How Do You Like Your Coffee?

How do you like your coffee? The question implies that there a way we like our coffee, and the possessive your emphasizes the particularity of each person’s brew. What do you take in your coffee? says that we are fixed in our additives. Very rarely does anyone respond, “Oh, I’m not fussy, just make it the way you like it.”

   My coffee-loving friends are nearly all rigid purists with regard to their coffee; indeed, they cannot really be called coffee-lovers because each of them only ever tolerates coffee served in one way. I am no different. For years, every morning, I enjoy a large mug of black coffee, poured meticulously through a number 4 filter, which I lie in bed sipping for thirty minutes while I read. The coffee has to be a rich dark roast of the Sumatran/Indonesian kind; I do not like European-style coffee, or beans from Africa or South America, and what is called “coffee” in most hotels and restaurants is either, at best, hot brown tasteless water or, at worst, thinly disguised panther piss. With coffee I do not mince my words, because the perfect mug of it is the necessary prelude to a bearable day. 

   The filter has to be Melitta, because with all other filters the coffee tends to taste too bitter, or it pours too slowly. I grind the beans myself, to exactly the desired fineness; and I spend a few moments rejoicing in the aroma of the freshly ground grains. The mug has to be porcelain and twice the size of a normal mug, because the pleasure of holding a mug of that size is part of the ritual. A paper cup will not do. The coffee has to be either Sumatran or something like the Tres Estrellas blend from Ohori’s in Santa Fe; the latter blend is of African, American, and Indonesian beans, and has a complex, fruity taste that brings out the dark bliss of the Indonesian bean. Long ago I used to drink this straight, and it struck me then as more than sufficiently sweet; then I added two teaspoons of brown or cane sugar (because white sugar tastes harsh to me); and then I replaced the sugar with two teaspoons of raw honey (because processed honey has a thin, shallow sweetness). This mug of coffee has to be perfect, partly because it is usually the only coffee I will drink during the day. And it has to be strong — with a strength equal to about three extra shots of espresso in your latté. This black, potent density is purely for the jolt of taste and has almost no physiological effect on me (unlike strong tea, which does keep me awake at night). When everything is right, including the rhythm of the pouring and the imbibing, I can inwardly declare my day to have started off on the right footing; if anything is wrong, I go through the day feeling slightly off-kilter. 

   It did not seem possible for my one daily mug of coffee to be improved upon, but a month ago I discovered coconut oil: one teaspoon of this celestial balm brings a soft, caressing quality to the morning brew, deepening the taste, making the honey more honied and the coffee more coffeed. This addition has perfected the morning brew, and coffee is now unimaginable without it. But why did it take me so long to discover it? — when for decades I have read about cultures in which coffee and tea are both taken with coconut or butter, both of which carry health benefits and, so they claimed, make everything taste better. In South India, I had a cup of sharp local coffee brewed with honey, ginger, and pepper; and “milk coffee” flavored with cardamom, turmeric, and cinnamon. I enjoyed both, but left to myself, I still brew the same old mug. Why would a normally inquisitive person, who likes experimenting, stick so stubbornly with his one hyper-fastidious way of concocting coffee?

   I am not narrow-minded about other drinks. I will drink any fruit juice, and my partiality for fresh-squeezed orange juice means that I embrace the taste-du-jour; oranges of every kind are good and interesting. I consider myself to have good taste in beer, and while I loathe and despise the anemic commercial dribble that has no taste but only an aftertaste, the kinds of beer that people drink as thirst-quenchers, the beers that I have liked number in the hundreds and include about a dozen different types. With wine, I am a curious novice who enjoys tasting almost anything…The list goes on: with food generally, I am open-minded and find delight in the different ways people prepare my favorite dishes. All of this makes it even more perplexing why I have been so inflexible regarding coffee.

   To say that I “have developed a habit” of drinking my coffee only one way is not an answer but just another rephrasing of the question. Where do habits like this come from? Certainly, the same action undertaken at the same time and place every day for years must make some kind of “groove” in the neural system such that change becomes difficult — but why does a specific habit form in the first place, when an individual’s tastes in other things are not so inflexible? We know that it is possible for an ingrained habit to change overnight as a result of a thought — for example, when an eater of pork learns about how pigs are treated and can no longer stomach eating them, or when a heavy drinker witnesses the disgusting excesses of an abusive alcoholic relative and from that time on never feels any desire for liquor, or when after a divorce a person drops all the daily rituals he engaged in during the marriage. A habit like my coffee-habit is thus likely to have its roots in a mental action, but what does that mean?

   We all have detailed rituals for beginning a day and ending it. Our ritual before going to bed — in which brushing teeth, changing, reading, and positioning the pillows have to take place in a definite order — actually determines whether we are able to sleep or not. The wake-up ritual has the power to affect our mood for the rest of the day — which includes not just mental alertness and physical buoyancy, but also the moral emotions of generosity, kindness, and friendliness. The wake-up ritual affects who we are for that day and is thus a crucial part of our daily self-composition.

   We are constantly self-composing; in fact, what I think of as myself, a noun, is really a continuous activity of self-making, which mostly consists of the assertion of preferences through which we differentiate ourselves from everyone else and create a unique identity that stands out against the confused intermingling of phenomena. The self-making activity is carried out below the threshold of consciousness; in Sanskrit and Pali there is a term for it, ahamkara (“I-making”), because the early Indian philosophers became aware, through introspection, of the self as a formation in process. We can watch small children developing their identities through “liking” this or “not liking” that; many children are so picky in their preferences that they will agree to eat not just Mac and Cheese but only one specific version of it. Inevitably, industrial food-manufacturers make millions from individual consumers’ identification with brand-name foods: there are “Coke people” and “Pepsi people,” for instance. Clever marketers will strive to associate their products with attractive character traits, because they know that what they are selling is a personality or self-image. Coca-Cola people are happy and sociable, and they seem to like dancing and team-sports. Much marketing is therefore directed at children or teens, who have the most intense self-making urges. 

   People can be vehement about their tastes. Thus, as a proud connoisseur of the genuine article, I will not be “caught dead” drinking instant coffee — although if I find myself in an instant-coffee-drinking country, such as England or India, I will happily drink the coffee that is offered to me. Vehemence about taste is not based on reason or physiology but in the felt need for self-differentiation. We can see this writ large in cultural attitudes towards other cultures’ foods, which is most commonly “distaste.” Yet we all know that if we had been brought up in Iceland, we would not turn our noses up at Singed and Boiled Sheep Head, or Ram’s Testicles; and if we were born in Japan we wouldn’t find natto (fermented soy beans) repulsively smelly. The point is that the root of taste is not in our sense organs or in the food itself, but in our complex self-making activity.

    This activity never stops.  Since a self is not a thing that exists independently of its circumstances, our sense of self has to be maintained continually. Our external world is always changing, and our bodies are always surprising us; our internal world undergoes more thoroughgoing changes, composed as it is of perceptions, thoughts, and emotions that never cease to move. I might love black Sumatran coffee with raw honey and coconut oil now, but a year ago I did not lament the absence of coconut oil, ten years ago the brew tasted great without any sweetener, twenty years ago a normal mug of fresh-brewed coffee was a treat, and thirty years ago I knew only Maxwell House instant coffee. There will be some point in the future when I cease to drink my coffee with coconut oil.

    In each variation of my morning brew, the money I pay for my taste goes out to sustain an entire system that grows and gathers my coffee beans, roasts it, transports it, stores it, advertises it, and sells it. Because I like this coffee and must have it, I make sure that there is a world that produces it and delivers it to my mug. The same applies to my honey, coconut oil, mug, kettle, grinder, filters, plastic filter cone, electricity, and water — all of which, like the coffee beans, are the results of human activity and the economic, political resources that enable the activity. Thus I have made a world in my own image, to reflect and support my tastes. Self-making is also world-making. What I am tasting in my morning brew is the whole world as it manifests in a mug of coffee made for me, and I am sure that unconsciously this is an essential part of the pleasure of insisting on and getting my mug of coffee.

   All of this is equally of true of my other tastes — in clothing, health and cosmetic products, the furnishings of my house, my car and prefered gas stations, the venues of my social life, my devices, my books and entertainment media, and so on. Each preference does its part in creating a world that reflects me. What about my chosen activities, relationships, and work? With a little reflection, even those things are essentially like my morning mug of Sumatra brewed with honey and coconut oil. Only the families we are born into and the ones we give birth to are free of our self-making, because they are the only people we do not choose according to our preferences, and because in them we are forced to be with people we would otherwise not choose — who annoy us, exasperate us, and make us weep with their intransigence. We should be grateful for our difficult families, because without them we would be trapped in a human world made of our preferences. Our family gives us the friction necessary for sanity, and we give them the same painful benefit.

   Meanwhile, I nurse my mug of Sumatran as I wake up to the world, my world, on my own civilized terms. Since I now know that my tastes are malleable and my personality not fixed, I feel free of the need to have coffee prepared this way, and might well start drinking it next week with ginger, honey, and pepper. Or would this be identifying with a new image of myself as coffee connoisseur, roaming the town in search of new tastes? Could I even just return to a simple cup of unadulterated black coffee? Or water? But if water, which would be my prefered brand? Would tap water ever be sufficient?