At the farm, coffee time never varied. I’m not sure why I recall coffee time at Grandma’s with such reverence and affection. Perhaps it was grace—inclusion in a ritual when I was too young to partake in the eponymous element. To a child, it wasn’t about the coffee, but the cookies—the same cookies: home-made chocolate chip and store bought chocolate-covered, marshmallow-puffs with a drip of raspberry filling. I occasionally used to buy a box of those marshmallow cookies out of nostalgia, but they were never as good as their memory, and not nearly as good as the homemade ones.
Coffee time was a regular and holy mystery—the conversation was as incomprehensible to me as the black stuff the adults drank. In something as quotidian as coffee time, I experienced what priest, writer and gourmet chef, Robert Capon, calls the “unutterable weight of glory.” But at the time, I had no idea; I’m sure that I had to be prompted to say thank you before I raced outside.
The coffee plant is particular as to where it grows, for it desires heat. It climbs up the equatorial mountains where it hides in the oppressive humidity of the world’s jungles. And it likes rain—lots of rain. The earth and air flavour the fruit. In Africa, the seeds absorb essences drawn from rich black soil, evening fog and very hot days. In Central and South America, mountain vistas and heavy humidity suffuse the beans with both light and depth. Coffee grown on the slopes of the Pacific Islands is imbued with the vastness and verve of the surrounding ocean.
Because of its capacity to absorb its environment, coffee offers some of the most complex and varied flavours of anything that we put into our mouth. Furthermore, all the flavour of a particular bean is present at the time of its picking. Nothing will be added, but without due care, much can be lost.
I sit watching an episode of How It’s Made. First, the frenetic assembling of pencils; then an exposition on the processing of scrap metal, and then comes coffee. The narrator explains that coffee “boasts over eight hundred flavor characteristics; at least double those of wine.” The human senses can discern all these complex flavours. And poetic language is necessary to even come close to celebrate them. Kenneth Davids’ is a coffee aficionado and reviewer. His reviews approach poetry. With a few omission and some restructuring, a poem is created:
“Kenya Karatu AA” by Caféa Rotisserie
Lush yet delicate:
Flowers, orange, nut, fresh-cut fir
A rounding hint of milk chocolate.
Sweet but crisp,
The flavor is extracted from the extraordinary beans by various methods. The most common in coffee houses is the espresso, brewed by forcing a small amount of nearly boiling water under pressure through finely ground coffee. Then the human creator fulfills his mandate to innovate.
The variations to the making of an espresso include lungo with more water and ristretto with less. You can add water to make an Americano, steamed milk to make a Latte, lots of steamed milk to make a Macchiato and equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and frothed milk to make a Cappuccino. Each of these has vintages has variations, as well. For instance, a Cappuccino can be dry with less frothed milk and no steamed milk at all. It can be Mocha with chocolate syrup and Breva if made with half-and-half, instead of whole milk. All of the above can be upgraded to a Double: two espresso shots rather than one. Further, a plethora of syrups, flavorings, and spices can be added. Chocolate is the most common, either sprinkled on top or added in syrup form. Other favorites include cinnamon, nutmeg, and Italian syrups and nearly any alcoholic beverage. And it need not be hot, had warmed or even iced.
Starbucks has over 170,000 beverage possibilities.
I was standing in line to order an Americano. In front of me was a young man casually dressed only in black and white. His track pants were black with white stripes, and his jacket was black with white sleeves. His backpack was black with white detailing, and his shoes, white with black detailing; bracelet, black; ear buds, white.
From his position in the line of customers, he was writing on the side of a Starbucks’ cup (white) with a pen (black). With the flourish of a calligrapher, he wrote something in every one of the instruction boxes, except the one labeled “Decaf.” He passed the inscribed cup to the barista.
“They let you do that?” I asked.
“I work here,” he explained.
“It looks complicated.”
“May I help you,” the barista asked me?
“16 ounce Americano, please.”
“Would you like room for cream?”
I took my coffee and the guy in black and white was still waiting for his. Such extravagance takes time. I asked him if he could write his recipe on my cup. He did so gladly.
Shots: 1 Aff, 1 Ris
Custom: 140° x C Driz
And then with the pride of the artist, he signed his masterpiece, “Scott Hancock.”
“Did you invent this drink?” I asked. He nodded proudly.
Three days later, I tried Scott’s masterpiece. How could I not?
I will stick to my simple Americano.
It was good, but I will likely not order it again. It came up on my bill as a Macchiato. I like my coffee very hot but this one was served at only 140°. It was also too sweet for a guy that drinks his coffee black. I don’t ever take milk, let alone soy milk. I think it was the soy that offered an aftertaste that I didn’t like. I momentarily tasted the espresso, but it was distant and quickly subdued by the milk.
Cultural expressions of coffee add to the variety—Madras filter coffee from southern India is very different from the Kopi Tubruk from Indonesia. Oliang from Thailand is distinct from Turkish and Vietnamese style coffees—all exceptional, and all brewed and drank with unique cultural differences.
The celebration of friendship and family is central to the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. In a process that takes hours, the coffee is always prepared and served by a woman or a girl wearing a traditional white dress. After she has arranged a tray holding the cups, she will roast the carefully cleaned coffee beans over an open fire. A nutty aroma fills the room as the stirred beans rattle against the metal of the long handled pan. The heat coaxes out the oils making the beans shiny and black. When they start to crackle, the woman removes the pan from the heat and walks around the room so the smell of freshly roasted coffee fills the air.
Using a wooden pestle and mortar, she grinds the roasted coffee and then stirs it into a black earthen coffee pot. The pot is left for a moment while the grinds settle to the bottom and the flavours permeate the hot water. The pouring of the coffee requires grace and skill. To further diffuse the aroma through the room, the woman pours the coffee in one continuous stream from over a foot above the small handleless cups. It falls to the youngest child to announce that the coffee is ready and to serve it, starting with the eldest member of those who will partake. The coffee is drunk with plenty of sugar. The woman is lavishly praised for her efforts in producing the coffee.
Three rounds of coffee are served with stories and conversation. The last cup is called, “Baraka”—the cup of blessing. It is possible to come as a visitor to a simple peasant hut in Ethiopia and be treated to this Yirgacheffe, which is, according to coffee experts, one of the best coffees in the world.
“HEY! Coffee time”
Don, our boss, almost always barked, “Hey!” before he said anything. I think he liked to see us jump. If we were shoveling, he’d yell, “Hey!” and sternly and impatiently show us the most efficient way to move dirt. And if you called it dirt, he’d snap, “Hey! Dirt is what’s under your fingernails; this is soil.” Until I got used to his manner, and I never really did, I always had the sense that I did nothing right.
He knew we were on edge and he seemed to derive some pleasure from it. Twice a day he’d come up behind us and bark, “Hey!” followed by a much softer, “Coffee time.”
When we sat down for coffee, everything changed. He told us stories about the Vietnam War and laughed at our stories about college life. The breaks were supposed to be just fifteen minutes long, but if the mood struck, he’d sit there much longer. We never checked our watches; we just enjoyed the company of those who worked hard together and enjoyed the grace of a few minutes of holding a coffee instead of a shovel.