I was a late bloomer, coffee-wise.
I had my first cup at 22, trying to make it through grad school. I was engaged, working full-time, going to school full-time. My sister was (minus the engagement) doing the same, at the same school. We’d sign up for as many classes together as we could, so we could help each other study.
She lived in what was almost certainly once a chicken coop–a tiny two-level shack in the backyard of a much larger house, heated by a mini propane tank, with floors that fell off into nothing and a minuscule bathroom with a shower that you had to step in, wash your back, and then step out so you could turn around and wash your front.
This shack was memorable for having a rent of only $300 a month, in an area where (even in 1996) rents were routinely three times that much, and for a massive coffee maker that sat, full, close to 24 hours a day. Both (the shack and the coffee maker) were passed down from grad student to grad student; everyone we knew had lived in the shack at one time or another. It was never advertised, as far as I know never inspected, and never empty.
Which, coincidentally, describes the coffee maker as well.
When the coffee grew rancid we’d dump it and start again. We drank it cold, hot, room temperature, we didn’t care. We bought the vilest cheap pre-ground coffee we could find at the grocery store; we just needed the caffeine shot and, in the winter, the warmth.
This first glut of coffee ended in a spectacular fashion the semester we were both taking not only a systematic theology class from Wells but a Greek class from our father (his bio is really old; he’s actually on book fifteen or sixteen now). Of all the professors at the school, they are ranked number one and two (or two and one, depending on the year and how many students are left weeping in the hallways) in order of difficulty of subject matter.
Since we were taking my dad’s class together, we not only had to get a perfect grade for him, we had to beat each other to the highest score. Meanwhile, Wells was asking us to read 150 pages a night and research and write 20,000 words every four weeks or so.
And so we simply never slept. I don’t think I got more than five hours of sleep on my very best day that semester, and it was routine to stay up for 48 hours straight.
It was all fueled by desperation, more than a little arrogance, and that horrid coffee.
The night before our Greek final, we huddled on my sister’s mattress and passed flashcards back and forth. Both of our teeth were chattering so hard we could barely respond with “aorist present” or “I think that one is the -iai ending.” It wasn’t cold; we had consumed so much coffee on so little sleep that we were shaking with the effort of staying upright.
We went together to take the test – I honestly don’t remember any of it.
When we were done, we separated and (I later found out) both went home and vomited about sixty times. Yes, the coffee. Whether thanks to overuse or a bad bean in the batch when it was roasted and ground what was probably two years before we drank it, it did us in.
I did not drink coffee again for nine years.
If we went to Starbucks with friends, I’d drink steamed milk. Dunkin Donuts was hot chocolate. Even the sight of coffee made me feel ill.
That changed the year I taught fourth grade, which was (after grad school) the most stressful and difficult thing I’d ever done. Tabitha was one; Meri and Honour were in second and third grade. I NEVER ate; I NEVER slept. And so out of desperation I began to make coffee again.
This time, I started with the brands that advertised that they were easy on the stomach. I graduated to the teacher’s lounge brew, which was bad but at least fresh. From there I did what I think most do–I realized that Lavazza is a lot better than Folgers, but Green Mountain is better than Lavazza, and New England Coffee Co. is better than Green Mountain. After the teaching was over, the coffee continued.
Meanwhile, Doug and I had moved from being dedicated foodies, always in the latest cool restaurant, to frustrated consumers who rarely had anything more exciting than “hold the mustard” on our Wendy’s burgers. Too many kids, no money, no time. We loved the kids, missed the money (at least a little), REALLY missed having the luxury of something that just simply tastes PERFECT.
It’s predictable what came next – coffee became our one carnal delight. (OK, well, our second carnal delight, but this is a family blog so get your mind out of the gutter.)
We bought a $10 coffee maker, put it in the cupboard when we bought a $25 coffee maker, put it in the cupboard when we bought a $60 coffee maker, realized that burners skunk coffee so bought a French press, needed more coffee than a French press could make at once and bought a carafe model from a country very far from here.
The blade coffee grinder gave way to a burr model gave way to a big burr model gave way to an Italian burr grinder that sounds like a fine motorcar when you turn it on.
Ground coffee was no longer anywhere on our shelves. Bags and tins and wrapped paper parcels and things with their own little visa stamps on them filled the cupboard. Then we used all those up and went entirely fair trade. Upgraded to organic. Upgraded from organic to beans with a roasting date.
It was good. It was GOOD. But it was not yet great.
What made it the thing that makes me get out of bed in the morning and turn on the coffee grinder before I even put my contact lenses in was an article we found in an old issue of the Kennebeck paper. My parents own a house in Maine, so the local newspapers and magazines are often lying around their house down in Massachusetts. I picked one up and I yelled to Doug.
“Hey, remember Matt Bolinder from college? He moved to Maine! Oh, Doug… he’s roasting coffee! He brought a wood-fired roaster over from Italy, and he cuts the hardwoods in his own backyard and roasts coffee he imports from all over the world. He rents part of that old crappy mill in Waterville, remember that one?”
Family council immediately held, impromptu road trip decided upon, and a couple of hours later we were holding a gold bag full of coffee and on our way home.
When I stood in our kitchen and opened the foil bag, it was like a Disney movie where swirls of sparkles and stars explode out, filling every corner with brightness.
From upstairs and four rooms away, I heard Doug yell, “OH MY GOSH, IS THAT THE COFFEE?”
Ground and brewed and with a trickle of heavy cream, it was like God decided to show us a little piece of what you get if you walk straight and fly right. It was GREAT.
Since then, every three weeks we call or e-mail Matt (who is as much a kind and personable gentleman now as he was when I knew him fifteen years ago) and ask him to send us whatever he’s got. He roasts every Tuesday, so by that Thursday a box arrives with three or four gold bags. I never know what it will be–this week it was an El Salvadorean Peaberry, an Ethiopian Shanta Golba, a dark roast that is the most physically beautiful coffee I have ever seen, and a northern Italian-style espresso roast that is so pungent and glorious that you can chew the aroma, chocolate and caramel and raspberries.
So call Matt. Or visit him online. Mattscoffee.com. I don’t get anything for recommending him except the happy thought that maybe somebody is going to open a foil bag and have a little tear come into their eye.
Seriously, this stuff is amazing. I give you permission to be a hedonist and try it.