Chocolate, Chai, and Croissants

Navigating Coffee Shops When You Don’t Like Coffee

“How are you surviving college?” is a question I get asked at least once a week, usually when people find out I don’t drink coffee. I know it’s hard to believe, especially in a world that runs on coffee. Anyone who knows me by now understands that I’m very specific when it comes to beverages and knows how difficult it is to explain, especially since I’m often found in Blue State. Aside from my general dislike of plain coffee or espresso, I’ve never wanted to start drinking coffee because I know once I start, there will be no going back.

Many people are confused because I love the smell of coffee. It reminds me of early mornings in my kitchen at home, eating breakfast with my dad and his cup of freshly brewed Kona Coffee. Growing up around the iconic dripping sounds of a coffee maker probably should have predisposed me to become a young coffee drinker. Though I inherited a love of coffee ice cream from my parents, and I come from a state that is known for its coffee production, the taste of black coffee is too bitter and overwhelming for me. Coffee in chocolate, coffee in desserts, and even coffee-marinated steak are all right up my alley, because my sweet tooth insists that the coffee flavor be mixed with lots of cream and sugar.

I can’t remember the first time I tried coffee, but it was most likely at some point during high school. When the lists of homework assignments grew longer and my time spent sleeping became shorter, many of my peers turned to coffee. Both my determination to avoid coffee dependency and my childhood of only drinking water helped deter me from coffee drinking. I slept—and got less work done—instead of turning to coffee. The summer after freshman year of college, my family went on a trip to Michigan and spent one day on a series of farm tours. One stop was a local coffee roaster, where we learned about the different flavors that showed up in different coffee beans and sampled many cups of black coffee. A few sips in, and I was done. As amazing as our tour leader and my dad were making it sound (coffee that tasted like green tea!) the taste was simply not appealing. I couldn’t fathom drinking a whole cup of it; I would be so tired of the taste.

Ironically, I’m writing these words while in a coffee shop, one of the few places where my friends know to look for me on campus. I do well in coffee shop environments; the atmosphere is less stifling than a library, and there’s a constant supply of food—what could be better? Freshman year was the start of my coffee shop affinity, because I lived above Blue State, and I pretty much haven’t left since. Perhaps it is the writer in me that feels comfortable in the chatter, laptops, and mugs of coffee shops. For someone who doesn’t like coffee, it’s been an interesting three years of writing, socializing, and meeting in cafés. It’s like going to a carnival when you hate crowds or going to an aquarium even though fish freak you out.

For the first couple of years, hot chocolate was my standard coffee shop order because that was the only thing I knew I liked for sure. I felt a bit like a child amongst my peers, ordering hot chocolate in stark contrast to their artsy mochas and cappuccinos and iced coffees. It was a bit like ordering a grilled cheese at a sandwich shop. Always afraid of what people might think of me, I hesitated to order something that would mark me as unsophisticated because I was a college student. Despite the self-consciousness that filled me each time they called out my order at the counter, I wasn’t willing to give up the sweet coziness of hot chocolate.

When self-consciousness gets in the way of my drink order, I go for the more calorie-filled, but also more delicious, option of baked goods. Coffee shops, unless they’re the purist ones, usually have a great selection of pastries. And I’m not talking Starbucks’s case of pre-made and shipped ones, though I break down and buy those occasionally. I’m talking the at-least-mostly-homemade treats at smaller coffee shops. I would say I’ve devoted a good part of my life to baking and consuming sweet treats, so it’s no surprise that I would gravitate towards the pastry cases and artfully arranged displays in every bakery and café I visit. It certainly provides much more entertainment than a cup of coffee. Blue State changes out their pastries daily, with different flavor variations on cookies, muffins, scones, tea breads, and croissants, all of which I’ve tried by now in my attempt to avoid coffee. Chai also became a go-to, because it had the perfect combination of tolerable flavor and sophistication. It was an adult drink and much cozier than coffee ever would be.

I stuck with what I knew: hot chocolate, chai, and pastries. This is the scale with which I measure the quality of coffee shops—not by their coffee. Coffee lovers and experts will probably cringe to hear this, but I can’t help it. It’s like my propensity to choose restaurants based on their dessert menu: My sweet tooth starts talking and I can’t stop listening.

It’s not easy disliking one of the most popular beverages in the world, especially on a campus full of coffee lovers in a town that has no shortage of cozy coffee shops for doing work. Each one has its own vibe, differently sourced and produced coffee, and a variety of pastries to choose from. You can’t go wrong with an apple cider doughnut or amazingly giant bear claw from Coffee Exchange, and if you can only enjoy coffee when it’s disguised, their mochas are perfectly chocolaty. At The Shop, an apple cornbread muffin or toast plate is the way to go. The chai lattes at Blue State are the best I’ve tried on College Hill, and their pastry case is all too appetizing for my shrinking wallet. Dave’s Coffee is known for the pastries, especially the scones and chocolate chunk cookies. So really, there is a lot to enjoy aside from coffee in this college town and coffee-milk-drinking state.

My coffee-drinking habits, or lack thereof, are not going to get any easier to explain. But for anyone else out there who also doesn’t like caffeine or coffee, there’s still hope of fulfilling your visions of comfy armchairs and wooden tables at which to write your next novel with dim chatter in the background. Perhaps it’s only my vision, but I believe that the coffee shop can be for anyone.