Coffee Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate
edited by Scott F. Parker and Michael W. Austin
Review by Jayme Russell
“Wanna go grab some coffee?” asks my friend Laurie.
“I don’t drink coffee,” I say, and her face quickly drops. She looks hurt, and I don’t understand why. Later, my boyfriend explains—he explains what everyone else in America already seems to know but, for some strange reason, I don’t: grabbing coffee is not really about the coffee. It’s about the social experience. It’s about the chatting. It’s a friendship ritual. So, when I thought I was simply stating, “No thanks, I don’t drink coffee,” Laurie heard “I don’t want to hang out with you!” This was not my intention. This is the problem of being a grown woman who’s never had a cup of coffee.
After the Laurie incident, I decide to make things right. So I start reading Coffee Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate, an anthology of essays. I sit down with a giant cup of Coke and open the book. Right away caffeine consumption becomes its major topic. Caffeine is also a major part of my daily life. I take another big gulp of Coke and continue.
Coffee was written with the large population of caffeine fans in mind. It focuses heavily on the environments in which everyone drinks their coffee. In a small Appalachian town like mine, which has four coffee shops, one bookstore with a coffee shop inside of it, one grocery store with a Starbucks inside, and at least twenty different restaurants which offer the drink, it’s clear that coffee is one of the most popular drinks around. I quickly feel guilty about drinking my Coke and decide that if I’m going to read on I must do so in a coffee shop with a real cup of coffee in hand.
At first the dark drink seems too bitter for me, but I drink it all, slowly, enjoying the warmth. Over several days I have many different types of fair trade, and organic coffees, as well as instant coffee at home. I drink and learn about different types of coffee trees, how beans are handled, and what kinds of flavors emerge from each type of bean. I learn that Americans and Europeans value different flavors, so coffee drinking in other countries would offer new and varied experiences. I learn that most coffee buffs would think my instant coffee is disgusting.
I drink a double shot cappuccino with so much caffeine that I want to explode. I drink from tiny cups, regular-sized mugs, and huge containers; in which my drinks cool before I can drink them. The essays range from theory-heavy philosophical dialogue, to personal accounts of drinking coffee, to reportage and an interview with a coffee industry worker. Sometimes the essays engage me right away, and sometimes they take some time to simmer. Sometimes I like the drinks, but sometimes the effects of the coffee are too great for me to finish my cup.
I find that the third section of the book on aesthetics is by far my favorite, simply because the personal essays express the tangible experience so well. For example, in “Three Cups: The Anatomy of a Wasted Afternoon,” Will Buckingham kills time with three hot drinks at a coffee shop. Buckingham writes:
There is an art to drinking Turkish coffee. The coffee comes already sweetened, and you drink as it comes. The grains lurk at the bottom of the cup, so if you change your mind and add sugar later you will disturb the coffee. While drinking if you slurp too quickly you swallow the grains. The true experts can manage to siphon off just enough of the liquid to leave sludge of the optimal viscosity that they can turn their cups upside down and read their futures in the grains that are left behind.
In “Is Starbucks Really Better Than the Red Brand X?” Kenneth Davids examines in great detail three different types of coffee and why one is valued over the others. He discerns nuances in flavors:
And the Esmeralda? The mouthfeel is a bit more syrupy than the Starbucks Antigua, though a tad lighter in weight than the mouthfeel of the Classic Red Brand X. But the basic tastes and aroma and flavor notes are much different. They are complex and intense. The sweetly tart sensation I registered in the Starbucks Antigua is richer, livelier, more like ripe lemons than ripe tomatoes. The aromatic/flavor notes are many and densely layered. There are notes that suggest flowers (especially the heavily scented kind like honeysuckle that send out their aromas at dusk), baker’s chocolate, lemon, orange, roasted nut, and nutmeg, among other possible associations.
Even though I’m not a regular coffee consumer, reading descriptions like these makes me crave it. I’m still not accustomed to the taste, but I’m trying. And if Laurie asks me again to grab some coffee, I finally know what to say: “Sure.”