A Dissertation Upon Roast Coffee (UG)

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I hate Starbucks.

In addition to the fact that what America needs1 is a good fifty-cent cup of coffee2, this hideous experiment in chain-drinking has given rise to a generation of coffee poseurs, connoisseur-wannabes who assert that the only good cup of coffee...

Is a bitter one.

A bag of coffee

This curmudgeonly musing on my part is stimulated by my recent experiment in brewing a pot of coffee at the office.

My boss, usually a genial fellow, but one with a five-gallon-a-day caffeine habit, took a sip and made the sort of face generally reserved for people who send him emails in Spanish.

'Who made this weak coffee?'

'I,' said the little red hen. (At least, I was wearing my red company shirt, which makes me look like a garage mechanic - the sort of irony we cybergeeks go in for, I suppose.) 'I used a whole packet of that Green Mountain coffee, tasted fine to me.'

My boss smiled indulgently. 'We'll let you off this time,' he said. 'But you need one and a half with that stuff. Only Starbucks is strong enough to use one packet.'


What the fancy-coffee generation has 'learned' is that when it comes to coffee, bitter=strong.

And that the more coffee you waste on one pot, the more bitter=the stronger the coffee is.

A real macho drink, coffee.

I have been mainlining the elixir of life since the tender age of six3...

But only because They wouldn't let me start earlier in life. I had to wait.

To my persistent infant pleas, Babe, my delightful little grandmother, replied by pointing to the liver spots on her hands.

'This is what coffee does to you,' she insisted. I thought this was a fair exchange, and would make me look distinguished.

(Anything my grandmother did was cool, in my book. My sister and I had recently surprised that accomplished woman cleaning her dentures, and since then had been demanding to know how she got those wonderfully practical removable teeth.)

The compromise was that I was allowed to drink coffee 'when I started school'...supposedly a long-enough-away event to make me forget.

I don't remember what I wore the first day of school, or what I ate for breakfast4.

But I remember the coffee. I sat down, importantly, pointed to the table, and said, 'Put it there.'

Fortunately, the coffee was my mother's - strong enough, but mild-tasting - and not my grandmother's. Babe's coffee was notorious. Her dark brew was concocted on a stovetop in those dark ages, in a blue-speckled enamelware pot, and percolated until it was hot as hades and black as sin.

You could stand a spoon in it.

The only safe way to drink Babe's coffee was to pour half a cup of condensed milk, add two spoonfuls of sugar, and fill the rest of the space with the evil stuff.

In addition to giving you liver spots, Babe's coffee apparently rendered you immune to caffeine. Nobody on that side of the family ever had the slightest problem with drinking a cup of coffee immediately before bedtime, other than the inevitable bathroom visits.

Coffee is important. An emulsion, not an infusion like that other beverage the Mother Country is so fond of, it has been the lifeblood of revolution, the inspiration of the Enlightenment, and the subject of song5 ever since its accidental discovery in the hills of, I believe it was Kenya.

You know the story? It was a shepherd. Shepherds always make the great discoveries, because unlike Wall Street brokers they have time to observe. What this shepherd observed was that his sheep were jumping around the landscape like the hills in the psalm, always after chewing on the beans from this bush over here...

Ever wonder who was the first fool to try eating a lobster? I mean...well, this particular researcher popped the bean in his mouth...

And the Enlightenment was born.

Oh, not right away. First, people had to learn how to drink the stuff, and some carpenters had to build coffeehouses in London, and men had to gather in conspiratorial groups and talk treason and write newspaper articles, and later some more fools, having stopped dying of typhoid since they were boiling their water, had to dump that namby-pamby tea in Boston harbour...

You know that story, right? The Boston radicals told them, they told them, mind, to take that tea ship and shove it, off to Canada, because nobody wanted to pay the excise tax, they were being ripped off, and the Dutch were selling the stuff cheaper, and...

Hotheads in Boston.

The Philadelphia Quakers were nonviolent - and better businessmen. They went to the captain of their tea ship, and did what Quakers do best...they talked at him. And talked, and talked...until the good captain, to save his sanity and a fortune in tea, scarpered off to Canada, and the Philadelphians got their tea from the Dutch that year for six shillings a pound, and all happy.

But coffee went on, like the witch, to Aleppo and beyond, and it did and it did and it did...

Forget tea leaves, you haven't experienced the full flavour of the occult until someone's read your coffee cup.

They do this in Greece. First, there is the Ordeal to prove your worthiness to have your fortune told. You have to actually drink the filthy stuff.

This is NOT coffee. This is a cup of Mississippi mud in costume. People say it gives them a jolt. This is all in their heads. What it does is give you a mouthful of coffee grounds. My grandmother knew what to do with coffee grounds - you put them on your favourite tomato plant, so there.

Having survived the Ordeal - usually with the aid of a large glass of water, also needed to wash down that other horror of Greek hospitality, the Visitor's Candied Peach6 - you invert your, mercifully tiny, demitasse over a napkin-covered saucer with a twisting motion.

You must do this yourself, as you are the Coffee Drinker and subject of the reading. Trust this. This is the land of the Delphic Oracle, who, poor thing, probably needed a good cup of joe right about the time Philip of Macedon came riding along, wanting to know about his political prospects.

After a suitable interval for drying, your medium - in this case our good friend, Toula the Magnificent - picks up your cup and studies it.

She reads your companion's cup first, tells her astounding news. 'You will receive a good sum of money in the mail, within a week.' (This actually comes true.)

She turns to you, a friendly smile on her face - after all, you're coworkers. She wants to show you how good she is at this...she glances down at the coffee cup...

And drops it, her face a mask of horror. Toula's decision to become an English teacher was a profound loss to the classical stage - she looks like Cassandra personified in this moment. 'No, no...it's just a game...no, don't ask, no, I've just remembered an appointment in Kavala, I've got to run, see you soon...'

One may harbour a few doubts at this point. After all, these are the women who put ceramic pieces of garlic around their offices, in order to ward off the evil eye without actually chasing away customers. Who touch red if they see a priest early in the morning. Who ruin their lovely embroidery with lurex...

That coffee-cup reading was, of course, totally unrelated to the unprecedented run of misfortune that followed. Of course it was.

Beware of Greeks bearing coffee and baklava.

And beware Starbucks. Paying the astronomical sum of five bucks (not accidental, that pun) a cup to have one's palate deeply insulted is a slap in the face of Clio, the Muse of History.

Who should be pictured sitting on Mt Olympus, a copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on her lap, and a cup of java in her hand.

Not tea, Mr Adams. Coffee.

1Besides its collective head examined2With apologies to Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's vice president.3And yes, Mala, I'm sure it stunted my growth.4I do remember Barbara, who sat next to me, and was pretty, and had a cool name that repeated itself.5'You're the cream in my coffee..', 'They grow an awful lot of coffee in Brazil'...keep 'em coming.6It is sweet. You will choke. You will then smile and say, 'Oraia einai,' meaning, 'It's lovely.' You will be lying.

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