Juan Valdez was a Hack

I’ve been a wine snob for almost as long as I’ve been drinking alcohol.

I come by it naturally, living in Northern California. There are probably more than 200 wineries within a couple hours’ drive. In my early twenties, even most of the wineries in Napa were free or had a very small tasting fee that went toward the purchase of wine. Until five years ago, Sonoma County was almost entirely free, and even today, most of the wineries in Amador County are free. Amador is closer to my house and even if they’re ignored by the greater zeitgeist, I will put their wines in the Pepsi Challenge against Napa Valley any day of the week.

At these wineries, you can do side-by-side tastings of different varietals. Sometimes you can taste the same varietals from different years. You learn what you like and don’t like pretty quickly. Or, if not, you at least get a decent buzz.

If you pay a little extra (or join the club), you can taste the good shit. The reserves at some wineries aren’t much different than their standard swill, but at other places, there’s a marked difference. Sometimes a run-of-the-mill winery, or a mass producer that you wouldn’t expect to have anything special, like Gallo or Beringer, make some pretty decent $40 wines.

Who knows, maybe Charles Shaw even makes a Twenty Buck Chuck.

In addition to a geographical inclination toward wine snobbery, I spent a good portion of my twenties waiting tables in a nice restaurant. There I learned the difference between truly upper-end wines and the rest. Just as I will put Amador against Napa, there are a ton of excellent substitutes for the Opus Ones and Silver Oaks of the world. I can’t tell you how often I encouraged a customer who wanted something like Silver Oak to try Rodney Strong Symmetry. They loved the change and the $20 they saved was usually redirected to my tip.

But don’t ever suggest any replacement for somebody that wants Opus One. They’ll be none too happy, and it won’t help your tip. I’ve personally never tried Opus One. A lot of people will give their curious server a swig of their specialty wine. One time, when a customer brought in wine from 1974 and I told him that was the year I was born, he refused to let me leave until I had a drink. It was very smooth. Like, almost water smooth. If he had kept it in his cellar another year, it might’ve been water.

But nobody ever lets their server take a sip of Opus One. So I can only assume it tastes like shit. Bitter, sour-grapes, shit.

The biggest secret weapon in my arsenal for anybody that was undecided was Treana Red, a tiny imprint of a small winery in the totally unknown wine region (unless you’ve seen “Sideways”) of Paso Robles. You wouldn’t expect Treana to be good. It calls itself a “red blend,” which brings to mind the horrors of Carlo Rossi jugs and Franzia boxes. But to say no customer complained after I suggested it doesn’t go far enough. Every customer I ever suggested it to thanked me and wondered how such an excellent wine could be so reasonably priced and unknown.

Seriously, go find a bottle of Treana Red. You can probably order one for less than $40 if your state doesn’t suck. Tell ’em The Wombat sent ya. They won’t know what the fuck that means, but it’ll be funny.

While my destiny as cork dork was determined by location, my evolution into a beer snob took an alternate route. For the latter part of my single years, I was a Happy Hour Hound. Needing to be sober and somewhat white-eyed, not to mention ready to teach, by 7:00 in the morning, if I decided to get blotto on a particular evening, or every particular evening, it had to be before 7:00 PM. And the best, cheapest way to get to that particular nirvana is to drink whatever swill is coming out of the middle tap. Did I know about microbrews and IBUs and ABV? Sure. If I drank a beer out at dinner, it would’ve been a Fat Tire or a Sierra Nevada or a Sam Adams. If I was grabbing a six-pack on the way home, it would follow a similar pattern.

But if I was sitting at a bar trying to get drunk, then it’s “Pass the Bud Light.”

There was a point in time I could distinguish between Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Coors Light. I was doing a “blind taste test” put on by the Miller Lite girls at a baseball game. I knew which was which right away, so I picked their brand to get better swag. She didn’t believe me. We tried it again. I was right again. She was still skeptical. Whatever, lady, just give me my light-up beads.

When I moved in with my wife, my commute extended to fifty miles. I need to be awake by 5:00 to be out of the house by 5:45. That doesn’t leave a lot of hangover time. I also have a child. The number of beers I drink on a typical day, week, or month seems infinitesimal compared to a decade ago. Drinking alcohol on a weeknight  is a rarity. As a result, on those Fridays and Saturdays where I feel like imbibing, my tolerance is virtually non-existent. Two beers, sixteen hours after I woke up, and I can’t even make it through my one half-hour of grown-up television.

Oh well, at least that episode of Dora the Explorer was especially scintillating.

A six-pack in the fridge will now last me a few weeks, not halfway through a Friday night. And if I’m only having one or two beers, I ain’t wasting them on shit.

It was a casual process, but I remember a moment last year when I met a friend for happy hour before going to a baseball game. I was three good beers in when I got to the game, which happened to be celebrating that most ubiquitous of all minor league promotions, Thirsty Thursday. I figured since I was already three beers in, I could probably switch to shit beer. After all, even Jesus said to drink the good wine before the crappy wine, then you won’t notice it as much.

Maybe wine, Jesus, but not beer. Holy crap, that was the most horrible thing I ever drank. Then I did the unthinkable: I paid for a $9 Sierra Nevada instead of the $1 Bud Light. The 30-year old inside me cringed.

But I make more money and drink less beer than the 30-year old me. So it’s quality over quantity now.

Then again, I’m not the best example of a beer snob, because I don’t like any of the hipster beer movements sweeping every microbrewery in town. Or the fact that every town has a microbrewery now. But that’s probably a story for another time.

What I’m here to talk about today is a third bit of liquid snobbery that I didn’t even know was possible, much less that it applied to me, until recently.

My name is the Wombat. And I am a coffee snob.

Did you know that there are still people in the world that drink Yuban?

Hoo-boy, there are some crappy coffees out there.  I guess I kind of knew they were out there. The coffee aisle at the grocery store is full of them. In fact, now that I mention it, the part of the coffee aisle that I actually shop from is a small portion at the very end. I assumed the rest of the aisle was taken up by, I don’t know, tea and powdered creamer. Maybe filters. But I’ve seen an awful lot of Sanka in my peripheral vision en route to the cereal.

The coffee snob started innocently enough. There’s a hipster in my department who brought in a tea kettle and a pour over kit. We have a fifteen-minute brunch between first and second period, during which we can heat enough water for two people to have a freshly-crafted brew. A couple others can brew theirs during their prep period right before or after, and the pour over spot became the modern-day equivalent of ye olde water cooler. Could we have gone standard coffee maker? Sure, but then we’d come in, pour our cup, and lose the sense of community that comes with the slow, agonizing second-half of the pour over process. Seriously, I bet an opium-molasses hybrid would strain faster than the last few drops going through the waterlogged grounds.

Hold on for a moment while I go patent Opium Molasses.

Unofficially, the “Pour Over Club” brings coffee whenever we’re running low, but it’s pure communism once the goods have been procured. Somebody might be milking the process, but as a general rule, we all need the caffeine enough that we’ll make sure there’s enough coffee. One day, nobody remembered that we ran out the day before and we had to go without. The next day, our prep area looked like this:

coffee

This is when I started to realize I was a bit of a snob. Somebody brought in Lavazza. Sounded interesting. Italian name, so it MUST be good. Turns out I wasn’t much of a fan. I figured it was just a taste thing, like an IPA, which I don’t care for but I know many beer enthusiasts love. Still, I struggled through it, because it was the only thing present and even the ugliest hooker in the whorehouse can service some needs.

Six months later, I accidentally brought some more Lavazza in. It was on sale, and I thought, “Italian name, so it MUST be good.” Maybe a little more caffeine would’ve helped me remember. The next day, two of my co-workers had brought in replacements. Turns out I wasn’t the only one that thought it was subpar. It’s not terrible, just not that great. So we kept it as a backup for the next time we ran out. It lasted most of the semester.

But one day I came in, to my horror, to discover a giant vat of Folgers waiting for me. I thought it was a joke. “Who the fuck brought Folgers?” I demanded of everybody in my department. A few of my fellow teachers don’t really drink coffee, and when they do, they sully it with flavored creamer. I started my accusations there. They all denied it. I went in backward order of who I assumed to be the most kindred coffee spirit. By the time I made it to the other snob, I thought for sure someone had lied. Except the final interogatee admitted that yes, he was the culprit. It was leftover from some function he had gone to over the weekend. One of those get-togethers where they have a huge urn full of drudge. His wife asked if we might use it at work and it was either that or throw it out. He figured, “why not?”

I thought my derision would indicate “why not,” but that wasn’t even the biggest factor. A few days later, he brewed it once to prove a point. Even the non-regulars, with their Irish Creme creamer, took a few sips and opted out. The entire thirty-ounce tub sat patiently at the back of the area until the end of the year before we dumped it. There had been a day or two with no coffee available, yet we still didn’t bust into the red vat of mediocrity. Better to go dry for the day. The headache I have on the way home will remind me to stop off and buy some more coffee.

Incidentally, after we mocked the creamer-user enough, he tried some of our coffee black. It wasn’t the bitter crap he had assumed it to be. A week or two later, he admitted that he was now drinking black coffee at home. And now that he was drinking it black, he couldn’t do the Maxwell House. But the good news was that the money being saved on creamer could go toward buying better coffee.

It’s amazing how, once you actually start tasting the coffee, you want coffee with taste. A good portion of the industry hopes you never discover that coffee can taste good.

Fortunately for me, my snobbery seems to be coming at a perfect time. There’s been a resurgence (or maybe just a surgence) of good coffee shops of late. I wouldn’t have believed it five years ago, when the common narrative was that Starbucks pushing everyone out of business. As much as I love me some gingerbread latte, Starbucks isn’t a coffee business. At best, it’s an espresso business, although with all of the specialty Frappuccinos coming out, even that moniker is faltering. Notice how few of the mermaids, dragons, and Christmas trees have coffee as their base flavor? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ordered the coffee frappuccino and had to send it back when they gave me a caramel one. “Oh sorry, we’re not used to people ordering coffee flavor.”

I’ve settled on ordering an espresso Frappuccino. They’ll give me an off look, but at least the order will be right. Or better yet, I’ll just get a Javiva at Peet’s.

But I feel like the “as sweet as possible” trend is reversing. Competitors are returning to what we now call “drip coffee,” aka coffee. The mom and pop shops have been replaced with hipster locales where they don’t crinkle their nose after I say “no cream or sugar.” Single origin, French press, Clover, and the pour over are becoming increasingly common. And don’t get me started on the wonderful things they are all doing with cold brew.

My favorite spot in this new trend is Philz Coffee in the Bay Area. Their motto is “One Cup at a Time,” and every single coffee they serve is a pour over. They have about fifteen varietals, each with tasting notes, and you can even blend more than one varietal into a single cup of coffee. After you order it, they grind the beans and “brew it” right there in front of you. When it is handed to you, there is a layer of bubbles on the top, and if you slap that lid on before you have slurped up some of those bubbles, the barista might have a nervous breakdown. How cool is that? They want you to sample the cup of coffee like it’s a bottle of wine. The entryway to snobbery is open and widening.

Unlike beer, where my preferences are very specific, I’m not particular about the coffee varietals. Dark roast, medium roast, light roast. All are fine, especially if the brewer knows that dark roast need not be the consistency of crude oil. Guatemalan? Honduran? Kona Blend and all of its attendant controversies? Sure.

Even decaf.

I’m just kidding. Decaf is a demon-spawn cocktail filtered through the devil’s own anus. Non-alcoholic beer is bad enough, but I can at least get my head around people who want to avoid alcohol. There is no reason on the planet that someone should opt to avoid the wonder that is caffeine.

And I’m not going to lie and say that I can actually taste all of those “notes of” that the descriptors say. Wine? Yeah, I can definitely sense the grapefruit in a sauvignon blanc. With zinfandel, I know I prefer a peppery one over a jammy one. But when the coffee says it tastes of hazelnut and cardamom, I’m just going to have to trust them. Even the very basic flavors or “fruity” or “nutty” doesn’t come through on my palate. I’m skeptical it’s on anybody’s. I wonder what temperature it needs to be at to get that flavor.

Whoever heard of “fruity coffee,” anyway?

But that’s okay. I’ve come to discover that there is only one flavor profile I need my coffee to have. It’s a flavor that might be a rarity in the coffee world but, thankfully, is becoming easier to find.

That flavor is: good.

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