Coffee coffee buzz buzz buzz: What’s brewing?
US alternative weeklies were still in their heyday back when I began writing for a living. Shortly after I left my day job (i.e., went from part- to full-time freelancing), I pitched a couple of arts ideas to an editor at The Washington Blade, who in return asked if I would be interested in a restaurant review gig. As a (then) vegetarian in the land of lobbyist steak houses, I countered with an offer to do a round-up of best veggie eateries in DC. “Vegging out in style” ran in an era before everybody’s neighbor had a food blog with geotagged photos and YouTube demos. My straightforward observations and opinions didn’t pretend to offer in-depth analysis; I was only a food expert in the sense that I eat every day. After the piece ran, the editor again asked if I was interested in the gig.
On the 13 days that I wasn’t writing my latest veggie-friendly review, I read about food. I sussed out pretty quickly that there was plenty for me to write about beyond just what I ate: decor, vibe, menu options, trends, value, location, for starters. And since I knew that the food itself mattered, I worked hard at avoiding superlatives and at developing an ability to detect and articulate my palate’s experience. The discipline of a column helped me anticipate the sorts of things I needed to watch for. Ultimately, I trained myself to understand what I taste in a far more nuanced way than I had before.
Those skills really paid off when a chef asked me to ghost write her cookbook and edit recipes. Later, I wrote about the intersections of food, health, and nutrition; sustainable agriculture and the people who grow the plants we eat; and the cultural traditions behind local dishes.
Through all that, somehow, I skipped over learning much about coffee or wine. I knew what I liked and what I didn’t, and if pressed could come up with some evocative adjectives, but never bothered to learn all the classifications, and couldn’t identify what I was drinking unless I’d sneaked a peak at the label earlier.
I had a crash course in coffee when I wrote my first piece for CNN Travel, “Coffee comes home: How the cappuccino conquered South Africa.” Since then, I’ve been far more sensitive to coffee trends in South Africa, weaving them into a number of stories. My latest, “What’s Brewing?” features Sihle Magubane, a barista-turned-roaster in Johannesburg.