My Drug: Caffeine

I will admit it fairly quickly - I'm a fiend when it comes to coffee. I need it to get me going every day, from my two cups before work to pop open these eyelids to the occasional mid-day mocha and the sometimes pre-workout cup after work.

The funny thing about it all is that I used to hate coffee. I didn't even like the smell of it, let alone drinking the bitter, dark liquid. Growing up neither of my parents drank coffee and really no one I was around did either, apart from one grandma. Looking back on it I was probably only exposed to instant types or other things I still won't touch.

I didn't even drink coffee in college, preferring to get my much-needed caffeine fixes from Pepsi (something I'm still trying to rid myself of the long-term impact of - damn those grams of unused sugary carbohydrates turning into fat!). None of my roommates ever drank coffee either, at least not regularly. We didn't have a coffeemaker of any kind, let alone a grinder or some airtight container to store beans.

On the occasion when I was with people who stopped at Starbucks the smell of the place actually nauseated me. Heck, I'd prefer to wait outside in the cold and have someone else get me a hot chocolate.

So what changed? There has to be something that transforms a person from one who despises even the smell to someone who would drink six cups a day if that was remotely a good idea, right?

Well, Wifey drank some when I met her. We'd take short walks from work to Starbucks for a caramel macchiato. Eventually the smell didn't nauseate me and I came to kind of like it, though I still didn't drink it. That's a warning for all you people who don't like the smell - as soon as that starts to change even the slightest bit, it's over. You will come from the dark side to the sunshine of the enlightened, it's only a matter of time at that point. No going back.

For me, while those trips seemed to have started me down the path, it wasn't the true trigger. That came in Hawaii, which has since become my gold standard for all things coffee.

On our honeymoon Wifey and I went on a 10-day cruise around the Hawaiian islands (and Fanning Island in the nation of Kiribati). One of the stops on the cruise was in Kona on the big island of Hawaii. I had heard of Kona coffee and had been to Kona before, but that had never really interested me. However, it did interest Wifey.

Towards the end of the day she decided she wanted to check out the area around the port to see if she could find some coffee to bring home. We had no education on the area, no experience with Kona coffees, so at random we chose this tiny little shop called Country Samurai Coffee Company to duck into. To my surprise the smell of the place was heavenly - not just the tolerable I had gotten used to at a Starbucks.

We were the only ones in the shop and the storekeeper took the time to explain to us about the different kinds of beans they sold, about the specifics of what makes a coffee "Kona" (not all beans from Kona are Kona coffee beans), and to watch out for beans not advertised as 100% Kona. Those are the worst, because you try them expecting Kona goodness and get something cut with beans from another part of the world - sort of like a cocaine dealer cutting product with sugar or baking soda. It's just not the same, you know?

Wifey liked the sample and to her utter shock I took the storekeeper up on his offer to try it myself. And I actually liked it. We bought some beans to bring home, and coffee nation had another convert.

Of course, when we got home from our trip we realized we didn't have a coffee grinder, so we had to go buy one of those. And then we ended up buying a combination coffee/espresso maker from Krups, because that's the next evolutionary step, making your own espresso as well.

For awhile I stuck only to Kona coffee, firm in my belief that if people told me something else isn't as good then why bother, right?

The problem with that is cost, since coffee at $35-40 a pound (when shipped from the islands) isn't the most cost effective way to drink when you start needing it daily. Or on an intravenous drip.

So we started dabbling. We got bit by the Kona blend lying in advertisings a couple of times (seriously, talk about the need for truth in packaging - Hulk angry!!) before we finally learned that lesson. Then, as we did more and more research on the topic we figured out Kona actually has some sister flavors from other parts of the world in similar climates. From Peet's coffee we learned we also liked their single origin beans from Guatemala, and if you look at a flattened world map you will see why.

We've even tried a couple other officially 100% Kona coffees at similar prices from other farms off the internet, but for us, only one other Kona is comparable to Country Samurai - and that's the Reserve offering from Peet's. The flavors are very similar. Wifey says she prefers the Peet's one, I think I prefer the Country Samurai one, but at the end of the day both are excellent and neither one get dumped out of my cup anywhere but down my gullet.

To me a good Kona should be smooth, easy, with hints of chocolate. Some of the others we have tried and didn't like weren't smooth, even when run through a French press (which supposedly makes a smoother cup - apparently not always). I used to think dryer beans were the key, but while the Country Samurai beans are dry the Peet's ones are very oily, so who knows.

Recently I've found a couple other coffees, fairly local, that seem like pretty good, more cost effective substitutes for a Kona addiction.

We had heard good things about some Dancing Goats, so when we saw it at Whole Foods we decided to give it a try. Very good stuff. It's smooth and with a tad of sweet - not chocolatey, but sweet. The company that makes this, Batdorf & Bronson, has the interesting setup of having roasting facilities in Atlanta, Georgia and up in Washington, which struck me as odd. Still, it's good stuff, and a third the price of good Kona. Would I choose it over Kona? Probably not, but it's still pretty dang good.

Here in Portland we also have Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Portland coffee lovers, the die-hards are fiercely anti-Starbucks and absolutely loyal to Stumptown. Personally I don't have anything against Starbucks, except for the fact the smaller coffeeshops tend to do a better product. However, that's not going to stop me from getting a Starbucks mocha at the airport in Vegas or anywhere else in the world (that was a business coup, getting the lockdown on the airport market).

I had heard a lot about Stumptown, so one day when we were downtown we headed over to a location and got a mocha. It was okay, nothing special. Then on our walking tour of Portland we stopped at a Stumptown and tried a couple single origin coffees, the places I don't recall and the tastes were nothing to write home about. At this point it seemed to me like people were just being too anti-Starbucks so they were embracing the biggest local thing - either that or I simply didn't have a good enough palate to know what was or wasn't fantastic.

In doing research into what local coffeeshops we should check out it seemed the common theme in all of them was they served Stumptown. Given my experience with the company I was understandably wary, but after going to places like Coffeehouse Northwest, Barista, Albina Press, and others - and having good coffee at all of them - I bought into this notion I had read online somewhere that if you want good Stumptown you have to go somewhere other than Stumptown. So far, I have found that to be true. I don't exactly see that as a ringing endorsement of Stumptown's coffeeshops, but it does say a lot for their people who find and roast the beans. Good things of course, very good things.

It seemed like a good time to see what I could do with the beans myself, so I picked up a bag of the Hairbender blend - this is the same blend I loved when we had brunch at Screen Door - to see what I could do at home. After putting those beans through the French press I was absolutely floored at how good they were. I still rank them a spot below the good Konas, but Stumptown knows what they are doing and I would recommend these to anyone - just take them home and use them yourself.

We all have different tastes, so it's not likely Country Samurai or Peet's Kona will be the best for everyone's palate. In fact, maybe I'm the weird one, since brands people rave about I don't think that highly of. I'm open to that...and if it's true, well then more for us.

Now, if you'll excuse me it's been an hour - I need to go make some more coffee.

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