Coffee Chronicles: When Things Go Wrong
John North Radway
Posted on August 16th, 2012
Tools are overrated. Human civilization, or at least human cooking (you’re reading this—don’t tell me you believe there’s a difference), began when Thogiz or maybe Dal-Tor put one thing into another thing and then consumed it. Ate it or drank it. Hot or cold, stiff or runny, tough on the teeth or slippery down the throat. Can we agree on that much?
Coffee—the cornerstone of the modern world?—is little different than our troglodyte forbearers’ meal of, say, leaves and goat bits. We take seeds. We roast and grind them. We soak them in water. Sometimes we don’t really roast them. Sometimes we don’t really grind them. We soak seeds in water and then we drink it. The technology, fire and bludgeon, has been widely and freely available since the Stone Age.
Then why haven’t we figured out how to make the perfect cup of coffee? Maybe we have. I’ve tasted a few that might qualify. What we have not learned, however, is how to avoid making the perfect cup of coffee’s evil twin, the Brown Horror, the Abysmal Mug—the utterly imperfect cup of coffee.
I am not talking about the unobtrusive stuff they serve at the diner down the road. Leave well enough alone. I am talking about the despondence of a really good cup gone horribly bad. Maybe this has happened to you. Maybe this very morning your favorite barista handed you something that tasted like a schnauzer cremated into a demitasse. It isn’t fun.
But these people are professionals, you tell yourself. They do this for a living. They are the coffee gods. What have I done to offend them? Maybe I didn’t tip enough? Maybe the awkward eye contact got out of hand? Did I say “grande” instead of “medium”?
Believe me: it’s not personal. When things go wrong with coffee—and by coffee here I mostly mean espresso, which is nothing fancy but just what happens when you squeeze a small amount of water through finely-ground, tightly-packed beans—the cause is almost always mechanical. Sure, the perfect barista could save your beverage. The perfect pilot can land a disabled airplane safely in the Hudson. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen every time. (Sorry.)
A quality espresso machine costs roughly the same as a motorcycle and requires significantly more maintenance. This is why you will probably be disappointed if you purchase a similar-looking object from a department store. The beans must be ground neither too fine nor too coarse or the water will come in a pitiful trickle or a torrent. The water must be neither too hot not too cold or your coffee will taste like the bottom of an ash tray or like an unripe grapefruit. Let it flow for too long and the brew will be thin and bitter; not long enough and it will cling to the tongue like an upsettingly stimulating and somewhat metallic syrup. If the water pressure is not just right—and don’t try to adjust it without an intimate knowledge of classical and possibly quantum mechanics—then all other bets are off.
There is no correct value for any of these variables, and they might change not only day to day but minute to minute. A machine that sits unused for even a half hour can grow lonely, its metal parts cold, and spit out something unexpected next time it’s needed. A slight change in humidity or atmospheric pressure, a weather front or a customer leaving the door open, can turn the perfect grind into a useless wad of oil or a bed of burning sand. And, of course, sometimes machines just break, and unlike the aforementioned motorcycle, which will probably stop moving or start smoking, the espresso machine will quietly and humbly continue to produce what appears to be perfectly respectable coffee but in fact tastes like last year’s apple cores roasted over a heap of burning tires.
So am I trying to tell you Don’t try this at home? Believe me, I wouldn’t dream of it. Good coffee is a great thing, and there is no reason why anyone with some reasonably fresh beans and some reasonably hot water shouldn’t be able to enjoy perfection at home. But beware the lure of complicated tools, machines, and implements, auto-tamping pump-action steam-powered quad-core nickel-cadmium fully-automatic hands-free low-sodium solid-state tabletop espresso machines in particular. If you absolutely need to have “espresso” at home, something with little pods will produce a uniformly inoffensive beverage every time, while a tiny stovetop pot will make something distinctly espresso-like and usually pleasing through slightly more natural means.
But if you don’t need to have espresso at home—if you need the juice of the bean, hot, a little sweet, as caffeinated as you could ever want—then do I have some news for you. Forget melittas, percolators, French presses, drip brewers. The key to the perfect cup of brewed coffee is also mechanical, but rest assured that the mechanics are somewhat simpler.
Take some coffee beans. Good ones. How do you know if they’re good ones? Smell them. Touch them. Maybe eat one. Are they slightly stale and rancid? Unpleasantly dry and grainy? Do you like them? If you like them then you’re in the clear. Trust yourself.
Take a blunt object. Choose wisely. I like a hammer but a rolling pin is fun too. A lot depends on the quality of your repressed aggressive impulses. I haven’t tried a baseball bat but a nice wooden one would probably work wonders. Anyway, bludgeon the beans. Bludgeon them. Stop when they look smashed to bits. This doesn’t take long.
Put them in some hot water. I mean it. Just gather them up and put them in. Then wait a bit. Don’t time it. Watch. Smell. Taste. This is fun and the stakes are low. You aren’t going to ruin anyone’s life (unless maybe you spill the hot water on a friend. Don’t do that). Eventually, strain the water. I like to hold the same blunt object up to the lip of the water vessel and decant it into something else, but then I like the authenticity of some bean shards flailing in my cup. Your sensibilities might be more delicate than mine.
I’m not saying this will produce the perfect cup of coffee, but I’m convinced that it is the very best you can do with Paleolithic technology. I’ve survived entire summers smashing my beans with a hammer and sipping from a Pyrex measuring cup. I welcome improvements to my method. And if you discover a way to coax overtones of citrus and marshmallow and a pleasantly effervescent crema out of coffee beans using only a small boulder, then please let me know and together we will change the world.