I was taken to a former bar turned coffee shop on the west side of Chicago. I had just turned 30-something years old, and it had been decided for me that I needed to start drinking joe, mud, go juice, the morning thunder that commonly starts many of your days.
I shimmied in between two high-back chairs to flag down a bartender. The varnish on the oak bar top was buffed to a shine from countless resting elbows. The walls were painted a burnt orange, and with reflecting string lights the room was enveloped in a sunset glow evoking a fine dive bar. Growlers for cold brew, bags of beans and fancy coffee syrups lined high shelves in front of a mirror.
“Excuse me. What would you recommend for a first coffee?” I asked.
“First coffee of the day, well…” the bartender replied.
“No. First coffee, um, ever.” I said. He squinted taking in my beard and the beginnings of laugh lines around my eyes.
“How old are you?” he asked, and then began the process figuring out how to introduce me to this complex drink. Within moments a half-dozen shop employees were shouting and shaking their heads as they each tried to guide me.
The argument ended when the head roaster wandered in from his shop, and said, “Start by drinking it black and keep drinking your coffee black until you know what you like. Only then should you start adding flavors…or whiskey.”
The shop employees nodded. Their guru had spoken. I committed-medium roast, French press, black. That first cup tasted chocolatey, nutty and had a hint of some unidentified sweetness. It was the beginning of my love affair with coffee.
The first coffee experience can be critical. As a kid, I ate a coffee-flavored hard candy thinking it was a root beer barrel. The unexpected bitterness prevented me from drinking coffee for decades. I reached out to some of our local coffee roasters to as them what advice they would give to first-time drinkers today.
From Matt Delarosa at Ironsmith Coffee Roasters in Encinitas, “Coffee doesn’t need to taste bad or too bitter. When going somewhere and the coffee tastes too bitter its probably done incorrectly, and don’t mistake that experience with, ‘That’s just how coffee tastes.'”
Coffee should be sweet and balanced. Bitterness is an essential component of that balance so a little bitterness is good, but overall, the experience should leave with you something that is somewhat sweet and lingering.
I would recommend a cappuccino for someone looking to try coffee for the first time. It’s a good ratio of espresso to milk (of your choice), and isn’t too overwhelming [with] coffee or milk. If you’re are looking to go right at it, try a cup of coffee first, and see if you can tolerate it without adding milk or sugar.”
Steve Rayle, owner of Zumbar Coffee & Tea in Cardiff and Sorrento Valley mentioned the learning process saying, “Small-batch artisan roasters devote time and attention to their craft. That’s a great place to start learning about nuances in flavors and characteristics of specialty coffee. Another aspect of coffee that can pique the interest of new coffee drinkers is the origin of the bean: geography, terroir, producer (farm) and method of processing. It’s eye-opening and allows you to appreciate what goes into each cup.”
Both roasters deliver or ship for those wanting fresh beans. Zumbar was already shipping coffee by mail and saw a jump in orders when the pandemic hit.
Full disclosure: I’m one of those who started ordering two-pound bags of their Hummingbird roast. Ironsmith began delivering retail size bags as well which Matt found uplifting in a time of turmoil for us all.
“April and March were months where people really stayed home, and being able to bring coffee to customers was something special…at times I found myself deep into Escondido or in Santee and Chula Vista. It was really great seeing how far people knew about Ironsmith. Really thankful for everyone who ordered and supported us.”
I didn’t understand what I was committing to when I drank the first sip so many years ago, but as I sit here sipping on a fine cup of joe I know I’m grateful I took the leap.