As a child, I swore I would never drink coffee. I would plug my nose and hide my 5-year-old body behind my father’s long legs as he browsed the aisles of Gloria Jean’s. In my mind, drinking coffee was as adult as carrying a briefcase or ditching tea parties with my dolls for a 9-to-5 job. I would never grow up. I would never lose my sense of play. I would never drink coffee.
That all changed one winter break in Kansas when my grandmother brought my father and I to Metropolitan, her favorite local coffee shop. I peered suspiciously around the mixed room of hipsters on laptops, Amish women in knitting circles, and small children in Santa sweaters who played board games with their jovial families. My eyes caught the candy-cane dotted white board that stated today’s special: “Peppermint Mocha: A chocolatey Christmas treat with a jolt of energy!”
Whether it was the Christmas spirit or the ploy of chocolate that appealed to my sweet tooth, something sparked inside of me. I asked my grandmother sweetly, batting my pre-teen eyelids, “Can I have the special, please?”
My grandmother grinned and glanced to my father. “David, is it time for her to try coffee?” My father reciprocated her smile, and with a look of approval, stated, “It’s time.”
Much to my surprise, coffee did not cause me to feel even a day older. On the contrary, I found myself BOUNDING out of my skin and bouncing ping pong balls off our basement walls. My latte took me within minutes back to my jungle gym days. I wondered, was this why my father liked coffee?
My father has been a coffee snob for as long as I can remember, but it’s only recently that he’s taken up the art of roasting. I spoke with him on my last visit home to discover his personal story behind his passion for coffee.
Unlike my abrupt and jolting first exposure to caffeine as a pre-teen, my father, like any true Brit, has been sipping tea his whole life. He explains, “Tea is an integral part of life in Britain, it’s an alternative drink to coffee, but for me it’s less specialized… It’s just a thing that we like to do that helps us socialize and have conversations with others.”
His British heritage set the stage for coffee-drinking, but his palate for the drink was slow to develop. He continues, “I’ve been drinking coffee since college, but that was rubbish coffee. And I suppose as the surge in better coffee shops and espresso-based coffee came around, I started to enjoy things like a cappuccino.”
And thus began my father’s quest to find the perfect cappuccino. He searched far and wide for the perfect cup, visiting local roasters at each city that he journeyed to. He tortured himself with cup after cup of wet cappuccino darkened with burnt brew, served in a flimsy paper cups, and – dare I say it – sometimes even made from drip coffee (!!!) until eventually he found a few gems along the way. He states longingly, “I really enjoyed the cappuccino at Kaffee-Alchemie in Salzburg, and I really like going to Prufrock’s on Leather Lane in London – that’s got a really good atmosphere. These are places that have got highly trained baristas that care about how it’s prepared, that advocate for good coffee, that have done barista trainings, and many of them roast their own beans.”
Yet in his grueling expedition to find the world’s best cappuccino, it eventually dawned on him that perhaps he could make something tastier than any of these coffee amateurs whose half-decent creations he had subjected his overused tastebuds to. He states of his long and arduous coffee progression, “It’s gone from knowing nothing and just drinking whatever I was given to recognizing that there are good and bad ways to preparing a cappuccino to recognizing that you can do it yourself perhaps better than most places.”
My father’s second epiphany from his coffee quest was that the quality of espresso was the factor that set a bland cappuccino apart from the best. Espresso’s taste, he gathered was highly influenced by the art of roasting. He states, “I realized if you buy roasted beans, they don’t last very long. Their flavor quickly changes. So I thought the best way to get the freshest flavor would be to roast them myself.”
For his 60th birthday, my brother and I encouraged him to take the plunge into embracing his best cup by buying him a home coffee roaster to complement his Italian espresso machine. A few roasts into the process, and his coffees already taste professional. He is able to alchemize Sweet Maria's Ethiopian green beans to a smooth brew with notes of rustic dried fruits. His approach to coffee mirrors his tact as a plant biologist because, as he states, coffee roasting is a chemical process that produces color, oils, and flavors in the beans with sufficient heat. He explains, “if you think about it like a scientist, you can determine what the best roasting conditions are for a particular sort of bean.”
Nonetheless, my father won’t rest until he gets the best. He explains, critiquing his developing skillset, “The challenge seems to be in knowing when to stop the roasting process and knowing how different temperatures and different timings of roasting makes a difference… And of course, once you roast some beans, you have to let them sit a certain amount of time, and you can only taste so much coffee in one day so perhaps it will be a long process before I perfect it.”
Is the world’s best cappuccino in sight or is it simply too far over the horizon for him to taste in this lifetime? Will his hobby turn into a retirement career if he ever finally does perfect his scientific protocols? Prepare your palate for a taste of his creation and stay tuned for an update after my next visit home.