Thursday, June 11, 2009

Good? That's a matter of opinion...

If the value of an experience outweighs the quality of what's in my cup, then I can definitely stand up and say that some of the best coffee I have ever had has also been some of the worst. The most memorable events in my life - ranging from the fine or merely the defining - have all been punctuated and underscored by mugs of some of the foulest venom ever squeezed from a diner's drip coffee maker. I'm talking about java that tastes like it has been filtered through an old sock and then left on the 'warmer' so long that all the water has boiled out of it, leaving it as dry as David Sedaris' wit and twice as acidic. Undeniably, it was all terrible coffee. Yet, if the persistence of memory and the affection of nostalgia are to be trusted, it was also some of the best I ever had simply because of the events it punctuated. I spent Easter Sunday, 1998 hunkered down in a tent in Rocky Mountain National park, waiting for a storm to pass. It was there that I sipped acrid coffee made using a French Press touted as 'unbreakable' by it's manufacturer which had a long crack running through it. It had been brewed from snow, melted boiled over an MSR Whisperlite stove in the wind shadow of my tent. If you are unfamiliar with single-burner camp stoves, the Whisperlite is the hind-end of a very small jet engine with two settings, 'off' and 'afterburner'. It has no finesse and certainly no temperature control. And if Coors ads have convinced you of the purity of Rocky Mountain snow, I feel sorry for you. Fine coffee is beyond your reach in a situation like that. And yet we all drank it. You might thing we drank it because we were afraid of freezing to death. Write off that horrible java as a survival necessity. But that wouldn't be true. Four well-equipped people in down sleeping bags and a decent tent a day's ski from a ranger station isn't cause for survivalist mentality. We had hot cocoa with us, powdered Tang and Gatorade, all of which could have warmed our innards. But we made coffee anyway. We made wonderfully terrible coffee in a defective press, because it was our minds we wanted to warm, not our stomachs. Perhaps I was cursed from the beginning. My first sip of coffee comes vividly to mind. It was brought to me by my sister and my cousin Julie. "It's tea" they told me. Being eight I hadn't yet read the Iliad, so I didn't know yet not to trust people bearing unmerited gifts. It wasn't tea, it was instant Sanka. It was gross. I spat it back into the cup as I recall. It would be another twelve years before someone could persuade me that coffee wasn't all like that. Since I was finally brought back into the caffeinated fold by my dear cousin Chris, I have sipped amazing coffee from some of the finest roasters in the United States. From Cedarburg Coffee Roastery in Wisconsin, where I learned for the first time about why some coffee was good and others were terrible to the back alley coffeehouses of Denver and Seattle where good coffee is a religion and Starbucks heathens are laughed out the door when they order a double-tall-half-caf-extra-dry-vanilla-nut-pumpkin-spice-why bother'. Oh, I can recall the coffee I drink in those fine establishments and even sometimes tell you who I was with. But I don't remember what day it was or what the weather was doing outside, or much else. How is it that the best coffees have the least hold on my memory? I remember every tortuous sip of the coffee I made in that tent in Colorado. I can clearly recall every word of the conversations I had with my tentmates during that blizzard. Horrid coffee, made with water from melted snow, from beans ground the day before and hurriedly prepared and decanted into our mugs before the water leaked out of the cracked press, giving it no time to fully steep. But I remember it and savor the memory more than other, much finer cups. It can be argued that the odd situation cements that memory more than the coffee. It would be a fair assertion, except that mountaintop brewing isn't the only fond memory accompanied by the pungent stench of a bad brew. At an Irish-themed pub in Dayton, Ohio I found - quite possibly - the world's most honest waiter. He came over to offer us a round of after-dinner coffees. "Is it any good?" I asked him. "Not really." came the response. How can you resist a sales pitch like that? I ordered the coffee anyway and found that he was right. I seem to remember saying "Anything that tastes that bad should have alcohol in it" and the second round did. The conversation at that table (punctuated by the terrible coffee and later by much better single-malt scotch) was later turned into the plot of a wonderful (and sadly unpublished) novel by my enterprising cousin Chris. While somewhat-lost in the middle of nowhere in Illinois I stopped at a diner to escape the sudden deluge that had managed to make my windshield all but opaque. There I sipped coffee that could well have been an attempt by the waitress to kill me. I later learned that the thunderstorm I was escaping had spawned several tornados across Iowa and Illinois. On a diner napkin I wrote the first lines that would one day become the novel The Paleographer. The coffee was terrible but I will always remember it fondly because of the novel on the napkin and because I was on a trip to visit the woman who would one day be my wife. It was Friday, 1 October 1999. I still have that napkin somewhere and there's a mug ring at the edge of it. Perhaps someday I'll have it tested to see if that swill really did begin its life as coffee. And there are many many more. I realize that there are several fronts in the war over what defines a fine cup of Coffee. I distill them into two major camps, effectively splitting the debate over the aesthetics of coffee into what side of a 70/30 split you are on between the quality of the coffee and the manner & environment of its service. Do we savor the experience first, the atmosphere, the circumstances that brought us to the coffeeshop ere we ever taste drop one of our beverage? Does that define the experience? Or do we wait, our minds a blank slate until written upon by that first sip of God's nectar, only then taking in our surroundings, paying heed to the babble of the crowd around us? I tend to come down on the experiential end of the continuum. For some reason I often find myself in memorable situations, far from any hope of decent coffee, and those are the memories writ large on the folders I have filed away in the drawer of my mind marked "Coffee".

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).