Coffee has always been a part of my life. My first recollections of this life-sustaining substance are from a young and tender age when my parents taught me to use the coffeemaker on Saturday mornings. I would get up freakishly early to watch cartoons, and my parents decided to cash in on my childhood dedication to animation. By teaching me to make coffee, they benefited by having their coffee waiting when they staggered out of bed hours later. Yes, I was the first automatic coffee timer in our household.
It wasn't until many years into adulthood when I stumbled into a brand new, family owned and operated independent, neighborhood coffeehouse in early 2005, when the revelation hit. I discovered I never knew I didn't know what good, really good coffee was. I was shocked. I had been at the mercy of grocery stores, Starbucks, and similar outlets my entire life. I knew bad coffee when I had it, that's a no brainer. Everyone knows bad coffee when they get it, but good coffee? I had no idea what I'd been missing all those years.
I'd been working for a local, community newspaper and was searching for new story ideas when I came into this new coffeehouse - which I'd only noticed the week before. Where had that bright, yellow "coffee" sign come from? Last time I'd noticed the building had been an abandoned frame shop. Now it was Panther City Coffee Company. I went in with my mother one evening after work and came out with a great story of this locally-owned, family business and discovered a whole new universe opening up before me.
What I didn't know until I researched and wrote the story was that I was completely coffee illiterate. And, frankly, I'll come out and admit it, I was not just illiterate. I was coffee ignorant. In my experience coffee came in three forms: whole bean, ground, and brewed. Usually in a bag or can from the grocery store, in whatever brand was cheapest. If I was feeling particularly financially flush, or there was a great sale, I occasionally bought bulk coffee from Starbucks or another similar retailer.
Coffee wasn't like meat - which I know doesn't come shrink-wrapped from the supermarket but from the cute, fuzzy animals - it came from Juan Valdez and his decrepit donkey. Right? I didn't think about it any further than that. I didn't have a clue about what it went through to get to me, or how old the coffee was when it did get to me. Coffee was coffee was coffee. Right? Boy was I wrong. Way wrong. Very, very wrong. Juan Valdez fooled me!
What I discovered in the course of my story, you see, is that Panther City Coffee Company's the only coffeehouse in the Dallas/Fort Worth area known to roast their own beans on-site. Really? So that explained the unusual smell had been in the neighborhood since the shop opened. The smell of roasting beans, though not as heady as a bakery, is not an unpleasant thing.
Nor did I realize until I interviewed the general manager and resident roaster, that coffee beans went stale after only two, measly, weeks, or that once ground, coffee goes stale in about 20 minutes. I was stunned. I was floored. I had no idea. I'd had longer relationships with bags and varieties of coffee than I had with some men in my life. And, frankly, until this point, I hadn't cared. I knew nothing! Nothing, I tell you.
Until I stumbled into Panther City Coffee Co., coffee was preferably hot. It was also black. It was usually better - to me, anyway - with cream and sugar, even though I often drink it completely unadorned. Occasionally I would indulge in some specialty drink, but, again, only if there was a really good sale or someone else was buying. And while I was working with my father, it generally arrived through the drive-thru from a Starbucks on the way to somewhere else. However, after only a few short visits to my neighborhood java oasis, I now knew there was difference between good coffee and everything else. There is more to coffee than "bold" and "mild" coffee-of-the-day. Really, there is!
My geographical knowledge has also grown, if only to identify which continent or global area certain beans come from. I also understand that Sulawesi, Mogiana, Tanzanian Peaberry, and Harar not only come from different parts of the world but are different varieties of coffee bean with different roasting processes for different flavors. Columbia Supremo is dark, while Mexican Altura is mild, and Brazilian Mogiana (a personal favorite) fools you by being a darker roasted mild coffee. I was thrilled have been able to watch the roasting process while given a history lesson in how coffee was discovered by dancing goats in Ethiopia. Gotta love the dancing goats!
My world opened up. My horizons expanded. I found it difficult to go back to drinking coffee where I couldn't see the roasting date actually on the bag so I know it's between two days - because fresh roasted has to age that long to be drinkable - and two weeks old. And I fully realized the horror - not just a cost-effective travesty, but an actual horror) of what hotels try to pawn off on unsuspecting travelers as coffee - or as I refer to it now, coffee-like substances. Those pre-packaged things in hotel bathrooms are just EVIL. I knew before that I shouldn't be able to see through the coffee to the bottom of the cup, but now the very thought of consuming such a brew gives me the screaming willies.
And now that I know what I didn't before, there is no turning back. The grocery store coffee aisle is anathema to me now unless it's for filters or other non-coffee products. I no longer look to Starbucks as my morning jolt of alertness. I have discovered honest-to-goodness fresh-roasted, fresh-brewed, coffee and there is no going back. I have been spoiled by the riches provided by this coffee shop salvation - and since they roast on-site I can take home bulk bags for home use on those rare days I can't make it by the store itself.
And because I am able to take good coffee home in bulk, I can also share my new-found awareness with others. I have discovered in the course of the months that I have been made aware of my coffee shortcomings, that I am not alone in my unenlightenment. Others have said the same thing to me. Until Panther City Coffee Company came along, they had no idea what they were missing. We now have a responsibility to bring others out the Instant Coffee Hell into the light of Glorious Caffeine.
I've survived two out-of-town convention trips on hotel coffee-like substances, and have dragged myself into other outlets in desperation, but not again, if at all possible. My next hotel trip will see me doing the Billy Crystal schtick from City Slickers where I take my own grinder and beans. The withdrawal from good coffee is just too painful to contemplate on a regular basis. Besides, I take my duty to educate and enlighten fellow coffee drinkers seriously. Coffee - as with fine wine - is, indeed an educational process. How will others know, if no one teaches them?
I have taken up the cause, the grinder, and the bulk beans I saw roasted only two days ago, and I am going forth. Good coffee should not be a shock and surprise to discover, though it is a joy to behold once it has been. And I, for one, am a much happier person for having been so enlightened. Nor am I alone in my crusade. Locally, there are others - internationally traveling professors and professionals who claim they've found the best espresso outside of Europe to high school students just starting their coffee-drinking lives. Others also call my favorite coffeehouse home - many after only one or two visits, and they, too, have taken up the cause.
The lure of the best coffee in the metropolitan area has driven others to go above and beyond the call of strict customer-loyalty duty. To keep our coffee supply coming, patrons of this old-fashioned, please-stay-around, too-Bohemian-for-some-people, coffeehouse have voluntarily washed dishes, gone forth to do guerilla marketing - informing the proprietors after the fact of what they'd done - and even donating money to replace what was lost in a break in. They've even banned others of their own kind for acts of blatant stupidity which would've jeopardized the longevity of their caffeine supply.
I've never seen that happen in any other retail outlet - coffee or otherwise. It's all because of the superior product. Good coffee calls to good people. And that, I think, may be the greatest revelation of all.
See Rhonda's work featured in More Stories That Won't Make Your Parents Hurl; Fundamentally Challenged; Sinister Sleuths; Cyber Oasis; two stories in the Charles Grant Charity Anthology, Small Bites; and the March issue of Apex Digest Online. She was a writer with the Fort Worth Tribune and has stories in the upcoming anthologies: International House of Bubbas and Panic- check out her website - RhondaEudaly.com - for the links.