Monday, May 28, 2012

On coffee

In which a range of coffee experiences are recounted for the edification of the connoisseur.
Andean Chuitlachacha
The freshest beans are handpicked after sunset to make chuitlachacha (pronounced ‘hooWITlaCAAcaa’) coffee. Carried down the mountain in woven sacks lashed to surefooted donkeys, the beans are taken immediately to the processing house in the tiny village of Xholotchuwichu (‘shoLOTchooWIchoo’) where they are allowed to rest for a day and a night before being gently roasted over wood fires. Only when the hereditary master of the roasting house, the venerable Xhoclatxhipchuchi (‘chocLATchipCOOkee’), is satisfied are they decanted into woven sacks lashed to surefooted donkeys, then transported to selected sellers in quaint coastal towns where cars are a rarity and afternoon siestas are the norm.
"Oh sure, I'm in transport now. But they've promised me a job in marketing."

And all of this is immediately apparent in the first taste. Smooth nutty overtones dance and swirl amid light chocolatey notes, while the subtle lemony tang leaves you in no doubt you are in the presence of liquid greatness. Only the best-trained baristas are allowed to brew this magical liquor, and all are required to spend a year picking beans on the western slopes before they are allowed to attempt their first cup.
"For the first week, they lashed woven sacks to me."

Acknowledge the barista with a nod and a smile as you accept your beverage; they have put twelve piping hot ounces of their heart and soul in your hands

Best for: The sophisticated connoisseur with a developed palate
Worst for: Undifferentiated swillers of instant coffee
Available from: Discerning coffee houses

Robusta Robusta
An ancient and popular Italian blend, this is the coffee that gets most of Rome out of bed and onto their scooters every morning. The deceptively mild aroma whispers sweet nothings to your nostrils, holding your attention while the full-bodied flavour knees you lovingly in the groin.  The experience mellows slightly as your taste buds are numbed by the onslaught, leaving you to enjoy a caffeine hit best described as ‘apocalyptic’. Mild chocolate overtones attempt to fight their way through the bitter tide, but are resolutely kerb-stomped before they get far. A delicate balance of subtlety and extreme violence, this is caffeinated dynamite in sheep’s clothing.
Ah, Rome: history, culture and two million VERY alert drivers.

Legend has it that Rome’s legions marched on the taste of Robusta Robusta, and you may find yourself understanding why. One cup will put you in the mood to repress local barbarians, while two will drive you to sing marching songs and invade neighbouring countries. Only the weak feel the need to soften the blow by adding milk, and the withering contempt of the highly-trained baristas who serve you will make it clear you are insulting them. Order it strong, order it black, order it when you are expecting trouble from those pesky Visigoths.
"Eight thousand short blacks please. To go"

This is man’s coffee. It comes to you in a cup made of electrified barbed wire, with poisoned barbs. And there are radioactive scorpions floating in it. And it’s on fire.
"A handle? You can't HANDLE the handle!"

From the first sip, this one lets you know you’re in Man Country. Every cup is brewed from selected beans that have passed at least once through the digestive system of a pissed-off lion. How pissed off? Lions don’t even eat coffee beans. The aroma will light a bushfire in your nose hairs, scour your sinuses bare of life and sensation. The crema has been likened to foamy napalm, and is used as a decontaminant at toxic waste sites.  Less a drink than a rite of passage, ManJava is for those who need a pick-me-up that will carry them through to their retirement party. One cup will keep you sharp and alert for the rest of the day, two will leave you unable to sleep for the rest of the year. With the unmistakable tang of surplus rocket fuel from the shuttle program, the aftertaste is so potent your first-born child will emerge with an expression of shock and awe. Less than a dozen men have ever finished an entire cup, all of whom were immediately enlisted in the SAS. Chuck Norris tried to drink a cup once, but it roundhouse kicked him to death before he got the lid off.
Steve soon regretted asking for a double shot

Nutty, with light chocolate overtones.
Best for: Men
Worst for: Twilight cast members
Available from: Secret locations inside active volcanoes

City brew
From the surly expression of the barista to the “wait, what?” prices, this coffee is a uniquely urban experience. Early customers are treated to the sight of yesterday’s dishwater being poured into the coffee machine, while latecomers must make do with seeing the morning’s coffee grounds being recovered for one more lap through the wringer.  There’s a ten-minute wait just to place an order, then a five minute standoff while they threaten you with a loyalty card that entitles you to a stale baguette if you survive fifty coffees. You are treated to the privilege of watching the staff text their partners, chat about last night’s movie, inspect each other’s sick new lower back tattoos and a range of other activities, none of which are remotely associated with crafting a hot beverage in return for the cash money you just coughed up.
"YES I'm making your coffee. In my MIND..."

When it finally gets to you, the robust aroma reassures you the coffee machine has been recently descaled, and the descaling fluid is still working its magic right there in your cup.  The connoisseur will note the cup is thin enough to scorch your fingers the moment they make contact, and fragile enough to occasionally release the entire contents before it has cooled below groin-searing temperature. A hint of coffee fights its way through the reek of burnt plastic, but the first taste tells you it’s less a hint of what’s to come, more the ghost of beverages past. Experienced customers will know to hold their noses as they drink to minimise the detergent tang, and to swipe away any foam from the upper lip before it has time to leave permanent discolouration. There’s a silver lining to this dark brown cloud though; every cup discarded in disgust does that little bit more to descale the city’s storm drains.
"Milk and sugar?"

Best for: CBD workers with no other choice
Worst for: People who like coffee
Available at: That place close to the office

Served warm to hot, this drink has flavours that range from ‘Slightly bitter’ to ‘Not really very bitter’, and ‘Faintly nutty’ to ‘Huh? Nutty?’ Made using beans that are indistinguishable from each other by anyone who hasn’t spent a lifetime snuffling at sacks of the damn things, highly trained baristas grind them up using a grinding machine, then force hot water through it using a machine that forces hot water through ground-up things. The resultant dark, bitter-or-not-bitter, nutty-or-not-nutty drink is then drowned in so much frothy milk that any subtleties are lost in a lactosey deluge. The discerning drinker will then add sufficient sugar to remove any lingering doubt that it’s basically a warm milk shake. Served in a cardboard cup covered by a plastic lid with a hole in it to sip through, it’s nice on a cold day, and serves as a handy icebreaker when you’re meeting someone for the first time, or trying to schmooze a client or suck up to your boss or something.
Strong coffee notes interwoven with complex coffee overtones, and a delicate coffee finish.

What it definitely is not is a drink worthy of the endless superlatives heaped on it by macchiato-swilling hipsters looking for another way to demonstrate what gigantic douchebags they are. There most certainly are hidden depths to every cup, but they’re lost to most of us who barely have time to grab a cup from the place nearest the bus stop before we head in to the office each day. Coffee is good gear, and the rituals and experiences that surround our consumption of it make it as potent a social lubricant as alcohol, though without the annoying teenage pregnancies, hangovers or coyote mornings. Sure, different places make different-tasting coffee, but that’s more about how much milk they use, how hot the water is and when they last cleaned the machine, not whether the beans were grown on the south slope and tended by Columbian virgins in peasant blouses.
"Uh...I'm Jordanian. And these are grapes."

Buy it. Drink it. Throw the cup away. And don’t encourage the hipsters by nodding when they start flapping their gums about single-origin beans or double shots pulled short or anything else. Fresh coffee, clean water, a well-maintained machine and a coffee guy/gal who remembers to clean the milk jug every now and then. Everything else is noise.
Thank you, and mine’s a flat white.