Caffeine Magic

The wind is bitter, biting cold even though I know the serious weather has yet to settle in.  Fall is a delicious season of in-betweens; a time of transition from life to death and decay, before the calm hibernation of winter sets in and time freezes in slow introspection. I love this time of year, the crisp air a constant reminder of what it takes to get through a long winter.  Fallen leaves line the narrow streets of Quebec City, a crinkly carpet of orange hues fading to brown, bright with the late morning sun. The city’s inhabitants take the cooler weather and shorter days in stride.  These are tough folk. Early on Sunday morning, the vast Abrahams Plain park where battle for this city was waged centuries ago today is lined with runners traversing the fields in all directions, emerging from the woods and disappearing into other trails, farther down by the river. People are training, running up and down hills with poles that hint at snowy sports to come in just a few months… or weeks, given the fickle mistress that is mother nature and myself a poor judge of her ever-changing temperament. 


I wind my way back toward the apartment on St. Jean street, crossing Cantook for about the fifteenth time during my weekend trip to the city. Rue St. Jean is lined with attention-seeking store fronts: clothing stores, restaurants, épiceries, all vying with each other to be a bit quirkier than the last. This part of town has been going through a sort of small-scale renaissance for the past few years, the historic industrial bones of the buildings full of twenty-first century life and new ideas. Flickering in the window of Cantook is a little sign that reads Love & Café in fluorescent red lights. I have yet to set foot inside and today is my last chance. 


I have long been an ardent believer in the magical qualities of coffee.  Long drawn to coffee shops, a place to think, to read, and of course, to drink coffee, I've had a few stints working in these locales, this past year in a little café, nestled in the high Sierra mountains of Eastern California and years ago, the university coffee shop. Yet somehow, even after months of long hours and intensive labor the coffee magic remains an elusive one. What is it about coffee? An object of human fascination, a part of daily rituals the world over, it is somehow more than the sum of its parts. Entering Cantook, I order a predictably good latte.  I don’t realize it yet, but Cantook holds some of these evasive answers in sight, and I am about to realize, more accurately in smell.


We settle in at the counter around back, tucked in behind the espresso machine. There are a few regulars strewn throughout the back part of the shop, an older man announcing headlines from the Quebec Chronicle through an unapologetic handlebar mustache that is greying to white.  Behind him towards the back nook, two young professionals congregate over caffeine. I inhale my latte and granola and I am busy eyeing up all of the coffee apparatuses when the pony-tailed barista and owner Simon (I learn his name from the wifi password simonishot) asks if we are interested in partaking in a ‘cupping’.


I am intrigued at the proposition and I haven’t the slightest idea what to expect. The set-up is elaborate. Cantook is anything but spacious, which does nothing to deter Simon from installing a rolling-cart in the middle of the main room in front of the counter, essentially the only free space in the whole joint. The table is set with six small plates of coffee beans, three on the near side of the table and three directly behind them, on the far side. The process involves comparing three different types of beans, two from Guatemala and one fruity varietal from Kenya. Simon points out the handwritten cards that delineate each type of coffee. Cantook roasts its own beans, but before they choose the beans the ‘cupping’ process allows them to determine how consistent the batch of beans is that they'll be buying.  Consistency is important, Simon explains, to establish a baseline before doing the different roasts (light, medium, dark).  


Another barista grinds the different types of coffee and sets three smaller cups in front of each of the larger plates. The array expands as six plates multiply by a factor of three. Simon picks up one of the small cups of ground coffee holding it up to his nose and inhaling deeply. He instructs us to do the same. We do. Moving from one cup to the next we attempt to sniff out the difference from one type of coffee to the next, and within the same type of coffee, in case there is any cross-contamination.  There is, since the not-so-trusty assistant has sent some of the beans through the grinder before cleaning it, he realizes apologetically. Simon waves his hands, undeterred. I feel like I am participating in some sort of inexact science experiment.


Simon’s assistant is back on the scene, his long beard quivering over the steaming hot water he is bringing us for stage two. He carefully pours hot waterover every cup of coffee grinds, all eighteen of them. New smells waft forth from the cups and again, we hover over the cups for a series of deep inhalations.  This is heady stuff.  Simon is chatty, and whenever his English fails him the other baristas translate. My French is minimally helpful, as oriented as it is to French jargon and expressions. Simon delights in the process and in sharing it with us. “Cantook is all about this. The word comes from the meeting of people in Canada, when the French fur trappers came into contact with the native people already living here.” People coming together, borders being crossed and created, these are the rhythms of the world that persist from one century to another and coffee-shops, one little microcosm thereof.


Now we're on to the next step, spoons in hand to push the frothy part of the coffee from the front of the cup to the back, releasing new smells.  It's olfactory overload, confusing albeit enjoyable. We then must remove the foam entirely from the top of the cup, circling the cup with two spoons, back to front, circling the cup. This requires a surprising amount of coordination, I am realizing.  Coordination and patience. And finally the reward: tasting the coffee we have been inhaling for the past forty-five minutes.  Although Simon advises us to spit most of it out, it is a difficult warning to heed.  “Do you do this every day?” I can’t help but wondering aloud. 


Simon chuckles  but out loud he only says, “Oh, no. The cupping is a few times a year occurrence, upon the arrival of a new batch of coffee beans”.  I emerge from Cantook back into the cool, grey day now armed with the warmth of caffeine dreams and the excitement of a new city ahead.