Umeko Motoyoshi brings us back from the abyss with the power of coffee.
It’s nine a.m. and Umeko and I are in the kitchen. Morning light is casting prismal streaks against our soft blue walls—a color, I just learned, called “Sweet Baby Boy,” originally chosen in honor of our cat, Chip. Chip is at our feet, yowling. We ignore him. Both of us are groggy, wiping sleep from our eyes with clenched fists.
The night before, we had gone to dinner at Gogi Time, a Korean barbecue spot, in honor of our roommate Sam’s birthday. Many cups of sake had been drunk (by me), and many strips of sizzling beef had been consumed (by everyone else except me, the token pescatarian). I hadn’t known this was where we were going to eat, and I was unprepared for the shared format of the meal. As we prepared to order, I’d leaned over to Umeko and asked, tentative, “Would it be alright if I got some fish filet for the table?” Umeko blinked. “Would it be alright if you ordered something you can actually eat? Uh, no,” she said, laughing, and I realized it was an absurd question. I ordered fish filet. Mostly I was the only one who ate it, but that was ok.
It turned out to be the sort of rare, golden night when every person present is the most charming version of themselves, where everything seems hilarious, and tears of laughter shake easily out of your eyes, as though from a deep, endless well in your spasming gut. Now, though, we are exhausted.
The solution, of course, is coffee. Umeko begins to pull out bags of beans, our options for the day. Many of our mornings begin in this way, with Umeko at the counter brewing, and me, sitting in our single kitchen chair, waiting with Chip in my lap. Despite his proclivity for both biting and drooling, he has come to be an essential part of our routine. In the six months I’ve lived in this house, I’ve grown very fond of this ritual, attached to the way this single quiet act of generosity can shift my mood for the rest of the day.
This morning, we are going to be tasting three different coffees, all from Hidden House Coffee Roasters in San Juan Capistrano. They are free samples Umeko received at work. They’d caught her eye because the package contained glittering strands of tinsel. She loves great packaging. She’s the Head of Coffee at Sudden Coffee, a startup with the tagline: “Tastes like pour-over. Works like instant.” She’s been in the industry for ten years, rising up as a barista, before moving on to product development. Around half of the coffee we drink in our house are samples sent to her office.
Our first cup of the day is a Kenyan coffee. Umeko is methodical in her personal approach to brewing; our frequent conversations around coffee often veer into the weeds of technical language, rife with descriptions of chemical reactions which I can’t really follow. She weighs the beans on a digital scale (twenty-one grams), then grinds them using an electric grinder. Next, she places a small, clear pot on the scale, with the ground beans in a filter above, and begins the first pour, “the bloom,” with a rough water to bean ratio of two to one; this pour lasts around thirty seconds. After the bloom, she pours again, this time continuously, maintaining a low level of water. “The trick is to keep it wet and hot,” she says with a laugh.
She is quick to caution against the attitude of superiority often found in the specialty coffee world. While she has developed her preferences over the course of her decade in the industry, she holds no one else to any sort of standard. “People use specialty coffee as a signifier of something intellectual, or like there’s something ‘moral’ about it,” she says. “Like a signifier of a certain kind of sophistication. I’m pretty against that.”
From start to finish, a single brew takes around three to four minutes, which seems like an eternity when you’re really tired, but which I know to be worth it.
Before she pours the cups, she tells me what qualities to expect from a Kenyan. Usually, they are pretty bright and citrusy, she says, or they can be savory, almost like tomato. With my poor palate, and in this state of sleep deprivation, I can’t really parse out the flavors she describes. It tastes like coffee, which is to say, it has the warm, bitter, comforting taste of resuscitation.
The next coffee we try is an Ethiopian varietal. According to the bag, the flavor profile of this coffee is ‘mango candy, strawberry, melon, and pie crust.’ My head is less fuzzy now, but my palate no more refined. Once again, I taste … coffee. And she doesn’t fault me for it, adding quickly, “Flavor notes are really kind of a distraction, I don’t really think about it all that much.”
Still, I am impressed by her knowledge. I tell her that when I use her equipment and follow her instructions, I can never seem to produce a cup of coffee for myself that tastes as good as hers. She finds this funny, but is quick to assuage my ego. “I have almost a disdain or disregard for the preciousness of coffee culture, like ‘handcrafting’ a cup of coffee,” she tells me. “I feel almost loathe to admit that actually those small details can add up and make a difference. I’ve just made coffee for ten years. It’s not ‘cause I’m a genius or anything.”
I try to shift into more formal questions, but I find myself stumbling. It turns out scheduling an interview over coffee, without a pre-coffee coffee, isn’t the best for those of us who rely on caffeine in order to function.
As Head of Coffee, a title which manages somehow to seem both straightforward and opaque, Umeko leads product development and manages the supply chain. Basically, she’s responsible for selecting, purchasing, developing, and brewing their coffee. I ask her how her presence in upper management might make a difference—in the strategies employed by the company both internally and externally. Umeko is successful, but she is also, if anything, the opposite of a Lean In feminist (in fact, she often jokes of writing a book called Lean Out). “You have to be really protective, I think, of the basic human dignity of your team,” she says. “You have to because there is something basically insulting about having to come to work everyday, y’know?” I do know.
As she serves me our last coffee of the morning, a Guatemalan, I refer back to her comment about the ‘preciousness of coffee culture.’ “I think third-wave specialty coffee, the specialty coffee that I sort of grew up in, was all about looking at our customer and saying, ‘You’re not good enough.’” I start cracking up. I might be an outsider, but I spent a fair portion of my early twenties loitering in hip coffee shops. In my mind’s eye, I instantly picture the exact sort of skinny, tattooed dude in a beanie and a V-neck tee who would sneer at me if I asked him to leave room for cream.
She continues, grinning, but perfectly serious, “To be honest! Like, The coffee you like is bad, the way you like to drink your coffee—with milk and sugar?—that’s horrible, you don’t know anything, and you need to change and improve yourself.”
She goes on: “I’m thirty now, and I don’t have to be ‘cool,’ you know what I mean? I don’t listen to cool music, like I only listen to Selena Gomez and old school Britney Spears. I’m not ‘cool’ in this way that used to be important to me.”
I’m tempted here to start snapping my fingers in agreement, but I let her continue, uninterrupted: “That approach to coffee makes no sense for me anymore. If people wanna drink their coffee with milk, sugar, like, whatever, just be happy, be yourself. I don’t think they have to change their whole lives and buy a Chemex and a $500 grinder. I think people should just do what they want.”
Chip meows, I can only presume in agreement, and I smile into my coffee, happy to be drinking it just the way I want.–Tara Marsden