Note: Readers beware. This post is filled with coffee. If you are not a coffee drinker, you may want to skip this one. But if you are looking for a good reason to start drinking coffee, this may be the story you’ve been waiting for as it predates the ubiquitous Starbucks.
Some people have called me a “coffee snob.” And maybe after you read this, you might agree. But considering my coffee drinking started out pretty plainly, it might be difficult to reconcile how it all came about. But I will leave it to you, my reader, to decide if I am an arrogant coffee snob or a refined coffee connoisseur.
I cannot even remember when I first started drinking coffee but I am sure it was sometime when I was in high school (early 1970s). I know it had to have been an acquired taste as I grew up in a home where my mom didn’t drink coffee and my dad drank instant coffee (don’t ever drink this) and the best “percolated” coffee of the day was Folgers brought to you by the forever memorable Mrs. Olson—“It’s mountain grown, that’s the richest kind.” (If you recognize this phrase you must be at least in your 50s). Even instant coffee went through several phases to try to improve its flavor; the first being freeze-drying the coffee, and then the introduction of General Foods International coffees (recall Café Au Lait, Suisse Mocha, and Café Vienna).
When I went away to college, I at least got a chance to drink brewed coffee, although it was institutional coffee. But it was better than instant! Getting up every morning from a late night studying in the library (or partying too much), I became accustomed to getting a rejuvenating dose of caffeine to jolt me awake. This was probably when I became a regular (i.e., daily) coffee drinker.
When I started graduate school in the late 1970s, I somehow found better coffee although I can’t remember where. I know this as after I measured out the appropriate number of scoops I needed for a pot of coffee, I took the time, using the lab faucet vacuum system, to pull a vacuum on my ground coffee container to preserve the flavor of the remaining ground coffee (returning it to its original, unopened “vacuum-sealed” state). With this fresh coffee, I would then brew coffee in the lab using my trusty Mr. Coffee maker, a great invention from the mid-1970s brought to us by none other than Joe DiMaggio. But I wasn’t enough of a snob (connoisseur) at that point to grind my own beans—at least not yet.
In the mid 1980s, a store opened up in Memphis, the Fine Grind, which roasted their beans on site. This was probably my first olfactory experience of discovering that coffee smelled better than it tasted. My first experience of the fragrance of freshly roasted beans was aromatic and delicious. But even if it didn’t taste as good as it smelled, what we bought there definitely tasted better than what we were used to since it was freshly roasted and you could also get it flavored. Hazel Nut was our favorite flavor.
It was during our “flavored coffee” days that we began to buy whole bean coffee and grind it prior to brewing. I think it was my brother (who would definitely be called a coffee connoisseur, a better name than a snob) who actually convinced me that grinding my own beans was a better way to brew coffee and yielded much better flavor. And I was all for getting the best flavor out of my coffee.
On a trip to Atlanta, our family went to the International Farmer’s market and found a whole array of coffees originating from growing regions from which we had never had beans. We picked out a couple and as was our practice, had them flavored with Hazel Nut. Unfortunately the beans got left in the car on a hot day while we shopped elsewhere and when we returned and opened the door to the van, we were hit with a wonderful, but strong Hazel Nut aroma. In fact, the car never fully aired out that whole vacation and there was no doubt, little sleeping in the car as well.
When the first Starbucks finally made it from Seattle to Memphis, I totally embarrassed myself by going in and asking what flavored coffees they had. The knowledgeable barista kindly explained that Starbucks sold coffee from different regions in the world and that distinction would affect the flavor of the coffee. I wasn’t convinced but after trying a few, I found that different varieties did in fact have quite a span from a robust and bold flavor to a meek and mild flavor. After tasting a number of different ones, my wife and I decided that Guatemala Antiqua offered a favorable balance that was not too bold and not too mild. And to allow us to drink even more of this flavorful coffee without suffering from the caffeine jitters, we began brewing it 50:50 with a House decaffeinated coffee.
For a number of years, we enjoyed this Starbucks coffee with the only downside being that occasionally it was out of stock and we would have to pick another regional coffee. While being loyal Starbucks coffee drinkers, we also switched to a cone drip coffee maker which enhanced the flavor extraction from the finely ground coffee.
We even got a chance to make a pilgrimage to the original Starbucks store in Pike Place market in Seattle. All seemed well in our little coffee world until that is, our world totally changed…