Coffee

I remember the first sip of coffee I ever had. I was eight or nine years old, attending with my parents a picnic for the Ottawa East Indian community, held in some local park. It was a bitterly cold fall day, so cold that my parents broke their rule and let me have a small quantity of coffee from the Thermos they brought with them. It was probably percolator coffee, boiled and overextracted, made with some commercial sludge out of a can, with too much cream and sugar in it. But I distinctly remember the shock of the initial taste and how much I liked it. I was hooked from that point on.

As a teenager I was allowed to have a cup of coffee in the morning. By this time my parents had had filtered drip coffee made by German immigrant friends, and adopted the method years before home machines were available. They had also somehow lucked into A&P Eight O'Clock Coffee, probably the best widely-available commercial coffee of the time. I used cream and sugar, like they did.

When I visited Berkeley for the first time in 1981, I had my first cappuccino at what was then Caffe Roma on the corner of College and Bancroft, which I visited with Matt V. I had had the occasional Viennese cappuccino, with lots of cinnamon on top and sugar spooned in, but those didn't count. "Are we supposed to put sugar in?" Matt asked. "I don't know," I said. It tasted quite bitter to me.

The coffee at Peet's, the Walnut Creek store where everyone I met bought their beans, was even more surprising. Though it was brewed coffee, you could almost stand a spoon up in it. It seemed incredibly strong.

It didn't take long before I grew to love cappuccinos and Peet's coffee, brewed at what I discovered was the right strength (two tablespoons of grounds for each six-ounce cup), and drunk freshly-made without any adulterants. I would buy cappuccinos to go at local cafes several times a week. When I visited the small town of Bormio in the Italian Alps in 1985, I saw a copper-and-brass "Enrico of Italy" lever espresso machine in a store window, and bought it almost on impulse. It never worked properly (it needed 220 volts, for starters, even though it was made for the export market) but I used it for years to make espresso and cappuccino.

I left Berkeley in 1986, but continued to buy ground coffee from Peet's and store it in my freezer. After a particularly frustrating period with the Italian machine, I bought on my next trip to Berkeley a Krups Espresso Novo. This was a electric-pump machine, with a thermoblock to quickly heat water. It was too slow and clunky to make coffee for friends at a party, but it served me fine for my morning cap.

A few years after that, I bought a Rancilio espresso grinder and switched to buying whole beans from Peet's. Gradually I became aware of the limitations of the Krups, which didn't develop enough pressure to make really good espresso. When I learned that Zabar's, the New York City food emporium, was selling rebranded Pavoni lever machines at a discount, I bought one. It took more than a month of frustrating struggle before I learned its quirks and managed to produce reasonably consistent espresso.

I started reading coffee newsgroups and keeping in touch with developments in coffee technology. When the Hearthware Precision home roaster came out, I bought one, together with a sampler of green coffee beans from Sweet Maria's, a small retailer then in Columbus, Ohio (now in Oakland, California) specializing in retailing green beans to home roasters via the Internet. Home roasting proved to be easy and introduced me to a whole new level of complexity and experimentation. Green beans last years without refrigeration, and my roaster made enough for about five or six days of espresso, so I never had a problem with coffee staling. Roasting was as simple as putting three ounces of beans in the roaster and pushing the button, though I had to pay some attention to make sure I cut the roast off at the right time. With my own freshly-roasted coffee, I could pull better shots than I could buy in Italy.

In 2003, frustrated by the inconsistent quality of the espresso from the Pavoni, and with the Rancilio grinder showing its age, I decided to be completely self-indulgent and upgrade. I moved to another lever machine, the Elektra Micro Casa a Leva, with a spring mechanism for ensuring even pressure. I also bought a Mazzer Mini grinder, designed for small cafe use. Neither machine will fit under my kitchen cabinets without modification.

The Hearthware company suspended operations, so in 2012, when my Hearthware iRoast2 was on its last legs, I upgraded to a Behmor drum roaster. I continue to buy most of my green beans from Sweet Maria's, often in person, though I periodically try Canadian sources. I bought a second Behmor for San Francisco, where I spend time, and a Quick Mill Silvano semi-automatic and Baratza Vario grinder.

All this for a little more than an ounce per day of bitter brown liquid. People for whom coffee is a constant in their lives but part of the landscape probably think this is nuts. But, as with everything else in life, I believe one should not settle for mediocrity, but look for the optimal tradeoff between quality and value. That may be a moving target, so adjustments are often necessary.