I have had a half a dozen utterly unimpeachable, perfect cups of coffee--maybe fewer. These cups have become my measure of coffee, the ideals that all other coffees are held to. The best cup of my recent memory I had at Kopplin's Coffee in the Twin Cities. Kopplins, using some ridiculously expensive coffee machine called a Clover and employing baristas with upper-level research degrees in coffee preparation, makes a perfectly smooth and welcome cup of coffee that presents the taste of coffee beans with the same deceptively easy grace with which a great chef presents the taste of a cut of steak: the art is not in disguising, mixing, or melding the taste of the thing at hand, but in drawing the taste out, forcing you to taste the essential flavors. The next best cup of coffee I remember came from a neighborhood cafe in Seinna. The cafe was a loud, sweaty, congenial place, and I was a bit of a regular. I remember one lunch rush I tried to pay with a large bill and the barista yelled at me and waved me away, giving me the coffee on the house because he had no time to make me change. It was a cappuccino. I must've been about fifteen. And I remember that first sip as the taste that I am always looking for when I get coffee, the perfect coffee moment, tinged with equal parts embarrassment and joy.
What I have realized over the past week or so, though, is that even the mediocre, daily coffee that I have been used to is really actually very good, on the grand world-wide continuum of good and bad coffee. For all America's venality and shittiness, it sure can make a good cup of coffee. Here in Korea, when you ask for coffee you get, not some concoction brewed from ground coffee beans, but instant coffee, with lots of sugar and fake cream. This is everywhere you go, from fancy restaurants to places that are presumably cafes to the local gas station. And it is not some nation-wide monoculture of bad coffee, either: there is a lot of variation into the kind of bad coffee, I imagine whole industries devoted to the perversion and desecration of my favorite drink. The most common offense comes in the form of little plastic sachets, individually portioned with a mixture of sugar instant coffee and fake cream, that you empty into a cup of hot water, leading to a thin, joyless caffeine and fat delivery system. But I have also, in this brief week, sampled coffee partitioned out into tea bags and left to steep for five minutes, making a bitter, joyless coffee tea, and I have encountered brewed coffee left to heat for half an hour or more, resulting in a thick, joyless, coffee-like sludge, which is the closest to real coffee I have come; I have also swallowed my pride and bought--from the local supermarket--a joyless and unholy cup of Starbucks-branded 'espresso' that tastes closer to a cocktails of bitterness and capitalism than it tastes to the fare of my local and beloved cafes back in America.
But addiction is addiction, and still I buy coffee. And still, that inaugural sip first thing in the morning, that sip that coalesces reality around me, that ushers in every subsequent productive and un-productive moment, the sip that tells me that I am indeed alive--even when it's bad coffee, it's still the single most lovely part of my day.