Coffee is an acquired taste. I read an online article somewhere a couple of years ago that reported on research that drew several conclusions, one of which was that the tolerance of coffee flavour needed some brain training. We accept that it is bitter because we have learned to anticipate the stimulation it will provide.
I like my coffee. I learned to really like it when I was working in Argentina with GQ from Colombia. He demonstrated that coffee doesn’t have to be bitter. But it was a slow learning.
For years before my awakening in Patagonia, I had been drinking percolated coffee or filter coffee or some form of cafetière press coffee. And for years I knew that I had to be careful to limit the amount of coffee that I drank to avoid getting the jitters or the shakes. And I never could tolerate instant coffee of any kind.
Five years before I went to Argentina, I’d spent six continuous weeks in Venezuela. The kind of business trip you can’t anticipate; I dropped into Caracas for a day and when my reassurances and guarantees of timely project completion were challenged by our client, it took me six weeks to assuage their doubts. And even then, ferocious hours of work were required each day. I used to look forward to the coffee every morning in the hotel in Caracas. I had a Chilean working with me, CM, who had many different words for the kinds of coffee that he liked. Marròn. Negrito. Cerrero. CM would take a marròn with breakfast, half milk. A negrito after lunch, the espresso shot. And sometimes a cerrero just before bed; he’d take a watery, unsweetened cup if we’d encountered too many Polar beers, his gringo antidote he joked. I learned the words and took a liking to others. Cafe con leche for breakfast. And maybe a cafe pequeño after lunch. And often, I’d order a second while we ate and talked intense, high pressured talk of overloaded computers and inefficient workflows and suspect geophysical algorithms. We half-knew the real problem was inadequate data sampling but that’s another story of technology limitations that took two more decades to resolve. Living in Texas at the time, I returned there with double pneumonia (and that’s another story too). And after my health was restored, I rediscovered the coffee jitters and the shakes. So I weaned myself off coffee yet again.
Another hint towards better coffee would come on a boat. A big boat. The kind that stays at sea for a year at a time, refuelling at sea because it costs too much to stop work and go to port. The kind of boat that carried Filipino seamen, some of whom would stay aboard for the duration of one year rotations. The kind of boat where one young man, the guy who cleaned my cabin almost every day of the month I was there, was taken off by helicopter in a straight-jacket when he flipped on hearing that his had mother died. The kind of boat where filter coffee was on the go in the galley 24/7. Where that other clue was awaiting notice during the time you had away from your 12 hour watch and little else to do. You could always see vapours rising from the new coffee pots but there were never any from coffee that stood on the hot plate for much more than 20 minutes. Something other than water was vapourising. Something volatile was being lost. As you do, there followed some speculation and the group of scientists and engineers agreed that this was fractional distillation in action. And the result of that process was that the taste of the coffee would become increasingly bitter and sour in proportion to the time on the hot plate. You could detect this as the pleasant aroma degraded with time. One of my ship mates blamed hydrolysis. He was detained by the authorities shortly afterwards in an unrelated incident.
He’d gone onshore to a hotel in Buenos Aires where his briefcase was stolen. Unfortunately, he kept his passport in the briefcase. Fortunately, he must have thought, he carried a second like I did too. European governments used to issue business passports which served multiple purposes but for us, it allowed us work continuously. We’d typically carry one passport with a work permit for the current country while the second would be in another embassy getting a visa and work permit for the next country you or your ship might need to visit.
And unfortunately, my co-worker went to the airport to leave Argentina on his second passport. The one without the work permit. A British passport without an entry stamp. The Malvinas conflict still raw, the best answers were in the least worst category. Is it worse to have entered and worked in the country illegally or be done for having two identities? The consular attaché wished he’d chosen one. Either one. But his defence involved both and while the incident was resolved in a few days, including a lifetime ban against returning, it involved about twenty people, ratcheted-up once it became clear that he’d not reported the theft of his briefcase to the police. (And all of this could be part of another story).
So back in Argentina a year later, I met GQ for the first time. At the top of Patagonia. In a small town called Añelo, in a courtyard of a small motel, the whole of which had been rented to house our crew of about eighty geophysical surveyors. Strange to relate, I ended up in bed with his father a few months into our acquaintance (and that’s a whole other story). Suffice to say that GQ liked his coffee. A lot. And somehow that seems like litotes. He loved it and he’d drink it to while away his insomnia. There came a day he brought me a cup to our office. And it was simply delicious. He also brought a fresh pack of Marlboro cigarettes. We’d been up all night after the temperature plummeted, causing the diesel in our generators to solidify into wax, sending the turbine governor into paroxysms which of course sent spikes powerful enough to crash our workstations. Workstations that were engaged in rendering each and every day’s geophysical data into interpretable imagery that was required to be delivered immediately or sooner. Workstations that relied on relational databases that kept track of many transactions in one command. In short, the one command forgot what it was transacting when the electricity stopped. And we lost days of work. And to think, GQ and I had been up on the plateau running a half-marathon around dusk, me training for the Buenos Aires marathon later in the year (another story there) and he going for his first ever jog after work. GQ was made different to most of us. In the stress of the day, we transitioned from running 20 km to smoking 20 cigarettes a day and it lasted weeks. Seven weeks of 15 hour days as I recall.
We survived the labour strike and unrest too. That was after the payroll van was robbed at gunpoint for the second month in a row (and there’s yet another story there too).
And the coffee? It saw us though. He said making it was simple. All you do is buy vacuum packed, premium grade coffee. Use it within two weeks of opening but of course it won’t last that long because you need two and a half heaped tablespoons for each cup. What? He liked the Caturra bean probably because he was Colombian, and blended with Typica according to the pack he gifted to me after his father brought it down from Colombia (that time he climbed into bed with me).
Of course, at home, we’ve fallen into the fads for steam driven and pumped machines with and without bean grinders and they collect dust in some dark recess of the kitchen. We’ve tried the pods because they are clean but efficiency doesn’t trump flavour, no matter what a Hollywood star might suggest.
With coffee shops on every corner as once we had petrol stations, I might not expect you to care much about this coffee story. However, the coffee shops are closed and this is GQ’s recipe just in case you feel the need to remove at least one source of bitterness from the situation we find ourselves in today.
This morning, I heaped two and half scoops of a ground blend of Robusta and Arabica beans (featuring an aromatic, smooth, well-rounded flavour) into my one-cup stove top percolator, warmed a third of a cup of whole milk in the microwave for 30 seconds, milk doubling as the sweetener and enjoyed an excellent cup of coffee. Which I repeated to give me the stimulation and autonomy to write about coffee and untold stories. No jitters. No shakes. Not for these last 25 years.
Also see: Timeless Yesterdays and Now
Thanks for the lovely story, I greatly enjoyed it. Back in the early 2000’s I found myself getting the shakes and headaches when I didn’t have a coffee early enough in the morning. I gave up coffee then, and have never had any since. Your story brings back the memory of that lovely coffee smell in the morning.
Simon Robinson says
I’m glad you enjoyed it. I raise a late cup of coffee to your first glass of wine?