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The Art of Coffea Arabica

This is a reposting of my original 1998 essay on how coffee became a part of my life. [Since then, there has been interest expressed in having me continue the series, so I have decided to get back to it. Right now I am writing the second instalment, which covers the basics of making good coffee. There could be more too after that depending on reader feedback...]

In my high school years, I was a tea drinker. I learned to be fussy about tea from my friend and mentor, Graham Warwick. I spent a lot of time at his place and, if there wasn't already fresh tea under the tea cosy, we made it. I was, in fact, on a 10- to 12-cup-a-day habit. Tea was the sacred elixir, the wonder drug that could cure the common cold and, if it couldn't cure the blues in a single gulp, it at least provided the means to wallow in them. Tea gave meaning to ritual. It was everything to me. Until I became allergic to it. My world fell apart but in the end I was just a little wiser and a little more independent. Still, there was that void.

Months passed and the void was not filled. It was natural, then, that the smell of my mother's coffee beckoned to me every morning. I became a coffee drinker. Her coffee was iconic of the 70's middle class: Chocked Full of Nuts brand coffee and a Corningware percolator -- white with the now classic blue floral motif that matched her set of casseroles.

Percolator coffee is said to be a bad thing. It wasn't, but only because I put loads of sugar in it. Alas, as my life and coffee became more intertwined it was apparent that I would have to make sacrifices for it. I weaned myself off the sugar to make myself worthy of communicating with the gods of Columbia, Mocha, Java, and Kona. As with tea, the caffeine took me to that higher plain; the bitterness adding a token touch of asceticism. I read bibles of coffee: they bestowing knowledge on the correct rituals to be performed and of the personalities of each of the gods. But in my heart I knew that, like all great religions, one could intellectualise for years and never truly understand. I decided to surrender myself totally to this religion of Arabian ancestry.

More than two decades have passed since those days, and I can now say that there is more to life than just coffee (Good company, Bordeaux wine, single-malt highland scotch are all right up there.). Still, hand roasting, milling and infusing the seeds of the shrub coffea arabica is in a class of its own. This is no mere simple pleasure: once you have tried it you begin to realise that a separate reality does exist.

What is it that defines a good cup of coffee and how can we produce it? Unlike my percolator days, I know that good coffee is not bitter and therefore needs no sugar. Good coffee is complex and yet fragile. It rewards you when prepared properly and disappoints you when those delicate organics don't make it all the way to the cup. It neither needs nor wants sugar. Flavouring agents such as vanilla and orange are gaudy at best. Sugar's only purpose is to mask unpleasant tastes and the flavouring agents make up for a coffee's failure to satisfy. Both problems are the result of inferior coffee and, sadly, whole coffee cultures have arisen out of such ignorance.

If you've been disappointed with coffee in the past then maybe it's time to take things into your own hands. It takes some effort to produce a pan-dimensional delight but it is within the means of most of us. I would like to offer my own time-tested formula for a fine cup of coffee. But I must also warn you: once you attain even an inkling of the greatness of coffee you run the risk of becoming an evangelist like me: a coffee snob. You will come to despise the many cafes with their lies about freshness and pretences of expertise. And you yourself will be despised for what others will see as mere arrogance. They couldn't care less whether their coffee is instant, or roasted one bean at a time by Tibetan monks. On the other hand, you will gain converts, and win the respect of those sophisticated enough to understand your trek.

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