Call Yourself a Coffee Drinker?
Thinking about the language of coffee.
“This is more traditional, chocolatey…” something, something “…while this is fruity…” blah, blah “…and this has definite overtones of…” something else I didn’t hear, said the man behind the counter at the coffee place I go to occasionally because everybody talks about how good the coffee is and sometimes I’m in the mood for that.
I was sitting on one of the stools at the front, with my back to the counter, because all the tables were taken. He was speaking to one of the scrum of people queuing to buy coffee — the place is popular — while his sidekick was making steam on the big silver machine that actually makes the flat whites, macchiatos, espressos…
And that’s when I thought: no.
For a very short time in my life, I wrote about wine. I know nothing about wine now, and I didn’t know much then. But I picked up enough of the language, and made friends with enough contacts who did (seem to) know what they were talking about, to hold down the wine column while the real guy was on sabbatical. [Hey, it was the eighties.]
So I can just about speak wine. Definitely fruity, this one, with a good nose, but I liked the almost-blackberry overtones of the last one. Maybe this one needs to breathe a little more…
I remember agreeing with somebody at a media event that the champagne we were drinking “gave a definite hint of rotting straw”. Which was a good thing (we were nodding at each other). I used it in my column (so did he).
But coffee? Seriously? Chocolatey? Hint of fruit? Gimme a break.
“You’ve seen these coffee cups!”
I want my coffee good and strong. I want the coffee that I’ve been promised all these years by the movies, the private-eye stories, Italy, pulp fiction, the advertising industry (except the bit that trains baristas), and just about every early-morning scene shot in a big city where it’s always raining and every colour is noir.
I want the coffee that Humphrey Bogart wanted to drink with Bernie in The Big Sleep (1946), and if that shows my age, I’ll drink it with Robert Mitchum in the 1978 remake. I want the squadroom, late at night, with the detective this close to cracking the case — he takes a swig of his coffee, and that’s it: he seen the answer. Of course!
I want the coffee that gets me through the stake-out. That I drink with my buddies in the SWAT team. That the paramedic hands me as I sit wrapped in a blanket at the back of the ambulance and trade snappy one-liners with my co-star. We’re tough enough, we are, to drink the strong stuff.
Not a bar of fruit’n’nut melted over a bowl of fruit.
I don’t exactly want the coffee that Lieutenant Traxler is drinking in Terminator (1984), but I want the ambience — minus the bit (spoiler) where I get shot up by a robot from the future. I want the coffee Will Graham just drank (the cup’s on the table) in that scene from Manhunter (1986; see the film and you’ll know it), and I’d certainly like to try the coffee that Harry must have wanted after that lunch with Sally.
Not a liquefied flower arrangement with cream on top.
We’re talking the wrong talk
If you’re going to sell it to me, I want coffee that wakes me up, inspires me, fuels the all-nighter that drives me on to develop the Next Big Thing. I want you to talk to me about Italy. Rome. Italians. I want to remember Venice, years ago, watching knife-sharp Venetians pause for tiny ristrettos on their way to meet Machiavelli. I want beans, roasted, dark, the aroma, oh, the aroma.
I want that magical first cup of the day, all day. I want the coffee that launched a thousand software developers. I want the coffee of old Samarkand, the coffee they drank together in the Grand Bazaar before the tourists arrived. I want a coffee — made perfect — that speaks to me of long nights and great achievements. Black and strong even if it’s milky and weak, I want the coffee that cracked a thousand cases.
I’m that close. I can feel it.
On these mean streets a man must drink his coffee before it gets cold. My flat white was good and strong — and then I saw the answer. Of course!
I want coffee that just does what it says it does and has always said it does across the whole of our culture, throughout history. I want the sales pitch that began it all, not a posy of phrases borrowed from the wine trade.
That’s what I mean by real coffee.