One cup of coffee

I started drinking coffee as a college freshman, and gradually learned to enjoy it. By the time I was in graduate school I had begun experimenting with what passed for exotic coffees in 1970s America—Medaglia D’Oro, Café Bustelo, French Market. After college I discovered things like espresso, fresh-roasted whole beans (first at Diedrich’s in Silicon Valley, then at the wonderful Andersons in Austin), varietals, home grinders, and even home roasters.

By 2000 I was roasting my own beans, usually Guatemala Antigua or Sumatra Mandheling, first with a specialized small-batch roaster and then with a stovetop popcorn popper. But then I began to back off. It took me close to an hour to roast enough beans for a few days use. And when we moved to Bristol the only decent source of fresh-roasted beans was the Acoustic Coffeehouse in Johnson City, a 40-minute drive.

At the same time I was starting to question my foodie habits—was it really anything more than indulgence to invest so much time and expense seeking after pleasant experiences, and even more on tweaking them in small ways in hopes of something exquisite? Were the experiences truly exquisite, or was I inclined to con myself that they were in order to justify the cost? Was it more about snobbery than pleasure?

That shift in attitude changed my view of food quite a bit. For coffee, I was glad to avail myself of fine brews when the opportunity arose, but I now gave plenty of weight to the expense and trouble. There was a time when I might have driven a long way and paid a premium price for a cup brewed by the Clover coffee machine. These days I might try it if I was in the vicinity of one—or maybe not, if the cup was too expensive. (Starbucks seems to sell them for about $3 per 12oz cup, something I might pay for once.)

For many years my coffee routine has been fairly stable. I use Starbucks House Blend beans, because I could buy them on my monthly trip to Sams Club for $8 per pound. Some don’t care for Starbucks extra-dark roasting (I’ve heard it called “Starburnts”), but I like it fine and it’s far above the threshold of drinkable. I’m always on the lookout for a local source of good freshly roasted beans, but I will no longer pay a high premium or go to great lengths for them. I have also occasionally tried cheaper beans, house brands and no-name stuff, but I disliked them enough that I’m willing to pay Starbucks prices.

To grind the beans I use the Solis burr grinder I bought 12 years ago for $100. Sounds expensive, and I’m not sure I would spend the money again. A burr grinder beats a $25 blade grinder in two ways: it doesn’t heat the coffee (not all that important to me) and it produces an even grind (possibly important to me). When the Solis started making funny noises a year ago I bought a blade grinder just in case, but the noises stopped and I haven’t needed it. If it turns out that the uneven grind of a blade grinder causes brewing problems I would consider another Solis—after all, I figure it’s made me 10,000 cups of coffee over its lifetime, and a better brew is worth one cent per cup. But I’d be sure to spend some time using the blade grinder first.

To brew the coffee, until yesterday I used a 2-cent paper filter and a one-cup Melitta filter cone ($3 or so) that sits atop the 16oz mug I’m using. I use an electric kettle to heat the water, then pour it over the coffee, which then takes a minute or so to drip through into the cup. Simple enough, and the coffee is fresher and better tasting than any higher-tech method I can afford would produce.

However, I have just bought an Aeropress coffeemaker (above right), a simple gizmo that produces a brew somewhere between drip and french press. You put a filter into the bottom of the column, spoon coffee into it, then pour hot water (about half a cup) over that. Wait ten seconds, stir, wait another ten seconds, then use the plunger to push the coffee through the filter into the cup. Cleanup is surprisingly simple—pop a nearly dry disc of coffee grounds out of the column into the trash, then rinse the parts.

The resulting coffee is high strength, having used half the water. To make it normal strength, just add the rest of the water. Or drink it strong! One thing I learned very early on in my coffee drinking (from Consumer Reports, of all places) is that there is no strength threshold above which coffee turns acidic or bitter or otherwise undrinkable; it just gets stronger. You may not like it so strong—but then again you might, and it is worth trying. I drink mine very strong, using maybe twice as much grounds as folks would use for a “strong” cup. I like the taste, and I like that I can drink half as much liquid. I make one cup in the morning and one cup after lunch.

After only two cups, I am ready to declare the Aeropress a significant and worthwhile improvement. The brew is much richer than comes out of the filter cone, and much, much smoother. I didn’t think I’d care a lot about the smoothness, but so far I am majorly enjoying the lack of bite. (Not that I don’t appreciate bite, and I may come to miss it in time.) Making the coffee is not any more complicated than with a cone, it takes about the same time, and cleanup is as easy if not easier. Highly recommended, even at $25.

(Here’s a good video demonstrating the use of the Aeropress, which points out that its properties make it an ideal travel coffee-maker.)

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2 thoughts on “One cup of coffee

  1. Neat post. I agree, coffee is a kind of infinite addiction, kind of like wine — you can always find a better cup, a more complex one, a different one worth trying. And then there’s the whole employment equity issue. Who planted those beans, and what did they get for them? It troubles me to pay $4 for a cup of coffee (even if that means that the person who gets it for me potentially has health insurance).

    I also appreciated the reference to the foodie issue. How does the cost / benefit analysis work out? When is something an affectation and when is there a genuine improvement in one’s life because of something? I don’t know how to work this out. My father and brother (due to crop damage permits and friends who wanted to hunt but not to eat) cleaned nine deer this fall and donated some of the meat to charity and froze the rest. I’ve been home taking care of various things this summer, cooking among them, and I have a relatively strong feeling that we shouldn’t buy much meat, especially beef, if we have all that venison. (I don’t insist we eat it at every meal, but I think once or twice a week is fine.) My mother, on the other hand, thinks there is a genuine quality of life issue to eating other meats. She obviously ate a lot more venison in her childhood than I did. Is it worth it to me to spend an extra dollar for a handful of cilantro to chop up on top of a Thai dish, where it really does belong? What if I have to grow it myself? Is it worth it then? And what about the limes, which I can’t grow in this climate? I really don’t know how to work these things out, so I appreciated your asking the question.

  2. SB,

    I really don’t know how to work these things out, so I appreciated your asking the question.

    I don’t know either. But over the years I’ve learned that when you consider these things you need to guard against being overly scrupulous. An obsession with proper placement of jots and tittles can be its own pious trap. Balance is probably the necessary ingredient. I can be just as misguided when saving money I don’t need to save as I can when spending money I don’t have to spend.

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