The 40-Year-Old Coffee Virgin | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

May 11, 2011 News » Cover Story

The 40-Year-Old Coffee Virgin 

The true tale of a “latte” bloomer

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Dave: How could this have not happened?

Andy: It just never happened. When I was young, tried, and it didn’t happen. And then I got older, and I got more and more nervous, because it hadn’t happened yet. And I got kind of weirded out about it. Then it really didn’t happen, and then … I don’t know, I just kind of stopped trying. —The 40 Year Old Virgin, by Judd Apatow

Four years of college. Graduate school. Early mornings. Occasional late nights. A time spent living in Seattle in the early ’90s, for God’s sake. Moving to a state where one’s consumption habits tend to serve as tribal markers. Fifteen years of marriage to a coffee drinker. All of this, over more than 40 years of my life, and somehow I never, ever, not once, drank a single sip of coffee.

There’s a societal presumption built into any kind of teetotaling, that it must be some kind of political, ethical or moral statement. But I neither adhere to the Word of Wisdom, nor have I staked out a position opposed to the impact on rain forests of coffee-bean farming. I don’t drink coffee because I never have drunk coffee. And I never have drunk coffee because … well, maybe it’s not all that complicated.

The easiest answer is that the circumstances that turn someone into a coffee-drinker never coalesced early in my life. I grew up in a household of non-coffee-drinking parents, so the habit was never one I assumed I’d follow. As a life-long “morning person,” I never required any particular chemical kick-start to allow me to function before noon. Hot drinks in general, including tea or cocoa, didn’t really appeal to me. My sheer general stubbornness made it something of a point of pride not to be doing what everyone around me tended to do—video games, skiing, tattoos, heroin—just because they tended to do it. And as I got older, it seemed to be one of those “acquired tastes” that would be more trouble—and expense—than it was worth to acquire.

I started to think that maybe I’d been missing something all these years. Coffee seemed to inspire cult-like devotion, and I was forever surrounded by folks for whom coffee defined communal interaction. It wasn’t just a beverage; it was a way of life. And I wondered if I could share that enthusiasm.

I would need guidance on such a perilous journey, a gentle hand to help me break my Cherry Mocha. Thus I would turn to baristas and purveyors of the rich, dark liquid to answer the question: Was there something out there that would change my perspective forever? Like a java-jazzed spin on Olivia Newton-John in Grease, maybe this coffee virgin could be turned into a coffee slut.

Historical Java
Certainly in Utah, coffee was a topic loaded with religious and cultural significance. The “Word of Wisdom” delivered by Joseph Smith in 1833—which stated, among other things, that “hot drinks are not for the body or the belly”—was originally a recommendation rather than a commandment. Smith’s brother, Hyrum, specifically clarified in 1842 that “hot drinks” included coffee, while Brigham Young in 1851 added the admonition “those who will not keep the Word of Wisdom, I will cut off from the Church.” Yet only a few years earlier, the westward-bound Mormon pioneers of the 1840s followed provisions guidelines commonly used at the time that recommended packing coffee for the journey. And it may have just been common sense, as worries about contaminated water supplies made a boiled-water beverage a wise choice—though the pioneers often allowed it to cool in an attempt to stay within the letter of the law.

Curiously, tainted water supplies also played a role in one of the most intriguing historical footnotes about coffee. Before coffee was introduced in Europe in the 17th century, the most common beverage with which an individual started his or her day would have been one that included alcohol. With plain water a breeding ground for contaminants and a general menace to public health, people often consumed weak beer or wine for breakfast, lunch and dinner. According to historian Tom Standage, quoted in the Joseph Priestly biography The Invention of Air, “Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and stimulated, rather than relaxed and mildly inebriated, and the quality and quantity of their work improved.” With thinkers beginning to meet in coffee houses to share ideas, the Enlightenment was born on the back of the coffee bean—which made it little wonder that European monarchs tended to shut down coffee houses whenever seditious or anti-authoritarian ideas began to percolate.

In colonial America, coffee became even more symbolic of the fight for freedom. In his coffee history Uncommon Grounds, journalist Mark Pendergrast describes how the colonial tea tax that gave rise to the 1773 Boston Tea Party also inspired “a patriotic American duty to avoid tea, and the coffeehouses profited as a result.” That included Boston’s Green Dragon coffeehouse and tavern, descried by Daniel Webster as “the headquarters of the Revolution.” Without coffee, we all might still be bowing to the Queen and calling elevators “lifts.”

But then there were the ethical and socio-political matters that gave a progressive-minded person pause. Coffee monoculture in Brazil, after all, played a significant role in the depletion of rain forest, as the developed world’s insatiable demand for coffee—and the coffee shrub’s three-year journey to maturity and tendency to deplete soil when grown in full sunlight—inspired more and more cutting to allow more and more planting. Activists fretted over how little of that $4 cup of coffee ended up in the pockets of the people in Central America, South American and Africa who grew and harvested it. Terms like “shade-grown” and “fair trade” began to turn coffee purchases into political statements. Our unquenchable thirst for the dark liquid—approximately a $5 billion annual market in 2010, according to the coffee industry’s own figures—had at times financed iron-fisted regimes in coffee-growing countries.

Was it really worth nurturing a habit that could give my conscience jitters in addition to my central nervous system?

The First Gentle Step
Despite my ambivalence, I had committed to finding out what I had been missing. And I was determined that my first time be with someone who knew what he was doing.

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According to readers in our 2011 City Weekly Best of Utah voting, Alan Hebertson certainly qualified. The owner of the Coffee Garden was far more experienced than I; he described his first coffee memory as coming when he was still a toddler, sipping from the spoon of his Mormon grandmother who “wouldn’t put it on the table before the meal had been blessed and prayed over, but then the coffee could come to the table.” He knew I wanted to be comfortable, so he set out to do more than just shepherd me through my first cup. He showed me a coffee cherry—the fruit of an Arabica bush growing right in the store’s front window—to give me a sense of the beverage’s origins. He cut it to show me the two green beans typically found in each cherry, just like those that would have been roasted and ground to become the drink that would be set before me.

But there’s a difference between talking about it and doing it. For my first time, it seemed prudent to opt for a somewhat vanilla option—something that wouldn’t scare me away. Hebertson tried to make it clear that he wouldn’t be offended no matter my reaction. “Let me reassure you,” he said, “that if this doesn’t convert you, it’s OK. It’s OK not to be in love with coffee.” But he did suggest going with more milk than coffee, something sweet and caramelly.

Hebertson headed behind the counter to prepare a 12-oz. caramel vanilla latte. I sat anxiously, listening to the thumping and hissing sounds that were bringing me closer and closer to the moment of truth.

Then, there it was: a steaming cup, the white foam floating on top decoratively etched into a leaf design. The familiar aroma wafted up towards me. And with a deep breath, I partook.

At first, there was only milky sweetness, as though I were sipping a bowl of melted ice cream. Then came a strange, bitter sensation that felt as though it were coating the back of my tongue. I nodded politely and tried to describe my experience to Hebertson in the most neutral language possible. “I thought it would be sweeter,” I said, “that it would have more of a cola quality.” I sipped again, certain that my expression must be betraying my lack of enthusiasm. I was … faking it.

Hebertson hadn’t done anything wrong; our photographer Erik Daenitz, a coffee enthusiast there to document the moment, assured me my beverage was of high quality. So I said all the right things to Hebertson, despite an experience that was still lingering in my mouth unpleasantly a half an hour later. “You want the bitterness to balance out the sugars and the nuttiness,” Hebertson said. “But bitterness is what you remember the first time.”

How true those words are for so many of us.

The New Coffee Culture
I knew, of course, that I had been far from alone in my coffee chastity. Indeed, for a while, America seemed to be turning more in my direction.

The middle of the 20th century was a boom period in American coffee consumption. By 1923, writes Pendergrast, per capita U.S. coffee consumption had risen to an average of 500 cups of coffee per year. The small, regional roasters and distributors that had dominated the market gave way to national companies like Standard Brands and General Foods that began marketing and advertising more aggressively on radio. Even the Great Depression couldn’t slake American’s thirst for coffee, and the U.S. military’s huge requisition of coffee created a generation of GIs who returned home with the habit.

But World War II-era home-front rationing led to diluted brews that Americans grew accustomed to. In the 1950s, the robusta coffee bean—cheaper, quicker to mature and of lower quality than its Arabica cousin—began to grow as a percentage of the coffee market, a particular favorite of companies making the newly popular instant coffees. Soft drinks surged in popularity during the same period, serving to the caffeine thirst of Baby Boomers who developed a different habit than their parents. And for the first time, in the late 1960s, the media began carrying stories about scientific studies and medical concerns about possible negative health effects of coffee consumption. The combination of low-quality product, changing demographics and health scares led to a plunge in coffee consumption—from a high of 3.1 cups per capita per day in 1962 to 2.2 cups in 1974.

Just around that time, change was brewing. In 1966, a Dutch-born coffee importer named Alfred Peet opened a retail coffee shop in Berkeley, Calif., that sold high-quality beans for home use, and became a beacon for all those seeking more than watered-down grounds. In 1970, a trio of Seattle college pals decided to open their own quality coffee shop in their home town, turning to Peet as the supplier for their beans and a model for their store design; a year later, they opened the first Starbucks. By the time marketing expert Howard Schultz took over Starbucks in the mid-1980s, he’d figured out that coffee didn’t just have to be a habit—it could be a ritual, something that could be filled with unique vocabulary and a sense of communal partaking.

The coffee marketplace had undergone a radical shift. The traditional cuppa joe—black, or with cream and sugar—was being overtaken by espresso-based drinks and gourmet beans. And new coffee drinkers were far more likely than their aging counterparts to consume the fancy stuff. According to statistics published in March by the National Coffee Association of U.S.A., the industry’s trade organization, 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds drank coffee daily in 2010, up 6 percent in four years. And while those over 60 were still more likely to be daily coffee drinkers (69 percent in 2010), only 4 percent of those older coffee drinkers opted for espresso-based specialty coffee as their drink of choice, compared to 14 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds.

Quality was triumphing. Clearly if one were going to start becoming a coffee drinker, now was the time.

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.

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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.

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