The word of the day: Coffee
A beverage made by infusing the beans of the coffee plant in hot water
I love coffee more than life itself. I would probably trade my human existence for an eternity of coffee, and I would certainly trade yours. Perhaps I could be reincarnated as the Platonic form of coffee. Stripped of this mortal coil, I could be both the container and the contained. A duality of drink and drank. Or maybe it’s more of a holy trinity: The father, the son, and the medium roast.
Like many of life’s most hallowed institutions, the creation of coffee involved a series of improbable acts. An account from the Islamic world:
Omar chewed berries from nearby shrubbery, but found them to be bitter. He tried roasting the beans to improve the flavor, but they became hard. He then tried boiling them to soften the bean, which resulted in a fragrant brown liquid. Upon drinking the liquid Omar was revitalized and sustained for days. As stories of this “miracle drug” reached Mocha, Omar was asked to return and was made a saint.
Like a morning yawn interrupted by bird droppings, that first cup must have been jarringly potent. Coffee has since transcended its African origins to become a global phenomenon. Every culture has their own spin on the beverage. In southeast Asia they brew it strong and blanket it with condensed milk. In Turkey they grind it to powder. In America, it comes in plastic drums, fire engine red. Irish coffee is about as Irish as street crime, that is, kinda Irish but mostly a thing in a America. And then there are the Italians.
The espresso is a respectable concoction. It’s a dynamic drink that undulates in gentle cascading layers in front of you, proving the effects of steam extraction. The drink is as fast to produce as consume. It’s a delightful shot.
But what we have done to the espresso, with layers of steamed milk, sugar, flavored syrups, and other filagree, is a modern tragedy. I don’t hate Starbucks, nor would I dismiss the efforts of an entire organization. They make passable coffee on an international scale, and that’s worth something. But their innovations in espresso are the antithesis of coffee.
The history of Starbucks’ cup sizes provide a tidy analogy of decline. In the beginning, there were two sizes: short and tall. An easy-to-parse CPG emulation of the long and short styles of espresso that inspired Howard Schultz 30 years ago. But tall wasn’t tall enough for American tastes, and the company introduced Grande. And “grande” isn’t a bad solution to a naming problem. It means large in more than a few Romantic languages, including Italian, and is an evocative choice of nomenclature for Starbucks’ then-largest drink.
But then came Venti. And Trenta. And toffee drizzle. Milks and mylks. Requests for “extra-pumps,” and Frappucinos, and the PSL, and a litany of easy targets that I won’t even bother complaining about here.
Because frankly, anything that’s not a simple shot of espresso is stupid. Lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, and Americanos are straight up coffee hate crimes. I don’t think I have to explain why Americanos are dumb, and people who drink these daily wouldn’t understand anyway. But lattes and cappuccinos are pointless too. Just because we can turn milk into foam, that doesn’t mean we should. Why is this impressive or desirable? If I spooned milk foam into your mouth at 8am, you’d rightly declare me a psychopath. But it’s OK to destroy an espresso this way?
In liberal cities, the laptop class will talk of Cortados, macchiatos, Gibraltars like they are different things. These hipsters just want a shot of espresso. Why add a thimble’s worth of steamed milk on top? My disgust is summed up by the words of a Four Barrel barista named Josh:
I like cream and sugar. Cream and sugar make ice cream. And I say, if you want an ice cream: go get an ice cream!
The kid was nicer about it than I am. He’ll actually make you a latte; I don’t think it should be on the menu. A latte is bullshit. It’s mostly milk, and some milk foam, with a single shot of espresso crying for help at the bottom like a cat crawling through trash in a hoarder’s apartment. Shame on you for ordering this drink.
I’ve heard the French expression, “chacun son gout” but fuck that. That’s how Dockers pants happened and Franco rose to power. Don’t add milk or cream to coffee. It’s a pathetic display of human weakness. You’re complaining that your cappuccino isn’t dry enough? It’s not supposed to be “dry.” If you want foam, go take a bubble bath. Coffee is a drug and a spiritual elixir. In its purest form, it’s a work of art. Please show it some respect.
Do you like reading fake news? Do you wear a helmet when you cross the street? Do you slap our nation’s educators across the face? Do you burn books? If not, then please heed the wise words of the CEO of Kaiser Permanente. He drinks his coffee black because it “puts the fear of God” into people. The man or woman who takes their coffee black rides with me when Rome falls and the bombs come down. In the rear-view mirror is someone who’s fussing with two creams and a Splenda.
And frankly, you’re just missing out. Coffee tastes great. When you plunk in any form of ooze that comes from cows (yeah, you heard me Big Dairy, your product is bad and you should feel bad), you are chemically changing the composition of a drink that has worked for centuries.
Coffee is made by brewing the beans (seeds really) of coffee plants in water. The beans themselves are very bitter, but the roasting process helps with a few things. It incites chemical reactions inside the beans (like the Brouillard transformation) that help unlock complex flavors. You know what’s not a complex flavor? Simple sugars like lactose. You know what interferes with your body’s ability to taste? Huge globs of fat suspended in cream.
There are so many ways to brew delicious coffee, but I think the drip method, or any of its persnickety variations, is best. I like espresso, but it’s a lot of work and energy for a few seconds of beverage. A dripped cup of coffee gives you more time with the liquid and makes it easier to taste a range of flavors.
Depending on the fineness of grind and the length of pour, there is a tremendous range of things you can taste. Drip coffee lets you pull out acidic flavors, toffee flavors, bitter, smoky, sweet, plum, cherry, and more. This is the world you gain access to when you don’t assault your coffee with milk, or cream, or almond milk (which isn’t milk) or soy milk (again not milk) or coconut milk (Jesus Christ, why are we doing this) or non-dairy creamer (like seriously why) or flavored non-dairy creamer (you have a problem).
(And I don’t want to make this about race, but can’t we enjoy something black for once without having to co-opt it, redefine it, or otherwise “whiten” it to make it palatable? ‘Headline: Why lattes are racist and you are too.’)
But, I think I hear you saying, “Coffee tastes bad and I’m not used to it, waaaah!” Let me ask you this: Do you have stage 1,000,000 cancer? Are you on death row? Are you 140 years old? If not, there is still time. Everything worth tasting takes a little getting used to. Most of us started our drinking careers with beverages like Smirnoff Ice or Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and I think you’d agree that anyone still drinking those in their 30s should be taken to a vet and euthanized immediately. There is always time to redefine your relationship with flavors you’re not used to.
Finally, let’s address the elephant in the room: coffee is a vehicle for a drug called caffeine. It’s a stimulant that every government has miraculously decided is legal; it would never be approved by the FDA today. It would be like if your office installed an Adderall dispenser in the breakroom. I mean it’s neat, but a fucked up message.
Well, coffee is that fucked up message. It’s the drink that simultaneously says “wake up” and keeps us in the lockstep of capitalism. It’s free at car dealerships for Chrisssake. It’s stimulant and Soma all in one. We are all sipping from the same gourd, originating from the cradle of civilization, and passed through hands covered with blood, trembling slightly. Coffee is our history. Coffee is the way forward. It is the drink of the human condition—and that is why it must be consumed in darkness.