I first started drinking coffee when I was 8. I’d tiptoe into the kitchen and steal small amounts of the 3 dollars a pound drip coffee my parents would make when they had company over, and then army crawl back to my room sight unseen. I wasn’t doing it out of an innate love for coffee, more so because it was considered off-limits and I was a little hell-raiser of a kid. Shocking, I know. Picture a less charming Dennis The Menace, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what my poor parents had to deal with.
My adventures with coffee continued at age 12 when my dad and I would wake up at 4 am and drive to Benicia to go fishing off the docks in an attempt to catch striped bass for dinner. He would make us each a thermos of coffee, which I’d guess was Folgers, and load it up with enough cream and sugar to make Willy Wonka have an existential crisis. By all measurable metrics, this coffee was terrible, but I loved it. I associate it with memories very close to my grinch-sized heart. Think of Proust’s “In Search Of Lost Time” but with shitty, lukewarm coffee instead of home-made madeleines.
Then when I was 17 I got a job at Starbucks. I know, I know. If it makes you feel any better I only worked there for the better part of 3 years. Giving a broke teenager with poor impulse control access to unlimited free coffee was probably a mistake, one I intended to take full advantage of. I’d make myself 20-ounce iced coffees with 4 espresso shots thrown on top, and then top that off with heavy whipping cream. I would drink two of these a day. The fact that I didn’t have some kind of serious cardiac event is a testament to Otto Van Bismarck’s assertion that God takes care of drunkards and fools.
My bosses hired a new employee, and I immediately developed a crush on her. She drank her coffee black, and it blew my mind. It contributed to her mystique. I thought she was so tough. Did she also wrestle bears? Chop trees down with her fists? So I did what any reasonable, hormone-filled teenager would do. I started drinking my coffee black to impress her. How could it not, right? Keep in mind i was, and still am, very stupid. Anyway as you might have guessed this gambit didn’t pay off dividends in the way I thought it would, but it did open up a whole new world for me. Cue the Aladdin music.
At first, I thought black coffee tasted disgusting. But by god did I pretend to like it. Be careful who you pretend to be, as they say, because after about 3 months when I realized my ruse wasn’t going to make this girl fall madly in love with me, I kept drinking my coffee black anyway. I’d gotten used to it, and I actually preferred it that way. This was still Starbucks coffee, mind you, so I wasn’t having my 3rd eye of coffee-truth fully opened quite yet, but it was a start.
Flash forward several years and I was working at my first speciality cafe. Every shop in San Francisco I had worked at up to this point had specialized in dark roasts. Alfred Peet, who largely popularized espresso in America, liked coffee roasted until it was essentially carbon, and that trend continued long after the man himself retired.
Old habits die hard, I suppose. Now I was at a little shop that was focused on quality over speed, and roasting lightly to bring out nuance and complexity over roasting to make ‘coffee’ flavored coffee. I treated these ‘light roasts’ with much suspicion. It didn’t taste like the coffee I was used to, and because I don’t like change I thought that meant they were bad. Luckily for me I had some very capable mentors who listened to my dumb rants about dark roasts, and instead of chastising me for my heresy, instead encouraged me to be open-minded. I very reluctantly agreed.
I remember during my first coffee-cupping at this shop, I thought I was working with lunatics. These people were describing flavors they were tasting in the cup like “mango” “cinnamon” and “notes of black currant” That to me, simply weren’t there. I thought they were just making shit up, because I wasn’t getting any of that. The nuances were all completely lost on me, and it was frustrating. I was venting about this to a (very patient) coworker, and then she dropped a truth bomb on me. “You can develop your palate. It’s a skill like any other. You just have to be patient, and pay attention.” Live in the moment, essentially. That I could do.
I’ve never been the best student, but over the next year I dove in headfirst. Picture a ‘Rocky’ training montage, but with coffee. So way less cool. The first time I actually tasted a note in coffee that other people tasted was a revelation. I was Keanu Reeves in the matrix. I knew Kung Fu.
The tasting note was pineapple, in case you were wondering.
That one tasting note opened a hundred doors for me. I don’t naturally have the best palate. I smoked a pack and a half a day for over a decade, and you’d have to remove your shoes and socks to count the number of times my nose has been broken. But in spite of this, I was able to develop my abilities to the point where I could pick the tasting notes out of a piece of white bread. There was no going back to dark roasts. I truly fell in love with coffee at this point, a love that it seems I’ll be stuck with forever.
So where am I going with all of this? Why am I going all ‘David Copperfield’ on you and relating my entire life story? Well for one, I’m bored. But the more pressing truth I’m trying to get at is the importance of having an open mind. In coffee, and in life in general. I was dragged kicking and screaming into specialty coffee because I’d already made up my mind about what coffee was. And then life conspired a series of events to make even someone as stubborn as me realize I was missing out on so much joy and beauty by boxing myself in. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere that transcends coffee, I’m sure.
So try new things. Next time you come in the shop order something different.
Do you always take your drip with cream? Take a risk and try it black.
Ever tried oat milk? I hate alternative milk, but it’s actually pretty damn good.
Maybe you get a 16-ounce latte every day. We love make amazing lattes at Treeline, but step outside of your comfort zone and order a cortado.
Try a pour-over coffee from a region you’ve never experienced before.
If you want to get really crazy, try a straight espresso, the drink of the gods.
The stakes are pretty low here, the worst thing that’ll happen is you’ll hate it and maybe start to appreciate your old drink order a little more. If you’re wanting to mix things up but don’t know where to begin, ask your nearest barista. We all love coffee. “I wanted to try something new because Dan said so, what do you like?” is a pretty good first step on the coffee adventure I’m forcing you to take. Well, not forcing, but strongly encouraging.
I’ll leave you with some words from J.R.R. Tolkien, because I’m a nerd.
“It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
So take that step. It’s a little thing, but in my life it’s the little things that have always ended up having the most meaning in the end. Coffee is supposed to be fun, so open your door, get out there, and have some fun, damn it. That’s an order.