Coffee — good coffee — is an integral part of the PhD process for me. We’ve all heard the cliche “life is too short to drink bad coffee.” As cliches go, I don’t mind this one. I mean, cliches didn’t start out as cliches, after all.* For me, however, this little saying misses half the point of good coffee. By ‘good,’ of course, we mean all sorts of things, from the quality of the green bean, the region it came from, whether the farmer got a fair price, to the end product that is poured down our gaping maws. It truly astounds me when I see people who will drink just any hot brown liquid that someone describes as coffee. Moving me beyond astonishment are those annoying prats who light-heartedly describe their coffee addiction as though it were something they earned rather than a byproduct of their over consumption. There’s a certain panache to really, truly good coffee that is lost on people who claim dependance on this drink yet don’t know, or worse, don’t care much about what it is they’re drinking. I should know, I used to be one of them.
In a former life, I was a salesman. I sold everything from building supplies, to alarm clocks that didn’t work, to men’s suits. I drank coffee like everyone else. Usually from whatever place was handy. And in Canada, this means Tim Horton’s. I would adulterate the coffee with cream and sugar because, for the amount of it I drank, I really didn’t like the taste, I just knew coffee was something people drank and I desperately wanted to be part of the adult masses. I quit drinking coffee for a little while after I realized how ridiculous it was to do something you didn’t really like just because, but I still offered to go on coffee runs for coworkers so I could get out of work for a little while.
I didn’t start drinking coffee again until Starbucks began gaining a real foothold in Canada. I wasn’t drinking coffee per se, but rather their sugary and whipped creamy concoctions masquerading as coffee. I didn’t begin drinking actual coffee until a few years after that when I lived in Australia. Not that their coffee chains were much better than ours, but I had discovered the simple pleasure of the espresso shot. Even a bad espresso shot isn’t all that bad in comparison to most chain stores’ regular coffee. I lived in a small town in Australia and got to know a local cafe owner who made me my first flat white. From that point onward, I knew that this was an important drink and would be crucial to my success.
I began modestly, seeking out independent cafes and preferring them over chain stores. While Starbucks and their ilk get top marks for consistency across their stores, it really equates to nothing when it is consistently bad. I had a great time trying all sorts of coffee shops in Sydney and Melbourne and watching the artistry involved in making something worthwhile putting into my body. This became the standard by which I would judge all coffee: had enough care and attention to detail been taken to deem this something I would be willing to ingest?
After moving back to Vancouver, I learned that I was still a coffee amateur and, again, had the same experience of sourcing good local coffee shops to learn as much as I could by drinking as much good coffee as I could. Then I began to tinker a little bit with brewing my own. I started off with a simple over-the-cup Asian-style brewer, then a Turkish pot, then a fully automatic espresso machine. This latter was the first time I had been able to buy whole beans and it changed my life. I then went with french press and eventually Aeropress before I invested in a real manual espresso machine and a decent grinder. This is where I am today, happily adjusting my grind daily and learning the fine arts of tamping and frothing milk to try and emulate some of the better cups I’ve had over the years.
Now, to the title of this post, coffee’s role in my PhD. What I learned in my quest to drink and, eventually, make the best coffee is that the process and rituals involved are just as important as the end result. When I’m having a particularly bad time of doing academic work, I can always go and tinker with the various coffee devices I have acquired. There’s a soothing and a satisfaction involved in getting the grind just right or ensuring the water doesn’t boil over. Then, when all the grinding, tamping, boiling, frothing, and whatnot is over with, I go back to my work with a newfound sense of accomplishment and I actually feel better. I am not dependent on coffee or caffeine in the same way that those I describe above are. Rather, I am dependent on doing things right and actually enjoying the fruits of my labour. Coffee, and good coffee especially, is not a passive experience. I learned this somewhat abruptly and embarrassingly during a stop at a cafe in Victoria, BC on my way to catch a bus. I asked for a cortado to go. The barista refused. Confused I said, sarcastically, thinking this was a little game, “Please?” to which he replied: “No. If you want that you will have it in a glass, sit here, and drink it. Like an adult.” A little on the nose, I thought, but he was absolutely right. How could I even begin to enjoy the slightly sour milk taste and the richness of the nutty coffee in a paper cup running to catch a bus. Now, coffee is a relaxation technique for me. That guy’s pretentiousness solidified the fact that it’s okay to miss a bus every now and then.
*I wonder what Churchill would think of this bullshit nowadays.