Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I Need Coffee, Part II

Photo by Helga
Last week’s column about coffee technology generated a lot of responses. Who would have thought that coffee was such a popular drink, especially in Washington, DC? From observing the way everyone calmly drives on the Beltway and has boundless patience for tourists who stand two abreast on Metro escalators, I was under the mistaken assumption that Celestial Seasons decaf teas were the beverage of choice here.  I was wrong.

I’m still happy with my Senseo coffee brewer -- and the K-cups machine from Keurig. Both make terrific single cup coffees. But fair warning: Not all flavors taste equally good. And you will need to vary the amount for these different brews and brands to achieve coffee perfection.

It’s comforting to know that I’m not alone when it comes to experimenting with different coffee making technologies.  Here are some other thoughts on how to make amazing coffee:

We use a Nespresso in Austria -- do they sell them in USA? Here their pitch man is the ever hunky George Clooney. I swear that's why a lot of people buy the machines, but they make excellent coffee, too.


I've been through so many coffee makers, but since living alone again after 30 years, I liked a low-tech Mr. Coffee 4-cup that finally died, a Krupps 10-cup that did the same after less than a year, and then switched gratefully to a French press, which I still like but don't like cleaning all that much, and always throw away too much coffee. A month or two ago I got a little Chemex 2-3 cup carafe (good glass so you can see how much you are pouring) and a box of 100 silly Chemex filters that are fun to fold and use, easy to discard, and really do filter out all but the best of the coffee flavor. I am happy with it. I'm enamored of low-tech, being in computers for a living, and it makes just enough coffee to get me through getting dressed and leaving the house, with even some to take along in my car. But right, waiting for the water to boil is tedious. (Just half-full, my Simplex whistling teakettle, which I bought, incidentally, from someone on this list last year, and which I love for its capacity and doughty Englishness, takes 12, count-em 12, minutes to come to a boil.) But those 12 minutes are interesting, letting me see what I can do in that amount of time -- yoga in the early-morning kitchen, most often, or dashing back upstairs to brush and floss -- in order not to just stand around and watch the kettle take its time. I very much recommend the Chemex, which was just out lo these many years ago when I was a college girl in New York having her first affair of the heart with a true New York intellectual, waking up on Sunday mornings to heavenly coffee and the Sunday Times, Partisan Review and Commentary, Susan Sontag Notes on Camp just out and thrilling. He had the big Chemex, with huge round paper filters that you folded down into quarters; for the little one I have, the filters are a half-circle with a little round protuberance in the straight edge instead of the entire other half of the circle. Still makes great coffee, and I still take the Times on Sundays, so it's a little bit of Lost Time Recaptured...Chemex, my madeleine.


My husband is a coffee snob and perfectionist but is too modest to write of his own accomplishments in this lofty field. I myself do not drink coffee (it makes me vibrate like a violin string, a sensation I have been told is good rather than bad, but I disagree) so I am a dispassionate observer. Mark has always eschewed pre-ground coffee as stale, and pre-packaged 'pods' as fake, and insists that the best coffee must be made from fresh beans roasted on-site and ground and brewed that very day, or even that very moment. Failing that, he buys a very careful selection of roasted whole beans and stores them in the freezer before grinding just enough for his morning dose(s). Therefore the speed-heating, noise and mess aspects that concern you are of less importance to him. He deals with the grinder noise while I am sleeping by closing the kitchen door, wrapping the grinder in a towel and holding it close to his body. The mess--well, he cleans it up as part of the Process and Meaning of Coffee that you so rightly respect.

Like you, he has worked through at least five coffee-making procedures in our 30 years together. Of those you tried, the manual single-cup drip and the French press had the disadvantages you cite, as well as making coffee too cold for his taste. The automatic grinder failed because the grind was never just right and the timing wasn't either -- ready too early when he slept in and too late when he decided not to go running. A method he tried that you didn't mention involved cold brewing, in which cold (filtered spring) water sits in a large corked cone of (perfectly) ground coffee overnight and is then slowly released through a (special) filter into a container below. This produces a thickish coffee 'syrup' which is refrigerated, and when added by the spoonful to 192-degree water it makes a delicious and acid-free drink at the exact strength one prefers. But it could be very messy if the cork wasn't secure, and the syrup level seemed rarely to match his consumption needs -- lots left over when we were about to leave town for a week, none available when company arrived. We also had an Italian espresso maker for awhile, a silver two-pot device we heated on the stove until it hissed steam, but the instructions were frightening: ‘If steam does not emit after ten minutes, turn off stove and leave the room.’ He disdained later big versions with dials for cappuccino and other coffees as corporate exploitation.

Mark has settled on electric drip coffeemakers, the kind that have water reservoirs into which he pours cold filtered spring water that the machine then boils and sends dripping down through his (choice and perfectly ground) coffee and a gold-plated filter into a carafe. Various of these failed to satisfy because 1) the carafe poured too widely or narrowly, trickling down the sides of the cup or barely into it at all; 2) the carafe was glass and broke at the slightest tap; 3) the carafe was not insulated, failing to keep the coffee hot; 4) the reservoir used additional water filters at additional unnecessary expense and bother; 5) the surfaces were white or colored plastic and quickly discolored; and 6) the boiling water was too hot, making the coffee bitter, or flowed too fast, making it weak. We must have gone through a dozen of these machines over the years.

Most recently, Cooks Illustrated magazine hailed a homely device called the Techni-Vorm Moccamaster as the consummate drip coffee machine. It is metallic and easily cleaned. It heats the water to 192 degrees. Its metal carafe is insulated and pours adjustably so as to be perfect. Mark got it (at vast expense, but he has few other toys) and is finally very happy with his coffee, and all coffee-drinking guests agree that the coffee it produces is truly the best. But we have problems with the design--it's ugly and angular, it's very tall so that the under-cabinet lights are in perpetual danger, and the carafe will not fit under the drip spout with its lid on, so that the lid has to be put somewhere separate from the cleaned carafe (where is that lid?!!).

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