It’s funny how the arbitrary decisions a person makes can have life-altering effects.
One of my first jobs was working for a certain green mermaid (she’s actually a siren), making coffee. A friend off-handedly said that she really enjoyed working there. Needing funds for my newfound freedom after getting my first car, I decided to apply. I was hired on the spot and soon after began learning how to make coffee, a drink I didn’t even like at the time.
Part of my training was to learn how to spot the subtleties and nuances in coffees coming from various regions around the world. Much like wine, there are several factors which all have a drastic effect on the final product—from the particular varietal of coffee, to the terroir, to the way it goes from fruit on a tree to a little brown bean in a bag. In very general terms, African coffees are often citrusy and bright, while Latin American coffees are nuttier with red fruit or stone fruit qualities. Coffees from Indonesia are earthy and herbal. There’s so much to it all, and all, and it was a lot to take in, being a kid who never even drank the stuff. And yet, after scowling over the taste of my sixth french press that day, I began to see those hints of lemon my manager was telling me I would find in the Kenyan.
Fast forward a full decade. I’m now the lead barista at the longest-operating coffee shop in Knoxville, a place I’m proud to call home. I quit my desk job at a doctor’s office to work here, and I have never once looked back. The coffee I make is substantially better, but in a weird way I enjoy it less—and also way more. Here’s what happened: being trained to find the qualities of coffee also means I was trained to find its defects.
“Oh man, I ground this one too fine.” “I should probably let that shot pull for two seconds longer.” “This roast seems grassy and underdeveloped.”
I’m more of a problem-solver than an artist, admittedly. I’m far more okay with that than with the green barista who got scared when two cars pulled into the drive-through. On the flip-side of looking for flaws, I can now pick out flavor notes I never could have when I first started. Drinking a shot of espresso that hits me exactly like sparkling white grape juice is not something I could have conceptualized at the start of my journey. The full scope of what coffee can taste like is starting to become clear. The other edge to that sword is that coffee doesn’t taste like coffee anymore.
My manager brought in his favorite kind of apple one day not too long ago, and insisted I try some, since I’d never had a Cripps Pink before. He told me that he enjoyed them because of a honey-like sweetness and a floral aroma they had. I tried it, and sure enough, those flavors were there. I knew I liked certain kinds of apples over others (I’m looking at you, Golden Delicious; there’s nothing delicious about you), but I hadn’t given much thought as to why. But why wouldn’t there be this analogy between coffee and other kinds of food? Everything is made of chemicals. A lot of people think sommeliers are making stuff up when they talk about what they taste in wine. Wine doesn’t actually have butter, or honeysuckle, or cherries in it, but it contains some of the same chemicals found in those things. And so do apples. And so does coffee. That’s what we taste.
Unfortunately, having the ability to taste all of the nuance in coffee comes with the ability to taste all of the nuance in coffee. Coffee no longer tastes like coffee. It tastes like an underdeveloped Guatemalan that the barista got a little too excited with when he was making my pour-over. It tastes like my sleep-deprived brain not being able to tell the difference between sour and bitter when dialing in that morning’s espresso recipe, and wondering why the second shot tasted worse than the first. If I just want to drink coffee, and not to think about what it tastes like, I go to Waffle House, where I can expect it to taste like dirt and burnt rubber. Some days that’s what I prefer.
In the same can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees way I taste coffee, food in general has gotten way more complex. Having a critical palate means oversalted meat stands out much more easily now. As do cheap butter and fake cheese. There are things I was once able to eat without thinking about it . Now, I question why I paid money for them. Add to that a heightened awareness of all of the work that goes into my food—from the underpaid strawberry farmers in Mexico, to the actual slaves harvesting sugarcane in Haiti—and it can make your Happy Meal a little less happy. At times, I find myself wishing I didn’t have to eat food.
And yet. There is still that first side to the sword.
I once thought butter was all the same, and that margarine was just fake butter. Now I know that there is butter, then there is Butter—then there is the abomination which people who are afraid of death put on their toast. Coffee was coffee, but then I had a $20 cup of natural sundried coffee from Yemen—something so rare I didn’t even know it existed until it sat before me. I enjoy Little Caesar’s less, but I enjoy the pizza place down the street with only three employees way more. Don’t even get me started on how much I love farmers’ markets.
Food and cooking in general are fascinating fields of study, but it’s the complexity of coffee that always intrigued me. I doubt I could ever be a chef, trying to grasp the breadth of just one food item is overwhelming to me. Plus, I can’t dice an onion without a gas mask. But learning how to taste coffee taught me how to appreciate all of the intricacies and eccentricities of other foods—and of people, and of all creation. Coffee was a gateway drug to enjoying everything more, and I’m hopelessly addicted.