Still, a lot of youngsters don’t drink coffee. It heads the standard list of “acquired tastes,” though it does so in the company of my favorite things in life: cigars, natto, Steely Dan. I just happened not to acquire the taste for coffee until, uh, 26. But “taste” doesn’t quite capture my meaning, in that it implies I actively disliked coffee before. I didn’t; going down to the neighborhood coffee roasters, sitting on the bags of beans, and smelling the air remains one my favorite early-childhood memories. I mean “taste” as in “Now that bear has a taste for human blood; we’ve got to kill it.” I just hadn’t activated my desire for coffee yet.
I did this deliberately, because coffee people had always bothered me. Surely you know who I mean by “coffee people.” Under that large umbrella stand not just the obsessive types drilling down to one particular preferred bean, one particular preferred grinding method, one particular brewing method, and one particular serving method — it didn’t help that I grew up around Seattle — but the ones engaged in what I saw as a truly ugly pissing contest:
“Aw, yeah. I take it black. Always black.”
“Oh man, you drink this stuff? This stuff is so sweet!”
“This ain’t coffee, this is a candy bar, is what you’re drinking.”
I sensed a certain disdainful masochism in dedicated coffee drinkers. These people seemed to look down their noses not just at drinkers of supposedly inferior beans, but drinkers who would dare to supplement their coffee with absolutely anything other than coffee: milk, sugar, guava syrup, whatever. Are they running a race to the bottom of the taste scale, I wondered? Where does it end? Will they profess undivided enthusiasm for coffee that tastes like ditch water? Urine? Liquid-Plumr? Why?
So I faced the humiliating Scylla of becoming a sour-puss “tea drinker” and the equally unpleasant Charybdis of becoming a coffee fetishist. For a long time, I settled on the former in deed if not in word, neglecting to overturn my mug at the diner and resigning myself to defeated bags of Lipton — where available. Those of you elsewhere in the Anglosphere may not realize this, but as much as the American tea situation has come along in recent years, it still kind of sucks. Traveling to New Zealand and certain parts of Canada, I found that the environment around me seemed ever ready to provide me with reasonably decent tea; these places knew that, if I wanted a beverage, I probably wanted that. For whatever reason, this particular English colony never caught on to the whole tea thing. Here, expecting tea makes you look like a weenie (or a thirtysomething woman mouthing excuses to herself in an elevator in a ad for stirrable tea crystals).
My deep revulsion to identities based on aesthetic preferences (“But jazz isn’t my thing — punk rock is my thing”) kept me steady in this track until recently. Walking down the street one day, I suddenly knew — just knew — that I could not possibly go on without the biggest cup of iced coffee available. I bought one, chugged it, and now drink coffee, in some form, every single day. Irony of ironies, I only drink it black! I fear that putting milk in my coffee would “rock the boat” somehow, though I continue to put it in my black tea without fail. Because, hey, if I’m going to take up coffee, I’ve got to temper it with at least an equal amount of tea. So the plan now dictates tea in the morning and coffee in the afternoon. Ah, freed from yet another obligation to choose!