Sunday, January 08, 2012


From that first goat who ate the 'magical beans' in Ethiopia nearly a thousand years ago, people have understood the greatness of coffee. It was seen in the Muslim world as an acceptable alternative to alcohol, and enjoyed a long, storied history before being brought to Europe by early traders.

Georg Frantz Koltschitzky, for one, is considered a hero by the people of Vienna for his actions at the 1683 Battle of Vienna. According to a popular legend, he opened the first café in the city, using coffee beans left by the retreating Ottoman Turks.

My own discovery of coffee was much less exciting, and came much later in life than one would think, given my fanaticism. See, I was raised in a household that outwardly did not seem so English, but retained the most civilized of traditions, the love of tea.

As a child with moderate asthma, sweetened hot tea was one of the things my Mom could give me late at night that would clear my lungs and allow me to breathe. From those practical origins, my tea ritual was already well developed by the time I was an early teen. I still love a good hot cup of Tetley, with milk, not cream, and no sugar.

Looking back, I think I've narrowed down the time frame during which coffee supplanted tea as my caffeine delivery system. After I studied at Concordia, and very shortly after I moved to the Plateau of Montreal, I had a crush on a young artist named Rose. On one of our first walks together, she took me to a Belgian chocolate and pastry shop, and then across the street to a french cafe called Porte Disparu. (or, "Reported Missing" - fitting for what Coffee shops would do to me the rest of my life.)

View from my first apartment.
My friendship with Rose lasted only a year or so, and I never did go back to the cafe, but the cafe-au-lait that I had there was exquisite, and led to my ordering one at a little Italian coffee bar called the Olympico. This little sports bar is farther north on the Plateau, on Waverly and St. Viature, and is known to locals as 'Open Da Night' because of the half removed sign over the door. ("Open Day and Night" had been painted on the glass years earlier when it had been a depanneur, or corner store, and they began scraping it off with a razor, but never finished.)

My first plateau apartment, which has since burned down.
I quickly became a fixture at Open Da Night, not just because it was cheap, but also because the coffee there, done right, became the benchmark for great coffee for me. I can say with the confidence of an eight year quest that it is by far the best coffee in the city. It had undertones of caramel, and not too much froth, served in glasses, not mugs, and they even stirred the sugar in for me, as they still do. Also for a few dollars, I could get hours of writing done out of the cold and nobody ever questioned my being there for long periods of time.

My roommate Tanja in our little kitchen, ca. 1995

In our tiny apartment, and broke, doing theatre, I dug out an old glass percolator that had been left me by my grandmother. It made great coffee, but making it at home I was never able to replicate that espresso flavour. Steam takes so much more from the grinds, and leaves the bitterness. It is fuller, and richer, and when mixed with milk gives a much better roundness, for complete coffee.

My roommate Sam smashed the coffee pot in petty bitterness one day just before I moved out, and I nearly cried, more for where it had come from than for anything. I still never forgave her.

I left Montreal for a time, and after writing my first novel, found myself in Toronto. Just down the street from my apartment was the stretch of College that is packed with coffee bars, old Italian men huddling around a tiny television drinking espresso and complaining about politics, sports, and their wives. At that time, I used a french press at home, and my new roommate and long-time best friend Christopher liked his coffee as strong and bold as motor oil. He would drink cup after cup every day, where I could only handle a cup or two. It was here that he introduced me to a love of coffee brewed at home, a way of sampling different types, and making them right, that I've continued to this day.

Just after 2000, I moved to Los Angeles, and was unable to find a connection to any small, family run coffee houses. I discovered Starbucks out of necessity, as at that time there were few places to get actual espresso coffee, and that dependance on the chain came with me back to Belleville when I returned, and the newly opened Starbucks in the Quinte Mall. I have been a regular there since.

Riding a bike on Venice Beach

For Christmas 2002, my (now ex) wife bought me a Starbucks Saeco espresso machine. Now ten years old, it still works brilliantly. I calculated that over the years I have saved about $13,000 in lattes. And I make it the way I want it. Of course, I still go to Starbucks, because espresso machines make a lot of noise early in the morning, and cafe's always offer a comfortable place to get in out of the cold, and not the least of reasons, is that the people are great when you need good conversation.

Here is a progression of a home-brew latte in my house:

Good beans make good coffee.
These beans are Costa Rican, and roasted by my father in law in his basement. The fresher, the better, and these were probably about two days old when I ground them. I then put them through a burr grinder, as blade grinders can go too fast, causing friction that then scorches the beans and seals the flavour in.

The grounds lightly tamped into the cup.

Milk frothed. I go by sound now, rather than temperature.

Mmmmm goodness.

As with everything in life, there may be a set of rough guidelines for preparing good coffee, but it all comes down to taste. I have my favourite ways of drinking it just as anyone else does. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy a good cup of tea, but for me, the love affair with coffee will be lifelong.

My wife, Jennifer's, blog can be found here:
Cleverly Disguised as Cake

And my first novel, squeakyclean, here:
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