Yes, this post is a repeat from long ago, but I was reminded dig it up after reading a piece at a friend’s blog. Thanks for indulging me. –PalMD
If Bob Dylan provides the soundtrack for much of my life, then coffee provides the “smelltrack”. I did not start to drink coffee until I was about 20. My best friend of 18 years told me I should learn to, as I might need it. He also told me to drink it black, because I might not always have cream and sugar, but I still might need the coffee. So, I started to drink it. Now, this was terrible coffee…institutional, stale, sour, just generally bad. And the coffee revolution of the 90s had not yet hit. I had nowhere to go but up.
The next year, a real coffee shop opened up in my college town. I came to like sitting there and reading, enjoying my free refills. The coffee was unspectacular.
I lived briefly at a YMCA camp after college, where I taught children from all over the Northeast about nature. The kitchen was run by a retired Navy chef. The coffee was abominable. One morning, on an early walk, I spied his wife looking at the old grounds, sniffing them, putting them back, and adding water. This was a coffee low point.
After that, I moved to the Southwest where I flirted with hazelnut, cinnamon, and other flavors. Mostly, these masked poor quality beans. I began to read up on coffee, from plant to cup. I experimented with brewing techniques, and found that I enjoyed french press coffee. But this period’s aroma is definitely dominated by hazel nut.
Then, I moved to San Francisco. It was 1991; the internet boom hadn’t hit yet, and there was still a nice Bohemian undercurrent. And coffee. Glorious coffee. Peet’s coffee. If you haven’t had it, let me explain. First, it is not for the faint of heart. If you have ever walked into a Starbuck’s and been sickened by the smell, don’t go to Peet’s. The aroma is fierce, aggressive, and permeating. Even a brief stop will leave you with a reminder of your visit in your clothes and hair. Your first sip will overwhelm you. Not bitter, really, just forceful. You cannot just sip and forget it. This is no gas station coffee. Your first sip may cause you to swear it off forever, but perseverance pays off. The next several sips bring out the complex, earthy, caramelized aromas. Then, no other coffee competes. But Peet’s isn’t a sit-and-read cafe, so for studying, reading, and relaxing, I had to find other haunts.
My favorite was the Blue Danube, on Clement St. The large front windows fold open, releasing the usual smell of better-than-adequate SF coffee. The tables are comfortable, and they have a liquor license. I spent untold hours there studying biology, organic chemistry, physics, and other fun things. And, after a long day of studying, I exchanged my coffee cup for a wine glass and half carafe.
But, SF wasn’t to be. After a few years, I was accepted to medical school in Chicago. I hoped they had adequate coffee. Good luck! The medical school had a good espresso cart, and my neighborhood had several good cafes. And…the first Peet’s coffee outside California! It so happened that there were so many SF exiles there that it seemed a good place for them to start. They even had a few tables! But my usual daily coffee shops were Unicorn and Kafein. Both had their good and bad points, both had decent coffee. And I could identify either one blindfolded.
In every town, a developed a set of “cafe friends”–people whom I sometimes knew by name, sometimes shared a book or game of chess, but rarely saw outside the shop. It was part of the experience. Good coffee, companionship. My friend was right about the coffee…I do need it, and I still drink it black. And he is still my best friend, after 40 years.