It's not every day you get to sit down to $900/lb coffee, but this weekend was one of them.
Before I get into how I almost opened a bag worth more than I’m usually willing to spend on a hot drink, let’s go back to how I stumbled across the threshold that separates the coffee enjoying world from everyone else.
I spent the first 30 years of my life avoiding coffee, didn't want the caffeine. When I did take the occasional tentative sip, the ever-present bitter aftertaste that almost immediately took over was enough to stop me from wanting more. Ah, the majority of coffee is its own worst tasting enemy, and habit is more responsible for its spread than taste.
Through tagging along with a good friend who understood that despite the general disgust for hipsters, they were on to something with coffee, we visited the worst sorts of coffee shops* and being in general damnably curious about the world, I realized there might be something I was missing.
I began to take small steps; ordering a mocha at Starbucks, asking for “the same thing” whenever my coffee loving friend ordered at hipster bars, and trying to taste anything worth the fuss I was observing.
The two things (mochas and modern straight coffee) are wildly different. Mochas, of course, are addictive solely for their sugar and fat content; there’s so much (specifically sugar) in a modern mocha that if you can taste the coffee it’s because you can smell a grain of salt a mile away in a barnyard.
Pour-overs, mega drips, and the espressos pulled by today’s barista are something else entirely. As you may have recognized through experience, they can be so complex and full of tastes that are nothing like a Big Mac that many times your tasting apparatus shuts down, you mumble, “Oh, pretty good”, and don’t finish the cup.
The downside of the coffee explosion (the Third Wave for you cognoscenti) is that with everyone jumping into the roast & soak game you don’t always get the most out of a cup. In fact, the simple art of making coffee can be so bloody difficult that slight differences in roasting technique, in water temperature, in grind size, can make an otherwise great coffee be enough of a high fence that you just won’t ever step over it and into the world of hot cups of amber black liquid that actually taste good enough to finish.
Luckily, there are enough coffee shops with truly great baristas that if you’re willing to drink 10 cups of coffee from 10 different shops that all get 5 star reviews on Yelp, you’ll probably taste at least one cup that’s good enough to whet your appetite for more.
Sure, you’ll have to wade through the mature bamboo forest that is today’s crowd of hipsters in their skinny jeans and zero leg strength, and you may have to fight for a parking space with one of the long list of cougars (my favorite species in today’s urban jungle) determined to look like a lingerie model while shopping, but neither of those should dissuade you.
You’ll also have to deal with (and this is a CRITICAL point) tasting at least 5 cups out of 10 that you won’t want to finish.
The first trick with coffee is this: Don’t drink more than 2 sips if you don’t like it. If you don’t like it after the second sip is on its way to your belly (yep, sip, swish, swallow, then inhale deeply through your nose), you’re not going to like the 3rd sip any better, and drinking more will make you just hate coffee more, which will disincentivize you to go far enough down this path to actually taste something worth drinking.
The second trick with coffee is not to expect to taste every nuance of a fine coffee at first. It probably won’t hit home until you share a cup of coffee with someone who has a professional palate. The ability to taste many of the things in any given cup of well made coffee is not automatic for most of us. We’ve so deadened our taste buds by being out of the kitchen and eating at mediocre restaurants that we miss many of the taste subtleties.
This is most clearly demonstrated when you eat the same meal as a chef with a trained palate and ask him what he (or she) tastes. The answers make you feel like you’ve been sorting marbles with mittens when you thought you were a violin virtuoso, but it gives you some direction as to how much you can improve what you taste.
The third trick with entering into the fine coffee world is realizing that with many fine coffees, the single biggest thing you’ll notice as a beginner is what isn’t there, and this brings us, in a long and winding roundabout way, to this past weekend with some extraordinarily good and expensive coffee.
See, when you put great coffee and an untrained palate together, the main thing you’ll notice is…nothing. There is no bitterness, no sourness, no astringent aftertaste. What you taste is the coffee, and surprising to me for a product so prevalent, so well loved, is just how hard you have to work to taste that nothing.
A truly fine cup of coffee, picked, sorted, shipped, and roasted by a professional, will be hard pressed to give you something that actually tastes bad. You might not taste everything, but you’ll definitely notice the nothing once you look for it.
Now, that “nothing” ain’t the end of great coffee. If all you got for almost a thousand dollars a pound was a lack of bad taste, well, you’d either be a fool or a rich fool to keep buying it, but either way an idiot.
Luckily for me, I tested some of the coffees I recently bought in the presence of a professional palate (Pete Servold from Pete’s Paleo), and having him guide me through what I should taste and what was missing made me understand that, while I’d bought coffee way over my head as far an enjoying it to the fullest, what I had in front of me was some of the very finest coffee an untrained palate could start with. It didn’t help that I’ve been whipping the shit out of the flu for the past 2 days and could barely smell or taste, so when it came to the money bag, well…
I sat for a long while looking at the expensive bag. The fact that it was added in as a glorious gift from an accomplished chef didn’t take away any of its value for me, but I realized I wasn’t yet ready to enjoy coffee this good. Later this week, when the flu is kicked, I’ll break it open, breathe deeply, and begin to explore. Until then, patience is my least favorite and most useful ally.
So, where does this leave you if you’re interested in buying some exceptionally fine coffee and seeing how much you can taste? While I can’t in good conscience recommend you start with the *most* expensive stuff, the place I just got a package from is a great place to start for high end roasted beans. Understanding that not everyone wants to start at the top price-wise, but being confident enough in their coffee that they’re pretty sure you’ll be back for more, they were good enough to shoot over a discount code for interested buyers, use ILPACOL for 20% off any of your online orders.
Still, what if you want a superb cup of coffee today, right now? Amigo, get on Yelp, find a coffee shop with great reviews, order a pour-over and see if you can tell what is, and what isn’t, there.
*Imagine black and white tile, wood and steel, beautiful font, every customer with a pourover steaming next to their MacBook Pro and each one with no idea how to fix a leaky toilet but every one knowing what good coffee should taste like and you get my picture of what the worst is like.
Too much reading...
How about dessert?