July, 2014. Better make a cup of coffee. It’s a long one.
My affection for coffee has been well documented, with my first cup coming around age three courtesy of the gas station on the corner of Hudson Avenue and Avenue D. This was where all the three-year olds went to get their coffee in 1957. I don’t remember this, but my mother used to tell the story often. I can’t recall Mom saying if she was upset about it, but those were the days when smoking wasn’t discouraged so a cup of coffee served to a toddler wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Besides, where else was I going to get a cup of brewed coffee? Certainly not at home.
Brewing coffee at home was evidently a Herculean chore on par with installing your own inground swimming pool, because it was only done on holidays such as Christmas or Easter or maybe Thanksgiving. This is when the percolator came out from the back of the closet and Mom opened the yearly can of Maxwell House and actually brewed coffee. If somebody wanted coffee outside of those three days, they had instant. It wasn’t until after I moved out in 1973 when technology allowed Mom to get one of the first Mr. Coffee machines. This was a revolution in the world of home brewed coffee that all but banished percolators to the trash heap and sent instant coffee back to Europe where it belonged. In spite of the Mr. Coffee tidal wave, I can’t recall ever owning one. I grew up not brewing coffee at home, and it took a while for this to unstick.
In 1976, I landed a job with the local Coca-Cola bottler delivering tanks of pop (that’s soda to you folks on the west coast) to restaurants, and filling vending machines with cans and bottles. This job was my introduction to the world of coffee consumption on a daily basis. This was also before cupholders and even before lids with little factory-made sippy holes. The very first thing I learned from an older co-worker, even before anything that was related to doing the job for which I was hired, was how to tear off a triangular piece of the plastic lid so that I could drink coffee while I drove. This was doubly hard because the truck I was assigned didn’t have power steering or an automatic transmission. The mark of a good driver was being able to juggle coffee and manhandle a large delivery truck (in the city no less), and not run over a mailbox or spill anything.
Back on the home front, home brewed coffee still wasn’t a priority. It was mostly a weekend thing because there wasn’t enough leisure time to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee before running out the door to get to work. Jobs changed over the years, but stopping someplace for that first cup “to go” was a constant.
At some point many years ago, Mrs. G. picked up a behemoth of a device that not only made coffee, but also made espresso, and was capable of steaming milk for lattes. It was way more than we ever needed and was a colossal pain in the neck to clean, but it was fun while it lasted. That machine ended up in the basement until we moved nine years ago, at which point it was unceremoniously pitched in a dumpster. When we settled into our current house, the countertop lacked a coffee maker of any kind, so this is when we got our first Keurig pod machine. These were largely unfamiliar then, but we really enjoyed it. Coffee was quick, hot and tasty enough and that’s what counted most. We’ve burned out at least four of these finicky machines, but we were both addicted to the convenience and the variety since I prefer bolder coffee where my wife likes a milder blend. Pick the right pod, pop it in the machine, and forty-five seconds later, a cup of coffee appeared. On the downside, they probably built a ski jump out of the plastic pods we threw away. We eventually bought a refillable pod and I started spooning in my own coffee, but the results were both messy and troublesome. Filling the pod was much the same as spoon-feeding a twitchy baby bird; so if I was going to go through all this, why bother with pods at all?
This was when I started to experiment with a French press, which gave me the bold, rich coffee I desired, but my wife couldn’t stand it. When the vessel mysteriously cracked one day, I don’t think she mourned the loss at all.
This was when my descent into coffee madness began.
Mrs. G. and I happened to be in the city, and we stopped into a local coffee roaster that also serves up microbrews and an eclectic variety of specialty foods. The shop had a comfortable, laid-back vibe, yet these folks clearly knew everything there was to know about coffee. Mrs. G. asked what was good, and the coffee pro suggested the Peruvian. We ordered two cups.
“You can get a Chemex for just a little more,” she said. OK, sure. Whatever that is. Sounds good.
A few minutes later, she brought out two small, heated cups, and an hourglass shaped beaker filled with hot coffee. “Enjoy,” she said.
Well, let me tell you, the clouds parted, the sun shone through, and we both had a look on our faces that rivaled that of somebody who just saw a unicorn out in the backyard playing Frisbee with the dog. “Holy crap this is good,” I said. So good, I drank it black which is not something I normally did. It turns out that I’ve been adding cream or a little sugar all these years to make lousy coffee palatable.
I couldn’t get this out of my head. My K-cups now tasted as if they were brewed through old socks that were steeped in fireplace ashes. I could have brewed the desiccant packs that came in the box and it would have tasted better. The pod coffee suddenly tasted stale, thin, and weak, and was lacking any of the charm or fun of making coffee and pouring it into a cup. This is when the bells went off and I realized that we had a miniature version of a coffee vending machine in the kitchen. All that was missing were the paper cups with the poker hand on the side.
Luckily for me, my wife is an observant soul. On Father’s Day, she gave me my own Chemex, and my daughter gave me a gift card to the fancy coffee shop. I hit the store the next day like a kid in a candy shop, and had them grind a bag of Peruvian. I then went home and made my first batch and it was awesome, but it could have been even more awesome. It could have been awesomer. I just needed a few things.
Since then, I’ve turned into a maniac. I now weigh my beans, because a Peruvian bean has a different weight than a Guatemalan bean, which is different than a Mexican or Ugandan bean. How else can one get consistency, I ask? When you make a cake, are ingredients lobbed in a bowl willy-nilly? I also weighed the water, but in defense of my sanity, I only did that once since water always weighs the same. Fifty-six grams of beans for nine hundred and fifty grams of water (thirty-two ounces) makes the perfect brew for two people. I also picked up a blade grinder, which is OK for now, but I have my eyes on a burr grinder, which is kinder to the beans. Yeah, I do realize that sounds nuts.
Making the coffee looks complicated, but it isn’t that bad. The thick paper filter goes in the top half of the Chemex, the freshly ground coffee goes in the filter, and the water (boiled and cooled to 202º) is hand poured in stages slowly over the coffee. The first pour allows the coffee to “bloom,” which is the best part. Our kitchen is on the opposite side of the house from the bedroom, and even when Mrs. G. is sleeping and even with the bedroom door closed, she says she can smell the coffee. It takes about fifteen minutes to make a pot, and once it’s made, I toss the grounds on some sort of evergreen plant out in the yard. I’m not Joe Environment, but I do feel better about not throwing out those plastic K-cups, not to mention the bi-annual replacement of the entire machine.
Once it’s brewed, I put the Chemex pot on the smallest burner on the lowest flame of our gas stove and it keeps the coffee warm—although it doesn’t have to keep it warm for long. As for the beans, I’ve tried some of the grocery store brands of coffee, but every town has several local roasters, and so it’s worth it to give them a try. As I said—it’s a descent into madness but man oh man, the coffee is good in Crazyville, and the best part is that the flavor is bold for me yet still mild for my wife. It’s sorcery.
A German immigrant and chemist named Dr. Peter Schlumbohm invented the device, which debuted in 1941. He is quoted as saying that with a Chemex, “even a moron could make a great cup of coffee.” If my skills in the kitchen are any indication, he was right. It is the best way to make great coffee and one can get into it for less than forty bucks, so it’s not extravagant. It may have taken me almost sixty years to discover the secret, but now that I have, I’m hopelessly and unapologetically hooked.
Since this was written, we’ve set the Chemex aside, not because it doesn’t make wonderful coffee—it does—but because it doesn’t make enough of it fast enough, and as good as it is, it was akin to wearing sweaters that are only hand-knitted by left handed women with six fingers on each hand. It’s not always practical to stand in the kitchen concocting the perfect cup of coffee.
We now use a drip coffee maker made by Bonavita, which preheats the water first, then releases it onto the grounds in a random pattern instead of straight down the middle as most coffee makers do. It also holds the brewing cycle after the first pour, which allows the grounds to bloom. I know, fancy, right? The finished coffee goes into a carafe at a piping hot 205º. I’ll admit it was a splurge, but it does a great job, and the brewed coffee tastes the same as it did from the Chemex plus it makes that comforting coffee maker gurgle when the cycle is finished. Oh, and my daughter and son-in-law gave me a burr grinder for Christmas, so now I can gently grind the beans.
We were also spending a small fortune on artisanal coffee beans, which were fantastic, but close enough is often good enough. After some trial and error, we found a Hawaiian coffee at Costco that is cheaper for two pounds than the really good stuff is for twelve ounces. It’s the only coffee we found that didn’t taste like the bottom of a firepit. To keep it fresh after opening, we dump the whole beans into an Airscape vacuum container. Every time I open the container, it smells as if I’m opening a brand new bag.
As it stand right now, Mrs. G. is afraid Costco will stop carrying it, so she’s hoarding bags of coffee in the basement. At last count, there was fourteen pounds of coffee down there, and I have my suspicions that she may have more hidden away someplace else. Should the zombie apocalypse ever happen, we’d be well caffeinated.