My wife and I traveled to Seattle early in our marriage for an anniversary trip. I was in my mid 20s and I wasn’t a dedicated coffee drinker at the time. But I was in the home of Starbucks and Seattle’s Best and I thought I owed it to the experience to try every coffee shop I passed if I didn’t already have a cup in my hand.
I drank at the original Starbucks on Pike’s Place. I had a cup at Fuel Coffee in the Capitol Hill district. There was even a drive-thru in an old converted Fotomat on the way to Mt. Rainier. In all, I must have hit up about 20 different coffee shops and consumed everything from house blends, exotic blends, espressos, cappuccinos, java-chip concoctions, and all things in between.
My coffee story begins with Seattle.
The real story of coffee begins 1,200+ years earlier. Legend has it Kaldi, the 9th-century Ethiopian goatherd, first discovered coffee when he noticed how excited his goats became after eating the beans from a coffee plant.
Others believe it began with Sheik Omar, who was once exiled from Mocha, Yemen. Starving, Omar chewed berries from nearby shrubbery, but found them to be bitter. He tried roasting the seeds to improve the flavor, but they became hard. He then tried boiling them to soften the seed, which resulted in a fragrant brown liquid. Upon drinking the liquid Omar was revitalized and sustained for days. As stories of this “miracle drug” reached Mocha, Omar was asked to return and was made a saint. From Ethiopia, the coffee plant was introduced into the Arab World through Egypt and Yemen.
Since that trip my wife and I have tried enough drip coffee makers to fill a small yard sale.
Finally, we wizened up like all good millennials and bought a Keurig single-serve maker.
When guests came, we were proud to offer more than a generic cup of coffee, we offered something for every coffee palate. It was as if we were craft brewers or sommeliers talking about the mild notes of doughnut shop blend, the bold aroma of dark roast, the subtle hints of Emeril’s, the striking sweetness of french toast blend. All this pedantic snobbery from a multipack we bought from BJs Wholesale Club.
Of course one of the reasons why we loved our Keurig was its ease of use. Pop in a pod, hit a button, and I could dash off each morning with a travel-mug brewed to my customized temperate.
ECONOMICS OF PODS
The problem was, this was not your mom and dad’s coffee.
My parents measured the price of coffee by the can. They had coupons for the Chock-Full-O-Nuts that sat on the counter and I can still remember the jar of Folger’s crystals in our cabinet.
Nowadays people measure it by the pod.
Don’t believe me?
Almost one in three American homes now has a pod-based coffee machine. Last year K-Cups accounted for most of Keurig Green Mountain’s $4.7 billion in revenue—more than five times what the company made five years prior.
I was seduced by the allure of K-Cups. It fed my growing coffee addiction as it had me mindlessly consuming more coffee at deceptively exorbitant prices. I could rationalize every cup because it was certainly cheaper than buying one at Starbucks. This consumer manipulation is one reason why Fortune named Green Mountain Coffee, sellers of the Keurig system and its K-cups as the second fastest growing company.
But the truth was unveiled in a February 2012 New York Times article, which pointed out the absurdity of the pod-based consumption.
“The Nespresso Arpeggio costs $5.70 for 10 espresso capsules, while the Folgers Black Silk blend for a K-Cup brewed-coffee machine is $10.69 for 12 pods. But that Nespresso capsule contains 5 grams of coffee, so it costs about $51 a pound. And the Folgers, with 8 grams per capsule, works out to more than $50 a pound.
That’s even more expensive than all but the priciest coffees sold by artisanal roasters, the stuff of coffee snobs.”
I had been duped.
It was financially stupid, and perhaps even more consequential was its impact on the environment.
As James Hamblin of The Atlantic reported, “In 2014, enough K-Cups were sold that if placed end-to-end, they would circle the globe 10.5 times. Almost all of them ended up in landfills. They are not recyclable. Using them is extremely wasteful and irresponsible; they are a stupid way to make coffee that simply cannot be sustained.”
THE ALTERNATIVE — THE AEROPRESS
Traditional drip brewing passes water through a bed of grounds. When the water first drips into the bed, it is too hot and bitterness is extracted. As the water filters downward through the bed, it becomes too cool and extraction is weak. The water doesn’t contact all of the grounds uniformly. Grounds at the edge of the bed are under-extracted, while grounds at the center are over- extracted and contribute bitterness.
Howard Schultz, the man responsible for Starbucks’ resurgance, knows about the appeal of a good cup of coffee. In Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul, he wrote
“Like a symphony, coffee’s power rests in the hands of a few individuals who orchestrate its appeal. So much can go wrong during the journey from soil to cup that when everything goes right, it is nothing short of brilliant! After all, coffee doesn’t lie. It can’t. Every sip is proof of the artistry — technical as well as human — that went into its creation.”
For me, the best single-serve coffee maker, one with artistry and sustainability, comes from the AeroPress Coffee Maker.
What makes the Aeropress stand above all others is how it totally immerses the grounds at the same time. All of the grounds contact the same water temperature, creating a brewing process that is short and sweet. The gentle air pressure of the AeroPress also extracts extra flavor from the coffee.
It has become an essential part of my daily routine. It is fast, easy, and the grounds just pop out into the trash or compost. Its sustainability makes it far more appealing than a Keurig and it costs a lot less.
Coffee has become what Gertrude Stein once said it was, “it is a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself. It gives you time, but not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself, and have a second cup”
Check out how easy it is to be within yourself with a good cup of coffee.
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