Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I am an archetype.

I started drinking coffee in high school. It was 2:32 in the dead of my first all-nighter, and the paper was kicking my butt. The minutes began to tick by two and four at a time. Blink. 2:36. Blink. 2:47. Still nine pages to go. Still nine pages to go. I needed something to wake me up, something to get me through the next nine blurry-eyed, double-spaced, fumbling-fingered, MLA-haunted pages. 2:51. I pushed myself away from my computer, stumbled out of my room, creaked down the stairs, padded onto cold tile, flipped on the light switch. Blink. The kitchen. And inside the kitchen, the freezer, and inside the freezer, my solution: a red and blue plastic tub of Folgers coffee.

I never really drank coffee. A sip from my Uncle Mike's trucker sludge here, a taste of Denny's brew drowned in sweetened creamer there. My hands pawed at the lid until it came free and my eyes peered at the black powder with suspicion. I sniffed. Blink. Grimace. But no matter. The deed had to be done and the paper had to be finished. There was just one problem: our drip brewer was stored far, far away from the kitchen, collecting dust on a shelf in the garage. I had no time to get it. That would be time wasted. Time better spent writing. Or sleeping. No. No brewer necessary. I dug out a hefty scoop of coffee, dropped it into a bowl, added a half cup of tepid water, and brought the slurry up to my lips. I sipped. Choke. And tried again. I managed to swallow this time, and slowly worked through the rest of the sludge.

One of the worst concoctions ever brewed by man.

I scowled, swore to never again drink coffee, and turned back to the stairs. Despite the taste, the Folgers mire did it's work, caffeine rousing me from my comatose state and returning my fingers to their dance on the keyboard. The minutes ticked by one at a time until dawn. I finished my paper with fifteen minutes to spare, showered, and headed to class. Sleep would have to wait. At least until second period.

That was my rude introduction to coffee and I hoped it would be a passing, one time encounter. But, to my dismay, and despite my solemn oath never to touch the stuff again, we were reunited periodically thanks to additional papers and all-nighters.

These times I used the brewer.

Eventually, I kept that old drip brewer off it's shelf and took to frowning down a cup of Folgers every morning before school. I never enjoyed it. I thought coffee was an evil to endure in order to upkeep both my social life and my grades. This was the first wave.

And then I discovered Starbucks.

I thought it was the best thing since Twinkies and Candy Corn. That lovely mermaid sang me her song and I listened, sinking without a fight as she pulled me into the whirlpool of size and syrup. Tall got taller and then went venti. Latte went vanilla and then crème brulee. And the blenders shouted for my attention. And there was whipped cream on every drink. And coffee became less about coffee and more about what was added to coffee.

For eight years I sailed these green seas above the dancing shadow of my fishy friend. Anchor up, sails full, my crew worked diligently under the flag of flesh and scale, and I stood proudly at the bow. This was the second wave.

And then I discovered Stumptown.

I was meeting a friend in Portland. It was a typical Oregon day – the sun had wrapped a grey blanket around itself and an over-emotional sky shed a million tears to mourn it's absence. I walked out of the parking garage, down Stark Street, found a window with “Stumptown Coffee Roasters” etched on the window, and opened the door. Blink.

This was not what I expected.

First to greet me was the aroma of coffee – coffee that smelled not like smoke and char, but like caramel and jasmine. And as my eyes adjusted to the lower lighting, I was surprised by what I saw. Things were simple and clean – and everything revolved around coffee. Front and center were shelves filled with 12 oz bags of coffee labeled not with the latest blend, but with names of individual farms. Well-dressed baristas worked with surprising skill – one intently watching espresso pulled into a demitasse, another hand-crafting fresh batches of French Press, the last engaged in an animated conversation with a customer about some coffee farmer named Arturo. The line was long, but no one seemed to mind. I followed suit and patiently waited, staring at a curious array of brew methods that reminded me of chemistry sets.

My turn. I stepped up to the low, immaculate, uncluttered bar and was greeted by my tattoo-clad barista. I glanced up at the menu. Blink. Short. Simple. I quickly gave up looking for a Frappuccino and I stuttered to my barista, “I, I'll take a small latte.” She smiled and I followed her to the espresso machine. A beautiful sculpture of metal and glass. “First time in?” Nod. She pulled a ceramic cup – smaller than I had expected and graceful – from the machine and began to craft my drink. Her hands moved with dexterity and intentionality, her eyes sharp and attentive. She talked to me about the intricacies of working with espresso as she pulled the two prettiest shots I had ever seen. She talked to me about the difficulty of creating microfoam as she steamed up shiny, finely textured milk. And then she poured. Blink. I did not know such designs were possible to create.

Gingerly, I took hold of this work of art, mumbled a thank you to my barista, shuffled away from the bar, sat down at a table, raised the drink to my lips, and sipped. Blink.


Coffee would never be the same. This was the third wave.

This is how I came to love coffee. I tell you my story because it is your story. Or, at least, many of us are on similar journeys. We started with instant coffee or 20 oz white mochas, and are slowly discovering something different. My story also follows the three waves of coffee in this country. First wave: Folgers and the coffee introduced to the Boomers by their parents. Second wave: Starbucks and the birth of specialty coffee. Third wave: Stumptown and single origin, direct trade, meticulously grown, perfectly processed, artisan roasted, hand crafted, incredibly nerdy coffee. I've had so much fun following these waves of coffee, moving from hater, to social drinker, to lover, and finally to barista. There is so much more to my story. I will tell you more soon.

This is how it began.

Meeting my friend at Stumptown

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