Snob

ChemexIt was one of those late summer afternoons when Flo invited me to come over and try Kopi Luwak. For the uninitiated: This is the kind of coffee referred to as the kaviar of coffee; it is produced by Indonesian wildcats, which snack on coffee cherries and then “extract” the beans by way of their digestive system. We had first heard about this about half a year before and had been fascinated by the idea ever since: It seemed like the single most inconvenient way of making coffee. There were pictures, none of which were pretty. But hey, if people go through this kind of trouble, there had to be something to it, right?

A friend of his finally brought a bag of this coffee from Indonesia and so we sat on his balcony, overlooked the city, and drank our coffee. It felt like having reacher the absolute pinnacle of coffee snobbery, something impossibly detached from reality. Despite costing four times as much as regular coffee, it did not taste particularly special and just confirmed the notion that many things tend to be dramatically overhyped. It just so happens that coffee is the perfect kind of thing to experiment with, something at once so accessible and complex that endless hours can be spent trying different brew methods or different roasts. People talk about the “Third Coffee Wave” and we are, by all accounts, fighting the undertow: This city is full of roasteries, each with their own coffees, specific blends, and sometimes wildly different pieces of advice. As I found out, there is no universal truth to making good coffee, it is rather a matter of trial an error. A while ago, Oliver Strand, a New York Times journalist, summarized my experience in an article that I just happened to stumble upon:

(…) I began to pay attention to how I make coffee at home. Which meant paying attention to the professionals, the vanguard of the coffee nuts driven by a sense that whatever they brew could probably be brewed better. I understand that some of you are put off by proselytizing — you want coffee, not a sermon — but where others perceive smugness and superiority, I see enthusiasm and curiosity (…)

While I fully agree with him, I never expected the effect such curiosity would have on my taste. Up until two years ago, I would only drink espresso with huge amounts of milk and settled for just about any coffee I could find. Since experimenting more and more, I like my coffee filtered, lightly roasted and carefully prepared. Recently, I was looking for coffee during lunch break when I realized that none of what was offered in the city seemed very appealing. Which presents an immediate dilemma: Have I, in search of the perfect cup, forgotten to appreciate the ordinary? Was I now the loathsome coffee snob who scoffed at those things others – to borrow one of Strand’s terms – consider a convenience?

And if this effect applies to much more than just coffee, doesn’t it ruin everything in the long run? Our tastebuds seem to get more demanding as our knowledge on the food becomes more refined. There is certainly pleasure in finding greater and greater foods, yet each new step seems to come at the expense of enjoying the ordinary. It seems that we are slowly spoiling ourselves – and the only way out would be to ignore all the variety out there.

Just when I ran out of good ideas on how to be hopeful, I received good advice from Laura, who reminded me that “the French solve this dilemma in a much better way: They simply call it ‘being a connaisseur'”. And she is right: It certainly sounds better.