I had my first cup of coffee at age 12 and was hooked. I liked what coffee did to me. It enhanced perception of the world, set my heart thumping in my chest, and put a little nervous twang in my limbs.
When I was in high school, my mom bought a twenty-cup coffee percolator so we would have enough for my mom, dad, and me every morning. The coffee maker was a smaller version of the church-basement can with a giant basket in it. At first, I was civilized and drank out of coffee cups. As my obsession grew, however, I started filling plastic drinking glasses with coffee for the ride to school.
And since I was a early-age smoker, I found that coffee only made smokes better.
I discovered gourmet coffee when I worked at the Hickory Farms kiosk in a local shopping mall. Next door was a coffee retailer that sold single appellation coffees (Tanzanian Peaberry, Guatemala Tegucigalpa, etc.). That Christmas, I skipped around the mall, buying Christmas presents with a recently delivered paycheck. I wound up at the coffee retailer, thinking my mom, who was an inveterate coffee drinker would like some special coffees for the holidays.
I bought her what I thought were exotic coffees—hazelnut- and cherry-flavored coffee and a bag of Kenya AA. After she opened her present, I began making those coffees for myself. I soon found that the flavored coffees didn’t suit me. They were too candy-like and I found the flavors bad. But I loved the Kenya AA. I’ll never forget sitting around one Saturday morning absolutely jazzed on too much of that heavenly blend. My eyes buzzed. I couldn’t move. It was wonderful.
When I lived in Germany, I made coffee with a pour-over filter or, later, a French press. I heated the water in a little tank under the sink that got the water at least hot enough to brew a hot-ish cup. All my German friends drank coffee. From them, I gained the habit of having a second round of coffee in the evening around 5 p.m. and stuck to that for years. It came in very handy when I had jobs that I had to work late into the evening.
I didn’t think much more about coffees until I was 25 and I started working at a bistro in the Westport shopping-and-bar district that sold cheeses, sausages, teas, and coffees. We had an espresso maker in the back at the restaurant where we made lattes, cappuccinos, and Americanos. This was in the days before the ubiquitous coffee shop. Or, I should say, this was in the days when a coffee shop was where you bought a regular cup of coffee and ate pie. Our place was one of the few in Kansas City where someone could get an espresso or coffee drink other than what the gas station, convenience store, or restaurant served.
I soon became quite enamored of our coffee selections. I made the rounds through all the single-appellation and estate coffees, as well as our Italian and French coffee blends. Since I had a lot of time when I worked in the front serving up the whole-bean coffees we scooped out of bins, I read a lot about coffee, where it was grown, under what conditions it was grown, and the difference between Arabica and robusta coffees. I consumed volumes on coffee and coffee culture.
After a few months, I qualified as an expert. I counseled customers on the coffees that best suited their tastes. I served up Guatemalans, Costa Ricans, Mexicans, and various Africans. My favorites, even to today, are the Central American coffees. I concocted my own blend: one quarter pound Italian roast, one quarter Costa Rican Tarrazu (or Guatemala Tegucigalpa), and one half pound Mexican Altura Pluma. I drank that blend religiously for the years I worked at the shop, and then well after when I could find coffee retailers that sold those particular coffees.
But I was no snob. I also drank just regular coffee-can coffee from the grocery store. I consumed a lot of convenience-store coffees when on the road or in-route from one place to another. (I spent two years in grad school driving between Kansas City and Laramie and drank truck-stop coffee like a hound.) At some level, coffee is coffee and taste took second place to a hot, bitter fluid that started the day right. I differentiated between Folgers, Hills Brothers, and Maxwell House, and I have to say that the perennial favorite was Folgers. Of convenience stores, I erred on the side of QuikTrip. 7-Eleven just didn’t cut it. On the highway, Sapp Brothers brewed a good cup but I wasn’t above a cup from the Flying J or Pilot truck stops.
Slowly at first, and then with greater precision, I found that I liked coffee percolated better than from an automatic-drip coffee maker. French press coffee was superior to both the percolator and the automatic-drip coffee maker. Through my extensive travels in the backcountry, I determined that coffee boiled in a pan made the best drink of them all. I think of it this way: Coffee boiled on the grounds is brewing, water run through the grounds is leeching. I prefer brewed rather than leeched coffee.
I once walked from Kansas City to Helena, Montana, and then canoed home on the Missouri River. Coffee on the walk was rather inconvenient. If I drank it in the morning, I would soon find myself on a stretch of busy two-lane hunting for a place to pee. I switched to tea, instead and got along just fine. But on the river, I drank cowboy coffee I made in a pan exclusively.
After I got married in 1998, I settled in with a woman who drank Folgers. I drank a lot of it. We ditched the automatic-drip coffee maker a few years into our marriage for an electric percolator and have stuck with it ever since. I brought home my own coffees, generally the Central Americans, for myself, and made them in a counter-top espresso maker and a French press. But I could never get my wife to drink what she considered high-brow coffees. She preferred the medium and predictable strains of Folgers no matter how long it sat in a canister on the counter.
Over the years and with increasing regularity, I found that when I drank coffee in the morning, it made me tired. Occasionally, I would switch to tea. Coffee notwithstanding, I loved tea and knew of its various forms and blends from the bistro where I used to work. Tea started the day right and didn’t put me into a zombie-like state at 10:30 in the morning. I generally drank loose-leaf teas of various origins, but I would also drink Bigelow and Twinings tea-bag teas.
Inevitably, I always lost the taste for tea and came back to coffee. About five months ago, I got sick of having to crawl back in bed for a nap just an hour or two from waking up in the morning. This is important stuff, since I work mostly from home. At home, I have the luxury of taking a nap—which I do every afternoon, anyway. At the office, when I work from there, I have to yawn and shake myself awake while I sit at my desk.
Enough was enough. I decided to switch to tea for a while. I went to the tea store and bought a couple of my favorites. Since I have made the switch, I drink coffee only very occasionally in the afternoon at home or with pals when I meet them for a chat.
Not long ago, I asked my doctor why coffee put me to sleep. “Son,” he said, “when you have ADHD, certain stimulants like caffeine tend to have the opposite effect on you than with most other people. When you drink coffee in the morning, you will find that you have a better ability to focus and concentrate but that it will make you tired.”
Tea, if I drink enough, will put me to sleep. I usually don’t drink that much. One or two big cups in the morning are enough. And, I tend to enjoy the experience more than with coffee. I have a tea ball that I use in a large cup. I boil the water and set the timer on the stove for four minutes. This works to bring out the best in most teas, though, depending on the tea, I adjust the water temperature and steeping time accordingly. Thus, I wake every morning and hear two happy sounds—that of a teapot squealing and then the ding of the timer that tells me my cuppa is ready to drink.
I like all kinds of tea but have landed on Chinese Keemun and Russian Caravan (a blend of Keemun and oolong, minus the Lapsong Souchong) as my favorites. I drink Irish Breakfast tea regularly and almost always have an oolong around for the afternoon.
For Christmas, my wife enrolled me in a tea-of-the-month club. I was very particular about what kind of teas would arrive at my door. Black teas only. No flavored teas. While I appreciate them greatly, I didn’t want any green or white teas—for as much as I drink of them, I can get them at the store where I buy my loose-leaf teas. When she asked me to find an appropriate tea-delivery service, I searched the internet until I found just the right one.
I don’t know that my coffee days are over. Certainly, I will drink a cup of coffee if someone offers me one. I go the coffee shop and meet with friends about once or twice a week and always in the afternoon. I drink a strong coffee then, a cortado, usually. But coffee in the afternoon doesn’t affect me the way it does in the morning. So, when a pal wants to meet me for coffee, I’m wide open to the idea.
In the meantime, I look forward on waking to my morning cup of tea—usually with two sugars and milk or creamer. It bastardizing the tea to add these things into it, according to some people. But they aren’t drinking my tea.