Just finished A History Of The World In Six Glasses, Tom Standage’s light historical narrative about six drinks (beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola) and the roles they played in different cultural periods.
On the “broad historical trends” front, I didn’t learn anything I didn’t know, but Standage was good with details (for instance, I hadn’t realized the guy who yelled “aux armes!” and set off the French Revolution had a name; and I hadn’t known tea came into prominence so late) and it made a compelling read. The narrative construct felt a little forced, but since I have a sort of industrial history fetish it didn’t really bother me.
Portland-based coffee roaster Stumptown’s beans, in bulk and brew form, have been available at various places around town for a while (I get my Stumptown at Spoon and Peels). But we haven’t had a Stumptown-owned-and-operated café — until now. The company’s taking space at 30 West 8th Street, just up the block from the Barnes & Noble location on 6th Avenue, and conveniently located right along my bike route to and from work; the cafe’s slated to open this spring. More details here.
So I did some luxury-ish traveling earlier this year, ending up for multi-day stays in a couple of nicer-than-average hotels. We’re not talking the Mandarin Oriental here, I just mean the sorts of hotels where, say, the room-service breakfast comes with a little floret of butter rather than a packet of Country Crock; hotels where you might actually consider buying that fluffy bathrobe. (I didn’t; I ordered a knockoff from overstock.com for $25 when I got home. But I considered it.)
In each of these hotels, one of the amenities on offer was a magical espresso machine — a FrancisFrancis pod machine in one, and a Nespresso pod machine in the other. I understand (and agree with) all the arguments against this stuff — you waste all that single-serving packaging, you’re married to one coffee vendor for life, you pay so much more per cup, bla bla bla. Fine. So the “anti” side of the scale is pretty weighted down. On the “pro” side: whenever you decide you want one, you can have yourself a strong, hot shot of espresso, reliably brewed, in about 90 seconds. I’m old enough to have lived through a couple of terrible generations of early home espresso machines, and to me this seems quite remarkable.
Now, I’m as waste- and corporatism-averse as the next guy, but now that I’m a bit older, I’m more seduced by the convenience factor than I used to be. So when this offer appeared in the Sunday NYT Magazine, offering a smart-looking machine for a very competitive price, I tore out the page and stuck it on the fridge. And after yet another experience with one of those damn machines, I bit. I ordered the thing — a smart-looking FrancisFrancis Y1, along with a milk frother and 42 coffee pods — on a Sunday. And it was in my hands on Wednesday. Now it’s Thursday night, and you know what? I made the right decision. It is in fact the case that I can pull myself a gorgeous espresso shot anytime, with a perfect crema, and froth up a dollop of hot milk to go on top. And I have, repeatedly. In fact I’m going to pull another right now!
I read a review of this machine (on some website with a name like “coffeedickhead.com,” I forget exactly where) that said something like “well, given the way the coffee is packaged and aerated and bla bla bla, OF COURSE this isn’t a TRUE espresso.” Oh really? I sure as hell can’t tell the difference between whatever this is and a “true” espresso; it’s somewhere up there above the 70th percentile in terms of taste and mouth feel out of the, what, two thousand shots of espresso I’ve had in my life? Four thousand? News flash: if you need to check its papers to tell whether it’s authentic, IT’S AUTHENTIC ENOUGH. This isn’t the Interstellar Championships of Coffee; it’s a cup of fucking breakfast coffee before getting on the fucking uptown 4 train to the fucking office.
Which I guess is the point of this post. I spent my first decade out of college trying to figure out what authenticity was, and my second decade wondering if I should be disappointed in myself for not being authentic enough (and being vaguely jealous of people who seemed more authentic than me, usually without being able to explain what exactly about my own life, which after all I liked perfectly fine, wasn’t satisfactory). At some point in the last few years, I pretty much stopped giving a shit. Which is simply another way of saying that I decided I could trust my own opinions about what was right for me. If I felt like I liked something, then I liked that thing — end of story. No need to agonize over whether I liked it enough or in the right way or for the right reasons; I just liked it. That kind of growing-up transformation played out in my daily life (in what I eat and wear), and in my professional life (in what I do for a living, and how I do it) and in my emotional life (in who I spend my time with and why). And I’m a happier person, on the whole, here on the far end of it.
And so I raise this delicious and attractive cup of allegedly-not-quite-espresso and say, “To you, middle age — thanks for all your pleasures and comforts.”
Claire Cain Miller’s long profile of Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz is business journalism at its very best: engaging and readable, telling a story, packed with snippets of intelligence I hadn’t known despite my having kept an eye on the Starbucks story.
(My favorite bit of color from Miller’s story: apparently all the CEOs in America are friends. Schultz is pals with Michael Dell, and it was on a long bike ride with him in Hawaii that Schultz began developing the rebound plan. The CEO of J. Crew emailed Schultz with a store complaint, and Schultz answered personally.)
For all the things I don’t much like about Starbucks, they’ve brought a level of consistency (in the best sense) to both their coffee and their atmosphere that is easy for urbanites to sniff at, but extremely valuable in places where there wasn’t an indigenous coffee-oriented “third place” culture before Starbucks arrived. And that describes much of America.
I’m happy to see Schultz taking the company’s problems seriously. Although I rarely visit Starbucks for the coffee or food, I do buy my daily newspaper in one down the block, so I have occasion to watch the company’s transformation. I generally like the company’s recent improvements and innovations, starting with the vast improvement in food offerings (including both snack and mealtime options) that has swept the chain in the past two years. Time was (and not long ago) that most baked goods at Starbucks were nearly inedible, and overpriced at that. But in the recent revamp, quality, price, variety, and freshness have all improved. A year ago, I would have said that British chains like Caffè Nero and Costa Coffee offered consistently better baked goods and snacky foods than Starbucks, but Starbucks is catching up.
I don’t much like the over-roasted coffee or the mainstream drinks (sugary and artificial, they are). But they’re paying attention to this, too, and in most stores there’s a bean blend in one of their brewed-coffee urns that I can tolerate — and it’s always, always hot and fresh, even in their licensed locations in airport terminals. Given the swill that is often called coffee in America, even here in New York, that’s not nothing.
I’ve had the Keurig for about a month, and I’ve been quite happy with it, now that I’ve learned its quirks. Best 99 dollars I’ve spent in a long while.
Two downsides, easily solved. One downside is that the coffee, once adulterated with milk, isn’t always quite hot enough (solution: hot milk). Another downside is that it only makes about 7 ounces at a time (solution: have more cups).
At first I thought the coffee was also too weak, but that turned out to be easily solved: grind finer, and pack more coffee into the filter cup. I fill the thing all the way to the rim, and tamp it down slightly.
The quality of the beans makes a big difference, too — as big or bigger than when brewing via the conventional drip method. Obviously Gorilla makes an excellent cup, but I’m not in Park Slope every week.
I’ve tried a lot of the beans that are easy to get hold of in my neighborhood (including Peet’s and Porto Rico). And I’m a little surprised to say that as a staple coffee, I’ve found that the Whole Foods “365″ everyday-value French Roast whole bean is the one I like best. It makes an exceptionally good cup in this thing, good enough that I’ve made a special trip there to get some more.
After being handed a cup of what sure looked like commercial iced coffee this morning at a Tribeca deli, poured out of a gallon jug with the label still on, I noticed this post promoting the virtues of a cold-brewing coffee device called the Toddy. I’d previously seen Matt Yglesias touting the virtues of cold-brewed iced coffee, but it seemed like a lot of work (the same way I felt about the “sun tea” fanatics I knew when I lived in the South). But the raves about the Toddy (like this one) are so emphatic, I’m reconsidering.
The thing is only 30 bucks — I’m thinking maybe I should just get one and try it. I’m attracted to the idea of “coffee concentrate” — I can think of a lot of interesting things I could do in the kitchen with that. I love my coffee, but I’m one of the people who’s bothered by both the acid and (at times) the caffeine, so this seems like an alternative worth exploring.
Buy yours from Amazon at this link and I’ll get a little something out of the deal… and you can also read, like, 200 reviews, most of which look pretty positive.
Somehow one of these Keurig K-cup coffee makers showed up in the office, and it was so cute that I decided to try it (despite the fact that, for ten years, I’ve felt that they make inferior coffee). And guess what? The coffee quality is better than it used to be, and they now sell a reusable filter so you can use your own damn coffee. They put it off as long as they could, but finally did the math and decided that being able to sell vastly more coffeemakers made more sense than controlling the coffee supply. (You might say they dumped their Apple strategy and went PC.)
At home I’ve gotten tired of trying to make 6 ounces of coffee in a 12-cup coffeemaker, so I’ve had my eye on coffeemakers (or coffee “solutions,” you might say, if you were marketing-inclined) for a while. I went out looking last night, and it turns out that Bed Bath & Beyond sells a more cheapo-looking version of the same Keurig that’s in the office for more money, so I stopped by J&R to pick up the better-looking one for less, the B30, along with the reusable filter (below).
Experimenting at home, what I’m discovering is that it’s not possible to make RIDICULOUSLY strong coffee with this thing, but it’s plenty possible to make strong-enough coffee with perfect consistency and almost no effort. And if you put good coffee grounds in, you get good coffee out the bottom. So, I’m happy.
The whole thing’s a little too smart for its own good (you have to place coffee, water, cup in order, and I managed to confuse it once and had to essentially reboot it). In fact, there’s a warning in the manual that says if you use a glass mug, it won’t sense it and the thing won’t work. But for a consistently good cup, I can live with all this.
Rich Mintz blogs on online fundraising and social media, American history and culture, bicycling and urbanism, food, technology, and other topics. Professionally, he's an expert in fundraising, constituency development, and social media for nonprofits, cultural organizations, cause-related marketers, and corporations. He is based in New York, where he serves as Vice President, Strategy, for Blue State Digital. To invite a Blue State Digital program team to present to your organization, or to request more information about Blue State Digital's services, you can use the form here.