The Nescafe Years
In the beginning…
Being a child of the late 70s and early 80s, I grew up in a household that typically knew coffee as that gritty stuff that comes in a jar of Nescafe. My Dad would drink two cups every morning, and he practiced a time honoured technique and measurement system that gave him a consistent cuppa joe.
Like most kids, I wanted to emulate my parents in various manners, and when I was finally allowed to have my own cup of coffee on a regular basis, (around the age of 13-14) I was ecstatic. Yet another little step into manhood, it was. And boy, was it a tough step! Those first cuppas stank! I did all that I could to avoid wincing but my Dad, witnessing this event, barely stifled a grin as he saw my birth into the caffeine world.
Like a lot of things, coffee is an acquired taste. After the first few weeks, I could tolerate a cuppa (thank the stars for peer pressure and "face", or I would have quit after the first drink!), and within a month or two, I can honestly say I enjoyed it. My Dad made it strong, sweet and with milk. I grew accustomed to it and I even started to look forward to it.
My Nescafe experience continued unabated until the time I graduated from University and went to Europe. Then a series of atomic bombs dropped on me:
- Boom: I had my first cafe au lait.
- Boom: I had my first cappuccino
- Boom: I had my first espresso. A real one!
- Boom: I had my first Viennese coffee
- Boom: I had my first ibrik coffee
- Boom: I discovered coffee as a social beverage
Two years is a long time and I indulged quite a bit during that time in Europe. I had so many varieties of coffee, I was amazed that something I knew as Nescafe my whole life could be so tasty, so diverse and so intense. Sharing an ibrik of coffee with Turkish friends was an experience of a lifetime. Sharing espressos with people from all five continents was life changing. Sharing little doppios with people who didn't speak any language I spoke was thrilling.
But best of all, I was opened up to a culinary delight that I never new existed. Coffee, in all its forms, is something truly delicious. I didn't need to acquire a taste for it - it was a taste that acquired you, when done well. Best of all, it's one of the most social beverages on the planet - much more so than alcohol. Coffee was the great greeter, the great conversation starter and ultimately the most amazing friend-maker.
Back in CanadaLand
So I got back to Canada, and I couldn't handle Nescafe any longer. After seeing a demonstration at the Bay, I bought myself a Bodum press pot and I started buying beans at the local IGA and at a local coffee bean roasting place. Drinking Bodum coffee was quite an eye opener for me - coffee could be good in the home! I quickly built up a ritual around the Bodum press pot with my friends, and the "afternoon coffee" became a daily thing to look forward to.
But I was still missing something. The press pot coffee taste was good, but not nearly as good as I remembered it. Initially, I put it off to the atmosphere... as in the coffee simply tasted better when I was sitting in a cafe off of Rivoli Boulevard. Sitting in my parents' kitchen wasn't quite the same.
Looking back I realize now that atmosphere did play a huge part in the "taste", but back then in those pre internet days I also realized that maybe, just maybe, grocery store beans didn't quite cut it. I remembered hazy discussions about fresh roast, fresh ground, fresh something. One thing I didn't know about (at the time) was the difference between robusta and arabica. In fact, I don't think I even heard those words by that point in my life.
Even though my knowledge of the bean was limited, I did figure out I needed a grinder. And I needed to find a better supply of beans than those available at my local grocer. I went to the Hudson's Bay Co. and bought myself a little Braun blade grinder - the type that is a single chamber and a whirring steel blade. I found a local coffee shop on Preston Street in Ottawa (little Italy, or "the village" to those in the know) that sold expensive and aromatic coffee beans. I went ahead and indulged.
After working out the abilities of the little Braun grinder I got my partial wish... the french press coffee I made was nearly equal to the stuff I enjoyed so much in Europe. I also figured out pretty quick I could froth milk with the Bodum, so I would make myself big bowls of faux cappuccino. And my drip coffee, produced with a Braun Machine, was amazing.
Yet I was missing something. It was espresso. I was missing authentic espresso, the little cup of black gold with the red gold tops. The intense, tiny beverage that was the core ingredient in so many other tasty drinks. I had to get an espresso machine.
But I left my hometown first. The thing is this: after traveling Europe for so long, I couldn't ditch the travel bug. Spending 6 months in my home city just left me dead bored and unsure of where my life was going. So I packed up and traveled across Canada. I spent six months on the road before I ended up in Vancouver, on the other side of the continent.
My initial idea was to work in Vancouver for 6 months until I saved up enough money to go to Australia, but things didn't work out that way. I applied (and was accepted) for the graduate program of Anthropology at the University of BC. So I stayed around a bit.
My first few months in Vancouver had me drinking my espressos, cappuccinos and coffees at local shops. Back in 1993, Starbucks and the whole coffee thing was in full unabated swing here on the Wet Coast, so finding quality coffee and espresso was no big thing. In fact, even the Starbies of the time had first class espresso and coffee because the baristas still knew all about pulling a decent traditional shot.
In my home I was still using my Bodum for making press coffee and I picked up a little Melita one cup filter thing that sits over your mug. Yet for all of this, I hungered for a real espresso machine, so when I got my Student Aid cheque, I put aside $200 to buy myself a good espresso machine (naughty me!). I ended up with a used Baby Gaggia that I found in the local classifieds.
Hey, if you like what you're reading so far, check out the next section, The Gaggia Years.