Back in 2008, I received a half pound of George Howell’s Terroir Coffee: El Salvador: Finca La Montaña. This particular coffee won the Cup of Excellence the prior year and then – the plantation was completely wiped out by near hurricane strength winds.
The half pound in my possession, in the middle of winter in Minnesota, was some small part of all that remained of years of effort by dozens of people and hundreds of coffee plants. This coffee no longer exists. The place that grew it no longer exists. Wiped off the face of the earth. No matter how amazing it is, no matter how balanced, now smooth, how complex and rich – there is no more of it. No matter how much I wanted one more cup – one more cup to share with you – there is no more. This is all there is.
I had brewed a ghost.
In addition to the dark fruit flavors in the cup, I also noticed hints of somberness, loss, and an awkward exclusiveness. Yet, the finish was still bright with gratitude.
Earlier this week, I judged a homebrew cider competition. In BJCP-sanctioned homebrew competitions, there are 2 bottles of each entry. In the first round, one bottle is opened and two judges spend 10 minutes evaluating a small 1-2oz sample of it. That small sample ensures that at least 6oz remains in the case that this entry advances to the second round (mini-Best-of-Show). The second bottle is only opened if the entry advances to the Best of Show.
These are small amounts, just enough, to make a comprehensive evaluation. Sometimes far more than enough. It doesn’t matter how amazing any given entry is. All you get is an ounce. Maybe two. No more. That’s it. Even if you could track down the homebrewer – they may have no more. Given the multiple weeks between brew days and judging days – it’s highly likely the only bottles remaining are the ones being judged. Even if more existed, they’d still have to get to you. The best they may be able to do is to share their recipe. Assuming you could exactly re-create their beer in your brewery – it’ll still take a minimum of two weeks to enjoy it again. Probably longer. Plus, you probably didn’t exactly recreate it.
Companies like Cocoa-Cola, Pepsi, and Yum! Brands are continually pursuing constant consistency if not at a global scale, then at a mega-region scale e.g. all Cherry Coke Zero in North America should taste exactly the same. And there will always be plenty of it. Even with more agricultural products – like the Simply Orange brand – built on the premise that the vagaries of the orange harvest from every farm in every region across every season can be blended out to produce a deliciously unwavering product. Indefinitely.
When so many of the products we interact with everyday are persistently and consistently available, it’s easy to forget that not everything is. It’s easy to mindlessly consume. Not savoring, not contemplating, not considering, not appreciating, not acknowledging that once we consume it, it’s gone. Completely gone. There is no more for anyone else. Not even us. Through our consumption, we have extinguished it.
Whether an offering from a chocolatier half way around the globe, or coffee from a nonexistent plantation, or an amazingly delightful beet Berliner Weisse, or anything else on your plate, or the people around it. It is a privilege, an exclusive and elusive privilege be have these things for your pleasure, for your sustenance. For when the glass is empty, when the plate is clean, when the moment is over – these things are gone. Gone forever.
In Somm – Into the Bottle – there’s a scene where a vintner at Clos Ste. Hune opens up one of the few remaining 1962 vintages that his father created. After he pours an ounce for himself, he offers an ounce to his son and directs,
“You have to put this wine in your memory. You have to register every little detail. Each vintage has to be registered in your mind.”
Register the nuances of each aromatic, the exact level of tannic astringency, each distinct note; the sweetness, the depth and complexity, the acidity, the alcohol presence, the dryness of the finish – then label it ‘1962 Reisling’, and put it on a shelf in your memory palace. All from just an ounce or two.
Assuming you’re paying attention to every sensation, appreciative for the opportunity, for the privilege, of being able to enjoy this tiny bit of an ever dwindling supply not just of coffee, or beer, or wine. An ounce is more than enough.
For each time they open a bottle from 1962, there’s one less bottle from 1962. Eventually, the last bottle will be opened and memory is all that will remain.
It’s easy to assume there will always be one more moment, that like the ever-refilled shelves of the grocery store, there will always be tomorrow. Unfortunately, unlike the these things we can put in cans and bottles to preserve, to transport through time, time itself is continually being destroyed by hurricane-strength winds. This minute is unapologetically wiped out by the next. This hour is slowly, quietly, sneaking away from us, never to be heard from again. Each breath is a complex blend of somberness, loss, awkward exclusiveness, gratitude, calm, and opportunity.
The best we can do is to savor every detail. To register these rare moments in our memory. We don’t really know how many moments are left for us, our memory is all there is.
The sound of the garbage trucks jerking mechanically down the street. The clacking of the keys on the keyboard, the sound of tiny footsteps running down the hallway. The humm of the fluorescent lights. The smell of a clear summer day. Vintage – 11:20am Wednesday June 8, 2016.