The Philosophy of Coffee
A sneak peak into Filosofi Kopi (1996) by Dewi "Dee" Lestari. The short story is originally in Indonesian, this is a translated part of the story. No copyright infringement intended, just want to share this beautiful story. Translation is 100% my own works. The story is now also available in motion picture under the same name.
I’ve spelled it so many times while observing the black powder. Thinking about what kind of charm does it possess that this one human is so crazy about it: Ben… B-e-n.
Ben has travelled the world, searching for a correspondent everywhere to get the best coffee from the whole country. He consulted with coffee mixer experts from Rome, France, Amsterdam, London, New York, and even Moscow.
Ben, with his limited language skill, begging people so that he’s allowed to infiltrate their kitchens, sneak into their bars, digging the secret blend of top notch baristas to know the right dose to brew café latte, cappuccino, espresso, Russian coffee, Irish coffee, macchiato, and so on. Until one day, it’s the time for Ben to open his own coffee shop. Idealistic coffee shop.
One year ago, I officially became his partner. Based on mutual trust between friends, added with foolhardiness to speculate, I handed my whole saving to be his shop’s stock. Other than the assets in the form of money and administration skill, I know nothing about coffee. It’s entirely Ben’s assets.
Now, you can say that Ben is the greatest coffee brewer or barista in Jakarta. And he enjoys every second of his career. In this coffee shop of ours, Ben does not stay in the corner, but takes a place in a bar right in the middle of the shop so that visitors can watch his action in making coffee. With our coffee selection, most of the shop’s customers are true coffee fans who would not stop admiring our menu list. Truly admiring because they understand.
The shop flooring and half of the wall are layered with merbau wood with coarse texture, coffee posters with various poses are neatly mounted along the walls in glass frames. The pinnacle is a big glass window, labelled with the name of our coffee shop in letters that would remind you of Dutch-styled barbershop:
B E N & J O D Y
Jody… J-o-d-y. You can find him in a less than attractive place, behind the cashier machine or in the corner with a calculator. While in the centre of the orbit, Ben will talk endlessly, his both hands dance with the machine, rows of big cans, mixers, cups, glasses, and all kind of tools in the long table.
Our shop is not as big and is quite simple compared to other cafes in Jakarta. But here, every inch was prepared with intensity. Ben choose each chair and table –every one of which is different- by trying them one by one, at least in a quarter hour per item. He tried them while breathing in a cup of coffee, and feeling with his instinct, whether the furniture is one ‘soul’ with the experience of drinking coffee. The same thing goes with glasses, cups, bush kettle, pots, and the rest. None of them was picked without going through Ben’s compatibility tests first. With him as the centre, surrounded by them who sit on the tightly-arranged tables and chairs in various models, I feel like I was watching a private event. A coffee-drinking party, small and personal, with Ben as the host.
But, what makes this place really special is the coffee experience created by Ben. He does not only blend and taste the coffee, but also ponders about the coffee he brews. Ben draws meaning, creates analogy, until a philosophy is created for each coffee brew.
“That’s what makes me love this drink. Coffee has a strong character.” I can hear faintly what Ben said to one of the female visitors who sit near the bar.
“Like your choice here, cappuccino. This is for those who prefers tenderness and beauty.” Ben smiles while slides forward a cup. “Do you now, cappuccino is the most flirtatious of coffees?”
The lady giggles.
“It’s different from café latte, even though they look alike. Cappuccino requires a high standard of appearance. They can’t be carelessly styled, but they must look as beautiful as possible.”
“A true cappuccino lover will certainly look at the appearance of the cappuccino in his cup before tasting it. If it looked dishevelled and without a concept from the start, they might not even want to drink it.” Ben explains while skilfully form the froth that floats in the cup into a beautiful heart shape.
“How about kopi tubruk (Indonesian black coffee)?” Somebody asks playfully.
“Innocent, simple, but enticing if we know it well,” Ben quickly answers. “Kopi tubruk doesn’t care about appearance, rugged, and easily made. As if we don’t need a special skill to make it. But, wait till you smell the aroma,” like a circus performer Ben serves a cup of black coffee, “please, complimentary for you.
With a stunned face, he received the cup offered by Ben, ready to sip.
“Wait!” Ben holds him. “The magnitude of kopi tubruk lies on its temperature, pressure, and the proper sequence of steps for making it. All of it will be wasted if you lose its real purpose: the aroma. Try to breathe in the fragrance first. This is a special coffee that was planted at the foot of the Kilimanjaro mountain.”
The person flares his nostrils; breathe in deeply the puff of smoke soaring from his cup. His eyes sparkle with satisfaction.
Seeing the reaction, Ben nods with similar satisfaction. A moment later, he has already moved on, talking to other visitors with the same spirit and attention.
When the coffee shop is closed for the day, we’re left alone in the corner with our conversations. The only opportunity we have to finally drink our own coffee.
“Do you realise that we’ve owned this shop for over a year now?” My eyes trail the woods in the coffee shop, my musing blends with the coffee in my cup.
“So many people have come and gone…” Ben’s tone suddenly rises, as if something stings him, “and do you know what my conclusion is?”
“That we’ll be filthy rich soon?”
“No guarantee in that. But all the character and meaning of life is here.”
“In this list of drinks?” I point at the thin menu left on the table.
Firmly, Ben nods.
“How can you summarise the infinite numbers into a list of drinks?” I look at him with amusement, “Ben… Ben…”
“Jody… Jody…” He shakes his head too. “This book is a living book, a list that will constantly grow. As long as there is coffee bean, people will find themselves here.” Ben holds up his list of coffee blends right in front of my nose.
His expression is bubbling like boiling water. Ben just got a new idea. I’m daydreaming when Ben will finally build a shrine for coffee beans, cos it seems like it’s just a matter of time.
- - TO BE CONTINUED - -
Read the rest of the story in Filosofi Kopi (1996) book by Dewi Lestari. Or watch the movie, released in 2015.
-As seen in The Philosophy of Coffee.