If I could cure the whole world of one habit, it would be using the word “times” as a transitive verb.* That, and needlessly elaborate coffee drinks. I know, I know, railing against Starbucks is passé, but they really are a travesty and I’m chronically behind on trends of hating things. (Unrelated: I’m starting to believe that Saddam Hussein is not such a good guy, you know?)
Anyway. Have you ever had a good cup of coffee that was just coffee? Or have you always just assumed that it’s bitter, bitter sludge that is only worth the trouble of doctoring up with endless milk, sugar, or (blech) CoffeeMate™ because it’s easier and slightly more palatable than injecting pure caffeine into your jugular? If so, I have good news: just like good beer can be more than a way to get drunk**, good coffee can do much more than upsetting your stomach and increasing your heart rate. So listen up!
Two general principles, first.
- You have to be open-minded. This is going to apply to all of the Acquiring Tastes I may or may not write later, but the first step in getting to like something you previously thought you didn’t like is always going to be: try it. Divorce yourself from old notions that are holding you back. Free your mind. This is the zen of coffee.
- Also, you will have to spend some money. Whether this means going to a real coffeeshop and shelling out $3 for a cup of pour-over or taking the leap and setting yourself up with a burr grinder, french press, and whole beans at $12 a pound, you’re going to have to confront the fact that if you want quality, you can’t skimp. If you don’t care, then don’t. That is okay!
- Find a local place to get coffee, preferably that roasts their own beans. This is your surest way to get a fresh product and usually knowledgeable salespeople to boot. Try a cup of the coffee in-store to see if you like it, then buy a bag of beans if you do. In Chicago, I’m incredibly spoiled for choice (Intelligentsia and Metropolis, OMG!!!), but smaller places also exist (cf. the coffee-place of my youth, Chestnut Hill Coffee). Poke around. Use Yelp. Or try mail-order, if you can afford it.
- If you have no neighborhood place, do not despair. You still have options. Just try to get beans roasted as recently as possible. Fresher is better for flavor, see? If you can’t find anything with a date on it, just make sure to get whole beans (see below).
- For at-home brewing, your drip coffeemaker is probably fine, but a french press is dead-simple and cheap. Plus, it’s French, so…sophistication. Here’s my press, and here are some instructions for using it. A scale is also very helpful.
- Grind at home, not in the store, and definitely don’t get pre-ground. If all you have is a blade (aka “normal”) coffee grinder, you will get your beans chopped up into irregular sizes, which isn’t the best, but it’s still better than pre-ground dust. If you can, spring for a burr grinder (meaning it uses little metal burrs to grind) and adjust the grind setting to your brew method. Espresso is usually finest, and French press is coarsest.
- Don’t put your beans in the freezer. Who told you that?! Just keep them out of heat and light, like you do with your spice rack and/or small children.
- Light to medium is the name of the game. Darker roasts are the ones that usually taste burnt and invite whitening and sweetening. Try to find a coffee that has tasting notes listed on it (even if you think it’s pretentious) and then pay attention and try things. Toffee? Spice? Dark chocolate? Banana? Swish it around a little in your mouth and see if you agree. Get a different kind and note the differences.
- Talk to your barista. This may require you to establish yourself as a “regular” somewhere, but doesn’t everyone dream of a coffee shop where everybody knows your name? And they’re always glad you came? Anyway, if you can look past tattoos and ear plugs, coffee people are friendly, a little bit hyper, and love to talk about coffee. Pick their brains. Get their expert advice. Leave some change in the tip jar.
- Corollary to the above: don’t listen to the snobs. People can have violent, sharp opinions about coffee, but in the end, it’s just a goddamn breakfast drink. If you give it a shot (or a double-shot or an americano) and you really, actually, still hate coffee, you’re allowed. And hell, at least you tried!
*It makes you sound so ignorant PLEASE STOP
**Stay tuned for the next entry in this series, maybe!