Coffee culture

My blog has been so quiet these last few years. Such a shame. It occurs to me now that my recent trip to Ecuador would have been a wonderful opportunity for some posts and reflections. Having so little to do with this blog lately, I guess it just didn’t occur to me.

I’ve been watching Call the Midwife with Dixie. There was a moment in which the main character said something like, “I would love to have some Nescafé; all we have at our place is tea.” (Confession: I’m always a little surprised and disappointed when characters in English novels, movies, and TV shows opt for coffee over tea. I guess I’ve got some cultural prejudice.)

It occurred to me that we have some Nescafé in the cupboard (mom uses it to make half coffee/half hot chocolate). So I made myself a cup. (Fact: TV and advertising does influence us.) It wasn’t very good.

This relatively bad (though not undrinkable) cup of instant coffee reminded me of another fact that surprised me (due to, again, cultural prejudices). Ecuador borders on Colombia, which is, of course, known for its drug cartels. Also for its coffee. So it didn’t seem unreasonable to assume that the Ecuadorian people would be coffee connoisseurs.

Well! In fact, most people in Ecuador drink instant coffee! Can you believe it?

This memory, in turn, had me thinking about our coffee culture and how we define a “good” cup of coffee. We might be inclined to dismiss the notion of the Ecuadorians being coffee connoisseurs, because how could instant-coffee drinkers be? But who’s to say, really?

I think of my own journey into the coffee world. It begins as a toddler sipping the coffee dregs from my dad’s mug. It was pretty gross. My dad made strong coffee like a good European (“So strong that my spoon stands up in it”) and didn’t use sugar. Then in junior high I started drinking weak church coffee loaded with condensed milk and sugar. Then generic (and still weak) restaurant coffee. Then Tim Hortons double-doubles and my own drip coffee. Then Starbucks (which I still haven’t fully embraced: their beans are over-roasted or something) and my own preferred fair-trade coffees from smaller companies (Level Ground out of Victoria is my brand).

I liked all the coffees along the way, but I don’t think I can go back to generic coffees, except in social contexts where it’s offered to me. I will always prefer my own brew, and I am willing to say that one cup of coffee is better than another. But does that make my home-brewed cup objectively better than church coffee or generic/big-name brands? Isn’t it just a matter of taste, which is acquired? When we say Starbucks coffee is better than Tim Hortons (as Starbucks drinkers are inclined to do), aren’t we just talking about preference?

But if that’s the case, what am I to make of these professional coffee-tasters who roasters use to make sure each batch of beans will make the best coffee? Those guys seem have it down to a science, though an entirely nose and tastebud related one. Is that all just a farce?

How much of our notion of a good cup of coffee—and by “our” I mean coffee snobs who insist on Starbucks, artisan roasts, and/or fresh hand-milled grounds, rather than those who will happily brew coffee from a yellow no-name brand bag—is all advertising, “brainwashing”, and a dose of the myth of progress (i.e. every new discovery is inherently good and even better by virtue of being new)?

3 thoughts on “Coffee culture

  1. Toni

    Ah, coffee.

    The best coffee is the one you like the most.

    As an observation, I’d say that coffee drinking was probably a post-WWII fashionable thing to do, with younger people like my parents drinking coffee (though they also had a European influence) and those with pre-WWII attitudes (like Chris’s parents) drinking tea. And there have always been those who prefered the taste of one over t’other.

    Nescafe and Maxwell House were the 2 main consumer brand coffees here, with MH tending to be smoother & a bit watery, Nescafe a little more bitter with overtones of diesel fuel (I’m serious). Over the last 10 years there have been a tranch of ‘conoisseur’ instant coffees introduced, some of which are quite drinkable, though mostly inferior (see starbucks below) to ‘real coffee’ made from ground beans.

    In terms of what types of coffee people like, some have a clear preference for bitter flavours while others prefer a softer, richer taste. This probably crosses over into chocolate preference, and if a person likes bitter chocolate then they’ll likely prefer bitter coffee too. Starbucks clearly serve that market, and although I’d prefer instant over their coffee because of its over-roasted and very bitter flavours, though some are drawn to that.

    One thing that no-one seems to talk about is the water used to make coffee, and I’m sure that this is a key reason why coffee in Europe often tastes much better than coffee in the UK, even when made at home. I can happily drink coffee black (with sugar) in France and Italy, but would not choose to do so in the UK. Having said that, I have recently drunk both Turkish coffee and Espresso in a good local pizza restaurant black and enjoyed them, so either our water is improved or my taste buds have lost sensitivity. 😉

  2. Andrew

    Have you tried Starbucks’ instant coffee? It’s great (in my very subjective opinion) and tastes identical to its regular brewed coffee. But then, I don’t like the taste of TH, and much prefer Starbucks, so keep that in mind.

  3. Marc

    The VIAs? Yes, I really like those. Just not as much as my home-hand-ground Level Ground coffee. 🙂

    What makes Starbucks’ instant coffee unique is that it’s not just made however instant coffee is normally made. It includes micro-ground beans so to a degree you are still brewing the coffee.

Comments are closed.