This is not a new story; it's an old one. It's got all the elements of a great romance; meeting, falling in lust, getting to know each other deeply, falling in love. Breaking up, getting back together. Breaking up again and getting back together permanently. Commitment, fear, sleepless nights. All the usual suspects are here. I'm not the first to have this story, and I'm 100% certain not to be the last. But each story is special and wondrous for the individual who experiences it, and mine is no exception to the rule.
Don't be ridiculous, I'm not talking about a person. I'm talking about COFFEE.
The liquid gold has been around for thousands of years, but has been in my life for about 20. It's been a strange journey, and our relationship has certainly evolved over the years, but my connection to coffee has never really slipped away and, much like tea (another story entirely), keeps proving to be a continuously surprising and endearing engagement.
Coffee and I met at a restaurant my older brother was working at when I was about 13 or 14. Young and inexperienced when it came to taste - I still thought Pop-Tarts were a viable breakfast option - I'd never even tasted coffee, let alone developed a preference. I was getting to know tea and finding it suitably desirable, so why not coffee?
The parental units thought this a solid idea and as I was a reasonable age to try such things, a plain latte was ordered. I supped this frothy goodness like the manna from heaven it was.
It's probably no surprise to anyone, except my 14 year old self, that I was smitten at first sip. In a bold move, I asked for another and was allowed it. In hindsight, this was probably not the best decision I ever made, but being a fairly well-behaved child, I was indulged the treat and sallied forth with gay abandon.
And so my first disaster with coffee began. I bounced off the walls like a hyperactive squirrel for hours on end and felt decidedly drained afterwards. This did not dim my desire for coffee at all. In fact, I was intrigued.
What was this drink of such power that I felt superhuman? What magical properties did it contain that I might use them again? And again?!
During the rest of my teens, I maintained a casual relationship with the smoky black liquid, occasionally choosing it over tea, having one as a treat on a weekend, and generally treating it like watching episodes of Friends; easy to dip in and out of, simple enough to pick up again after weeks of not viewing. It was fun, it was cheerful, and when things got a little too hectic, I just stopped drinking it.
My twenties were when things started to get serious. I took a more industrious view of our relationship and started to experiment within the caffeine world; I tried flat whites and cappuccinos, espressos and macchiatos. I drank coffee in the morning before college, on weekends with friends over cigarettes and scripts (stop looking at me like that, the early noughties were all about being aloof and choking on your own brand of cool).
It was a curious time for me; I'd started to feel slightly more comfortable in my own skin, but was still clinging a little to the highly-strung teenager of my youth. I suspect I drank some seriously good coffee, but appreciated it only half as much as it deserved. This would be the part of our story where I'm the bad partner and things got a little rocky; you can only drink so much shit coffee and think it's as decent as the good stuff before your body starts rejecting your sleazy advances and kicks you for it.
After a few years of careening about, full of combinations of caffeine, booze, occasional contraband and crap food, I found a serious job and settled down. Having more money and quality time on your hands does strange and wonderful things to a person; you start to appreciate the simple things rather a lot more. You eat better, you sleep better, and you STOP DRINKING SHIT COFFEE.
Around 2007-'08, approximately age 26, my mother, ingenious soul that she is, started a tradition that she continues every few years to this day; buying me a home coffee machine. Glorious inventions.
My first was a pot-and-drip-filter affair. Sunday mornings when I wasn't working, I'd stumble out of bed around 10, slip a filter in, pour grainy goodness over that, flick the switch, and quietly listen to it gurgle away for the three short minutes it took to fill. Bliss. Absolute bliss.
This started me on a path from which I have never looked back. And it also created a bizarre contradiction in our relationship. At home, I wanted straight black coffee, occasionally with a dash of milk and/or sugar, and that was it. Outside, I wanted my coffee as extravagant as it could come. And thus the new element to colour this epic came along; syrup.
Fast-forward briefly; for those of you who spend any social time with me, you'll feel these words are well-worn, but never-ending. Soy vanilla latte please, hot as you can get it before the milk turns. Conversely so, at home, I'll flick the coffee machine on, pop in the capsules and voilà, cafe! No sugar, occasional milk, but generally just variations of good coffee. Coffee and I have a solid, straight-up relationship that relies purely on how good the barista is (myself or a trained professional), and we stick to it. No, I don't think I'll try a macchiato, I'm not going to like it even if the beans have been harvested this morning by gypsy monks with virgin hands and rinsed in mountain water from Olympus.
But I digress. The other turning point in my mid- to late-twenties was realising that I enjoyed the ritual and tools of coffee, as well the black brew itself. I found out I had some health issues late in those years, and had to start substituting soy for milk a lot. It made no noticeable difference to the relationship, except perhaps to enhance it. Why had no one told me that soy milk, being nuttier and creamier, made barista-made coffee taste even better? I could never quite get it right at home, and so reverted to coffee without, and found I appreciated it more. Curiouser and curiouser!
Anyway, late into my twenties and now early thirties, the evolution continues. I drink more soy than skim, have all my favourite haunts, and have developed a disturbing but amusing penchant for stalking baristas in a fashion that would make Hollywood paparazzi proud.
The last is something I ascertained I was doing after moving to Newtown around my 30th year. There's an old saying; a workman never blames his tools, and this seems relevant in any trade including hospitality. A cafe can use the finest Colombian, fair-trade, soft-harvested beans in the world - if the barista burns them, they are still going to taste like an ashtray warmed up.
I've found some great cafes in my time, but I've found some better baristas. Being the nature of the beast, baristas, like most hospo works, don't stay in the same place for long, so you have to be damn quick and latch on while you can. Luckily, I tend to be a chatty sort - spent my fair share of time in hospitality too - and baristas like me. It makes the stalking way less creepy, and much more flattering.
Back to the coffee. On an average week I'll down 4-5 cups, and generally all before midday. For the serious drinkers that's not a big number, but considering the lengths I'll go to get a decent cup I think that's pretty good.
Let's put it this way; I once woke up after my third day on less than 3 hours sleep a night and trekked all the way to Bondi Junction, waited 45 minutes for a Tobys Estate skinny latte, which was made by one of my baristas, Joey. I live in Newtown. I work in North Sydney. I had $4 left until my pay cleared and I wasn't entirely sure the place would be open.
The gods smiled on me; they place wasn't open yet, but Joey is a good man, made me a steaming cup of java goodness, and gifted it to me without a second thought.
See? All about the ritual, all about the baristas, all about the good stuff.
I guess that's why coffee is probably the longest and best relationship I've ever had. Coffee doesn't care if I've had no sleep; it feels my pain and perks me up. Coffee cares not for my bed-crushed, 6am, crazy-faerie hair; it feels we are best spending time together when I am at my most vague and non-verbal.
Coffee loves me no matter what mood I'm in; it hugs me warmly, says a prayer for the day for me, and quietly does its' work. It has some surprising health benefits; it is a natural aperient (look it up, you're a grown up, I'm not helping) which may be just a little too TMI, but a pretty important thing when you start to get older. Caffeine is said to be good for your skin, is full of anti-oxidants, as well as give you more energy to burn when you're training or working out (...I do neither of these things caffeinated - too much sitting and looking smug to do).
Likewise, coffee is said to work on your metabolism and have some mental health benefits. There appears to be only preliminary studies for the latter, but I can personally attest to feeling way less homicidal post-coffee than pre. I'm almost certain my family and friends prefer caffeinated faerie to not.
On a final note, the one word some people dread; decaf. This is where I think we will sharply differ. Decaf has copped a bad rap over the years, and I think it is highly undeserved. For those who drink coffee purely for the pep - YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG. Seriously.
If all you are looking for is some extra zing, the get-up-and-go you physically lack without stimulation, then start taking supplements. Eat more apples (proven to wake you up better than coffee - science, bitches). Or how about just learning to be a bloody morning person already (we respect you people, but no one likes you).
On the other hand, if, like me, coffee is about the taste, the ritual, the placebo as well as the, for want of a better word, nocebo (also a real word, look it up) effects, then the occasional decaf makes almost no difference in the right circumstances.
In fact, decaf can be the go-to if you've over-caffeinated and need to cut down. So for those of you who sneer at decaf, I sneer right back; you have no understanding of coffee at all, your relationship is purely selfish, and I bite my thumb at you. Quite forthrightly.
That's my story. It's not really original, except to me. It doesn't have any fancy titles, it doesn't always look pretty or come dressed up in the nicest attire. But it's one of my favourites, one of my longest running, and is has forged a bond as strong a steel.
Cheers, my darling, to 20 good years together and many more!
...Excuse me now, I've a bar to find and a bartender to charm - apparently Espresso Martini's are back in fashion...
*or [coffee appreciation : part one]