Thoughts on coffee by Derek Bronish
Sometimes there are right and wrong answers in matters of taste. We all believe this tacitly, even when we pay lip service to high-minded relativism. No appeal to subjectivity or cultural context will convince any serious person that Encino Man is a better film than Rear Window. This is a glorious fact—it unites humanity with shared aesthetic experiences, and helps us identify criteria that underpin our predilections. One common criterion is simplicity. From Occam’s Razor to In-N-Out Burger to the iPad, simplicity engenders confidence, providing subconscious reassurance that the world is not insurmountably chaotic.
Consider your morning cup of coffee. It tastes good and provides some quick energy, but it also feels right. It’s traditional, natural, simple. The simpler it is, the better one feels about it: people brag about drinking theirs black or making an unvarying minimalistic ceremony out of its preparation. But increasingly, coffee consumers are streamlining their java rituals with the help of a gizmo called a Keurig.
Keurig is the brand name of a line of single-serving coffeemakers. The company was founded in 1990, and about five years ago was bought by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, a large and respectable concern based in Vermont. If you shopped for Christmas presents this past holiday, you saw vertiginous displays of Keurigs at your local Macy’s, Walgreens, or Target. Next to them, you saw the real cash cow: boxes of Keurig-specific plastic pods filled with coffee grounds. They’re called K-Cups—the inkjet cartridges of the single-serve coffee industry—and big names like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts have already licensed their own versions.
If you found a Keurig (or any of its competitors, e.g., the Tassimo) under your Christmas tree last year, you may have learned by now that there’s a problem with these machines: the coffee just isn’t very good. Granted, I am an insufferable snob about such things, but certainly nobody who’s had great coffee would say that Keurigs produce it consistently. K-Cup coffee feels watery instead of rich and oily in the mouth, and its biting astringency overpowers any subtler flavors the beans may have originally offered.
Of course, an on-the-go caffeine fiend might respond that highfalutin analysis of mouthfeel and acidity are beside the point. There are orthogonal dimensions of simplicity. While Keurig underachieves in the realm of taste, it seems to soar in terms of mechanical ingenuity. A K-Cup is a cleverly miniaturized form of a basket filter with ground coffee inside of it; an impressive, highly specialized plastic doodad. A Keurig machine is supposed to feel futuristic—just pop in a K-Cup, hit the button, and take a moment to contemplate the wonders of automation before you head out for your shift at Spacely Sprockets.
But Keurigs aren’t marvels of engineering. They’re mass-produced in China and notoriously prone to breakage. They have to be descaled with vinegar at least every six months—an arduous process that offsets the convenience of push-button brewing and has serious olfactory ramifications. I prefer notes of berry and cedar in my cup to those of fish and chips. When serious mechanical problems occur, customers have to send their machines back to Green Mountain for repair. The company’s reputation for customer service is top-notch, but this doesn’t obviate the issue. Some investors have cooled on Green Mountain after recent SEC filings revealed that over 1% of Keurig’s revenue now has to be set aside to finance warranty claims. That’s not a cripplingly huge slice of the pie, but it’s up .2 percent from the previous fiscal year, and the trend is alarming.
There are indeed multiple axes along which simplicity can be gauged, but the problem is that Keurigs fall short on all of them. They’re not easy to own, nor do they produce a satisfying cup. At first they seem elegant and utilitarian—almost an inevitable evolution in coffee culture—but this illusion fades quickly. Just consider the environmental toll all that used K-Cup plastic incurs (the company website’s FAQ indirectly admits K-Cups aren’t recyclable). Note also the chintzy complications Green Mountain plans on rolling out soon, such as new coffee pods containing RFID transmitters that convey special brewing instructions to the machine. The similarities to the shaving industry are obvious. A Keurig, like a fancy cartridge razor, locks consumers into a dependence on overpriced disposable accessories. Keurigs are not about simplicity, not about finding a direct and elegant solution to a problem, not really about improving the average Joe’s joe at all.
Then again, some problems just do not admit of straightforward solutions. Maybe the K-Cup is the best marriage of quality and simplicity coffee’s state-of-the-art allows. Perhaps reliable methodologies for brewing a perfect cup are as elusive as a cure for the common cold. But do you know what professional coffee tasters do when they need to brew and analyze their samples? They scoop freshly ground coffee into a plain glass, pour boiled water over it, and let it steep for four minutes. Then they skim the floating grounds off the top of their glass and drink the coffee. The end. Turns out it’s not rocket science. Coffee is not a harsh mistress; she stands ready to reveal her mysteries in full, if we’ll only give her some hot water and time. Why do we obfuscate the process with percolators and vacuum pots and now Keurig machines?
Almost nobody brews coffee the experts’ way at home. Those that are aware of the aforementioned process, known as “cupping,” know that it has a serious downside: any grounds remaining after the skim will sneak into your mouth as you drink. It’s not a problem for cuppers because they only take a few sips anyway, but when you want a hearty dozen ounces or so, this just won’t do. So, we filter. The full spectrum of coffee dorkery, from plebeian autodrip machines to uppity Chemex flasks, is inundated with different varieties of paper filters. Paper absorbs oil, though, and much of a good coffee’s complexity lies in the oils that steeping extracts. Hence, when push comes to shove and we snobs are asked to name the all-around best method for brewing, we often respond “French press.”
A French press is the perfect marriage of the cupper’s barebones approach and the drinkability begot by filtering. It allows the coffee to steep directly in hot water with no intervening material, and it strains out the grounds upon pouring without any paper. A fine-mesh metal screen attached to a plunger does the trick—just depress after four minutes and pour. French press coffee is velvety and robust. It reveals those layers of flavor you’ve heard your holier-than-thou local roaster rave about. The French press is exactly the simple, comforting, aesthetically pleasing brewer the Keurig failed to be. Did I mention that it can brew one serving at a time, never needs descaling, generates no additional waste, and is dishwasher-safe?
There’s something troubling here. The objectively superior method of brewing coffee has been around for nearly 100 years and depends on a mechanical principle so basic a toddler can understand it, yet many Americans think an unreliable plastic behemoth that costs upwards of $200 and tinkles out one-dimensional slop is somehow “simplifying” their lives. For millions of U.S. citizens, the Encino Man of coffee seems superior to the Rear Window. One of technology’s greatest marvels, apparently, is its ability to charm us into thinking we need it for everything. Perhaps this is an issue of conspicuous consumption: the other moms don’t want to hear your tasting notes for French pressed Jamaica Blue Mountain, but they might yield that gratifying hint of envy when you tell them about your expensive Keurig accessorized with Starbucks-branded K-Cups.
Drinking coffee is a rite of communion—with our own thoughts, with the ecosystem that creates such complex fruits, with our fellow humans engaged in the same ritual simultaneously throughout the world, and with those who came before us and did amazing things with the energy this fuel provided. When we’re charmed by distractions, when form prevails over function, when we think of Keurigs as conveniences, we are irreverent of such noble company. This is not Ludditism, this is prioritization. The coffee problem is solved, let’s continue to move forward.
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