“What can I get you?” My coworker asked, about to go get coffee.
This was a question I’d been preparing for. Not because I expected her to get me coffee but because I had just moved back to the PNW and recognized the shift to coffee culture. I’d spent the last 10 years in Utah where, instead of coffee, teachers go to drive thru soda shops like Swig and Sodalicious to get their signature soda concoctions. This is because there are several rules in Mormonism that surround what you can eat and drink; most notable is abstaining from alcohol or “hot drinks,” which is interpreted to mean no coffee or tea. It's a nebulous but strict rule – hot chocolate, herbal tea, energy drinks, and caffeinated soda all sneak under the radar of unacceptability (though all but hot chocolate can be contentiously debated). It had been easy to select a drink of choice for the communal soda runs, but outside of the Utah bubble, I needed to learn how to have a coffee order.
“A chai tea latte, please,” I replied.
“Okay a chai…” she said as she wrote it down on a piece of paper.
“Yeah, a chai tea latte,” I repeated verbatim because I didn’t know if there was a difference between what I said and what she did but I knew for sure I didn’t want plain tea.
I was 29 and still didn’t know how to order coffee but I’d done my research. And by research, I mean I asked my sister and her wife what their favorite Starbucks drinks were. They were a safe place to land and also knew that every detail needed to be explained. What’s a reasonable size? How do you pronounce everything? What tastes the least like coffee? It helps to have someone else who knows how little I know because she’s been there too and come out the other side.
The first time I tried coffee I was at a work conference. They had breakfast snacks and those large stainless steel dispensers of coffee and hot water. This is my chance, I thought. I don’t have to make it or even pay for it and I can take as little as I want. I grabbed one of the white mugs from the neat stack on the table and lifted the dispenser lever until I'd filled the cup halfway. I moved down the table to the pitcher of cream and tried to look confident as I poured a little bit in. How much cream do you put in? Is this a 1:1 ratio situation? Also, is this cream or is this milk? I quickly grabbed 5 sugar packets (I know myself) and a stirring stick before retreating to a far table in the room to empty in the sugar. Surely that much would make anything taste good.
But it didn’t. It just tasted like dirty, bitter, slightly acidic water that left a terrible aftertaste. I lasted two sips before I had to abandon ship. Must be an acquired taste, I thought, as I placed my mug on the round serving tray of used dishes.
I’ve always wanted to love coffee, though, mainly for the cozy writing-at-a-coffee-shop vibes. I could see it so clearly – the laptop on the dark-stained wood table, the steam rising from the oversized mug, the clicking of the keys as creativity flowed through me. Coffee feels synonymous with reading and writing; sign me up. There was just that minor detail about hating the taste.
Part of the problem stemmed from growing up only drinking hot chocolate. I associated warm brown drinks with melted chocolate, and I had a hard time getting over the mental hurdle that coffee should taste just as sugary and creamy. Turns out, there are drinks called mochas.
Mochas were the perfect gateway to coffee drinking with that mentality in mind – especially when I made them myself and could control the amount of coffee I added. I started off by adding just a splash of coffee to my hot chocolate. I gradually increased the ratio from essence of coffee to half coffee, half hot chocolate, and found myself recognizing and genuinely liking the taste. Mixing coffee with hot chocolate was even, dare I say, too sweet.
When I met Kaitlyn, she was further along in her coffee journey than me. Our first date was at Starbucks but that was less because I loved drinking coffee then and more because it seemed like the thing to do. Kaitlyn helped me along with branching out my taste, mostly because I could just try sips of her drinks without having to commit to the whole thing, and her drink of choice at the time was chai lattes.
I'd heard of chai tea before and had even heard it described as Christmas in a cup, but my previous experience with trying leaf water made me highly suspicious. Now that I’ve had it in the form of a latte (the only way to drink tea), I can think of no better way to describe the familiar, warm spices. My world was expanding at an exponential rate.
With Kaitlyn’s help I tried regular lattes, then just coffee with creamer. Since I’m no barista, this final step made it so I felt like I could make coffee at home (thanks to one-button Keurig brewing). I learned which mugs are my favorite, found my preferred creamer, and coffee quickly became my favorite part of the morning (that Folger’s jingle was on point) - though I'll admit my coffee to creamer ratio is still significantly larger than Kaitlyn's. Coffee helps accelerate my slow wake-up process just a little bit and was a welcome addition to my morning routine.
Today my go-to drink is a caramel latte or coffee with chocolate and caramel creamer. Maybe it’s because drinking coffee with caramel flavoring instantly takes me back to our rental house in Portland in the early days of my coffee journey. I’d brew a cup of caramel coffee around 10:00 am (those were the days of unemployment) before making my way to my office where I’d write at my desk, in front of the window looking into the yard. It wasn’t writing in a coffee shop – in reality, I don’t want to leave the house in the morning – but the idyllic became the reality.