Monday, 3 January 2011

There is an art to good coffee and there should be

Nearly three years ago now I was pushed into rant mode by the then-new coffee machines using little prepackaged pods of coffee.

Nespresso machines are clean and neat and easy but generate huge amounts of excess waste packaging and take all the fun out of making coffee and the website is built using flash.

I've recently encountered one of these machines again and, I have to say, they can make a quite decent cup of coffee. But three years later, are the arguments stacking up any differently?

No. They're not.

Have a look, for example, at the next café you go to. Airport, McDonalds, pub, actual café, wherever. They're all still using the old-fashioned hand-operated machines. Not only do they not use prepackaged pods, they don't even use those fully-automatic fancy expensive machines that grind their own beans, measure, pack, tamp, espress, clean, all at the push of a button. No, they're all using the most time-intensive, skill-essential old style where a human has to do the measuring, tamping, and sometimes even timing of the draw. And then there's coffee grounds everywhere and it has to be constantly cleaned. This may be at least partly to do with image, but the benefits of a skilled barrista making coffee by hand can not be overstated.

And then there's the more concrete and psychological reasons.

Have a look at the price of the the pods. For a start, they're very difficult to get - they're not in supermarkets, for a start. An eBay search finds lots of 50 pods available for just under $50 including postage, or just less than $1 each. I haven't checked the prices on Nespresso's website because it requires you to register first, and frankly I'm not going to give them the satisfaction even in the name of journalistic investigation. Well, not unless someone pays me for it, anyway. Googling is immensely frustrating, so let's just say that $1 per cup is a good round number.

Now, I pay about $9 for a 200g tin of coffee, ground to my specification. A shot of espresso is technically 7g, according to my measuring spoon. That's about 28 shots of espresso per tin (which is frighteningly small, and explains why I have to get it refilled so often). That's 32c per cup. Even at those small prices, one third the cost adds up. Plus my tin is reusable, which means that my packaging cost is the bulk packaging that beans get delivered to my outlet in. My one reusable tin, or 28 little pods that take up a lot more space in the trash? My grounds don't even get thrown out - they end up as organic material in one garden or another.

But, finally, the one argument above all others I care about: Coffee is supposed to be involved. It is supposed to be a ritual. Coffee from a Nespresso machine may be nice, when you've picked the right pod, but it is the least satisfying cup you can possibly drink.

At home I have three different plungers, three sizes of stove-top machine (should be four, I need to replace my sadly departed one-shot machine), an espresso machine (that needs a new pump) and we even have two drip-filter machines, one larger and more complicated than the other and both of them living under the bench because, after using the timer feature about twice, my partner went back to using a plunger when she felt like real coffee.

And all of them have their individual little techniques and processes worked out over many years to produce just the right result. For example: For a pot on an electric element, the best procedure is to turn the element on first so it's hot when the pot goes on it, use filtered water from the fridge and take it off just as it starts to hiss towards the end of extraction. For a plunger, don't let it sit or it'll go bitter. Pour, plunge, pour (some people say stir, but you get that from pouring water in the right way). The espresso machine is, of course, an art in itself.

They are all of them satisfying. Making a cup of coffee, if you're going to move beyond instant, is a ritual. It has its rules and its regulations, its shibboleths and its superstitions. Its, to borrow a term from an excellent source, cultural chemistry.

That's without even going into the way I drink it - the single shot of espresso as a drink for pleasure, the standard-strength long black as a drink for productivity, the double-strength long black to get me over the finishing line when the brain starts to fade.

I really wouldn't have it any other way.

Everyone needs some luxury in their life and if you want to put your coffee effort into paying for pods and ordering them online and throwing out the detritus, go ahead. I'm going to put my effort into actual coffee.

1 comment:

Sharon Preston said...

Stumbled upon this; as with the art of making coffee; reading this was like enjoying a work of art. Do tell....have I used my semi colons correctly...

Sharon Preston

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