Last night, I got in a strange maudlin funk thinking about the transformative sensory experiences I’ve had in coffee, and contrasting that with how rarely I encounter them now. Off the cuff, things that sprang to mind:
- Bolivia Takesi Typica, gun-to-my-head the best coffee I’ve ever had. Like licking a Pinot Gris off a clean piece of slate. One of the most terroir-forward things I’ve ever encountered in my life—the altitude, the cold, the minerality, all there in the cup somehow.
- Cheese and coffee pairings at Intelligentsia Pasadena; aggressive bright SL-28s, classic blackberry and tomato, bouncing off hard crystally sheep cheese. Dang.
- The really odd-but-still-great tasting notes that cropped up sometimes, the ones we didn’t quite know how to sell. The Pacamara that tasted hand-to-god like onion bhajia, with a tiny dash of mango chutney.
- Still remember the first cupping that bowled me over, pun intended, I might have wound up with a different life if not for this one: Idido Misty Valley at Grumpy in New York. I yelled, breaking protocol. Fruit Loops, if Fruit Loops were real fruit, and each one distinct, and perfectly framed against a cocoa nib backdrop.
- Siphon bar at Blue Bottle, astonishing grapey-plummy Honduras, paired with an utterly extraneous and delicious house-made bourbon marshmallow.
- “Zero Defect” Yirgacheffes, how can something be this lemony without being sour or cloying?
- 100% Sumatran espresso from Equal Exchange, 100% not a coffee I would ever seek out, but perfect: buttered popcorn without a single dry spot or sharp edge.
- The Burundis that stole my heart, deep and clean and sweet. Maybe not the lightning-strike revelatory kind of coffee, but hands-down the one I’d choose to drink most mornings if I could.
- Too many great dials at Intelligentsia to remember unprompted, I’d have to look through notes. Years of mornings with 3 or 4 outstanding coffees, getting to know them, co-workers figuring out how to brew & describe them. Arguing over alt espressos and going for really weird specs, pulling strange delicious shots that you needed to sit with and process for a while.
- That bizarre and delicious natural Bali Michael & I got our hands on in Buffalo, like an entire bouquet of candied flowers with some dirt. “Like a genuinely happy funeral.”
- Those Colombian Pink Bourbons that are just like the Batman theme, pow! Zap! Right in the kisser!
- Geshas everywhere these days, but I had one—late 00’s, Panamanian from Social in Ontario—that was Why The Hype. Stood there making “hm, aha” noises and tilting my head funny for minutes. Like base jumping through clouds of astonishing flavor. Huge fruit and an ever-so-slightly minty finish.
Godshots are real and I hate that we don’t talk about them more.
While sensory connoisseur-ship often plays into class dynamics, there’s an aspect to it that is strangely but strongly egalitarian, that resists (if not escapes) consumerism. When it comes to what’s actually in the cup, you might be able to fool some people, but you can’t actually fake it, and the people who are really committed to quality learn to see it, and each other. I tell this story a lot, but another experience that set me down the road of coffee was seeing such different people at the same table, literally and metaphorically, at coffee events I went to—young baristas, seasoned farmers, polo-wearing exec types, techs and roasters and importers from all over the world, taking each other seriously and enthusiastically. Passion and quality don’t erase the barriers in the world, but they have a way of reaching over them.
And things like coffee are a physical act of collaboration, of intersection. Evolution and genetics; politics and practices; geoclimate and commerce and local food culture.
The pandemic kicked me out of coffee, at least temporally. It’s real strange out here. Having that intense relationship—I genuinely dislike the word “spiritual”, but that’s probably the best way to describe it—suddenly attenuated is very weird; most people don’t care that much about coffee, and that’s fine, but I used to be surrounded by coworkers who did, and a lot of my social circle was other people in the food & beverage industries who were similarly passionate about their fields.
Add to that the fact that the pandemic intensified a corporate shift that was already underway, as well as causing huge changes and challenges across the food service industry. I have a hard time expressing how depressing it is to go into places that used to be bastions of quality, and getting mediocre coffee from uninspired baristas. Craft quality does not scale, which is interesting and complicated but also just: seems to hold true. Which again is part of that complicated relationship between quality and capitalism: we value (and price) things by quality, but quality gets paradoxically impossible to maintain above above some financialized/corporatized threshold.
Add to that the elephant carcass in the room: global warming is bad for coffee. Coffee’s not going to go away as a commodity, but the good stuff is going to become more rare, more expensive; a lot of the plants and producers who create the quality in the first place are going to go away. And you can’t add it in later. This is one of the reasons that reading KSR often has me on the verge of tears, one of the reasons I was screaming throughout Beauman’s Venomous Lumpsucker. High-quality, sensitive, place-based foods like coffee are canaries in the coal mine.
Wow this get depressing, more so than I intended! I am hopeful that the state of coffee is not as dire as it feels like, and that this is me being a little “old man yells at cloud”. I moved to Chicago for coffee, and the other week when a friend was in from out of town and wanted to know “where the exciting coffee is”, I honestly didn’t know what to say. Big part of that’s on me, slash the pandemic: I am still not eating out maskless indoors, so I’m out of the loop with a lot going on in the café scene. (Shout out to the extremely good espressos I got from Four Letter Word walk-up window—in paper, such heresy!—over the last couple years.)
But. Transcendent coffee experiences are real, and I miss them.