Trompler Foundation Archives
The Culture of Bad Coffee

I am the consummate late adopter.  I don’t abjure things that are new or expensive on principle; I’m not a Luddite.  I do, however, derive a frisson of that Old Time Protestant Thrift whenever I find that I can get by with last year’s (or last decade’s) model.  I still use Pine, and I have never bought a new car.  So it happens that I—a 25-year resident of Seattle—am just now giving serious attention to deepening my understanding of and appreciation for coffee.

I have no specific recollection of my first taste of coffee, but I’m sure I sampled my parents’ drink, back in the bad old Folgers days.  Regardless of the coffee’s quality, I’m sure it didn’t agree with my sweet tooth, and I consigned it to the category of odd, adult behavior like smoking and worrying about roof gutters.  The only other childhood experience with coffee that I can recall occurred when I was 11 or 12 years old at a memorial service for a distant relative.  The reception took place in a large church hall, and the refreshments were not stocked with bored pre-adolescents in mind.  Forced by the occasion to dress in the approximate manner of an adult, I thought to ape my elders by helping myself to the hogshead of Lutheran coffee.  Taken black, I found it unimpressive, but the mountain of creamers and sweeteners was too bountiful to resist, and I quickly succeeded in mixing a beverage I could enjoy drinking.  Nevertheless, coffee remained for me a libation of necessity, quite forgotten when soft drinks were available (which they almost always were).  Coffee’s association with Dark Lutheran asceticism remained, as well.

As I entered college, I continued to spurn coffee (and alcohol) as dreary trappings of adulthood.  Alcohol made the first inroad, but it wasn't until my senior year that I had occasion to imbibe the bean.  In the winter of 1991 I wangled a semester as an exchange student at Karl-Franzens Universität in Graz, Austria.  There were only two other Americans in my (all-male) dorm, and when they extended me the memorable courtesy of inviting me over for coffee, I decided to renounce the churlishness that theretofore would have led me to decline on the, um, grounds that I didn’t partake.  In addition to simple Austrian pastries and the mandatory Nutella, my host deployed large café-au-lait cups and a small drip brewer, not much different from the Krups drip machine I had often prepared for my parents.  I had come to regard my historical preference for über-sweetness as a juvenile trait that I was now determined to drop, and as my parents had always taken their coffee black, I purported to do likewise.  My fellow expats were horrified and assured me that no one drank Austrian coffee black, and they prevailed upon me to dilute the bitter brew with both sugar and milk.  I have no doubt that this modification softened my introduction to European-strength coffee, but more importantly it was the first instance of subordinating my personal taste to coffee’s greater social function.

Vienna has a complicated relationship with coffee, and the rest of the country does its best to keep pace, so when I ventured out into the Kaffeehäuser, I availed myself of a little local instruction.  It turns out that my fellow Amis were not entirely correct when they denied the Austrian practice of drinking black Kaffee, but it is much rarer than in the U.S., and I’m sure they were wise to caution me against having a café-brewed Mokka, as it probably would have been raw espresso, which I had never had at that time.  After a little experimentation (and ribald punning from my Austrian Kollegen), I determined that my drink would be a Verlängerter (black coffee diluted with water (but not as much as an Americano; less than six ounces)), accompanied by two lumps of sugar, a square of Schokolade, and the Trib.

When I visited my girlfriend in France (the true reason for my European sojourn), her household was coffee-free, so I continued adopting native customs and made do with tea (lots of sugar, no milk).  When I returned to Seattle, I tried my parents’ coffee for the first time as an adult.  The Seattle coffee revolution was in full swing, although my parents never acquired home espresso machine and to this day drink (large quantities of) drip coffee at home.  Even using French Roast beans, it was weak compared to the cloudy European brew to which I had become accustomed, and I quickly ceased adding sugar or milk.  I eventually moved into an apartment with an avid coffee hound, but even he was startled when I adopted my parents’ habit of brewing coffee in the evening immediately after returning home from work.

As Starbucks remade the coffee break in its own image and Seattleites came to accept paying $3 and more for their morning cup, my inner skinflint was happy to stick with drip coffee, often plundering the free coffee offered by many workplaces.  My caffeine consumption ramped up to the point where my mid-20s metabolism responded with nervous complaints, yet I never considered either the simple additives of milk and sugar or more expensive espresso-based concoctions.  I still associated such dilutions with juvenile behavior; I might as well have drunk hot chocolate.

This insistence upon drinking coffee as an emblem of adulthood springs from the two most influential groups of people in my life: my family and my friends.  While my parents may have improved upon their families’ workaholism, their coffee habits are well within the family norm.  At all family gatherings, whatever the size or occasion, coffee was expected at all hours.  While coffee’s function as a stimulant was not unappreciated, it was more highly prized as an acceptable form of procrastination; "We’ll get to work as soon as we finish our coffee."  Note that this sentiment had its limits—taking a coffee break never hurt anyone, but if you were going to bother to sweeten your coffee, well, one has to wonder about your motives.

My friends’ coffee habits have been more varied in their development.  For better or worse, I have kept in close contact with many friends from my adolescent years, and it took until after college before social coffee drinking was fully integrated into our habits (some, of course, never crossed over to the Dark Side, but even such apostates remain in thrall to Coke©).  Central to this integration was the institution of Saturday morning breakfast, which preserved a network of friends that might have otherwise degenerated into a mere list of e-mail addresses.  Even for those of us who had taken up geeky professions, workaday life failed to provide sufficient outlet for our geeky energies, and we found ourselves saving up discussion topics for Saturday morning.  It was at these breakfasts that I first noticed that my capacity for coffee consumption was dramatically greater than during the rest of the week.  During those periods when I found it salubrious to abstain from weekday coffee drinking altogether, come Saturday I could still put away half a dozen cups.  When alternate breakfast venues were considered, coffee flow (and, less importantly, quality) always figured large in our evaluations.  Some took milk or sugar and some insisted on espresso drinks, but black drip coffee was always in fashion.

When I returned to school, I determined that I would need to increase my coffee consumption to get me through late nights of studying and writing.  Unfortunately, our domestic coffee brewing equipment hadn’t improved in over a decade; we owned a college-era drip machine, and a wedding-present French press.  I had latterly used the press when brewing coffee only for myself, as it produced a smaller volume and I—now in my 30s—cannot drink an entire pot of drip coffee before it gets cold (I retain a horror—Protestant-derived I’m sure—of wasting food, including coffee.  The plight of trying to preserve hot coffee for days in a thermos and eventually reheating it in a microwave is as compulsive as it is demeaning.).  We recently broke the glass carafe of our French press, and the prospect of investing in new equipment prompted me for the first time to seriously question what I wanted in a cup of coffee.

As the only coffee drinker in the household, I wanted a device that would yield a smaller volume with ease and economy.  Previous experience with brewing partial pots with the drip machine produced unsatisfactory results; the coffee was weaker than usual, and I couldn’t shake the suspicion that grounds were going to waste.  It wasn’t long before I succumbed to the geek’s conceit that a scientific understanding of a thing would yield the best insights for evaluating its use.  So it was that 20 years after Howard Schultz opened his first coffee bar in downtown Seattle, I finally learned how espresso is made and why it might taste better than drip-brewed coffee.

The theory behind espresso—that water expressed through coffee grounds will evenly pick up the desirable coffee flavors while leaving behind the bitter compounds—was hard to argue with.  Domestic espresso machines were slightly intimidating to operate and certainly daunting to clean, however, and of course they were pricey.  I had fond memories of the French press, but upon reflection (and under the baleful influence of Maceration Theory), I determined that I enjoyed the ritual of preparing the grounds and water for use in the French press more than drinking the coffee that came out of it, which inevitably had a chalky aftertaste.

It is worth noting that in our many trips to France to visit my wife’s family, I had never known a French person to own or use a "French press."  My French brother-in-law is known among his peers as a fearsome coffee drinker (sugar, no milk), but he brews his coffee in a drip machine that wouldn’t look out of place in an American college dorm.  European café and restaurant coffee seems universally to be espresso, but home espresso machines seem rarer in Europe than full-length showers.  Comparing my coffee habits to those of Europeans necessarily provokes the anxiety of "authenticity;" how do the people who invented espresso drink it?  Does my residence in Seattle oblige me to drink lattes?

I had actually sampled an espresso drink once even before I traveled to Austria.  While I was not yet a coffee drinker, much of the first couple years of my college experience was spent behind a bench-table at "The Exit," as the Last Exit on Brooklyn, the funkiest coffeehouse in Seattle’s University District, was known.  One of my early-adopting friends made a memorable (to me) habit of not rising until The Exit opened, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette during the walk over, then rolling another as his regular alchemist (the term barista had yet to penetrate public consciousness) brewed a murky mug topped with a dainty glyph of foam.  On one occasion when I had accompanied him, haplessly hoping to hatch some plan for world domination, I let my confederate order me an espresso drink.  I imagine he quite understandably played to my not-yet-spurned sweet tooth and ordered what would now be (and perhaps even then was) called a mocha.  I remember the beverage as a somewhat underwhelming cup of hot chocolate, but the coffeehouse culture represented by The Exit (itself now gone) remains ineluctably attractive to me.

In the years since, my espresso experience has been irregular and unscientific.  Frequently, a barista would fail to have any drip coffee prepared and would offer an Americano as a substitute (at the drip coffee price, of course), which I would almost always accept.  Additionally, I can never refuse the annual egg nog latte, typically on the day after Thanksgiving.  Nevertheless, I could not help regarding such products as American derivations of "authentic" espresso, and I resolved that the only way to determine whether the espresso method produced better tasting coffee than drip-brewing was to taste it raw.  I don’t know what a demitasse of espresso at Starbucks in 1984 tasted like, nor that served at The Exit five years later.  But in the opening years of the 21st century, most Seattle espresso bars serve an extremely bitter and oily extraction.  It would seem that the majority of espresso brewed in this city is intended to impart its taste through an ocean of milk.  I am quite certain that there exists in Seattle at least one coffehouse where an Italian could find a suitably familiar espresso.  There may even be an establishment that offers a brew that I could enjoy without resorting to sugar and milk.  Absent vast amounts of time (and money), however, I shan’t be making an exhaustive survey any time soon.

Even had I found an acceptable espresso provider, there was little reason to believe that I could satisfactorily replicate the recipe with whatever home espresso machine I ended up acquiring.  My coffee habit, however small in volume it might become, still required a daily fix.  If I couldn’t brew an acceptable drink at home, my research would be pointless.  In browsing the coffee appliances on offer at Cost Plus, I came across the Moka "stove-top espresso" pot.  It seemed to meet all my needs: it utilized the espresso method, the smallest model produced just enough volume (approximately 150 milliliters) for my daily dose, and it was relatively easy to use and clean.  Loading the pot was also sufficiently fastidious as to satisfy my need for personal ritual.  And the beverage itself?  After trying a dozen different blends, I found the resulting brew to be much stronger than any drip-brewed coffee, let alone that made from an equivalent amount of beans.  It lacked the crema that is the alleged signature of "true" espresso machines, but it also was not the bitter and oily syrup of my previous encounters.  It was smoother than the coffee produced by a French press, and while it did contain a miniscule amount of sediment, it was far less chalky than pressed coffee.  Perhaps most importantly, I could drink it black.

So now I could brew a drink at home that I enjoyed more than my previous efforts.  But the nagging thought remained: could I eventually brew a more enjoyable drink?  I was staring into an abyss that no amount of sugar or milk could alleviate.  True coffee geeks spend thousands in pursuit of the perfect equipment.  Apparently, one should drop over a hundred dollars on a grinder.  Only when I considered the likely scenarios wherein coffee is served in my home did I finally realize that trying to attain the highest coffee standards is folly.  Those of my friends who insist on quality espresso are unlikely to be satisfied by any domestic operation I could achieve and, like other junkies, they are much more likely to "self-medicate" before paying a social call.  I am much more likely to be serving coffee drinkers whose tastes are typified by my family’s: black, watery, and keep it comin’.  For such occasions, our Mr. Coffee will continue its yeoman service.

Surprisingly, my investigations into home brewing have done little to inform my coffee drinking habits in public.  When my coffee consumption is in service of biochemical rather than social needs (that is, when I drink alone), I am more likely to prefer a short Americano over drip coffee.  When in company, however, I like my coffee thin enough to swill quickly and voluminous enough to stay hot during long discursions.  Reflecting on this disparity led me to a conclusion in defiance of all notions of connoisseurship and geeky perfectionism: a pleasant taste is not the chief virtue of my coffee-drinking experience.

This realization was a liberation, not only to refrain from bankrupting myself in a quest to brew the perfect cup, but also (when circumstances call for it) to drink quite simply bad coffee.  This is not (entirely) a rationalization of failure; in addition to the aforementioned function as a conversation lubricant, bad coffee is often an artifact of privations that are occasions for fond memories.  I am rarely so appreciative of a cup of coffee as I am when it has been poured from a thermos on a long road trip, or brewed over a campfire deep in the woods, or decanted from a vending machine while staring through the rain-spattered windows of a ferry terminal.  Sharing bad coffee is also an extremely common bonding experience, as veterans of college cafeterias, truck stops, and all-night bowling alleys can attest.

Being free to drink bad coffee has its downsides; I am reluctant to try instant coffee, for fear I might like it.  It has its limits, as well; when I am dosing alone, I avoid coffee consumption in the morning, and never on an empty stomach.  (It is worth noting that years of marriage to a tea-drinker has induced me to break my fast with black tea, which I have no compunction about freighting with hummingbird-diet-levels of sugar.)  My afternoon coffee is the result of sporadic investigation and experimentation, and while it gives me true satisfaction (both neurochemical and aesthetic), it does not conform to any "authentic" style, and I’m not certain I would recommend it to others; it is not, in the end, simply a matter of taste.  While I remain open to the possibility that a Seattle coffeehouse might someday change my life with a sublime infusion, I feel no shame, and perhaps a little cultural pride, in the fact that I place less value on the quality of the brew in my cup than on the quality of conversation that occurs over it.

Copyright © 2004 by Eric Scharf.  All rights reserved.

That's the trouble with bad coffee.
Did you notice anything?
Coffee's funny that way.
Of course not.
Is this the coffee I like?