One of my previous posts (Milestone Markers), deals with coffee cups.
The time was December 31, 2005, I had struck up a casual conversation with the person who runs the Coffee Crew (Edited to add: the article is no longer at the site) website, Colin Newell. The conversation turned to writing, and I submitted what follows below, but Milestone Markers was of no interest to them; the site is about coffee, not cups. Here then is what did get published there, reprinted for those who won’t click on the above link. I might be a better writer now, but I present it as found at the above link, nothing edited or changed.
I was mildly surprised the original article lists 641 hits. Amazing how stuff lives on, strangers chancing across it.
My Personal Coffee Failure (Emilio J. D’Alise, January 03, 2006)
I’m a coffee failure. I admit it freely, my head held high, and my eyes fixed on distant mountaintops. I brew coffee for consumption in great quantities. Three, sometimes four, pots a day. No great care is taken in bean selection, and I grind enough at a sitting for about two weeks worth of coffee. I even use (gasp!) a Cuisinart 12-cup drip coffee maker, with timer. That particular machine is not mentioned anywhere within the Coffee Crew website. I’m sure it would be if they had an avoid section!
Mind you, I’m not knocking the Cuisinart. It does what it is supposed to do; it brews the dark brown liquid I consume in great quantities. Of course, it’s not dark brown when I drink it. That’s because I mix it with liberal amounts of Silk’s soy creamer . . . I’ll stop a moment while readers fight their gag reflexes… OK, it’s not always like that; if I’m treating myself I might use the fat-free Half & Half. I don’t know what’s in it, but it is at least visually similar to real Half & Half.
How did I get like this? What twisted road would bring a sane man – a presumed sane man – to subject his body to such horror
It wasn’t always like this. I grew up in Italy, and was introduced at a very young age to espresso. I would help grind the beans in an old hand grinder. It looked like a miniature wooden cabinet, with a hand crank on top. You slid open a metal door, poured in the beans, gave it a few turns, and slid open a wooden drawer to reveal wonderfully aromatic grounds. I don’t know the exact brand, but our brewer was probably the aluminum Moka Pot (or Stovetop Espresso). The grounds were put into a small metal basket (two teaspoons, if I remembered correctly) that went between the two halves of the brewer. The bottom would be filled with cold water, the unit joined and put on the stove. Once the water reached boiling it would be pushed through the grounds, and end up on the upper compartment. I remember watching and listening to it because the unit had to be removed from the fire as soon as the last few drops finished their transformation from clear water to robust espresso. Leaving it on the stove too long would damage the aluminum. The coffee would then be poured into very small cups, and sipped while exchanging conversation at the kitchen table. It was a ritual performed once in the morning, and once in the afternoon. I think that machinery is what got me started on the road to becoming an engineer.
Forward about twenty years (to the mid-80s) and I find myself following a different ritual. I’m part of a small group of engineers and designers who three or four times a day shuffle to the office’s coffee station to fill our pint-sized cups. After brief conversations, we would shuffle back to our desks and sip our brew as we waited for the next trip. That is where I gained my immunity to all sorts of awful brews. You see, coffee brewing was not always under your own direct control. Sometimes you would get acid mud, and other time brown dishwater. Years later the advent of pre-measured packets produced consistent dark water that, although devoid of real taste, provided few surprises.
Repetition forms habits. Gradually, coffee-making at home resembled what I was used to at work. My stovetop brewer was used less and less, replaced at first by a 10-cup, and eventually a 12-cup drip coffee maker. I stopped at 12-cup because the next jump where the commercial units, holding 40+ cups. In those days, I still retained some shred of dignity, and actually sought out good coffee beans. In my 30s, I visited Hawaii and discovered Kona coffee. After that, I would mail order both regular and decaffeinated 100% Peaberry Kona Coffee from The Coffee Shack. I ground it as needed, and for a little while, redeemed myself by at least drinking something that actually had coffee flavor, and did not need creamer to mask its lack of taste.
Alas, the world conspired against me, and I let it. Owning a business is taxing. The long hours and frantic pace left no time to savor the small moments. Soon I was drinking my coffee without even being aware of it, and often it would just sit and grow cold on the corner of my desk. No use wasting Kona coffee in such a manner. I started buying coffee in bulk (Costco and Sam’s were by then educating consumers as to the virtue of buying a year’s supply of whatever you needed and storing it in every nook and cranny of the house). I reserved the good stuff for those rare moments when time could be taken to truly savor the experience. Those moments turned out to be rare indeed, and soon Kona Peaberry coffee was a thing of the past. I was fully immersed in the ritual of making and drinking great quantities of brown, tasteless, and often bitter water.
Then a lifeline was thrown my way. Actually, there were two lifelines. The first was in 1995, when I took my first trip back to Italy. I went a roundabout way, landing in Frankfurt, driving through Germany, Switzerland, and then headed to Udine (Northeast of Venice). Don’t want to insult the Germans and the Swiss, but they should stop selling coffee (other things as well, but that’s for another forum). There is no point in describing what we were offered other than to say we purchased instant coffee and made our own.
But Italy! Italy reawakened my appreciation with the art of coffee drinking and coffee making. When we crossed the border into Italy, we stopped at a rest and fueling area. The first joyous surprise was the food. They had panini! Made to order, and served hot. And they had real coffee! Served fresh, and in real cups. And after having paid the equivalent of $4 for something resembling battery acid, the $1.50 we shelled out for great tasting, flavorful, and fresh coffee did not seem bad at all. But that was not all. We spent a few weeks in Udine, living with my uncle. We had great coffee at home, enjoyed along with great conversations around the kitchen table. But the treat was to go downtown, sit at any of the establishments in any of the various piazze (like large courtyards), and enjoy any of the seemingly endless varieties of coffee. Cappuccino, macchiato, liscio, and others I cannot remember as I sit here drinking my brown water and creamer. I plan to write my uncle and ask him to send me a list I can reference for future writings. The whole experience was not really geared to coffee drinking, but rather to the social aspect surrounding coffee drinking. Smiling people, cheerful waiters and waitresses, and good conversation with friends and, sometimes, strangers.
That trip rejuvenated both my desire for good coffee, and for the social aspect of coffee drinking. I once again started ordering Kona coffee. But events conspired to cast me down in the abyss once again. American coffee shops were popping up all over, spurred by the financial success of Starbucks. Malls, supermarkets, and department stores all added small coffee shops to cater to a demanding public. Everywhere you went, you could smell the aroma of coffee being brewed. My wife and I started trying out some of the places, and even went to a few Starbucks with friends. The first few times I ordered cappuccino I politely took a couple of sips, and threw half of it away. At first I thought these were isolated instances of bad coffee and bad brewing. Then I fooled myself into thinking these were long series of isolated instances. But finally the realization hit me; I had nary one instance of a good cappuccino… or espresso… or any other Italian-sounding coffee name I tried. Distressed, but still wanting to hang on to the illusion, I started ordering regular coffee (you get about a quart for $5). When that proved to be as miserable a failure as the espresso experience, I resorted to asking for a mix of half coffee, half hot water . . . and leave plenty of room for the Half & Half.
The social aspects also left something to be desired. Mall coffee shops were crowded with pretentious people, fooling themselves to an image of sophistication by sitting aloof drinking tasteless brown swill. Actual coffee shops were crowded with pretentious people, fooling themselves to an image of sophistication by making sure everyone within earshot heard of the trouble they were having with deciding where they should go on vacation, all the while downing large quantities of tasteless brown swill. The world around me turned gray, and slowly I retreated from this mockery that bore so little resemblance to the wonderful experiences in Italy. The Kona left unused, I went back to mechanically downing cup after cup of warm liquid that resembled coffee in name only.
My second lifeline came in 2001 with another trip to Italy (this time only Italy). Three weeks of great food, great coffee, and great experiences. I even discovered espresso served over a small dollop of ice cream. Again rejuvenated, upon my return to the States I started to take more care with my coffee selection, brewing, and coffee drinking. I promised myself that this time I would hold on to this lifeline. I actually brewed espresso again, and even experimented with pouring it over various ice creams. Not wanting to repeat previous mistakes, I avoided all coffee shops, seldom ordering coffee in public, with the rare exception of an after-dinner coffee those few times we ate out.
But I still owned a business, the old habits returned, and once again drinking a cup of coffee held no more significance, or provided no more pleasure, than scratching one’s head. Actually, scratching the head usually had more meaning, and was more memorable, than drinking a cup of coffee. To compensate, and to have something that could be linked to enjoyment, I started brewing a cup of tea when I wanted to experience some flavor and enjoy the moment. You see, coffee was no longer coffee, but rather something I mindlessly drank when busy at the computer, or watching TV. And non-descript Columbian beans purchased in bulk are sufficient for the intended purpose: to have a warm drink devoid of distracting qualities. Pardon me while I take a swig … bleech!
I’ve since closed the business, and I now have a lot of time. But it’s too late for me. Brewing a cup and drinking it alone would just mock what should be an experience in both sensory and social delight. Get some friends, you say? Times have changed, but some things still remain. The same hangouts still serve the same incredibly bad “coffee”, consumed in great quantities by people that must have long since lost all feeling in their taste buds. And friends no longer have time to visit in this fast-paced, modern world. Admittedly, I’ve moved 1, 500 miles away from where most of them live, and it would be a long commute, but that’s beside the point. We live for our memories, and I’m happy with mine. Trying to relive them seems a futile endeavor fraught with danger of disappointment. Nope. I’ll drink my great quantities of warm liquid, dotted with the occasional cup of tea (with sugar and a hint of lemon), and be content with writing about what might have been. sip … ahhh … bleech!
Thanks for reading, and if you are a coffee drinker, lots of good info over at:
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. . . my FP ward . . . chieken shit.