Tuesday, December 1, 2009

An Ode to Coffee

"A fig for partridges and quails,
ye dainties I know nothing of ye;
But on the highest mount in Wales
Would choose in peace to drink my coffee.
- Jonathon Swift

Peace: That is what I find in coffee. I am probably addicted to caffeine, but also to the liquid warmth, khaki foam, and heavenly aroma that quiets my mind. For most people coffee is a stimulant, but for me it is calming. A shot (or two) of espresso in the morning brings clarity, another mid-morning sharpens my focus, after lunch it is a digestivo, and an after-dinner coffee gives me the strength to sleep.

One can not indulge in a cup of mediocre coffee. Only the good stuff has the ability to open the mind with its magical bouquet and quickening essence. Of course, one person's good coffee is another's undrinkable.

Starbucks has never impressed me with their coffee. A business plan that puts a store on every corner, gets suburban families to think of it as their other living room, and sells dirty water served by soulless baristas for $2 per cup – now that is impressive. I personally only buy coffee at Starbucks when there is no other option. No peace can be found in a noisy room full of strangers who have all paid too much for a cup.

In 1974, after graduating from high school, a friend and I travelled for six weeks around Europe. I can remember my first cup of Italian coffee (caffé normale, espresso). We were walking out of the train station in Florence and I stopped at a little stand and asked for coffee. Cue the orchestral music. One sip and the clouds parted. I was bathed in golden rays of Tuscan sunlight. Well, not exactly. It was difficult to drink; too strong and too bitter. Still, I will never forget the lingering flavor and toasty aroma. By the time we had made it to Rome two days later, I was hooked.

When the rest of America was buying their first Mr. Coffee, I was wearing out a French press. In 1980 I got my first espresso machine – one made by Simac. At the time, very few Americans even knew what espresso was. People called it eXpresso; like something drunk in a hurry. That first machine lasted over ten years making many cups every day. It was built to professional standards, probably because there was not yet a demand for cheap, crappy home machines. When it finally failed, un-repairably, Lori bought me a nice Krups from William-Sonoma. A company like that would only sell quality products, right? Within four months the thing was leaking. W-S was very kind to replace that unit – and five more over the course of the next few years! In 2000 we bought a new machine from (of all places) Starbucks. It is still going strong even-though we do replace a part occasionally.

Even harder to find than a trustworthy machine is good coffee. We prefer a dark-roasted African bean. There are a few local roasters who sell French Roast Kenyan AA, but it is very pricey. The coffee must also be ground to the ideal fineness; something inconvenient and inconsistent to do at home. So we started trying many different brands of ground coffee available at our local grocery. We have found the very best to be El Aquila. It is coffee from Latin America (which means it could come from almost anywhere). It is roasted and ground perfectly for espresso. It is very consistent. Best of all, 10 ounces only costs $1.79! That is less than one espresso at Starbucks.

During our stay in Italy last year we would stop on the way to the market and take a cup of coffee at the bar. Lori asked for machiato; that is, espresso 'spotted' with milk. What a pleasure to watch the skill with which a real barista sets little saucers on the counter, makes your perfect coffee, and serves it, all the while talking to a friend about last night's soccer match. It only takes a couple of sips to down the little cup, so you just stand at the counter beside the bankers, priests, and laborers and savor the best coffee in the world for never more than 80 centine (about $1).

Lori is encouraging me to write a book. It would be titled "Stop Star*ucking Up My Life!" In it I would point out how American society is replacing many good things (like a simple cup of coffee) with slickly mass-marketed, inferior products (or music, or art, or religion, etc.). When I imagine the first chapter, I hear the voice of Andy Rooney, or my mom, or my own interior curmudgeon complaining about this or that. That is not the voice I want to share with the world. The 'good-ole-days' were not always better, and I am all for progress.

Perhaps I just want people to spend as much time searching for peace as they do looking for a Starbucks. I think I need coffee.