A Great Cup of Coffee

I am a lover of coffee, though the origin of this love is difficult to meaningfully trace. While working the most romantic of the various jobs I’ve held in my life — cinema projectionist — in the summer between my Junior and Senior years of college, I was handed my first cup of coffee on shift by a coworker. While I remember where I received that first cup, I don’t recall much of what I thought about it. It wasn’t special – indeed, it was a black drip coffee from Burger King that, as my coworker explained, could be refilled all day for only 50 cents – but it was certainly, for at least a moment, formative. When I returned to WVU in the Fall, I brought my affection for coffee to Morgantown with me. Most often, this saw me stopping at Sheetz on the way to a movie and picking up a cup of coffee to enjoy in the screening.

I graduated from WVU in 2006 and enjoyed a few more coffees (always black – never with cream or sugar) while continuing to work at the cinema through the rest of that year, but when I moved to Orlando in 2007, I did not continue the habit. Perhaps this is because there was no cheap coffee to be had near my new workplace (still a cinema; still romantic) or perhaps it’s because none of my coworkers or friends partook of the beverage. Whatever the reason, by the time I migrated to Australia in 2009, I was no longer drinking coffee.

That this fact irrevocably changed in the years to come seems, in hindsight, to have been predestined. Australia has a coffee culture so defined that it has its own Wikipedia entry. Once again I found myself working in a cinema and, once again, a coworker put the fateful first cup in my hand. It was a latte with two sugars which, my coworker explained, would boost my energy levels for the day ahead. It was sweet – too sweet – and yet something about the blend of milk and espresso (a far cry from black drip coffee) cut through that sweetness and found a cosy spot in my mind. I rather quickly left the two sugars behind and, eventually, segued to preferring a flat white, but all of that came after the initial damage was done.

This rekindling of my love for coffee came at a time in my life when The Girl and I were beginning to experience something we had never really enjoyed before: disposable income. She bought me an espresso machine for my birthday that year, and I was off to the races. Eleven years on, I still have that same machine (‘the Infuser’ by Breville – consider this an endorsement) and have enjoyed many delicious cups of differing origins and taste profiles (my go-to allrounder is the Flight Path blend by Double Roasters, while I pop into Toby’s Estate for filters and single origins when I’m feeling fancy). Naturally, I’ve also assembled a reliable roster of quality coffee shops around town that I’m always excited to visit, Knight’s Coffee and Coffee Alchemy being the headliners alongside the aforementioned roasters.

The trouble with espresso-based coffee is that one tends to have a natural daily threshold for how much can be enjoyed, usually owing to the caffeine. My own threshold is two double ristrettos in any given day. Consequently, those two coffees become cornerstones of my day: I usually make myself one at home in the morning and the other I pick up from (hopefully!) a favourite cafe while out and about.

A tension arises here. I love each and every coffee and yet drinking coffee is, quite literally, an ‘everyday’ activity. While it’s built into the fabric of my day, enjoying my two daily coffees is also at risk of blending into the day. Which is to say: I’ve very frequently found myself anticipating a flat white, picking it up, and drinking it even as I went about my business. Just as quickly, I’ve finished the drink and realised: I didn’t even register that I’d been drinking it. I’d wasted a coffee ‘experience’ on inattention and, as noted above, those experiences are limited.

This week, a hero arose to resolve some of this tension. James Hoffman is a World Barista Champion, author, and — perhaps most famously — a coffee YouTuber with more than two million subscribers. I encountered a wonderful video of his which uses a single take and rather magical filmcraft to unpack what makes a cup of coffee great:

Here we encounter compelling ideas of what makes a great cup of coffee, and only a few approach anything like objective measures. While science tells us that bitterness and sweetness can be balanced to make things taste good, so much of what leads me to recommend the favourite roasters and coffee shops I noted above has more to do with phenomenology.

In her book At the Existentialist Cafe, Sarah Bakewell notes that Edmund Husserl used to say to his philosophy students, “Give me a cup of coffee so that I can make phenomenology out of it.” Not one for outsourcing phenomenology, she takes on the task herself [emphasis mine]:

… this cup of coffee is a rich aroma, at once earthy and perfumed; it is the lazy movement of a curlicue of steam rising from its surface. As I lift it to my lips, it is a placidly shifting liquid and a weight in my hand inside its thick-rimmed cup. It is an approaching warmth, then an intense dark flavour on my tongue, starting with a slightly austere jolt and then relaxing into a comforting warmth, which spreads from the cup into my body, bringing the promise of lasting alertness and refreshment. The promise, the anticipated sensations, the smell, the colour and the flavour are all part of the coffee as phenomenon. They all emerge by being experienced.

If nobody were to drink it, what is a cup of coffee? A dark cup of water some nerd boiled and forced through finely ground beans that were taken from a cherry and dried and roasted? No, this is not what a cup of coffee is, and Hoffman and Bakewell get right to the phenomenon of it all – they return us, as Husserl himself would put it, to the thing itself. As such, it would seem a shame to not enjoy each isolated experience; to let our coffee drinking blend into the flow of our day so that the drinking of it becomes just another thing we did and forgot. Since seeing Hoffman’s video, I’ve refocused my awareness on enjoying each coffee with a nonzero amount of dedicated attention and it now seems to me that a cup of coffee cannot be great without such attention.




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