(、ᐛ)ヘ_/ Nadim's Blog

Coffee and the Search for God

Coffee entered my life in an unremarkable way: instant coffee, its bitter taste drowned by milk (sometimes of the instant variety, or even worse, creamer) and a copious dose of sugar. It was just adult enough for an excitable -and now overly excited- teenager.

The next step up was rather steep: [Lebanese/Turkish/Greek]("East Med") coffee, of the variety that claimed to tell the future, and risked clogging your throat if not accompanied by a large glass of water. The process of making such coffee stands out in its simplicity: a pot (rakwe, briki, cezve), finely-ground non-specialty yet instantly distinguishable coffee, water. The whole concoction brought to a boil, served in small cups adorned with traditional patterns. This endeavor sometimes includes the (unwelcome, if you ask me) addition of cardamom (hel), creating an even more distinctive taste that better accompanies a Persian rug than a cup of coffee.

The above, undoubtedly an acquired taste, was not endearing enough at the time to get me off double-instant-three-in-one coffee (for the record, I have grown into a fan since). I was no stranger to caffeine: coke and tea had made an appearance earlier in my life. Yet coffee stood out to me, sliding into my routine in contrast to other drinks that had their occasions (I'm mostly off coke, but still struggle to eat a five guys burger without ingesting an equal mass of the aforementioned cola-flavoured beverage). What matters is that there is a point at which I became perpetually caffeinated. I will never be able to place this point exactly, but I remain certain of its existence.

The Caffeine Years

The first few years, past the point of novelty, were about the caffeine. The substance mattered more than its delivery vehicle. The average student's normalised adderall was too tempting to pass on, and to this day I am bewildered by the minority that doesn't partake in the globally-accepted psychoactive substance.

Cans of sugar-rush-inducing coffee, often bought in pairs from the university library vending machine, kept me going. The inevitable feedback loop improved the taste upon subsequent consumption. This effect, compounded across the wide range of readily-available coffee-based beverages (not excluding bitter Pret filter or Starbucks desserts roleplaying as drinks), and the endless opportunities for consumption (deadlines, parties (from jägerbombs to espresso martinis), mornings, afternoons, food, you get the gist.), turned into a full-fledged self-fulfilling prophecy: I liked coffee now.

Caffeine is remarkable: its trade-off is the only one that society has widely agreed is wholly beneficial (that is, amongst drugs and drug-like substances). No controls or warnings, limited long-term toxicity, hints at benefits beyond energy, focus and productivity. For that very reason, the timeline of coffee spreading through the world is fascinating. The historical implications are significant: theorists, commentators and other expert retrospectors have implied its role in shaping today's society, going as far as to imply its instrumentality in sparking the industrial revolution.

At the scale of an individual like myself, coffee is unlocked, then acquired, relied on: its addictive properties are pervasive. It should surprise no one that eventually, some, many, grow to love it beyond its effects. The medium itself (coffee being one of many for caffeine) deserves to be celebrated, and, if we are to accept that caffeine is to be taken for granted, iterated to perfection in an endless quest for an evasive, inevitably subjective ideal.

Caring About the Coffee

A clear indicator of metamorphosis can be found in the adjective one employs to describe coffee. A trifecta of bitterness, acidity and sweetness evolves into a complex palette of foods, emotions and textures, delivered with a dash of pretentiousness unique to the coffee aficionado. The newfound appreciation seeps through, eroding preconceptions, shaping a new course towards a point of no-return.

At first, practicality prevails. Its chief advocate being the French Press, an almost too convenient gateway, the first of many such stepping stones. Portable, contained, it will get a lot out of your beans and even leave some in the cup. Rules of thumb, I came to learn, will get you pretty far. No exact dosage or timing, and you'll still get a decent result using a French Press. Most people, through sheer iteration, will reach an acceptable cup. I have brewed many such cups, often disregarding the underlying produce: pre-ground, not-the-cheapest-but-not-the-most-expensive supermarket isle beans went in, coffee came out.

Coffee, without the pollution. It's something I could have said. I am of course bringing up the topic of milk (and, god forbid, sugar) in coffee. Can you go black and then go back? In a strange way, adopting a radical stance can be a token of appreciation, a convoluted way to communicate that you value something, for what it is, not what it dresses up as. Many coffee-drinkers reach that point of snobbism, avoiding the consumption of anything that isn't pitch black (by fear of being seen; or quietly boycotting). I'm a culprit here, of flirting with extremism, of convincing myself that a mediocre Americano trumps the best Oat Latte (an outlandish claim).

Which comes first: caring about the beans or the method of preparation? I pondered to reach the conclusion that it probably is the latter, with the fringe case of overpriced, luxury-item-like espresso pods. This does not mean that one can develop without the other: inevitably, coffee origin, processing, roasting, will mean more as one enters the world of specialty coffee (or more pretentiously, third wave).

Inexorably, the mania kicks in: you cycle through brewing methods, strive to master your brewer, get a more expensive one, and a more expensive grinder. Grind size matters now; you iterate through that too. Nerd out about extraction. My trusty Aeropress, having seen many recipes, countless varities of beans, now ditched for the next shiny thing. The endgame? Your average r/espresso coffee enthusiast.

At this point, the practice is almost a thing of superstition, a ritual, inexplicably complex. It is what likens coffee snobs to audiophiles, a relentless quest to an elusive end, with a gate-keeper waiting at each checkpoint, looking down on those who dare climb the steps.

Obsessive Elitism, An Antithesis to Enjoyment

The Holy Grail is unattainable. Its pursuit is far from vain, it appends meaning to the absurd. Partake at your own risk.

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