"I didn't know Starbucks sold coffee," I murmur, appearing slightly intrigued. The impression I'm going for is one of minor, "gee-whiz" curiosity, as if you'd told me that Lowes or Home Depot sold coffee.
Those who know me attempt desperately to steer the conversation off the "coffee" track. They've heard the litany of roast and grind and brew more times than you can shake two sticks at (though you shouldn't shake sticks: you could poke someone's eye out).
Starbucks Fan, though, has not, and is generally thrown entirely off-kilter.
"But— um... I mean, you really don't know Starbucks is a coffee shop?"
"It's not, that I'm aware of." Hooked. "Oh! You mean that swamp water they sell!" I generally don't tip my hand so quickly, but she looks like an easy mark.
"Well I like it."
"Of course you do! I used to like it, too." Listen, my child, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, roast, grind, and brew. Or brew, grind, and roast: that's how it happened.
My path to coffee snobbery was innocent. It always is. There's not a one of us who decided to become a coffee snob. Not like wine snobs. Wine snobs become wine snobs because it's hip and cool. Anyone who decides to become a coffee snob becomes a Starbucks Fanboy, because Starbucks Fandom is hip and cool. Coffee snobbery is indubitably somewhere beyond the point of esoterica.
The only coffee-drinker in my immediate family, I developed the taste as a teen-ager, drinking the swill (I didn't know it was swill! Honest!) served at parties, church functions, and doughnut shops. We never had coffee around the house except when out-of-town company necessitated it, and then it was the ubiquitous Nescafe.
I drank that, too. I loved it.
Eventually, I got to drinking it black.
I know. I'm sorry. I know better now.
In college, I drank cafeteria coffee. I drank coffee on airplanes, coffee at receptions, coffee everywhere brown water went by that name.
For one Valentine's Day, my then-girlfriend gave me a French press.
Now, she was — and to my knowledge, still is — a Starbucks Fan. At the time, though, she was the one to teach me the difference between swill and "good coffee". I became obsessed, though, and now it's me who can no longer tell the difference between what I had been drinking and what she taught me to drink. Funny, isn't it?
So I started making cheap pre-ground coffee in the press: epiphany the first.
Epiphany the First: Automatic drip coffee-makers have poor temperature control; they scorch, overextract and underextract every cup of coffee, yielding a burnt cup that's paradoxically both bitter and sour.
So now I couldn't drink the stuff I'd been served for most of my coffee-drinking years. I knew coffee could be better. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil ruined things by demonstrating distinction; the French press did the same thing. Once you know the difference, there is no return to blissful ignorance. And is being able to enjoy the most easily-available type of coffee such a bad thing?
Then she gave me a grinder: epiphany the second.
Epiphany the Second: Grinding coffee immediately before brewing is the single biggest improvement you can make to your coffee.
Granted, I was using roasted-who-knows-when beans from the supermarket mystery-bins labeled exotic wonderful things like "Columbian Dark Roast" and "Sumatra Mandheling".
Looking back, I'm astonished I could taste the varietal difference in those beans, but my first cup of a Mandheling was at this point: I still remember my gleeful astonishment. "It tastes sweet and a little creamy all on its own! Black!"
For several years, I was considered a coffee snob, though not really earning the title. I'd politely refuse coffee whenever it was offered, because I knew my poor odds of enjoying the cup. When I could, I'd go to some of the nicer local coffee-houses and enjoy a cappuccino. Coffee really went on hold, though.
Then I discovered it was possible to procure, at retail, green, unroasted coffee: epiphany the third.
Epiphany the Third: Coffee that is not fresh is hardly coffee at all.
What can I say? I'm still beginning this journey. It started with my wanting an espresso machine. I thought I could pick up a little mini-Krups at the thrift store and be done with it. My research saved me — or doomed me.
I discovered that to make anything worth drinking, one had to have fresh coffee. I thought, "No problem. I'll just buy what I can use in a couple of months."
"Two weeks," they said. Two weeks, and these coffee snobs would throw the beans on the compost heap.
Yes, definitely puts a damper on the festivities.
"A popcorn popper?"
"A popcorn popper."
"And green coffee costs how much, again?"
"Maybe five or six bucks a pound, depending on what you get."
"So, what about if I want the really good stuff, like that (insert local shop here) has?"
"Oh, that? Two fifty or three bucks a pound."
There is no denouement: only a continual journey. I roast a half a pound a week (six or seven batches in the popper, and an hour's time). I'm exploring options for a higher-volume system.
I'm becoming dissatisfied with my espresso and drinking more brewed coffee. I want to upgrade — I want a $300 grinder and $400 espresso machine. But then I read about all those upgrading from their Rocky+Silvia (the current darling of the home espresso world), and think I might try talking the New Moon Cafe into selling their old two-group commercial machine: just cut out the spending in the middle and go straight to the top.
I'm approached weekly by friends who've heard about my coffee, wanting samples. I think I give away half of every roast now: I'm drawing up a pricing schedule and starting to charge.
I mentioned, off-hand, that I'm fed up with school and would love to just run a coffee shop and roastery. This was in earshot of one of my coffee's devotees, a real-estate investor. He mentioned he might be interested in fronting capital for a shop.
I told him to stop: not to tempt me.
Because if he put sixty grand in my hands, I know just the spot I'd open.
And I'd quit. I really would.
Throw that Ph.D. to the winds.
Coffee is worth that.
To a coffee snob.