An Ode to Bad Coffee

Forget about cappuccinos and lattes and pour me a dark and dirty glass of pure black coffee.

The best coffee tastes like death.

Is this a popular opinion? No. Is it a correct opinion? Not by any normal metric. Is it even an understandable or coherent opinion? Perhaps not. But it is the opinion I stand firmly behind.

My love for bad coffee started in college. Senior year. I was standing by the open kitchen window of my modular apartment, a cool breeze blowing through, as I stared out at the dying leaves. It was a cold and lonely autumn day. I remember it well.

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“It’s a cold and lonely autumn day,” I said. “Someday, I’ll remember this well.”

“What?” my roommate said.

“Never mind,” I said. “What happened to the K-cups?”

“We’re out,” he said. “There’s an old can of instant in the cupboard.”

And so, like a dope fiend before his first hit, not realizing the beast I was about to unleash, I took down the can of instant, poured a scoop into my mug and heated up some water. The mixture bubbled and frothed like it had been ladled straight from the deepest bowels of hell’s septic system.

“This tastes disgusting,” I said.

“Could you please put on some pants?” my roommate said. “Seriously, it’s mid-afternoon, dude.”

The coffee was bad, but it was warm and it hit the gut with a unmistakable dark energy. It was cinematic. Moody. Noir. Not like the fancy-pants cream-filled Keurig brews I’d been drinking before this. Staring out at the foggy day, feeling the quiet despair, I knew that I would never put creamer in my coffee again.

And I didn’t. Years have gone by, and my coffee has remained dark and bad.

The greatest cup of coffee I ever drank was later that year in a smelly church basement, where I was attending to some business matters. A rotund woman in her late sixties was dumping expired Folgers grounds into a giant metal percolator.

“How do you measure how much to put in there?” I asked.

“You just put it in,” she said. “It’ll be fine.”

It wasn’t fine. It was gross. I pulled back the slick plastic handle and let the concoction pour into my Styrofoam cup. My nostrils burned at the scent of the nasty supercharged caffeine wafting up at me. Each sip was like a bullwhip to the taste buds, a wince-provoking bullet of bitterness down the gullet and into the gut, where it sat eating through my stomach lining.

That’s how coffee should taste. It should be drunk out of Styrofoam cups, steam rising from the oily black surface, while you stand in a barren parking lot, wearing a black jacket over a gray hoodie, dirty boots scuffing on cracked concrete, hands covered by black, fingerless gloves purchased at a military surplus store.

“Cold today,” you grunt.

But there’s no one to respond to you because you are alone. The coffee is your only friend. Your only comfort. Your only warmth. Your shield in this hellish world. You drink it not because you want to but because you must. Because it keeps you alive. It says, “Hey. Hey you. How’s it going? You doing all right?” and you say, “No,” and it says, “I know. Drink more coffee.”

You make this coffee cheap and poorly. Hot water and instant grounds. A quick strain into a dirty pot. Nothing more. No cream. No sugar. You refuse to capitulate to comfort and weakness.

The World says, “Aren’t you going a little bit overboard with this coffee thing? I mean, you like gross black coffee. Other people like lattes. What’s the big deal?”

“Shut your mouth, World,” you reply. “I’ve seen behind your macchiato mirage.”

Good coffee is a drink.

Bad coffee is a way of being.

The dark, steaming mug strikes a different nerve, a low-down roadside gas station sort of nerve. It betrays a certain bleak outlook on the world. A mood of malevolence and grit. It’s the drink of a human being lost in a broken existence, struggling to make sense of meaninglessness. But it’s not a hopeless drink. To drink it is to refuse to give into hedonism and nihilism and to instead take a sip of this bitter, painful brew that we all are given, to grimace and swallow the pain, and to get back to the relentless uphill battle of Being.

Coffee.

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.