, almost all of us go there, and it sticks. We become casual (usually “morning”) coffee drinkers for life. But some of us go further.
Phase 2: The Artisinal
For a smaller number of us, coffee becomes more than a pleasant, time-sensitive, socially-acceptable means to an end, and we just drink the shit all the time.
This can happen for a number of reasons, and I will give you all of mine: appetite suppressant, cold hands, caffeine tolerance from over-consumption, actually just that tired, and trying to kick a diet soda addiction. And just like how the diet soda itch led me across the Diet Coke-Diet Pepsi aisle and back so many times, obsession fuels the need for variety.
Variety, in turn, refines the palate, and the refined palate respects the process. Respect in the process leads us to search outside of the ubiquitous Starbucks or Dunkin’ for the craftspeople experienced in their art, and with the product; those who know the best beans and how to get the best out of them. For some of us, having witnessed this magic – and perhaps no longer able to afford buying it from others – we invest in the process ourselves. We buy the single origin beans and the french press. We store properly, grind fresh, and we leave it at that.
Only some of us don’t. Some of us have actually been on a parallel path this whole time, and embrace a new, less predictable phase of the relationship.
Phase 3: The Individual
My introduction to coffee was pumpkin spice keurig K-cups in my office at age 23, and honestly I think I was just addicted to pumpkin. Would have drank it from the can if I could have gotten away with it. Instead, I did the next best thing – I added six Splenda packets to every six-ounce cup I made, and drank six cups a day. This practice was buoyed by all the justifications mentioned earlier.
Finally, the bottom fell out and, you know, pumpkin was gone. Cuz it’s seasonal. So I switched to black coffee. Still k-cups, still 6 cups, still eyes deep in Splenda.
Then one day my bosst friend (né “boss/best friend”) said something that changed my life. He said, “Jackson. You know if you drink that much Splenda it will eat away your spine.” And for whatever reason, I required no empirical data for this claim. Quit the sweeteners all together. Went black, and never went back.
This was a critical moment because I could finally taste the coffee. I could discern the most subtle notes – the vanilla, the tobacco, the hazelnut. I could arguably discern quality, zero fucks given though they were. But without the shackles of syrups and sugars, I could also seek out coffee wherever it was made. I got to enjoy the taste of different world regions, of different roasts, and brewing methods. Then one day I look around and suddenly I’m being called the “barista” by my friends and family – Northwest people who don’t use that term in vain. And thank God, it’s not because I have a snobbery or even a misplaced passion about how people should drink coffee. I just have an irrational abundance of equipment.
One looks at my apartment countertop and I have a Keurig, a Mr. Coffee, a Nespresso, two french presses, and a Costa Rican chorreador (don’t sleep on it, bruh!) I have to confess, yes, I’d switch sources even throughout the day because I could indeed taste the difference between them, even with the same grounds.
But even with so many options at my hand, I keep it moving. This year, my brother put me on to a new focus of the moment – cold brew – though I still combat resurgences of espresso as I enjoy it. I could make the world a cup of coffee from home, but indulge in chain coffee shops now more than ever before.
There’s no rhyme or reason to it, and no accounting for taste. It’s all just a reminder of how individual everyone’s coffee experience is, even when it often comes from the same uninspiring origin story.
Curious how this bean-based drink even got to be such a big deal in the first place? Check out Rum and Biscuit’s feature on the spread of coffee and three other favorite vices, and tell us more about your own relationship with coffee below!