Me and Special Agent Dale Cooper, we love ourselves a cup of damn good coffee. And hot! From my first terrible cup in 1989 that I drank for attention to this morning’s pour over, nary a morning in my life has passed without a cup. The Elixir of Life brings me joy, along with wakefulness. 

I posted links to various products and services in this post, provided just because I like them. I am not affiliated in any way with any of these products or services.

Do you remember your first cup of coffee?

I poured my very first cup of coffee from an industrial pot at a breakfast buffet after a very late night giggling during a high school youth group retreat. I think I had a ratio of about 2:1 cream to coffee and enough sugar to make a Dunkin’ Donuts coahfee regulah blush.

This was in September 1989, and I had just turned sixteen. Oh my god the coffee was bad, but I got enough attention (YOU DRINK COFFEE?) that I decided right then and there that why yes, yes I did drink coffee. My mother’s reaction when I requested a cup the next morning at breakfast helped seal the deal. Coffee was cool.

Dunkin Coffee, Barcelona
Barcelona runs on Dunkin'? La Boqueria, Barcelona, Spain

Graduating to flavored coffee—the height of sophistication

Each morning, I’d pick up a classmate to drive to school, and, in return for the ride, she’d have a cup of hazelnut coffee in a travel mug for me (in those days, ecological friendliness took the form of a plastic thermos with a sippy lid). Flavored coffees had just come into vogue. I didn’t like most of them, but hazelnut. That appealed to my oh-so-sophisticated palate. My parents let me drink coffee, which they drip brewed, but my dad was having none of the newfangled flavored garbage foul his coffee maker, which whirled and hissed steam like an angry god. I couldn’t anger the coffee god, so I so relied instead on my classmate for a mug of the good stuff. 

I also loved to go to the Dunkin Donuts in my hometown for the coffee that they still served in ceramic cups with a saucer (and where all the older regulars sat around smoking), and to convenience stores for pumps of hazelnut Green Mountain coffee.

Morning instant coffee in Santiago. Coffee solo is a great way to learn to enjoy your own company
Morning coffee. Santiago, Chile

That one time I tried to quit

My freshman year of college, I became concerned about my caffeine intake for some reason that is lost to the sands of time, and I decided to quit, cold turkey, in January. It so happened that I also had a new, much stronger eye-glasses prescription. If you’re not from a place where it snows, you probably don’t know about the glare on ice crusted snow that is particularly sharp in January. In the best of times, it hurts your eyes.

Anyhow, I couldn’t figure out why I had these blinding headaches that had me taking to my bed around three o’clock each afternoon. I mean, we’re talking agony here. Cold cloths and lots of moaning. Some dorm friends came in to visit me after a few days of my mysterious ailment to see if I needed anything, and one of their boyfriends listened to my complaints. He’d somehow gathered that I’d recently stopped drinking coffee, and he left the room.

A few minutes later, he returned, a steaming mug of salvation in his hands. He handed it to me, saying softly, “Here. Drink this. You’re going to feel better, I promise.”

I did. And I’ve never looked back.  The Elixir of Life has made my mornings better nearly every day since. Recent research on coffee’s link to longer (say nothing of happier) life makes me beam with smug satisfaction about my choice.

But first, coffee

Discovering Coffee Connection and better coffee

Before Starbucks took over in Boston, there was Coffee Connection, a local chain created by George Howell, now of the excellent George Howell Coffee. I had my first cup of good coffee at a Coffee Connection in Harvard Square in the early 1990s, and it will forever hold a place in my heart.

Howell sold Coffee Connection to Starbucks in the mid-90s, and I don’t think I ever quite got over it. I kept my cherished Coffee Connection travel mug until the literally fell out of it. To this day, I really don’t like Starbucks.

While I had Coffee Connection, in general, the US saw a growing interest in decent coffee in that era (the rumblings led to the “third wave” of US coffee culture), as opposed to the mass-market brands. Frankly, the best part of waking up was anything but Folgers in my cup.

French press
Apparently I didn't photograph my French press much
Moka pot
Moka pots make decent at-home espresso

French press and other brewing methods

With Coffee Connection came an interest in good coffee, and it wasn’t long before I got interested in the French press brewing method and freshly ground beans. I replaced my little 4-cup drip maker with a Bodum French press and made glorious messes in my quest to have a decent cup of coffee.

Like all fledgling, yet poor, serious coffee drinkers of that era I had one of those wretched espresso machines, but it didn’t last long. In my attempts to make cappuccino, the milk frother, clogged constantly, and never really got clean. I stopped using it.

My sister, who lived in Italy for a time, taught me about the Moka pot, which I used to make espresso at home. I also got a stovetop milk frother, which, with a little elbow grease after the milk heats, makes a good latte.

Until the pandemic, though, I primarily used a French press to make my coffee, with the occasional latte on the weekends.

Fair trade and sustainability

Where did coffee come from, and who grew it? The answers to these questions revealed some truly horrifying facts. Coffee, naturally a shade crop, had been modified to grow in full sun, contributing to rainforest destruction. And, all-too-often the people who provide us with our coffee did not receive anything remotely close to a living wage and were forced to work with dangerous chemicals required to grow coffee in full sun. I didn’t want something so fundamental to my day to be harming someone else.

My first experience with fair trade coffee came from Equal Exchange, another Boston-based organization, and, like many others, I also wanted my coffee to be environmentally sustainable. It so happened that many coffee roasters who committed to fair trade practices and the environment also sought to create the perfect cup, which made this switch easy (if more expensive).

Cafés, near and far

One of the things I miss the most from the BeforeTimes are cafés. From the café around the corner from me with a delightful patio, shaded by an old Weeping Willow, to the cafés I find in my travels, I love nothing more than to bring a book and my journal and savor a coffee. Next weekend, my vaccination will be at full strength, and I’m getting a macchiato at Café Rustica and enjoying it on their patio.

I also miss getting a Vietnamese iced coffee in Boston’s Chinatown from New Saigon Sandwich, which sadly closed its doors during the pandemic. The ones I make at home just aren’t the same.

Coffee setup including electric kettle and Baratza Encore burr grinder
Small apartment coffee setup. Electric kettle and Baratza Encore grinder on an Ikea cart.
Pour over coffee
Finally making the switch to pour over

Pandemic brewing: Switching to pour over and a burr grinder

For decades, I used a French press and a blade grinder (these are the ubiquitous tall Krupps grinders, and, unless you are a coffee snob or love one, probably what you think of when you think of a coffee grinder) to make my coffee and was perfectly happy (except for the last cup when I got to the sludge).

With the pandemic and extra time on my hands, I decided to get into the pour-over method and to finally get a burr grinder. With the grinder, I initially tried to go with a cheaper model, but after a couple of weeks, it barely ground the beans at all and was worse than my blade grinder.

Realizing the error of my ways, I ordered a Baratza Encore Conical Burr Coffee Grinder. What a dream. Gone are the days of having uneven grinds and waste in an effort to avoid too much sludge. Instead, I get the exact grind I want, and it even grinds finely enough to make a good espresso in my Moka pot.

I did stick with my more economical (yet still cute) Bodum pour-over pot that I bought from Tags Hardware instead of getting a more-expensive Chemex, but add an unbleached paper filter to the basket, as I think that it improves the taste. Also, I just stuck with my trusty electric kettle and am just a little more careful with pouring the water.

Honestly, I don’t know why I didn’t do this sooner. Pour over is no harder than the French press, requiring only a little more time to pour, and with what I find to be far superior results. I grew to love the bitterness of French press coffee, but I think it was because I didn’t know what I was missing.

Cold brew

In the hotter months, I do turn to cold brew. I love the smoothness of it and how simple it is to make. There’s something satisfying about stirring a bunch of coarsely ground beans into cold water with a wooden spoon. The process resembles a child attempting to “cook” with mud and a bucket, and that it actually results in something delicious brings miracles to mind.

Trying out a Trade subscription

When I switched to pour over, I decided to also experiment with different coffees. An old neighbor loved a subscription service from Trade, and I, too, am a big fan. You take a quiz (confession: I remain a 90s girl in many ways, and I still love darker roasts), and then you get coffees from different roasters each month. A little novelty in these strange times helps stave off boredom.

What about you?

Do you love coffee as much as I do? How do you brew your coffee? Favorite roaster? Favorite local café? Cafés from your travels? I could talk coffee all day (and all night if I had enough of the magic bean water). Let me know in the comments!

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