For John Bolton—owner of Salt Lake Roasting Company—the time was 30 years ago. That’s when the one-time Snowbird executive chef—familiar with quality coffee establishments like Peet’s from his travels to California to purchase wine for Snowbird’s restaurants—decided he wanted to give Utah something it didn’t really have. “There was one other coffee shop” circa 1981, Bolton recalls. “They were a bakery and they had decent coffee. … Any product is only as good as what the people demand, and the expectations here were low. Perhaps because not too many people here drank coffee, transplants had to deal with the fact that they weren’t going to get it, and the people who were here weren’t interested in it.
“My approach was, Salt Lake wasn’t a huge market, but if you have a good product, there’s going to be some support for it.”
In 1981, Bolton opened a shop that he originally intended to be “a restaurant that, by the way, had good coffee, and it just developed the other way around—the support was there for the coffee.”
“It was almost like a counter-cultural thing for the people that came in,” Bolton said of the early support for Salt Lake Roasting Company. “It was their way of making a statement. And that wasn’t my idea; I didn’t have anything against the prevailing religious views or anything like that. I just wanted to have good coffee, and I didn’t think it was rocket science to have it.”
To me, Bolton seemed like an ideal local expert to help me graduate from that first awkward cup to a more refined appreciation for what constitutes good coffee. But he was clear that there were no absolutes where that subject was concerned. “Everybody has different opinions on what a good cup of coffee is,” he said. “What’s a good piece of pizza, you know? Is it thick crust or thin crust, a lot of sauce or a little sauce? You’re going to fight over those all day long. And with coffee, it’s a lighter roast or a darker roast. There’s no ‘correct’ answer to that.”
Still, I wanted to get a sense of unadulterated coffee flavor, and Bolton suggested there was no better way to do that than a blind horizontal tasting employing a method called “cupping” that allows the most accurate apples-to-apples comparisons of beans. The setup looked more like a scientific experiment than a culinary sampling: Glass beakers were arranged side-by-side, the coffee and grounds poured directly into a strainer held over each one.
Bolton dipped a metal tasting spoon into the first beaker and slurped it noisily in order to aerate the sample and bring out the flavors. I followed his example. The first sample was not nearly as aggressive as I’d expected from my first experience; it was mild, with very little aftertaste. The second was somewhat fuller; “nuttier” was how I described it to Bolton—and not too bad. The third was, to my taste, very much like the first. The fourth sample—all right, there was that tongue-coating, dark taste that had seemed so off-putting in my latte.
Before revealing the identity of each type, Bolton asked me to taste each one again, quickly in succession, and to trust my first impression as to which one I preferred. After my run-through, it was still the second that I most enjoyed—something with body, but without that lingering finish.
Bolton then unveiled the coffees’ origin: Indonesia, Ethiopia, Costa Rica and his own darker French roast, respectively. Clearly, the darker roast was not the one for me. Meanwhile, I had identified as my favorite the coffee from Ethiopia—the very birthplace of the Arabica bean itself. Could it be that deep within me lay the sophisticated taste buds of a true coffee connoisseur?A Quiet Cup
I had come far already, from the discomfort of trying without knowing what you want to trying it straight with a variety of one-sip stands. But there was only one way to know if it would ever be the real thing between me and the bean—some quality time alone together, all the way to the last drop.
I strolled into a Salt Lake City coffee establishment during a quiet mid-morning. Light conversation issued from one corner; faces peered into laptops in others. I ordered my 16-ounce mocha latte, and sat down in a comfy chair with a book.
The taste was still a struggle, but less so. I sipped patiently, the hot-chocolate vibe always surrendering to that distinctive roasted after-effect. I thumbed through my book, waiting for that much-fabled “kick.”
About a half-hour later, the cup was empty. But where was the burst? I certainly hadn’t needed to gag down my beverage, but it was hardly an unqualified pleasure. Had I forced myself through this experience to be left unsatisfied?
As it turns out, I was just impatient. My fellow travelers on the drive home will never know they shared the road with a freshly wired coffee novice, which is all for the best.
Still, I felt I must be missing something. The following morning, I gave it another shot at another establishment with another mocha. I positioned myself in a window, looking out on a drizzly day with a newspaper and a warm cup. Wasn’t this the paradigm? Was I not capturing both the vibe of the street-corner European cafe and the sensibility of the coffee capitals of the American Northwest?
Yet after three sips—ample opportunity to discover that this was apparently another one of those dark roasts determined to cling to my taste buds until wrestled off with solvent—I’d had enough. I felt like a kid pretending at being a grown up—or, perhaps a better analogy, like a teenager swigging away at that first lousy beer because you think you’re supposed to. Just as I’d made my way through innumerable glasses of red wine unable to identify any “notes” beyond “this tastes kind of, um, grape-y, just like the last grape-y wine I had,” I was fumbling at trying to find a taste for something I clearly just didn’t have a taste for.
And I realized part of the equation I was missing: There was nothing pushing me to develop that taste. Why does anyone ever move beyond that first sip of ghastly beer? Because it’s a social occasion; it’s what you do with your peers at a time when everyone else is figuring out how to do it, too. I’d missed that step with coffee. I was trying to learn how to do it on my own, when it was clearly more satisfying learning how to do it with someone else.
I learned plenty about coffee during my journey, but I also found more sympathy for those around me who don’t “get” what seems to me like the self-evident glory of sushi, or microbrew beer. While it was possible I’d explore a more social environment to continue experimenting, coffee and I would likely continue our journeys on a parallel course, nodding at one another from a respectful distance. While others found a comforting routine and welcome jolt from that warm cup in their hands, I’d need to continue finding those sensations elsewhere.
You know, I’ve never had a cigarette.
Inspiration for this story came from the Oklahoma Gazette, which published a July 29, 2010, feature on its own 40-year-old coffee virgin.