That Nescafé Moment

(originally published as “Bean me up” in Student Life – now SL – Magazine, in March 1997 [!])

I’M ADDICTED to LIFE because in life I can drink Java. When I die, I won’t wake to smell the first 500 mils. of the good stuff. Waking with that dried cow-pat feeling in the mouth, nothing starts my day like a toothbrush and half a litre of fresh brew.

This past season was a special pleasure since Santa delivered my funky Bosch grinder. Lazily, I ground the bean and brewed away, rolling a cigarette before I poured the coffee. Aah… don’t forget the cigarettes.

Whether at leisure or hastily poured into my travel mug (double-walled insulation, spill-proof lid with a hole for sipping), there is nothing like coffee to rid the fresh morning mouth of fluoride. The first sip and the first deep drag: the greatest vices. It’s a mini coronary, a reminder that the muscle still beats.

Nic and Caf are steady companions. And I don’t take no flak from no one. God-fearing, decaf-drinking, health-freak hypocrites I scorn, because they’d rather inhale lead fumes while jogging along the freeway than countenance my blasphemy.

What’s the point of decaf in any case? It’s like someone who likes the surf but can’t stand sand between the toes. You drink coffee for the taste and the caffeine.

And alcoholics, you may brag about the case of beer you drank on New Year’s, but sit with me through some coffee. I’ll take you on until your kidneys shrivel like prunes. I was born with a coffee teat in my mouth.

I remember chilling on someone’s sofa with my bottie, while the adults did the rumba around me. Mom places my memory at a year before the lunar landing. Decaf-totallers may gasp at such early depravity, but it was still an innocent romance – my bottie contained sweet, weak, instant stuff.

Nicotine came two years later. My father fixed cars in the backyard on weekends to supplement his income. I scavenged their ashtrays for lengthy stompies. Or I fished still-burning butts from bed-ridden grandpa’s ashtray. Shame… he could light and hold his fag, but couldn’t stub it out.

By age 5, I was official coffee-maker. The average South African cup: instant, weak, sweet, lotsa ubisi. My father alone complained. Pis-flou! he’d shriek. Thus his very distant Turkish roots wailed at this weak-as-piss tradition.

His search for the perfect cuppa Joe took him to the heart of that great South African shame: Nescafé Classic, de rigueur in local homes of sophistication; and Koffiehuis, boeretroos with 40% chicory; and Coffeelets, grounds in teabags, also heavily indebted to chicory.

Still unaware of the hard life, I was ignorant of the implications of all this. But my learning curve grew exponentially.

*

Soon after I lost my virginity, the Nescafé enigma revealed itself in stages. First came the disappointment of my first cup of dinkum Joe. Like my first sex, it was overrated, on the stale side (Years later I learned to appreciate the stale cup).

If sex was an initiation into the hard life – loss of innocence, etc. – the bitter cup was its philosophical mate. Both, in retrospect, seem to have inducted me into the disaffection, the ennui, of late 20th-century life. To put my addiction in existential terms, I live for when I relive that first disappointment, that first cup of bitter. And that is the late 20th-century bind: we look forward to reliving, again and again, that first disappointment.

Even before I had insight into this dilemma, I was subconsciously trying to remake that first cup, to relive my rites de passage. But as a student I could afford only Ricoffee. To simulate the bitter cup, I used three spoons of it.

Having grown up on Nescafé, my friends scorned me. But here was the second revelation. Three spoons of Ricoffee made a cup as good and strong as a Nescafe one-spooner (let’s forget brewed stuff for now). The powder is indeed made by the same people.

It made no financial difference. It was as expensive using three spoons of low-class powder as one spoon of high-class jive. But, as someone of principle, I stuck to Ricoffee. And once they tasted it, my friends came back for more.

The third revelation is the heart of the great South African shame. It came to me after I had long settled in as a real brew drinker. Often, quasi-sophisticate hosts offered me ‘real’ coffee. You know the scenario – they offer coffee, you hesitate, the hosts insist, quite hospitably, on serving ‘real’ coffee.

This little matter of semantics must take some blame for a growing social discomfort – a seizure – I feel when hosts offer me ‘real’ coffee. My tongue now belongs to the bean and, as offered, expects brewed stuff.

The great shame is that many South Africans still consider Nescafé ‘real’ coffee. Thus I cringe in embarrassment when said hosts offer foreign guests real coffee; and I convulse when my cup of real Nescafé arrives. And that new, imported, freeze-dried stuff must be the Wonderbra of instant coffee. Its aroma provides amazing lift at the cup, but it just doesn’t have real body.

The taste of brewed stuff is clearly better, otherwise instant-coffee makers won’t try emulate the brewed flavour. And to sophisticates and epicureans, the cost, surely, cannot matter. Why keep on drinking instant coffee and embarrassing or perturbing guests?

Laziness, that’s what; and ignorance. South African tourists display a religious (ignorant) amazement at how good the coffee in Paris was. And they just can’t understand why their new R120/kg freeze-dried stuff doesn’t measure up. Maybe, they muse, that cute French barrista just knew how to make coffee…

No! It’s the bean! Not freeze-dried granules! You take some beans, roasted dark, ground fine, and briefly pass some hot water – not boiling – through a tightly packed thinga-majig of grounds. Voila!

But, our worldly tourist asks, doesn’t it all take time – roasting, grinding, washing equipment afterwards?

No, our friend would rather use instant; it’s much quicker, easier. And the freeze-dried stuff isn’t that bad, after all, is it?

Laziness. How many sophisticates bought filter machines or French presses a year ago? And why do they gather dust in cupboards? Because the owners can’t deal with the drag of washing them after each brew?

Or it’s too much trouble for one or two cups and thus they only drag out the machine when they have guests, only to discover there’s no coffee, or it doesn’t taste as good as last year, does it? Well, that’s because it’s the grounds from Xmas 95.

Hardcore. You either drink coffee or you don’t. So, at dinner parties, I play safe and take tea. A fine drink – reasonable caffeine content. But it doesn’t go well with tobacco and I must take issue with Thomas De Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium Eater, 1821).

Old Tom says those who are “not susceptible of influence from so refined a stimulant” (tea) are “naturally of coarse nerves”. Tea, says Tom, is the “favourite beverage of the intellectual”. Poppycock!

Sure, I may be of coarse nerves, for do I not appreciate the stale cup of Java once so often? And is my father not a motor mechanic? But intellectuals and tea?

How many revolutions were brewed over a cup of tea? Were it not in coffee-houses that the philosophes lay the foundations of the French Revolution? Indeed, where tea and revolutions go together, they lead to great disasters. Look at the USA. It’s all because of tea that we have the greatest fake nation in the world.

But Americans consider themselves the greatest coffee-drinking nation. But it’s really a matter of percentage, not scale. In such a large country, coffee consumption must be huge in total. As a percentage of, say, grounds per volume of water, it lags behind Europe and the Middle East. The regular American cup of filter is made with a third of the grounds of the regular South African cup. Pis-flou!

So how do I like my regular cup (as opposed to my espresso, cappuccino, latte, cafe au lait, or iced-coffee)? Well, I am a hardcore coffee drinker from a working-class background. This will influence my taste.

As dear old Tom put it, I am of coarse nerves. Occasionally, I can thus appreciate the stale cup. That’s when the pot of filter in a shop somewhere has been lingering on the hot plate. A lot of water has evaporated and the coffee is much more concentrated, dark and bitter, treacle-like in consistency.

Not that freshly brewed stuff isn’t superior in taste and aroma, but an addict drinks coffee in most forms (even chews beans) and I appreciate the stale pot as much as the fresh pot.

At home, limited by resources, I chose a Bodum press over a filter machine because I drink coffee for the taste, caffeine and texture. For texture, I use espresso-fine grounds. It’s a personal matter, and shop assistants would do well to note this.

The sophisticate-assistant at my ex-supplier always reacted suspiciously and patronisingly when I asked for my bean “espresso ground”. It was clear that she never expected a person of coarse nerves asking for such a fine ground. He cannot possibly own an espresso machine. What does he know about coffee? seemed to flit across her mind.

Inevitably: How do you make your coffee? Exasperated, straining to remain polite, I’d say, a French Press. Then she’d insist: Well, you have to use filter ground, blah blah, you culturally ignorant person of coarse nerves. Have to? Will the Bodum break otherwise, I always wonder.

It’s the texture you see, and the effectiveness. In a plunger, some of the fine grounds escape the sieve and muddies the texture of the coffee (it’s those Turkish roots). And they leave an impressive sludge at the bottom of the cup.

A fine ground also increases the surface area per volume of coffee exposed to water. The upshot: stronger coffee per bean, brewed faster. This technique seems to work well with my mix of choice, Mocha Java – round, smooth, a decent body. It is a good coffee to start with and a good one to stay with.

Which brings me, finally, to cigarettes, since Mocha Java is pre-eminently a smoker’s coffee. The top three American brands – Winston, Camel, Marlboro, in that order – are most suitable to Mocha Java. My first choice is always Winston, the one made in the USA.

Unfortunately, we only have Winston made under license in South Africa, not imported. While the cultivar is the same as in the USA, the soil in which our leaf grows makes it somewhat acidic. American Winston, though, is a real cigarette, a coffee-drinker’s one, and superior to the other two brands.

Financial constraints have forced me to roll my own cigarettes. Here, the only decent tobacco is Drum, from Holland. It is indeed a fine shag. On occasion, when I can splurge, I buy some Camels, but I’ve found that my tongue now belongs to the Dutch weed. Drum doesn’t dry one’s tracts out – as all cigarettes do – and it has a flavour, like Mocha Java, that is robust without being impolite. If you drink Joe and smoke, you could do much worse than try these flavours.


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