Today I love writing for the coffee industry, and I love coffee, but it’s not always been (bean?) like that. Like a good Catholic, it’s time to confess.
I had my first taste of coffee fourteen years ago. It was two in the morning during finals week, with twenty pages left to write. Like Ramen and Sriracha, coffee was one of those college-kid staples that didn’t click with me. My nebulous memory of that, and a handful of other desperate nights alone with a bulging coffeepot and blank screen, involved twitching fingers over the keyboard, a vow to never do that again, and a wow at the grade I pulled off. I owed it to coffee, but swore off caffeine and procrastination once I tossed my tasseled mortarboard.
Seven years passed calmly, without coffee, until I landed in Colombia, the land of coffee. I imbibed in the free-flowing firewater (aguardiente) that revelers poured into the shot glasses strung around my neck. I gnawed on gelatinous strips of deep-fried pork rind (chicharrón), pretending that the row of teeth looked more like a bear claw danish than an animal spine. I nibbled a razor-sharp Communion wafer (hostia) until I observed the true Catholics letting it dissolve on their tongue. This former teetotaler, vegetarian, and Christian was quickly, albeit temporarily, converting out of cultural respect and curiousity. But the very waft of coffee brought back a wave of nausea, tremors, and profound regret.
No soup for you, but two bowls for you
Colombians have an acutely accurate proverb to describe what was about to become my experience with coffee (ditto for loud partying, greasy meat, and Catholic churches): “Al que no le gusta el caldo, le dan dos tazas.” It’s the polar opposite of Seinfield’s Soup Nazi, where even if you love the soup, “no soup for you”: If you do not want any soup, you’re given two bowlfuls.
It was not a Colombian who introduced me to coffee done right; it was an Italian. I’m enamoured with Italy: the expressive language, the svelte fashion sense, the ten-course meals. The food and the wine, oh yes, but in all I’ve gleaned about Italy I somehow glossed over the essential role of the espresso.
I learned to take espresso because it was given to me by an Italian. Or rather, it was ordered. “Dos tintos,” barked my new boss over the phone to the office runner. I had no choice in the matter. Down in the kitchen the server had already offered me coffee a couple of times that week and I had politely declined, “Oh, I don’t drink coffee, but thank you.”
Now she stood in front of the executive desk with a silver platter and a glimmer in her dark eyes as she asked how many teaspoons of sugar I’d like. I followed the Italian’s lead and accepted it black. It appeared innocent in a dainty white porcelain cup, but I could catch the gleam of the heavy black liquid. The heady aroma reeked of past regrets.
Like dancing a tango, I followed the man’s lead. He sipped, in silence, savoring. Then it was my turn. It was unsavory, but I enjoyed the silence. The first swallow loosened the tongue. As he explained my role as the organization’s in-house translator between Spanish and English, I hoped my tongue would also navigate the explosive Zs and Chs of Italian.
Sipping and conversing, we were two foreigners united by Colombian coffee and a need for common ground: language. We did our best in Spanish, lapsing into mother tongues when necessary. Two cups clinked gently on saucers, two or three times and it was over. The discussion was done, the tinto was gone. I hadn’t even realized that I’d finished the entire espresso; time went by that fast. Entirely unlike the early dawn hours of caffeine-induced insomnia to meet deadlines.
My life lesson from Colombian coffee
Among the many factors that determine a pleasant gastronomic experience are the food or beverage itself–quality, portion, preparation–and the setting in which it’s consumed–company, occassion, ambience. My only experience with coffee had been drinking an entire pot of hastily-made, discount-priced drip grinds, all alone and under stressful circumstances. I had been doing it all wrong, on all counts.
Colombia taught me to enjoy tinteando, the art of solely savoring small portions of black coffee in pleasant company.
A couple of years after I learned to drink espresso, we also acquired a Nespresso Aeroccino and learned the art of making cappuccinos and the science of baking pastries, but that’s a whole nother story that involves a couple of pounds of over-indulged guilt (can you say, biscotti?).
Drinking American coffee after learning to tintear in Colombia
Would you like to supersize that?
Which brings me back to America. Exactly one year ago I returned to the United States, and knowing that we’d moved from abroad with nothing but heavy books and pounds of Colombian coffee, our landlady salvaged some perfectly good things the lazy former tenants had left to be tossed in the trash.
Useful item 1 is this ugly mug. Other than the garish green handle that clashes hideously with the red hide of some trophy hunter, what alarmed me was its size. Here it looms over a Café de Colombia pocillo, just big enough for a tinto.
When you fill a mug that large with a hot beverage, you have to drink it all in one sitting, otherwise it gets ruined in the reheat cycle. Chugging that much coffee does a number on your system. Drinking the same amount, spread out over a couple of hours at work or socializing, is more tolerable. Apply the same rules of thumb to caffeine as with alcohol–small doses, over a long period, lots of water in between, and never by yourself.
I see café customer behavior as a major difference between the United States and Latin American, and even European culture. In the U.S., customers commonly order coffee to-go and in a disposable cup, then scald themselves trying to swig it while rushing down the sidewalk (and promptly file a lawsuit). No wonder we’re stressed-out: the caffeine is not to blame so much as the hectic (and wasteful) form of consuming it.
Don’t walk with coffee; talk with coffee.
In Latin American cafés (and so I hear, European cafés, and please share if anywhere else), drinking coffe is an idle and enjoyable affair. It’s a time to sit down to consume, to observe, to converse, to socialize. Coffee is sipped, not gulped, amid dialogue. Or it’s a natural break in the work day, but office kitchens are stocked with ceramic mugs and not styrofoam cups. How can anything be slowly savored out of an artificial container designed for speedy disposal?
If you are decidely a tea person, or have bad flashbacks of cramming at term time with coffee, I challenge you to try the attitude behind tinteando. Sip a well-crafted espresso in pleasant company. For you to have a conversion moment like mine, the coffee doesn’t have to be Colombian, and the company doesn’t have to be Italian. Heck, try it with Folgers and your best friend. But you must follow the Colombian pocillo portion and the Italian philosophy behind Slow Food. Ah, la dolce vita.