Desiring Decaf (Or, WTF, Coffee Snobs?)

balanced breakfast
                                                                                  balanced breakfast

Today I started my morning with part of a Cupcake Royale raspberry pavlova cupcake (vanilla cake, raspberry sauce, lemon buttercream, meringue, delicious) that I’d saved from the night before, and a cup of hot black coffee. In bed. It felt so right.

The coffee, incidentally, was decaffeinated: not because I’m 36 week pregnant (it’s generally accepted that moderate caffeine consumption is just fine during pregnancy), but because I’m extremely sensitive to the effects of caffeine. Anything more than a single cup of black tea makes my heart pound unpleasantly and turns me into a jittery, anxious mess.

It’s a cliché for mainstream coffee drinkers to sniff “what’s the point?” when reminded of decaf’s existence. My partner once mistook this for acceptable banter when I ordered a decaf Americano, resulting in a fight during which I called him a dick in front of the mortified barista (we laughed about it later). Recently, I remarked to a veteran barista friend that I liked a certain coffee shop because I didn’t feel like they were judging me for ordering decaf. “Oh,” she assured me, “they’re judging you.”

But why? Caffeine is a drug, the effects of which don’t agree with some people. I’ve been a caffeine drinker in the past, but after I quit cold-turkey in an effort to address my night bruxism (aka tooth grinding/jaw clenching; it helped, somewhat), my tolerance plummeted. To this day, I reserve anything more than the relatively tiny amounts found in tea, chocolate, or decaf coffee for emergency situations (solo road trips, deadlines that require all-nighters – of which there are mercifully few these days). There are simply those of us who want to enjoy the taste of coffee without corresponding ill-effects.

I’ve heard it said on many occasions that people like me should just avoid coffee, because, you see, no one could possibly enjoy the taste of decaf. That’s news to me: I happen to like it. Admittedly, my taste in coffee is not very sophisticated. I’ve worked as a barista and received training that enabled me to understand the nuances of coffee roasted with restraint. I can appreciate the floral, citrusy, or herbaceous complexity of a single-origin shade-grown light-roast pour-over. But I still prefer the robust, earthy, pedestrian (okay, haters, burnt) flavor of a good dark roast. And, let’s face it – when you’re roasting coffee beans to a charred crisp anyway, the flavor differences between regular and decaf are negligible. There are even some roasters who do a pretty good job with their decaf beans.

Why should anyone care whether I have shit taste in coffee? Does that make me less of a person? I like what I like – why is that a problem for you? The only conclusion that makes sense is insecurity. Why else would anyone be in the business of policing someone else’s preferences?

As a server, I always liked it when someone had the chutzpah to ask for ice cubes with their wine. And if someone wants their steak cooked well-done, or wants to put ketchup on said steak, what business of it is mine?

An apparent lack of sophistication in others stirs up anxieties about the parts of ourselves that may be underdeveloped, unformed, or simply out of step with what the culture considers “cool.” A truly secure person (I’m not necessarily claiming this designation for myself!) has no need to pass judgment on the aesthetic preferences of others. A truly secure person doesn’t waste time scrutinizing someone else’s taste. A truly secure person says (and means) “right on: you do you.”

So, even when I’m no longer pregnant, I’ll still enjoy my decaf, listen to corny 90’s country music, wear brown and black together, and dip my fries in my milkshake. Snobs be damned.

The unicorn in my cup

Latte art is just one manifestation of the aestheticization of food and drink. Before flavor and texture comes appearance. The significance of visual appeal is as old as food itself: Vibrant colors and pleasing shapes doubtless drew early humans to good sources of nutrition and encouraged experimentation and the pursuit of variety. Medieval and Renaissance feasts often featured elaborate renderings of animals and castles in aspic or bread.

Today, in Seattle (and, increasingly, other parts of the coffee-drinking world) latte art is de rigueur. What once was a flourish of added value at the fanciest cafes is now an expected feature of the coffee experience. Years ago, when I was working as a barista at a coffee shop in Greenwood, a customer asked me if I could make a rosette in his macchiato. I tried (with middling success), but the implication was clear: If I was going to call myself a barista, I had damn well be able to create latte art in a 2.5 ounce drink.

When I got a macchiato at the Fremont Coffee Company a few days ago, the barista made me this:

skull with a bow latte art.
skull with a bow latte art.

That’s right: It’s a skull wearing a bow.

Today, I got a unicorn in my latte.

IMG_0122

A leaf or a heart speaks of sophistication, an elevation of the act of drinking coffee. It flatters the drinker, assuring them of their good taste.

A skull or a unicorn is playful, reminding us that delight can be found in the simplest of experiences, and urging us not to take ourselves so seriously.

Both kinds of latte art – the classic and the whimsical – soften the blow of paying as much for a drink as we might for a sandwich and showcase the prowess of the barista. It’s sort of strange if you think about it, but also really enjoyable.