How I learned to stop worrying and drink coffee already | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

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How I learned to stop worrying and drink coffee already

A caffeine newbie tries not to lose his mind


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DAY SEVEN: A sojourn at Intelligentsia

I get it, not sampling the coffee of local roasting juggernaut Intelligentsia is a cardinal sin on the same plane as slathering a Chicago dog in ketchup.

There's a level of intimidation upon entering Intelligentsia. The suits and business-casual patrons, not to mention the dapper, vested baristas, look a tad more high-society than the derelict wearing cutoff jean shorts and whatever T-shirt was on top of the laundry pile this morning. The Monadnock space is well lit, crisp, and inviting, however—with the theater of the V60 pour-over technique acting as one its main aesthetic lures.

My longest and blankest stare at a coffee menu just happened. Big day. I eventually ask a barista for his recommendation for a novice coffee drinker, and he begins by repping the Flecha Roja Costa Rica, which I order before he even finishes his spiel. One week in and flavor deconstructions like "cherry, orangeade, and pomegranate up front with refreshing acidity and a long brown finish" haven't started registering, so he can hold his breath. My palate is a few dozen car lengths shy of catching up to subtle hints of dark chocolate or jicama or lemongrass or whatever. Plus my tongue is a barren wasteland, scorched by near-boiling temperatures over the past week.

My first Intelligentsia experience is fine. I undoubtedly recognize it as good coffee—I did drink 16 ounces of gnarliness from Circle K not 24 hours ago—but my undeveloped taste thus far yields no more than just that distinction. To try and fake some haughty coffee expertise would be on par with that phony- baloney Alex Trebek pretending to know every Jeopardy! answer, though the master key is right in front of him.

Caffeine mixed with unseasonably warm weather mixed with a bike ride from the Loop to Logan Square at 5 PM equals palm sweats, pit sweats, and an incredible sense of impending doom due to an unfamiliar and too-heightened sense of focus.

But my brain isn't floating as much, so that's cool.

DAY EIGHT: Hardcorebitter-steroidhyperbrew

Zak and Tristan at Gaslight tell me that Ipsento on Western brews excellent espresso—or the coffee equivalent of a shot of adrenaline. Not as high in caffeine as a cup of coffee, espresso is more concentrated and compact, and it's "pulled" in about 30 seconds, compared to the three minutes that drip coffee is in contact with hot water. The finer espresso grounds yield a syrupy, damn-near-motor-oil viscosity and a flavor that comes out as a stupid, spliced-together adjective in my notes: hardcorebittersteroidhyperbrew. Served with a side of soda water to act as a chaser and combat the powerful aftertaste and cleanse the palate, Ipsento's espresso is a little too much, a little too soon for me. Not to mention the dainty, unwieldy cup.

Once my taste develops, though, I bet a 9:20 AM shot on my way to work would be a good jolt to the day. No dillydallying through a cup while the coffee eccentrics—forever milling around with seemingly never a place to go—get refill after refill and scribble into whatever tattered notebook you can never quite glimpse (which I guess I'm doing right now).

DAYS NINE AND TEN: From thrash to slow drip

One of my goals throughout this process has been to drink coffee and promptly enter situations—hard-core record shopping, bike riding through rush hour, etc—that are sure to exacerbate my longtime anxiety.

So I grab a 12-ounce Metropolis coffee from Kickstand in Lakeview and chug it in the cold rain outside Metro just before heading in to see Converge, Torche, and Kvelertak. Once inside the venue, I'm met with the thundering rattle of Kvelertak's bass drum, which speeds alongside the rapid throbbing of my head like an in-stride sprinter. I fervently spout compliments as the Norwegians blow through their black-metal-meets-rock-'n'-roll set in front of a listless crowd. I'm in a great mood, throwing out my voice as I'm trying to scream over the band's screaming.

If there's one thing drinking caffeine has done this past week and a half, it's made me more effusive and positive.

   *   *   *

Today begins with me cursing for a wet Friday morning that's going to deny me the ability to ride in to work. Knowing I have to grab a cup somewhere, I opt for a new coffeehouse on the Blue Line at Chicago. Big Shoulders is stark and unassuming—no kitsch or irony, just a minimalist Scandinavian design accented by jazz flowing out of the speakers. The menu is equally pared down. Add to that the genius decision to install a flat-screen TV that streams the CTA's Train Tracker website—the shop is ten feet from the Chicago train stop—and I'm sold.

I go for the slow-drip. Chef-turned-coffee roaster and shop owner Tim Coonan prefers the Clever method of slow-drip coffee, which, truth be told, yields the cleanest cup I've had during this vision quest. The flavor is thick and expansive and well extracted—no floral flourishes here, just straight black coffee that has me well convinced punching through a cinder block is a real thing I can do.

At work, I'm bug-eyed and staring straight through my computer screen, damn close to typing at a Shining level of psychosis.

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