Since I began searching for great coffee as an alternative to Starbucks and Coffee Bean, which are the more visible chains in Southern California, I’ve been very successful at finding exactly what I set out to find. And thankful for it. What I didn’t set out to do on my consumer centered journey was end my previous relationship with coffee, which really was a relationship with cream and sugar, not coffee. In fact, when my Dad poured my first cup of coffee I would openly joke about liking a little coffee with my cream and sugar.
In those days, “coffee” was defined as anything you’d pull off the supermarket shelf labeled as such, or the late night coffee available at Denny’s long before they introduced clubs for teens. We could stay out late and talk all night with a group of friends without needing a designated driver. That freedom on top of all the caffeine, was a great high in and of itself. I know, I’m a cheap date.
When I went off to college at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, my dependency and expectations would climb a few notches. I spent many nights studying in Stuart’s Coffee House in Downtown Bellingham sipping latte after latte and mocha after mocha. I eventually discovered I liked the taste of coffee with a ‘little’ sweet always asking for less and less sugar until lattes and cappuccinos without sugar became my favorite.
Fast forward 10 years, and I found myself a home owner in San Diego County. I also found that I no longer desired to continue climbing the corporate ladder in the Financial Industry. So I started a blog, really as an experiment to learn about online marketing. What I found was that I not only loved taking pictures and writing about the ‘feel’ or experience of a particular cafe or coffee house, but it seems others were interested in reading about it too, or at least looking at the pictures (that’s okay, I just buy a new pillow after the screaming and crying fits). I picked coffee because I selfishly wanted alternatives and I refused to believe that San Diego was devoid of Coffee Houses or Mom & Pops that could make grabbing coffee feel and taste like it did when I lived in the Northwest. I’ve been more than pleasantly surprised at my findings.
This new examination of coffee, especially at the Roaster level, meant I had to educate myself on what is necessary to get the best out of the coffee I was taking home in order to give each a fair shake. Also, sustainably grown fair trade specialty coffee tends to be more expensive than store bought coffee and I didn’t want to waste it, but also I honestly wanted to know what goes into brewing coffee so I could have the same taste experience at home.
Proper brewing meant paying attention to a few things: Seasonality, the date roasted, storage, grind, water quality, and water temperature as well as the specific brewing instructions for each choice of brewing mechanism whether a Hario Pour Over or traditional French Press. Just as Roasters taste or cup each coffee they decide to buy and offer their clientele, it was necessary to start tasting the coffee, not just tasting it but examining it in terms of aroma, acidity, body and finish, much like those who taste wine do.
And in the same way, I began a journey of understanding coffees by region, just as there are wines from Australia, such as Shiraz, there are coffees from Indonesia, such as Sumatra. Wines are often described for the type of grape used and beans are described by origin, process, and often times the farmer or farming cooperatives who produce it. Just as certain grapes take on certain qualities depending on the elevation and environment in which they are grown, coffee cherries also respond in terms of taste to these variables.
With this new journey and understanding, I began to forge a new mind-palate connection, and to do so I had to THINK about what I was smelling, tasting and feeling on my palate. What I found is that once you taste an amazing shot of espresso (minus cream or sugar), your whole consciousness on what you like about coffee shifts. The same goes for a wonderful pour over, just like tasting a superb Petite Syrah, your brain, whether you like it or not, automatically creates a standard on which all others must now be measured.
Your personal preferences in coffee, just like wine, emerge. You realize that while you like chocolate, caramel and berry notes in your coffees, others may not share your preferences. Others may like earthy, tobacco notes in their coffees and will never be happy with natural processed Ethiopian coffees, for instance, with their natural infusion from the coffee cherry of berry flavors. Just like I appreciate jammy, fruit-forward reds with a spicy or smooth finish, others like reds with earthy mineral qualities or hate reds and will only drink white.
This is why I may seem to clam-up when someone asks me, “Who serves the best coffee or shot of espresso in San Diego?” The truth is, only the taster can answer that question for themselves. I can give you a few places to try, but ultimately, you may decide you like the more European style espresso served at Caffe Calabria over the edgy espresso blend that might add a little Ethiopian into the mix at Coffee & Tea Collective resulting in a shot of espresso with nuanced berry notes. I may love the latter and you think it’s weird, and that’s okay.
In the same way, I may not want to drink any “Fucking Merlot” and reach for the Syrah and Pinot every time. You may say you only like late harvest white wines like Rieslings, and I may only drink red, but as I learned at the Le Metro Wine Underground kick-off this past month via my hosts Uva Buena Fine Wines and Protocol Wine Studios, who curated a collection of wines that completely turned what I ‘thought’ I liked on its head, I would encourage you, to find someone you trust in coffee and keep an open mind.
Many of you may not know that coffee has peak timelines shorter than the peak timelines for drinking certain wines, that is why seeking out someone who can speak to seasonality in coffee is so important. If you don’t know what is meant by that, it is likely that what you ‘think’ you like in coffee is about to change. Simply by hitting up a local roaster who concerns themselves with this alone, you are likely to have some eye-opening tasting experiences. Likely, if they’re concerned with seasonality, they’re concerned with the farming practices that produced the quality bean they are offering for sale to you. Once people find what they like, they can be fiercely loyal, and that’s okay too.
But I will leave you with this. At one time in my life there were a lot of things I didn’t like and it took a very special foodie friend of mine to prove to me that if I just stay open-minded and agree to try something new or prepared in a new way, I might be pleasantly surprised. This was a leap of faith that I am fortunate enough to say has resulted in some of the most memorable dining experiences of my life…
I would like to talk about closing the coffee-wine divide when it comes to cost too, but I think if you keep an open mind and set out on your own journey to search out great coffees, you’ll also experience a consciousness shift on what you’re willing to pay for coffee that automatically makes the moment you sip it memorable even if the rest of your day is not…
Until next time, I wish you adventure and discovery on your own journey, happy coffee-ing my friends! xox