A Long Overdue Love Letter to Coffee

For the first three decades of my life, I couldn’t stand coffee. I didn’t like the taste. Couldn’t stand the smell. I have memories of my sister and me tagging along to the bowling alley where our mother participated in league. (She once bowled a perfect game. They gave her a mug and all related bragging rights.) It was the ’80s, so we were mostly left to our devices – we played with the other bowlers’ kids, pushed our quarters through the slots of arcade games (which back then still only cost a quarter to play), and hid from our parents as we drank cups of coffee thickened with way too much sugar and powdered creamer. (My goal was always to mask the flavor of the coffee – I would have been better just sucking on a sugar cube.)

My sister and mother both loved coffee, whereas I sided with my father, who preferred to roll out of bed and crack open a Diet Pepsi. Of course, I wasn’t allowed soda in the morning as a kid. (Also like my father, I liked the taste of pickled herring and preferred salsa so spicy that it would make me sweat.)

I’d tried coffee several times throughout my adult life. Every now and then, I’d ask my sister for a sip (I always remembered too late that she put fake sweetener in hers, and every time it tasted…awful). A previous partner loved coffee, and I tried to grow accustomed to the smell as it brewed. Nothing clicked, though. I couldn’t understand what people saw in this bitter drink. If you have to dump sugar and cream (or any number of liquid flavors) into it just to make it possible to choke down, then what was the point? I’d rather just drink something that tasted good from the start. (This would have been either chai or Diet Coke.)

I was fortunate enough to be able to spend time in Kenya and Colombia in 2014, two places known for many things – including their coffee. In Kenya, access to their coffee was not easily come by, though – more money can be made in exporting their beans, so locals drank cheap stuff, if they could even afford that. (I was not able to even find coffee to bring back as souvenirs.) In Colombia, my friend I was visiting offered to take me to a coffee tour, but I declined because I figured I’d not get anything out of it. (Here, too, it was difficult to find bags of beans – I ended up buying the souvenir bags at the airport on my way home.)

Cut to Costa Rica where I was assistant directing a study abroad trip with thirty-seven students and two other directors. We would be there for an entire month, and I made a deal with myself. I would take this month and really try to understand why people like coffee – but if I left after that month and didn’t like, then I would stop trying. Some things just aren’t meant to be, after all.

I shared this bit of info with my co-director, Ken. Or as the students called him, the silent ninja. Like me, Ken is an introvert – and he is the main reason I was able to survive this month. (But that’s for another post.) I told him – this is it. If it doesn’t happen in Costa Rica, it’s not happening ever. Ken got a twinkle in his eye and said – I’ve got something for you to try.

The next day, Ken showed up with a coffee in a box from Cafe Britt. This, Ken told me, is a mocha.

Coffee and chocolate?? All these years, and no one thought to mention to me that they’d added chocolate to coffee?? Chocolate is a gateway for me, friends. So, of course, I loved the mocha. I loved the way the chocolate played with (and mellowed out) the flavors of the coffee. And I may have sought out more of these little boxes the next time I returned to the grocery store.

Later in the trip, we actually took the students to Café Britt for a tour, and we all got a huge education about the plant, about the bean, about roasting, and even the proper way to taste. Their shop had a station where you could try each of their coffees – and this was the spot where I officially realized I do like coffee, and more specifically, that I liked the dark roast best. I’m not sure what happened – if it was just the first cup of GOOD coffee that I’ve ever had, if my taste buds had changed with age (later this same summer, I would also learn that I don’t actually hate beer – just crappy beer), or if it was because I was in Costa Rica. Whatever the reason, I don’t even care. The love affair between me and coffee that I had pined for had finally begun.

It’s been six years since that trip, and now I can’t remember how I ever made it through a rough day without that little bean. (Well, I do remember – it was Diet Coke. I just can’t believe how much of that stuff I used to drink…) While my taste for coffee has expanded (where have you been all my life, mocha frappe? Or dirty chai? Or cold brew?), I find I still can’t get down with the cheap stuff. (My tongue is apparently a fancy b$%&h when it comes to coffee. And beer. And chocolate…) Get me a good bean, well-roasted, and I will dream about curling up in a warm mug full of it. (Unlike eight-year-old me, you can keep that sugar and cream to yourself – good coffee doesn’t need anything added to make it taste good. For me, at least – you flood your coffee with whatever you need to!)

Even after six years of loving coffee, I’m so used to passing over coffee flavored things that it’s often a shock to realize I can try things flavored this way. Coffee gelato? Yes, please. Coffee in chocolate? Duh. And just the other day, I tried coffee flavored Greek yogurt. *drool* (Me from seven years ago wouldn’t even recognize herself today!)

I now have a coffee pot in my office and a press at home. I know all the local coffee shops along the route between my home and work (and when they open). I have even been known to stop at a gas station. (Well, specific gas stations – not all gas station coffee is created equal.) And I finally understand what Ellis meant in her love song to coffee – a song I had sung along to for almost a decade without truly understanding it. I understand it now.

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