When I lived in Toronto (back when there was still factories in residential areas), I witnessed the Hershey’s Chocolate factory go up in flames.
The plant was two city blocks long, and as high as it was wide.
The smell of burning sugar mingled with the smell of the coffee roasters down the street, and on that particular day the bittersweet smell of burning chocolate combined with the smell of fresh roasted coffee.
It clung in the smog making it possible to actually taste the air.
It tasted good to me.
I was 18 years old, and since my many early morning jobs (usually in coffee shops) required me to be perky — or at least upright — I developed a keen desire for the wicked brew.
Then came the early years of drinking cup after cup of poor-grade, bitter, stomach-biting, truck-stop brews.
I often drank it alone, and often in the morning to, you know, get me going.
But as I got older, my palate grew more refined and then the trouble started: 150 grams here, 150 grams there of lovely organic beans with exotic street names like Jamaican Blue Mountain, Balinese high-test Kona and that yummy sugar-coated poison called Mocca Java.
I was an addict, running off to Kensington Market to score little black bags of Sumatran Dark, or a little tasting of Kenya AA.
Like many addicts, my income could not support my addiction, but over time I found that the tips I made serving beer or coffee could be put toward another fix of the house special at the beanery down the street.
I have worked around coffee for many years now, and I have served great cups, and truly disgusting cups (I once worked at a coffee shop that would pour the ends of all their pots into one and then microwave) and I have worked for old Italian men, who would be happy to curse you and your family for life, for serving a bad espresso.
They knew well that the ritual of making coffee is as important as the drinking of it.
So many ways, so many types of bean, so many theories (Beethoven claimed you needed 60 beans to make the perfect cup).
Over the years, my tastes have become more refined and definitely simpler. I enjoy a strong black brew with a little half and half.
And as a treat, I’ll add a double shot of espresso with a hint of whipping cream. Pure decadence.
But the one thing I know for sure, is that coffee always tastes better when someone else makes it. Which is why to this day, my favourite cup of coffee is made for me by my mother. She who scoffs all drip machines (they don’t bring the water to boil) relying, instead, on the tried-and-true method of heart-starting cowboy coffee.
I watch her patiently wait until the water comes to a boil, turn it off and chuck a generous amount of grinds into the pot. Stirring gently with a monstrous wooden spoon until she sees the colour she wants, and, presto! into my cup.
And always with a smile, which brings me to the secret ingredient for great coffee every time: The person serving you this thewy brew should make it for you with love, ’cause a little bit of the loving cup is the best way to start your day.