I made 75 cups of coffee for myself last week. Not that I drank all of them; that would bring a week of insomnia, although what I concoct is decaf. But still, 75 cups of approximately 7 milligrams of caffeine per cup would ruin me. My extreme brewing was part of my attempt to find perfection in a cup.
I don’t drink coffee every day, but love a good cup when the mood strikes. For many months, I cut it out completely, after reading that it was bad for my health. Then “researchers,” whoever they are, said that fresh coffee was good for me. Then I read that coffee lowers the frequency in my body, which can bring illness. So, I still go through completely coffee-free months, but eventually, the tempting aroma lures me back. And once the smell pulls mere mortals into its power, we must partake. Well, most of us; I do have several friends who love the smell, but hate the taste.
Months ago, I decided to drink naked coffee – no creamer, no sugar – nothing but bean juice. On the first Sunday after I began this new adventure, I got a cup of fresh decaf from an urn in the hallway at church. As I always do with strong coffee, I filled my cup with one-third decaf and two-thirds hot water. I’m a weak coffee drinker. Rather, a weak-coffee drinker. Mmmm. It was smoother than the decaf coffee in the church café where I work twice a month, and it had a nutty flavor, like pecan. It was the best black coffee I’d ever had.
And so, I experimented with various establishments’ coffees, thinking my one-third coffee to two-thirds water ratio would magically create the perfect cup of coffee everywhere I went. But, no matter where I went, I couldn’t find anything that was as good as the Hallway Coffee.
Maybe the church uses some kind of holy water in those urns, I thought.
The next time I worked the café, I asked my friend Merry, who manages the café, “What kind of coffee is used in the hallway urns? It’s great. The café coffee is too strong for me, but that one is perfect.”
She said the name of the brand I use at home.
“What?” I exclaimed.
“That’s the coffee we use for the hallway; it comes already ground.”
“I use that at home, but mine doesn’t taste like this.”
And therein lies the problem - in the creator, not in the coffee. Someone who overheard us suggested perhaps the Hallway Coffee is different because it’s measured more precisely, which still brought the blame back to me.
I came home, and got my brand out of the pantry. I tweaked the strength, using my drip coffee maker. It was good, as usual, but it didn’t have the flavor of the blessed Hallway Coffee.
Tired of searching for the World’s Best Cup of Coffee outside the church walls, I returned to my herbal cinnamon tea, something I found during my Year of No Caffeine. It was succulent. But as you know, dear reader, a cup of tea does not equal coffee. Hot beverages demand a certain mood and atmosphere. And I was in a coffee mood.
Well, I thought, as long as I’m looking for perfection, I should look for healthier coffee. I quickly became obsessed with finding the best way to make coffee, the best beans to buy, etc.
“What are you doing?” Flash asked when he came home from work one day. My nose was pressed into my laptop, my handwritten notes scribbled onto a legal pad in front of me, and I had a deranged look in my eyes.
“We’re getting rid of our coffee maker.”
“Getting rid of it? Why? I thought you liked it.”
I began reciting my 500 Reasons to Justify a New Purchase manifesto, health reasons being first and foremost. I told him about articles I’d read. It didn’t take long to convince him it was time for a different kind of coffee maker.
Pour-over brewing sounded easy. But then I read something about water temperature, and measuring, and the precise way to pour water over coffee grounds. Seriously, how can you mess up pouring water? I was striving for an exceptional cup of coffee, not a cure for the common cold. I considered calling my friend Java, who knows coffee like I know chocolate. He can tell you which establishments have the best coffee, the finest beans, why they are the best, how they are roasted, what phase of the moon brings optimal flavor, and the exact coffee characteristics sought by expert tasters, such as himself. He is hard core. I will never make coffee for him.
But instead of calling Java, I thought, Wouldn’t it be great if I figured this out by myself? Then I could impress him with my journey.
And so, I persisted. I googled electric percolators – I always loved the sound and the look of them. I researched stove top percolators. I read about coffee systems galore. Then I settled on the French press – a term altogether scary because it involves a foreign culture in its name. But, after researching eight hours a day for three weeks, I settled on it as the best way to make coffee. Then, I had to find the safest French press, with no harmful materials. Next, I made price comparisons; I never impulse buy something so life-changing.
“What do you think about French press?” I asked Flash, wondering if he thought it was a new way of ironing his dress shirts, which would’ve left him elated.
Instead, he knew what I was talking about. “Oh, we have one of those at work.”
I was stunned. I thought it was an elegant device, not a workplace device. “What do you think about it?”
“They use it for tea,” he explained. “I haven’t tried it.”
Finally, I was ready to alter our drinking habits for all of eternity. But the website for the French press I wanted was sold out of their product. When I emailed to ask when it would be back in stock, they wrote that they were redesigning their model, and it wouldn’t be in stock until the end of January. Of course I’d have to wait; it takes me forever to make appliance decisions. In the amount of time it takes me to decide, the product I want progresses from its 1.0 version to its 15.0 version.
In the meantime, I asked a healthy-coffee drinker for advice on bean grinders. “Burr grinder” was her answer. Thinking “burr” was a brand name, I googled, and quickly found myself in yet another research project. I had to know why burr was suggested, so I compared it to other grinders, and then made a decision six weeks later. Confirming that a burr grinder was best, I then had to choose a brand. Which involved finding a product with no harmful plastics, no harmful metals, and that was efficient. That took another three weeks.
“You don’t even drink that much coffee,” Flash commented, yet again. It’s true; three cups in one week is excessive for me.
“Right. But when I want it, I want it to be healthier.” My burr grinder was at my doorstep in three days. But I had no beans. Which makes using a grinder problematic.
Not since Nicolas Cage’s quest in National Treasure has a hunt been so involved. I wanted decaf beans, without the chemicals. “Swiss water process” was the answer I found. After reading that coffee beans are one of the most pesticide-sprayed crops, I wanted organic. And, apparently, beans grown in a tropical climate were the best.
I discovered that beans can range from $11 to over $45 per small bag. At a local store one day, Flash and I found an organic, water-processed decaf, grown in a tropical area. We’d hit non-chemical-laden pay dirt. Flash picked a medium dark roast, his first choice. But, with its price being eight dollars, I worried that reasonable price would translate as awful taste.
My worries were merited; it wasn’t worth $8. The bitter smell of the beans singed my nose hairs, before I even grinded them and brewed them. Flash insists on finishing them, but they’ll never inflict harm on my taste buds again. My search for beans ended in a bag of medium roast, with all the prior qualifications met, ordered on line.
After a month of avoiding my beans, fearing another failed cup of coffee, I finally tried them last weekend. I grinded them coarse, for a smoother flavor. Instead, I got very little flavor. So I added a single-serve cup of non-flavored creamer. It was still blah. Having vowed to not put refined sugar in my coffee months prior, I dropped in a few mint flavored chips that were left over from making cookies at Christmas time. But the chips sat on the bottom of the cup, unmelted. My beverage was hot, but that’s all it was.
“What do you think?” I asked as I handed the cup to Flash. I knew he’d make a face, which he did, because Flash drinks coffee as an additive to his hot chocolate and creamer.
“It tastes like green tea.”
I tried to pretend it was flavorful. But even my vivid imagination has its limitations in the realm of mediocre food and drink.
So I grinded more beans, on a setting for finer grounds, and added a larger amount of grounds to my coffee machine before brewing. The finished product smelled too strong, so I added hot water, without tasting it first. Which is never a good idea. The result was hot, brown water. So, I mixed fine and coarse grounds, and heaped them into the filter. That time, I almost tasted something.
“Here Flash, try this,” I said, as I handed him my most recent experiment.
“Ewww. Still green tea.”
It was back to the drawing board. Over and over. Finally, half of a bean bag later, I surrendered to the wannabe coffee. After adding in two cups of creamer, I drank it anyway, in spite reflux rearing its ugly head after my drinking five gallons of coffee on an empty stomach. But not all was in vain; I stayed warm on that windy, cold day.
Two days later, when our friend Audrey was over, I lured her into my taste testing and gave her my How to Drink Healthier Coffee lecture.
“Can you taste anything?” I asked, after her first cup.
“Not really,” she said.
And so, I tried again, saying, “I’ll grind those beans to dust. Surely, that will work.”
Then, the light came on in my coffee-laden brain. I’d been adding more grounds, but not decreasing the amount of water. I brewed a cup with half the amount of water. It was a little strong for me, so I added some water, of course without tasting it first. I’d gone full circle in the grind-brew-pour-dilute-disappointment cycle. Yet, taking my second sip, I realized this cup wasn’t as blah as the others. Eureka, I said to myself, this is progress.
I handed Audrey an undiluted sample, and she indulged me again. “It almost has flavor,” she said, looking apologetic. Seeing the look on my face – a look of heartbreak, or perhaps insanity – she took a second sip, then excitedly added, “But I think it’s getting there.”
That was enough to fuel the fire of my quest. I’ll never give up; I’ll never surrender, I shouted, in the depths of my soul. There’s always tomorrow for this mad scientist. Come hell or high brown-colored water, I’ll find my Perfect Cup of Coffee.
And then I’ll learn how to make it all over again, when my French press is delivered. How hard could it be?