Anyone who has known me for a long time will tell you that I am quite the coffee hound. Unusually, I came to it kind of late, well into my thirties. I had always liked the flavor of coffee, just not the beverage itself: coffee ice cream, Coffee Nips, Kahlua, basically anything that tasted like coffee except, well, coffee. And then one day a miracle happened: I discovered the joys of a cuppa fresh brewed joe, with a dollop of thick cream and a packet of raw organic sugar stirred in. Granted, this was not a miracle of the magnitude of the loaves and fishes, but it was nonetheless a revelation to me. I was in Chicago at the time, in the dead of winter; I remember it quite clearly. The office crowd made a breaktime pilgrimage to the nearby Starbucks every morning around ten; I was initially in it just for the camaraderie, occasionally ordering a mug of hot chocolate just to have something in my hands while we chatted. The coffee was smelling mighty fine that frosty morning, though, and on a whim I opted for a Venti Coffee of the Day, which as I recall was their signature Christmas Blend. It was, to appropriate the closing words of Casablanca, “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Fast forward a bunch of years, and you can look in on a thicker balder Bruce moving into his first shoebox of an apartment in Tokyo. A thoughtful friend had made a grocery store run for me, procuring the basics: a liter of beer, a package of Oreos, a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter (she reeled off the items in Japanese-inflected English as she unloaded them from the bags). “And coffee, of course,” she said, pulling a container from the sack along with a liter of milk. “Oh, wow, I don’t have a coffee maker,” I said, sheepishly. Truth be told, I didn’t have much of anything. “No worries,” she replied. “It’s instant.” INSTANT? ARRGGH! Of course I didn’t say that, but I thought it quite loudly as I made the mental note to visit the local electronics store the following day to buy a coffee maker. Much later that evening, having put away my small stash of personal effects, we plopped down in front of the TV. “How about some pound cake?” she asked. That sounded great to me, and she toddled off to the kitchen, returning in a few minutes with a small tray of cakes and two steaming cups of coffee. I took my first sip totally without thinking. “Wow, that’s good,” I enthused. And then, after a long moment, I realized that I was drinking instant coffee. Not from the taste, but from the fact that I knew nobody had purchased a coffee maker in the interim; indeed, neither of us had left the apartment. I took another sip. It really was good, good enough that I would not have realized it was instant had it been served anywhere else. It was so good, in fact, that four years later I still have not bought a coffee maker. So there it is, my dirty little secret: I drink instant coffee. And I like it. And just today I read that Starbucks has released a line of instant coffees in the US, a first for the coffee monolith. Early reports suggest that it is remarkably close to the “real thing”. I feel vindicated.