A cup of tepid, weak black coffee is my usual desk-side companion. It's a good thing I take it black and unsweetened; in a jittery flurry of deadlines, I've spilt cold coffee on my keyboard more times than I care to admit, and milk and sugar both leave dangerous conductive residues behind when they dry, thus elevating the risk of permanent damage. Coffee is one epicurean bandwagon I've never been tempted to navigate. I've had the good fortune of experiencing some wonderful coffee, too; freshly roasted and at San Francisco's Blue Bottle Coffee Co artisanal microroasters - but still I've managed to resist falling into its dark and infinite depths. An incident last week at a tiny espresso counter wasn't the first time I've disappointed an eager coffee-worshipping friend who has hoped to transfer some of their love for fine coffee onto me. It never works. "That espresso was nice," I said. "But what I had in mind when I said I wanted coffee was something a little more... subdued."
I wasn't always this way. I used to sit up and beg for a friend's homemade version of Rhode Island's official state drink, "coffee milk". Her version, rather than being made from a packaged syrup, included dark, glassy cubes of coffee that had been frozen in ice trays and plopped into tall glasses of milk where they melted and bobbed and swirled languorously in a deliciously slow miasma. But this wasn't coffee; it was dessert - a mere riff on coffee as far as I can see - not a substitute, and though delicious, had no more to do with an ordinary cup of joe than a mocha-chip sundae or one of those obnoxiously sweet bottled hyper-caffeinated java drinks.
It's 8am on a weekday morning, and I'm at a coffee shop on Hamdan Street. In the US, I'd grown accustomed to coffee houses such as this being built on the premise that the grabbing of a morning cup of coffee is ritualistic one-stop shopping in a paper cup, usually done solo and consumed on the run. In the UAE, however, coffee grounds; there are social implications to having coffee, and it is almost always drunk while sitting down and taking a break. I marvel at the sundae-like towers of burgeoning diabetes: blended sugar and froth. The patron ahead of me is rapping out the specifications for some custom Byzantine caffeine cocktail on ice, replete with half-pumps and extra drizzles. It sounds like a theatre prop.
Does good coffee have to be a shot in the dark? Approximately 20 million people worldwide earn their livelihood from the coffee industry. American coffee franchises took off in the Arab world soon after they were first introduced, due to good marketing, corporate smarts, killer locations, and a sense of novelty and luxury. As I watched the winding queues in July 2006 outside a Starbucks in Beirut, amid military conflict and in spite of the CEO of the chain Howard Shultz's rumoured Zionism, I realised that Frappuccinos are also no longer a negotiable luxury, even in the face of personal conviction. Has the economic downturn affected the frequency with which people are ordering fancy coffee drinks in favour of plain coffee? Not at all. As it turns out, some people would rather sacrifice a lot of other things first.
The flavour of dark-roasted coffee is not the taste of the bean itself; it is the roast. Light roasts are generally more highly caffeinated, because the roasting process destroys caffeine. Often, I'll see an oily slick on the surface of a fresh cup of coffee, which is a sign that it was over-roasted. Anyone who favours starting her day with a triple latte might be interested in knowing that espresso has less caffeine than drip coffee; less of its water-soluble caffeine is extracted due to its much shorter brewing time.
One of my favourite errands to run is picking up freshly ground Arabic or "Turkish" coffee at Beirut Roastery. Like Czech, Polish and cowboy-style coffee, brewed in a pot and strained through a filter of careful movements and wishful thinking, Arabic coffee is muddy, grainy and rich. It is most often taken, as a Czech proverb goes, "black as the devil's heart and sweet as a stolen kiss". And anyone who has drunk enough Arabic coffee in the company of women knows that microcosmic road maps left behind by coffee grounds offer endless opportunities for awkward moments with someone's fortune-telling grandmother. But nothing beats the amber gahwa of this region, and it continues to be considered a hugely important part of Arab hospitality.
Ordering coffee in many formerly colonised places means being served a cup of instant coffee, often with evaporated milk. More often than not, when I ask for my preferred drink, plain old drip coffee, at a coffee shop in Abu Dhabi, I am countered with a blank stare. Am I certain I don't want an Americano? Yes, I want ordinary drip coffee, and I'm happy to wait while it brews.