Coffee culture is here to stay. There’s no denying it, no ignoring it and certainly no dissuading arabica junkies from their favourite roast or brew or barista.
But why? It’s just a bunch of burned beans.
A hipsteresque snobbery has developed around this single little berry. People will ditch their favourite, closest or most convenient drinkery on a whim based on a change of barista or brand, following the flock to the ends of the earth like the Pied Piper’s children in allegiance to their pedlar of the percolated. Starry-eyed, they gaze dreamily at their dealer, total idolatry overwhelming them as they take the first sip of their creamy latté – contract signed, mortgage paid, soul sold.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not bitterly opposed to the black nectar. I’m a three-cups-a-day kinda guy and have been on both sides of the counter. I’m trained and educated in the hallowed art of the pour – though admittedly have never quite nailed it – and I know my stuff. Caffeine cravings flood my pores as slumber’s blanket falls from my eyes and weary limbs yearn for a kickstart. I know my Arabica from my Robusta, know that the second crack isn’t a chiropractic term, understand that anything over 25 seconds is a sackable offense and I get why coffee vendors cringe when people ask for “extra-hot” in total disregard of scalded milk – if you can’t touch it, don’t serve it.
And yet, despite all of this, despite being the potential prima persona for coffee arrogance, I am absolutely dumbfounded as to why it’s such a big deal. Tea, for example, can vary drastically, in flavour, in caffeine content and in levels of tannins, depending exclusively on when and where it was picked and how much shade it received when grown. It can be a precise and delicate blend of spices, leaves and genii to create that finite balance. But you don’t see people spraying mouthfuls of chai from lips curled in disgust at the skerrick too much Oolong in the breakfast blend. Back in the day, tea drew far more attention and financial accreditation than its caffeinated counterpart, the East India Trading Company, the Boston Tea Party and tea taxes testament to the beverage’s renown and power.
If you were to be approached on the street and asked which cafe in town was the finest brewer of Earl Grey, you’d look around for the hidden cameras before guffawing in the face of the inquisitor and questioning whether they were up to date on their meds. But “where can I get a good coffee” is as common a phrase as “where’s the post office”.
Just what is it about this black seepage that makes it so alluring? Perhaps it’s just drug addiction, plain and simple. But if that’s the case, again we can question why tea doesn’t evoke the same reverence, and why serving a mug of Joe from a four-hour-old percolator jar would be looked upon with such scorn and distaste. And why not colas? They contain caffeine too, as do cacao, guarana, pain killers and even weight loss tablets, but you don’t hear of people appalled at the poor quality of their hot chocolate or paracetamol!
And the thing that really baffles me is this: I LIKE the taste of coffee – I actually enjoy its nutty bitterness and deep undertones. So why, when I ask for a decaf, am I laughed at? Decaffeinated coffee is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair, I admit, but when you find a good one, it is barely discernible from its drug-infused alter-ego. If I don’t want the nausea, agitation and anxiety caused by the real McCoy, but I do actually want the flavour, why should I be mocked and why should my beverage of choice be jokingly referred to as a “Why Bother”?
There is a respectable art to making a good coffee, and I commend all purveyors on a job well done, but I’ve yet to hear of a barista curing cancer, solving the world’s hunger problems or ending animal cruelty through their trade. So please tell me why they deserve our reverence. How about bakers? It takes them years of education, experience and apprenticeship to get to the Tip Top, they work ungodly hours in the stinking heat, but not for one second would they gain such adoration from their consumers.
Coffee isn’t an enduring art form. It last’s 20 minutes, max, before making its way slowly and progressively into your toilet bowl. You don’t hang it on the wall, it doesn’t get better with age, you can’t trade it or write it into your will as a financially appreciating family heirloom. I can’t for the life of me fathom why this obsidian elixir is so pretentiously praised.
Fashion. This is all I can assume must be the reason for this perplexing phenomenon. Baristas are great, and I am grateful for every decent mug of the brown stuff I have ever and will ever sup. I know how much work has gone into the sourcing, the blend, the roast, the grind, the pour and the froth. Perhaps I’m risking a lovingly regurgitated wad of phlegm in the creamy crown of my next cappuccino, but come on, it’s just coffee. Seriously, get over it. There are no exceptional philanthropists, lifesavers, world changers or chariteers in the industry. They are not akin to the doctors, lifeguards, volunteers, carers and nurses of our society.
And so, as an exercise in realism for society at large, I’d like to propose the following ad campaign for the entire coffee industry, from roasters to blenders to baristas to consumers…
Coffee: Drink it – it turns to pee.
– This article first appeared on Common Ground Australia on Nov 30, 2013