Chris’s Quest to Like Coffee

How I long to stand in line at a rest stop Starbucks, and never again be the sleepy outsider.

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In my near-38 years on this Earth, I have never learned to appreciate one of the most popular and commercially successful agricultural products our planet has to offer. Coffee is woven into American social fabric like almost nothing else, to the point where the word is almost synonymous with conversation; and yet for the last decade or so I have begun each morning not with a hot cup of Ethiopian Coffea, but a cold can of Diet Coke. Which, frankly… people look at you funny.

So I have embarked on a quest to learn to love the roasted black bean, though it’s not the first time in my life I’ve made such an attempt. I’ve tried coffee drinks a few times in my life, usually getting them to within a half inch of my face before recoiling. In the early 2010s I went so far as to purchase a bag of blonde roast beans (having heard those were less harsh and more friendly to beginners) and brewed them up in the French press I keep at home for guests. It didn’t go well. This time, I will succeed.

My first cup came almost as fate, in fact. I stopped in Saturday to a Pret a Manger in Midtown, looking to pick up a quick breakfast on my way to my writers group. As I stepped up to the counter, one of the cashiers handed me a paper cup. “Would you like to try a [something something] brown sugar latte? I just made it for someone else who doesn’t want it.”

Normally I would have refused, but as I’d already spent the morning considering whether I wanted to attempt my first cup of joe, I accepted–and quite enjoyed the beverage within. The brown sugar and [something something] (I’m not being coy, I don’t remember what she said–something spice maybe?) softened the harsh acidity, and though many would probably describe what I drank more as a melted sundae in a cup than a “cup of coffee,” I finished most of the cup.

Some have asked why bother. Aside from the above explanation that coffee is an essential part of our social fabric, and being a person who ‘never touches the stuff’ turns me into an outsider, there’s another simple reason: Caffeine.

Never in my life a morning person, I have a very hard time getting myself out of bed and starting my day, especially at this time of year when the sun is rising later and the changing seasons mean more gray skies and cooler temperatures. I’m a night owl, which means I rarely want to go to bed at night, and I don’t want to leave in the morning. I’ve long looked with envy on those coffee drinkers who begin their day with vigor–even if the thing pulling them out of bed is their addictive craving for the black stuff.

Yesterday, for the first time ever, I stopped in to a coffee shop on my walk to work and placed an order. Another latte. Don’t judge me, it’s a point of entry. A gateway beverage, if you will. By 10:00 I had finished it, and enjoyed a welcome but unfamiliar stimulation, a mental acuity and energy that was a bit directionless but still better than the muddy-headed inertia I often fight until around lunchtime.

Diet Coke, see, while delivering a dose of caffeine, contains only around 46 milligrams per can. A 16-ounce latte varies by bean and recipe, but generally clocks in around 150 milligrams, almost four times as much. So where my Diet Coke was a nice pick-me-up, coffee is a shot of adrenaline to the heart.

OK, maybe I exaggerate. An espresso might be a shot to the heart, while a latte is something gentler. But I do intend to work my way up. With the help of my many, many coffee enthusiast friends, I’ve begun to plot a journey that begins with latte, progresses to Americano, then cappuccino, and finally perhaps to straight black coffee. Along the way I may check out side paths like cold brew, and I am curious to see the difference in flavor between espresso (the trade of most shops) and drip-brewed coffee like most of us make at home.

Then again, I tend to go all-in on new interests, so don’t be totally surprised if, in a year or two from now, there’s a silver espresso machine taking up room in my kitchen–and me, quivering, unable to wait thirty seconds for my next fix.

For now, though, I’ll stick with my melted sundaes.

[Cross-posted at Nomencreature.]