Savoring Sh*tty Coffee in Alaska

coffee growing region

By: Hank Murphy

There are many differences between drinking a cup of what MistoBox  sends you and drinking a fossilized cup of Yuban that you brewed with a sock. For example, the Misto coffee will taste better. But there is another difference that is more important in determining how obsessed you become with coffee. It involves what it’s like to remember the experience. Remembering the good-tasting coffee will make you happy, while remembering the Yuban will make your stomach turn and may, perhaps, cause you to feel some shame (depending on the condition of that sock). In looking at my own relationship with coffee, this element of memory is everything.

Here’s how I understand it: the memories of a sublime coffee experience are accompanied by good feelings. For those of us who haven’t mastered Buddha’s teachings, these good feelings trigger a desire for another such experience. The more sublime it is, the stronger the good feelings, and thus the more intense the cravings for another similar experience will be. I’m sure Dr. Pavlov, Freud and the caffeine addiction specialists of the world would turn up their nose at such a simplistic account of this phenomenon, but scientific precision isn’t the point here. The purpose of this reflection is to draw attention to what I believe explains why to some of us coffee is holy and to others… it’s just bean juice.

As I’ve pointed out, the way coffee is roasted, ground and brewed impacts the coffee experience and, in part, dictates how it will be remembered. That’s why we shell out the big bucks for Misto, a burr grinder and a Chemex. Most of us also understand the role of complimentary foods: we know that if you pair your joe with a handful of almonds, peppered salami, or some other salty treat, it tastes better. But of all the possible circumstantial tweaks that can be made to improve a coffee session, the most underestimated contributor to your memory of that event– which I argue is the primary cause of coffee fanaticism– is the setting where it is enjoyed.

Two summers ago, a friend of mine gave me two small bags of pre-ground coffee from his trip to Panama. That summer, I worked for a company leading backpacking trips for teenagers in Alaska. I brought the bags with me, and I made sure they lasted for the entire summer. The coffee was ground too fine, roasted to a charcoal black and became staler than dirt. Nevertheless, it was this undistinguished Panamanian roast that I hold responsible for my coffee obsession.

It happened toward the end of the summer, on my 5th morning in the Talkeetna wilderness. I woke up before my co-leader and the 14 teenage campers, slipped out of my sleeping bag, quietly put on my puffy jacket and fleece pants, and slowly zipped the tent fly behind me. From my backpack I grabbed my Crazycreek camp chair, book, Jetboil stove, Stanley thermos, and coffee kit, then walked to the edge of the pristine high mountain creek responsible for carving the canyon in which we were nestled. After drawing a liter of better-than-Evian, I returned to my chair, ignited the burner and prepared the pour-over. I attached a paper filter to the mouth of my thermos with a rubber band and cascaded the water straight from my Jetboil into my makeshift pour-over system. I sat there in the Alaskan solitude in the early morning dawn reading my book with hot Panamanian coffee. Coffee and I looked into each other’s eyes and said “Love you, babe.” I became blind to all of its flaws– the indelicate roasting, powder grind, and bitter staleness– and saw what Kaldi, the Ethiopian goat herder who discovered coffee did 12 centuries earlier.

It’s owed to experiences like this and those similar to it that I would now rather wake up in North Korea with coffee than next to Gwyneth Paltrow without it. Each new cup brings back memories of that creek. I fully realize that the optimal setting for enjoying coffee is subjective, and expect that each person has their own version of my Alaskan backcountry. The point remains though: setting plays an exceptional role in one’s memory of a coffee experience, and how one remembers drinking coffee determines the value he or she places on doing it again. Drink good coffee; but, more importantly, drink it somewhere cool.

Learn about the best coffee in San Francisco? Or learn how to perfectly brew coffee at home!