Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Yin and Yang of coffee: Part 1

The Yin and Yang of the universe always intrigues me, especially when it comes to food culture. We have become much more aware of the food we are eating. Where it comes from, how is it made and what is in it. Yet at the same time 7-11 announces massive expansion plans for New York City. They are basically trying to buy out every little bodega and grocery store and bring SuperMegaGulps to every street corner.

There is something similar going on with coffee. Great coffee shops are popping up everywhere. They are usually one of the first things you see in a neighborhood that is in "transition." Beans have become like wine. You have tasting notes. You know who the producer is and where they are located. You know where and when they were roasted. And forget a Mr. Coffee Machine. French press? Pour over? Chemex? You have a choice in how it is brewed. Admittedly this can border on farce. Here is an actually conversation I had with my wife this morning at O Cafe on 6th Avenue (and by conversation I mean me yelling to her across the room as she holds seats for us):

Me: What would you like?

Her: Just get me a regular coffee.

Me: OK.

Me: What kind? Pour over or French Press?

Her: Pour over.

Me: OK.

Me: What kind of coffee?

Her: I don't know. What do they have?

Me: Let's see. Brazil, Peru, Guatemala.

Her: I don't know. You choose.

(Lengthy conversation ensues with barista about the various coffees available. Options are weighed and Brazil is chosen)

I realize that this can get to the point where you feel like you are in an episode of Portlandia. The real point is that if you love coffee you have a world of choice. This world of choice extends to the coffee you make at home.

The Yang of all the great coffee options (beside the proliferation of Dunkin's and 7-11s) is the rise of the single serving, or pod, brewing machine. It is the fastest growing sector of home brewing according to a recent article in the New York Times and the second most popular after drip brewers. The appeal is understandable. Pour in some water, pop in a pod and in a few seconds you have a cup of coffee. If you are someone pressed for time that is really just looking for a caffene fix this may seem like the way to go.

So how good is the coffee these machines make? Since you can't make it through a Bed Bath and Beyond these days without at least three of these machines being demonstrated I have had a chance to sample many different brews and they are all the same. Mediocre at best.

While the sub-par coffee produced by these machines is the main strike against them, it is not the only one. With these machines we have discovered another way to fill up our landfills in the name of convenience. Millions of discarded pods are being thrown out each year. More garbage we do not need.

And, as always, convenience costs. The Times article calculated that the cost of coffee by using the pods ends up at an average of about $50 a pound. A pound of coffee from Counter Culture or 9th Street Espresso, on the other hand, costs about $20 a pound. That is a big difference.

As the saying goes, "Anything worth doing is worth doing well." Even if it takes a little more time. And I submit that rather than giving into the hectic pace we all now accept as normal, making yourself a cup of coffee is an opportunity to stop, slow down, and treat yourself to something good. And my guess is that if you are dragging and in need of a cup of coffee, giving yourself the time to make and enjoy a good cup of coffee will pick you up as much as the cup of coffee itself.

(Next up, in part 2, we will make a good cup of coffee.)

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