"Real men drink it black."
It was Thanksgiving Day, 1999, a scant three weeks removed from my nuptials, and I found myself celebrating with my new family at their suburban Cincinnati home. Maybe I was still a little seasick from our hurricane-ravaged honeymoon cruise, or maybe the Buckeyes' just-finished 6-6 season was the grounds for my pounding head. All I knew was, I needed some caffeine.
Bright-green soda was my preferred method of legal-drug transference in those youthful days, but with none on hand, I tentatively approached the coffee maker and poured a steaming cup. Then the sugar went in -- a generous amount -- followed by cream enough to turn the quaff's color to something more like egg nog than coffee.
I took a sip. That's when he said it.
My fiancee's dad -- I mean, my father-in-law -- had witnessed my egregious additions, and he was not impressed.
I slunk back to my chair, defeated. My new "dad" doesn't think I'm a real man? I clenched my teeth. All right, I'll show him. From now on, no more sugar. No more cream. And definitely no more of that powdered, partially hydrogenated stuff.
Black coffee would be my new pick-me-up of choice.
The transition wasn't smooth. I was used to picking up a 44-ounce "cup" of soda at a convenience store before work each morning, so sugar (or high-fructose corn syrup, anyway) had me in its grasp. A mug of coffee without it might as well have been turpentine, and my face would involuntarily scrunch up when I took a sip, like a toddler getting his first taste of lemon.
But I soldiered on. I got a coffee maker at home. Tim Hortons built a shop not far from my office, and I started driving through every day. I realized coffee tasted really good with a cinnamon roll.
And then, it started tasting really good all by itself.
I had done it. I had learned to like it. I had acquired a taste for it.
I was a black-coffee guy.
Flash-forward 14 years. Coffee sans accoutrement is my morning friend, hot or iced, every single day. So what does a "real man" do when black coffee becomes commonplace?
Enter kopi luwak, the Southeast Asian coffee sought by foodies the world over for the, er, unique process in which it's created: from the excrement of the Asian palm civet. The cat-like creature eats the coffee cherries, but can't digest the beans, which ferment in its stomach and are collected by farmers after they pass. The result is a coffee often described as exceptionally smooth.
A chance to try kopi luwak is rare in the U.S., and expensive, too, having sold for up to $80 a cup. So when Clintonville's Crimson Cup Coffee and Tea last week offered cups of its limited-time-only supply for $9, the adventurer in me couldn't say no.
As barista Bob Cervas prepared the most exotic cup of joe I'll ever drink -- fashioned via the equally exotic "pour-over" method that involves an hourglass-shaped glass vessel and a five-minute wait -- I asked him what the draw of kopi luwak is. He admitted that while the brew is tasty, it's the once-in-a-lifetime experience that most people are after.
It's not strikingly different from most coffees, he said, but it's a chance for folks to cross something off their bucket lists.
So what does kopi luwak taste like? Cervas said he'd heard a number of descriptors, from the expected smoothness to "earthy, but not dirty," with a fruity undertone. One discerning customer even picked out a "pleasantly acidic" tomato-like flavor, he said.
By that point, my coffee was in front of me, and I did my best impression of a connoisseur, sniffing it, sipping it and sloshing it around in my mouth.
Verdict: It's good. Really good. The subtle fruity flavor became more pronounced as the coffee cooled, and there wasn't a hint of bitterness.
In other words, no need for cream and sugar. I asked Cervas what he'd say if someone tried to add the white stuff to a $9 cup of coffee.
"We want people to experience it black," he said -- not only kopi luwak but Crimson Cup's ever-changing lineup of coffees from several continents. Cervas said he often asks people at the drive-through or at the counter to try a sip of their coffee before adding cream and sugar, and estimated at least 30 percent realize it's tasty enough on its own.
Well, I am the 30 percent. And that makes me a "real man," right? Now if I can just learn to drive a stick shift ...
Dennis Laycock is an assignment editor for ThisWeek News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.