Even though its vessel is usually cylindrical, the beverage has a point – and millions of people seem to be missing it.
Even though a coffee mug is round, coffee beans are bean-shaped, and fluids are generally not pointy, coffee has a point.1 But what is it? Unfortunately for many people, coffee is a crutch, without which they cannot depart an irritable zombie-like state in the morning or function throughout the day; for an overlapping population of people, coffee is the answer to a caffeine addiction; and for yet others it is simply a habit. If you’re drinking coffee for one of these reasons then you’re missing the point, and you’re probably doing it wrong.
A former girlfriend of mine (who grew up in France) would often express her disgust at the way North Americans drank coffee: gulping it down from enormous disposable cups as they hurried down the street. To her, this was a gross perversion of should be a wonderful part of daily life.
At the time I didn’t really drink coffee; I agreed with her, but couldn’t deeply appreciate her aversion to this aspect of North American culture. But I get it now, and I agree (even more profoundly): the way most people in Canada and the United States drink coffee is an abomination, and it is a shame.
The first time I can remember drinking coffee I was in my late 20s — I’d arrived in a little town in Peru under heavy rain, late at night. I was cold and wet and hungry, and I ducked into the nearest restaurant to get some dinner. My $3 meal not only included soup and a plate of food, but it also came with a drink – a hot, sugary coffee. Normally I’d have asked for a different drink, but I remember stopping myself and realizing that a nice hot drink might be exceedingly appropriate under the circumstance. And it was.
It would be almost 10 years later that I would start drinking coffee somewhat regularly – it probably started in Tunisia, where it was the most affordable thing on the menu that would allow me to sit in a café for extended periods of time to use its wifi. The high quality of the coffee in Tunisia allowed it to grow on me (not unlike the development of my appreciation of beer while I was in Serbia), and eventually I continued to drink it with some regularity when I was back in Canada.
Eventually I realized that what I really liked, even more than the coffee itself, was the atmosphere of sitting in a café. I’m not saying that the point of coffee is free wifi, and I’m not even saying that the point of coffee is cafés.2 These are beautiful things that coffee seems to surround itself with, but the point of coffee itself, all by itself, is to be hot and slow. More than any chemical component of the beverage, the desired effect of coffee comes from sitting and drinking it slowly, and appreciating it in sips. Whatever it is you’re doing while you’re sitting in a quiet place, it is generally more enjoyable with a cup of coffee.
So when you see some lady stomping down the street in high heels with a giant paper (or plastic!) cup in her face, you have to ask, “What’s the point of that?” There is nothing pleasant about the experience of guzzling coffee while rushing somewhere. The coffee at that point is obstructing a more efficient walking experience, and is being consumed in such a perverse fashion either to sate a perceived need, satisfy an addiction, or comply with an existing habit. A poor use of coffee indeed.
If you’re drinking coffee out of a non-permanent vessel, then you’re probably doing it wrong. “Don’t tell me how to drink coffee!” you might say. Well, I’m telling you how not to drink it. “Who are you to decree the proper way to drink coffee?” I propose that if you are performing an act that is intended to be enjoyable but are failing to enjoy it, then you are doing it wrong. If you are slamming your coffee ‘on the go,’ are you actually appreciating it? Don’t you think that if you waited until you were sitting down, you might enjoy the beverage in its entirety? Well?
And if you find yourself never having time to sit down and sip a beverage, then it’s probably not just coffee that you’re doing wrong. If you can’t take the necessary pause that the proper drinking of coffee requires, then the quality of your day may well be falling far short of an achievable potential. If you never sit down and sigh peacefully, then there’s probably more than just coffee that you’re doing wrong.
By drinking coffee properly, you might find yourself doing a lot of other things in a better way as well. It’s ironic that many people drink coffee in pursuit of caffeine and it’s stimulant effects, while the more profound benefit comes from its ability to slow things down and provide a space for pause. It’s forget to pause at our peril, but coffee is one more thing that can remind us to do so. Stop and smell the roses; you may find that sometimes those roses smell like coffee.