You Too Can Learn To Be A Coffee Half-Snob
I just read that it is possible to get a $55 cup of coffee in Los Angeles. Well of course it is – didn’t we all see this coming? We have reached the age of artisinal everything where young bearded and tattooed men will craft the finest of anything for you, so long as you are willing to fork over the cash. But $55? For a cup of coffee?
My very first reaction was “Pfffttt! That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. What person in his (or her) right mind would pay 55 bucks for a coffee? Maybe some Coffee Snob, but certainly not me.” But then I stopped – could I one of those coffee snobs? I can’t decide.
I started drinking coffee in my college years. One summer I worked in a place where the coffee was free but the hot chocolate (my preferred brew) was a quarter. Hey, a quarter was not nothing in 1979. The joe that I was able to slurp down was sort of the same though, once I got through dumping enough sugar and powdered creamer into the cup to make it drinkable.
When I got back to school I bought an electric percolator and all the supplies necessary to do the Java Jive. Mr. Coffee was a big seller by then but being the contrarian that I am, I stuck with what was good enough for Grandma. Besides, who could resist the cheerful sound of the Maxwell House percolator jingle that I grew up with. I was a little disappointed when mine didn’t sound like that.
I splurged on a can of Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee (because it seemed exotic and I liked the name) and made up for it with a big economy size of store brand powdered creamer. I still remember that first cup with the new creamer – it was not at all like what I had become used to. Who knew that powdered non-dairy “coffee lightener” could vary so widely in quality? I wasn’t sure how good the stuff could get but I quickly learned that I had purchased the one that marked the low end of the quality spectrum.
I was faced with a decision. I could either gird my loins and consume that entire container of noxious powder – one distasteful cup at a time – or I could force myself to drink my coffee with nothing but sugar to wrestle coffee’s unique flavor around to something that my uneducated palate could handle. Throwing out the nasty fake creamer and buying a new container of the pricier name-brand dried and synthesized fake creamer was not an option – because I was raised by Germans and there is a rule of shopping: When you make a bad choice you just have to live with the consequences, Bub.
Somewhere along the line I stopped the sugar too. This may have been after I got into law school, but I really don’t remember. Perhaps my Mother’s lifetime of black coffee (“you never need to worry about whether cream or sugar is available”) had an unconscious effect. But from that day I became one of the Tough Guys, one of the people who didn’t need no stinkin’ cream or sugar to get a cup of coffee.
I will confess that I got some enjoyment out of the little edge of attitude I could inflect into my voice when someone offered cream or sugar. “No thanks, just black” was a lot more polite than “Do I look like I need cream and sugar to you? Well Do I?” I don’t get a lot of opportunities to go all Dirty Harry in my life and sometimes ordering black coffee is as close as a guy is going to get.
Somewhere along the line my standards have gone up. Like the year that I got a coffee bean grinder for my birthday. It enabled me to start buying whole bean coffee and grind it fresh for each pot. OK, the pot is a standard Mr. Coffee, so I guess my standards have not gone up all that high. Still, when that grinder broke I never for a moment considered going back to pre-ground coffee for my morning brew. Nope, I am now on my third grinder and will buy another if (when) this one offs itself. You might say that I have not bought a good enough coffee grinder and you would be correct. Which kind of goes to the heart of this topic.
I have also found myself getting choosy about coffee beans. Columbian? Sumatran? I have tried them both. “Breakfast blend?” Do I look like I need Breakfast Blend to you? Well do I? Nope, give me the darkest, boldest roast you’ve got and I will be happy. At least the darkest, boldest roast that can be found in 2 1/2 pound bags at my local warehouse club. The Starbucks French Roast or Cafe Verona are just lovely, thank you.
So I fresh-grind my not-inexpensive coffee beans in a cheap grinder. I pour the fragrant, freshly ground caffein delivery source into the cheapest white paper filters I can find. I then pour plain old tap water into my basic Mr. Coffee, and there we are. Oh yes, I push the little “strong” button.
Unless I am at home or the office and just want a single cup (which happens quite a lot, actually) in which case I sell out to the convenience gods and drink the Cafe’ Plastic that comes out of one of my two Keurig machines. On these occasions all of my eggs go into the convenience basket, which means that I buy the cheapest dark roast K cups I can find. Am I exhibiting some kind of Coffee Schizophrenia?
I have never even thought about owning a French press or some other highfalutin contraption to make “the perfect cup of coffee” and would almost never darken the window of a Starbucks, despite the fact that I buy their beans. Is there such a thing as a coffee half-snob? If not, perhaps I can file for the trademark and offer lessons.
My “coffee-out” go-to is McDonalds and find it quite good, so long as it is fresh. Other than during breakfast hours I have sort of reverted to my cream and sugar crutch as “freshness insurance” because there is nothing worse than black coffee that is from the bottom half inch of the pot after a half hour on the burner. Yes, failure to sign up for the full course of coffee snobdom has its price.
But that price is not $55.
It sounds like you’ve found a nice balance between niceties and practicality, a balance that is elusive for many. That is what was delightfully shining through for this reader.
As a devout non-coffee drinker (the smell is great but the appeal stops at that point), I’m curious…..how much of a variation is there between brands? Is the Starbucks truly that much better than Folgers, Maxwell House, etc.? No doubt the type of bean has a huge influence, but with all things being equal, is there really a distinction between them? Coffee always seems as interchangeable as the different brands of garden hoses or drywall at the hardware store – does it really matter which you get?
I can see that for someone who doesn’t buy/drink it, “coffee is coffee” just like “bourbon is bourbon” or “vanilla ice cream is vanilla ice cream.” Different beans and roasting styles do make for different flavors. Just like when I buy an unfamiliar bottle of scotch or rye, an untried kind of coffee comes with a great anticipation for the first cup.
I have had few that I don’t really care for, but none of them was like that horrid powdered creamer that I was willing to throw away.
Yeah, I’m about the same place as you on the coffee snob scale. I like the big bags of quality coffee from Costco, which I grind up in our little coffee grinder. It has a broken switch so you have to push it with the blunt end of a kids’ pumpkin carving knife, been doing that for over ten years 🙂
Just skim milk in coffee at home.
Now, being Canadian I must mention Tim Hortons, since like our ubiquitous coffee chain I too originated in Hamilton. We go there every day for break at work, to complain, catch up on each other’s projects and technical issues, and drink Tim’s coffee. It’s an aquired taste, I usually have regular (cream and sugar) but lately have been trying to steel myself for just milk. Grrrr.
Tim Horton’s has been showing up in the States and I have been looking forward to trying their donuts. But now I want to try their coffee.
And I think you are tough enough to take it without the sugar. 🙂
I drink Peet’s House Blend. When I can’t get it, I drink Chock Full o’ Nuts. When I can’t get that, I drink Yuban. All three are regularly available at Meijer, where I do most of my shopping.
My parents drink Maxwell House French Roast. Somehow they make it taste pretty good. I can’t manage it.
The difference for me is Arabica vs. Robusto beans. Most of the longtime brands (Folgers, Maxwell House, et. al.) are heavy on the Robusta beans. They just don’t taste as good, with as much nuanced flavor, as the Arabica beans.
My favorite two grab-a-cup-on-the-way-to-work coffees are McD’s and Dunkin’ Donuts. Always with a little ice on the bottom, because it comes to you at lip-burning temperatures otherwise. And stays that way for a half an hour, thanks to the styrofoam cup.
I own a grinder. It’s around here somewhere. It’s too messy and noisy for my morning routine. But on weekends, I like to make coffee in my Chemex.
I have not had much from Dunkin Donuts as there are none near me. You are clearly higher on the coffee-snob scale due to your ability to discuss the relative merit of different actual kinds of beans. 🙂
And how has it been that none of us has made a Juan Valdez reference?
Well, you just did.
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Until I learned the difference, I assumed Robusta would be better, based on the name. But Robusta is the J car or of coffee; cheap, but not particularly good. And persisted way too long. I didn’t even know you there was still a market for it. I grew up just a few blocks from the originals Peet’s in Berkeley, which opened in 1966. I still remember my mom expressing disgust that people would go out and pay 25 cents for a cup of coffee, at a shop that didn’t even serve breakfast, when you could make a cup of Yuban at home for pennies.
The J car of coffee. I love it! We mustn’t be Cavalier about our coffee. 🙂
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Now I only drink French or Viennese Roast. At Cafe Roma, next to my old grad school at Berkeley circa 1977-81, I always have a tall latte. However, you will never see me pay more than $4.00 for a latte. To pay $55 for a cup of coffee doesn’t make one a coffee snob as much as it makes one a ……
The same article that talked about the $55 coffee quoted someone who said that the prior height of coffee decadence (the beans eaten and digested by the civet cat) are really more about impressing people than about making really good coffee. My half-snob status saved me from falling for that one.
By the way, our favorite brand of beans lately is Kicking Horse, from BC. Their strongest roast is called 454 Horsepower. Yeah, I know that’s not quite right, but it does have big-block flavor.
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Interesting read. I’ve never been much of a coffee person; however, it’s been my go-to suggestion as a first date, so I do imbibe from time to time. There’s definitely some fun to be had with enjoying a quality cup in a hip coffee shop, particularly with an engaging companion. On the other hand, I’ve seen more than a few of my friends become borderline addicts about their daily cups of coffee, declaring that they suffer from headaches until they get their fix and becoming quite irritable if there’s no coffee around. To avoid falling into that, I keep it as an occasional treat in my life, rather than a regular occurrence.
And on a related note: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtVVCvkRCXc
Yes, there is the addiction thing. But there are far worse addictions and after quitting smoking over 25 years ago, I figure I am entitled to one harmless addiction. And coffee is it. 🙂
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I enjoyed reading that.
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