I love coffee. I always have. Even as a child, coffee had a strange attraction for me. Though I wasn’t allowed more than a sip or two for fear that it would stunt my growth, something which clearly did not occur, I loved everything about it. I can easily recall trips to our local java shop to pick up the week’s freshly roasted beans, still warm and fragrant. I’d walk home, clutching the bag to my chest, delighting in the rich aroma rising in the air to tantalize my senses, taunting me with the promise of the dark, forbidden nectar locked within.
After dinner most nights, with the kettle on the cooker, filter cone folded for the Chemex, an old manual grinder filled with the proper measure of beans would make its journey round the table as many times as necessary, everyone having a few turns until the ritual was complete. The grounds were tapped from its light maple drawer into the filter, then water just off the boil was swirled over them, and the delicious liquor would first trickle slowly and then drip into the glass flask, each drop dancing enthusiastically as it landed on the surface below until the brew was ready to be shared.
It was inevitable that the ritual of coffee, as much as the fluid itself, would follow me through life. When I went out on my own, I bought my first French press and my own grinder, and was well set on a path of coffee exploration. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before a new acquaintance, a self-styled member of a burgeoning movement of the coffee cognoscenti, told me I was “doing it all wrong,” that if I was ever to become a true connoisseur, I’d have to forgo my childish fascination with darker roasts, and seek out only exotic single origins beans, roasted to perfection, just enough to bring out each variety’s exotic nuances. And, that grinder would never do! It’s whirling blade didn’t actually grind the beans, but pulverized them into an inconsistent muddle of particles totally unsuited to the extraction of the more delicate flavor compounds.
And so it began. I bought a spendy burr grinder, a new Chemex flask and a box of unbleached filter rounds. I began frequenting smaller roasteries, expanding my exploration to reach every new coffee I could find, from every part of the globe it was grown. (I still remember one particular batch of Sumatra Mandheling from a small roaster in Berkeley, an experience that has never since been duplicated.)
I started researching the best water temperatures and grind size for different brewing methods. I used filtered water. I experimented with vacuum pots, all the various stove-top contrivances, different filter cones and materials. At one point, I constructed my own apparatus, a temperature controlled hot plate to heat the water to precisely the correct temperature, found through experimentation, bubbling it evenly over the waiting grounds. I learned how to “cup.” I took notes of all the different aromas and flavors I’d detect in each new coffee, each new preparation. I became, for a while, truly obsessed.
It was fun, of course; this is just the sort of avocation that is well-suited to my temperament. For years, I chased the perfect cup, often coming close, but never quite reaching it. Through all this, there was just one troublesome little problem. Even though I was wildly enjoying the process, I wasn’t often enjoying the results. Fact is, I missed my dark, pungent French roast.
If you’re into coffee, you’ll know that there’s a fairly negative association surrounding the darker roasts. Search the interwebs, and you’ll soon discover all the reasons you should avoid the stuff, that dark roasts are employed to mask off-flavors of inferior beans, that they have no “unique coffee taste,” lacking the “fruits and flowers” of lighter roasts, and, in the apparently rare case when good beans are used, the dark roasting ruins them, obscuring all the subtle notes of the beans and their complex sensory profiles behind the roast itself, leaving little behind but an earthy, smoky, bitter taste some call charred, others ashy. Some of this may be true, of course, and if you’re the cork-sniffing sort, it might even be something that matters a lot to you, but if, like me, you like a deep dark roast, who dares to say you’re wrong?
And, there’s the rub. I like the dark, chocolatey, smoky aromas and flavors of a good French roast, brewed in a press pot, or a Chemex, or my faithful, well used Bialetti Moka. It makes me happy, and that’s what really matters. I still enjoy exploring the fancy beans wearing lighter robes, but my first love is the dusky stuff, and no one should dictate what we should or should not enjoy.
But, what’s this got to do with pipes and tobacco? The other day, whilst enjoying my morning cup, an old pipe smoking friend rang up, squawking over the fact that he’d recently learned he’s been doing it wrong all these years. He’d apparently read a schooner load of commentary from the interweb pundits, and came to the realization that if he’s ever going to be a “real” pipe smoker (he’s had a pipe in his gob for more years than many of the “influencers” have not had a binky in theirs), he should be stoking his pipes only with the purest of tobaccos of a particular type, that everything else is for amateurs. Sound familiar? He’s tried many of these tobaccos more than once, often at my suggestion, and just hasn’t found much joy in them. He likes his sweet, aromatic blends, and he likes his cobs. So, he called to rant for a bit, and solicit whatever counsel I might offer, which set my mind meandering along the winding road of my own journey with tobacco, and with the dark French roast coffee in my cup. I’ve known this guy for a long time, have become familiar with his tastes, and know that he’s ultimately not likely to change anything.
“You want my advice? Keep smoking what you enjoy, explore outside your comfort zone when temptation or curiosity grabs hold of you. And, screw the reviews.” I wish someone had told me that about coffee all those years ago.
(Photos: Gregory L. Pease)
Gregory L. Pease's Pipe Smoking lifestyle meanderings for November 2021