I Was Addicted to Coffee Before It Was Cool

Dec 17, 2015

The first time I remember drinking coffee was at a Sunday morning church social at the age of 12 or 13. I guzzled down I can’t remember how many cups, heavily seasoned with milk and sugar. It tasted like candy to me, as coffee with anything added still does to me today. It went well with the cheese danish and apple strudel, and I definitely over-indulged. I don’t remember anyone saying anything to me, but I have a vague memory of being hyped-up from the caffeine. I don’t know how many cups I drank, but I can tell you it was enough to make me violently ill.

Fast forward a few years and I take a summer job on the night shift at 7-11. It had apparently been robbed at baseball bat point, and the owner wanted a couple of large men (well, boys) to avoid this happening again. Stating that I would “take the bat away and shove it up his ass” with the bravado of a 17 year-old was enough to ace the interview.

Black coffee and cigarettes became my fuel, a way of life. The 7-11 coffee tasted much better than I could get at home.  Right from the beginning I had a notion of “coffee” and “better coffee.”

Soon after I entered the Army. Other than during one specific event I don’t remember drinking any coffee in Basic Training, despite the stress and sleep deprivation. Of course, the only time we had access to it was the mess hall and by the time we had breakfast we had been up for several hours running, jumping, and doing Army things.

Before we finished “Basic” we had to go on bivouac or the “field” as it was called in 80s Army lingo. Early one morning I was detailed to the mess tent. This was fine with me, since it meant skipping a morning of running, jumping, and doing Army things.

I was assigned the task of making coffee. (It was fate!) Making coffee meant boiling a huge pot of water, pouring in grounds, and stirring. The cook considered the stirring very important, or he just didn’t like the idea of a buck private standing around doing nothing. This coffee was good. It may have been because it was after 7 weeks or so of stress and uniformly bland mess hall food. It may have been good coffee.

I spent 11 months in Alabama at Redstone Arsenal. This was my “advanced training” after Basic. It was mostly classroom training where a coffee pot was usually nearby, and many nights were spent partying and drinking. Coffee and cigarettes were my fuel again.

Redstone Arsenal was the beginning of the “paper cup phase” of my coffee consumption. Paper (and of course Styrofoam) cups of coffee were scattered in my wake as I hurtled through training and then to Germany. Nights, of course, had a wake of empty beer bottles.

Years ago, when my father was talking about quitting smoking he shared the technique of changing brands every couple of weeks. (I think this may have come from Smokenders?) The strategy was based on the fact that one could habituate to any brand after a few weeks and that repeatedly changing makes it easier to cut back.

During the “paper cup phase,” which extended from Alabama to Germany, this ability to grow accustomed to different brews applied. I could tell the difference between Folger’s, Maxwell House, or Martinson’s, and had a preference (Martinson’s) but it stopped making a difference a few days into whenever a new can was opened.

After two years in Germany I started dating the person who would become my wife. She too loved coffee and through her I discovered German coffee. This was my first experience with the Good Stuff and the Really Good Stuff.

My wife was a college student, so coffee and cigarettes were her fuel for what would be the equivalent of Grad School here in the U.S. She usually had a drip coffee maker going in her room because like me she would drink coffee morning, noon, and night.

The Good Stuff was Aldi house brand coffee (I don’t remember the name. It wasn’t the “fair trade” stuff I see now at Aldi in the U.S.) It was better than any of the American brands I had had to date. It was thick and rich, with no bitterness at all. Unlike the American stuff, I could only drink one or two cups and I was done.

The Really Good Stuff was Jacob’s Kronung. It had the extra thickness and richness of Aldi, but was somehow more fresh and never bitter regardless of how strong you brewed it. My girlfriend would measure the amount of grounds based on how much schoolwork she had to do. No measuring cup, metric or otherwise, was required. Only a syllabus.

The real mark of quality for Kronung was that I could drink it cold and still like it. Try that with Maxwell House. Actually, don’t.

We moved in together and the ever-present drip coffee machine filled a thermos that accompanied me to work. I was on night shift again and the prospect of actually having to drink the American stuff was something to be avoided. I even added a coffee machine and German coffee to my arsenal for the field. The “paper cup phase” was on hiatus.

I returned to the U.S. in 1989. This is before the “gourmet” or as I call it, “decent,” coffee movement took hold. I was working 2 jobs and it was back to the paper cup.

Within a year I was working in New York City and discovered the bagel trailers. While the bagels tended to be too “bready” and the cream cheese tended to resemble a cold slab of edible lead, the trailers’ coffee was often excellent. While it lacked the texture of German coffee, it had a rich and nutty flavor that I adored.

Otherwise Dunkin Donuts was, as silly as it seems now, what passed for good coffee.

Once I flew to Florida for an Aikido seminar. Finding coffee was an important task. On my way to the first session I stopped at a Krispy Kreme and picked up coffee and a doughnut. The coffee was awful.

When I related this to a friend at the seminar I heard for the first time that you go to Dunkin’ for the coffee and Krispy for the doughnuts.

I don’t remember when I first encountered Starbucks. I’ve always considered them overpriced, and until they introduced Pike’s, their coffee always tasted burnt. What I appreciated was consistency: I could get a decent cup of coffee almost anywhere, and in NYC that really was anywhere. For a few years I think there were more Starbucks than parking spaces.

The coming of Starbucks coincided with the coming of “gourmet” coffee. I don’t which is the chicken and which is the egg. By 2010 Starbucks had ample competition here and going to them is something I settle for now.

My relationship with coffee has mellowed now, and I can even go an entire day without coffee.

Not that I would want to.

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