Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Coffee Paradox

I am usually not very awake when I regain consciousness each morning. In fact, the first thirty minutes of wakefulness can be described as a slow emergence from the fog. It's best if I'm not talked to and am given a wide berth, as Abby can certainly testify.

Because of this, the coffee paradox is a fixture of my mornings. The coffee paradox is this: in order to properly make the coffee that I need to face the day, I need the caffeine that coffee provides in my system. Or, more simply, I need coffee to make coffee.

The coffee paradox has been proved in many forms over the years. The first coffee maker Abby and I had after we got married was the Twin, a two-chamber device that allowed us each to make our own variety of coffee at the same time. (Forget that one-flesh stuff: Abby was primarily a decaf drinker at the time.) This coffee maker was great--as long as you remembered to flip the switch when you were making only one cup of coffee. The coffee paradox resulted in many coffee floods with the Twin.

When Abby realized that decaf coffee is gross,* we moved to a single-pot coffee maker, if only to avoid the Twin's consequences of the coffee paradox. However, different problems emerge from using a more standard electric coffee maker. You have to remember, for example, to change the filter, fill the chamber with water, empty yesterday's unconsumed coffee. And so forth. If you drink fresh-roasted coffee (as we began doing sometime in this period), you also have to remember that fresh coffee balloons when it comes in contact with hot water, creating spills for those who don't take the proper precautions (or who don't warn their hosts).

We tried to combat the coffee paradox again by getting a programmable coffee maker from Goodwill. Set it and forget it! But that requires forethought and planning, which is a different problem from the coffee paradox, but a problem all the same.

My sister got me a pour-over coffee maker for my birthday last year, which is essentially just the filter chamber from an electric coffee maker welded onto a lip that keeps it on your mug when you pour hot water through it. I wasn't crazy about it at first--it seemed like a lot of extra steps (it's not), it seemed to use more coffee grounds (it doesn't have to), and it seemed a lot more snooty (...)--but now it is my go-to mode for making coffee. Aside from capturing the vibrant flavors of the bean (remember that snooty part?), it's a lot less susceptible to the coffee paradox.

Or so I thought.

The nice thing about all the coffee paradox examples above is that they happened at home. When Abby or I am the victim of the coffee paradox, we can laugh about it, but the laughter ends in our own kitchen. Last week, however, I was running late for work, and I didn't have time to make coffee before I left. I remembered that I have a mini-pour-over coffee maker at work, as well as some ground coffee, so I determined it best to make my morning coffee there.

Now, I make my afternoon coffee at work every day (at least since baby E was born). But that's in the afternoon. As sleepy as I get around 2:30 or 3:00, I have had my morning coffee. I have had a day's worth of thinking and eating to buffer any poor choices I might make while brewing coffee. But I had up to this point not made my morning coffee at work.

Pour-over coffee makers are great. They give you more freedom in making the coffee. However, more freedom equals more responsibility, and at 8:00 in the morning, more responsibility is never a good thing.

With my eyes half closed from sleep, I looked in my mug. I should be able to put this much water through the filter, I thought. As the water drained through the grounds, my cup was still looking somewhat empty. I'd better add more water, I thought. Well, I've got more water in the kettle--this shouldn't go to waste. So I dumped the rest in.

Early morning is too early for eyeballing quantities, too early for simple math. Forget that the kettle holds one quart of water. Forget that the travel coffee mug holds 20 oz. Forget that this is boiling water we're talking about and not the tepid stuff I poured into the kettle.

I realized my error once the mug was just reaching capacity. The filter chamber was still full of sludgy water and grounds. This is exactly why I have a drip plate! I thought, and in my coffeeless stupor I had ample time to praise my foresight. The drip plate, however, has but a modest lip, not enough to contain the fearsome flow from my still-dripping coffee cone. The drip plate quickly overflowed in my hand, sending scalding water onto my skin and then the counter in the copy room. I found some paper towels to perform damage control, but the coffee cone was still 3/4 full and showed no signs of slowing down.

Thank goodness no one is around to see this, I thought. I can just get this to the bathroom, let it finish dripping, and then dispose of the evidence.

I put the cone back on the drip plate and brought some paper towels along and began the quick trek to the bathroom, coffee dripping all the way despite my efforts to contain the cascade. The cone was in the sink, but there was a line of brown drops leading to the men's restroom, like Hansel and Gretel's crumbs. In other words, I was a marked man. I grabbed some paper towels to cover my tracks.

Of course, at this time, a meeting was just letting out, and people were pouring into the hallway from the stairwell. So much for a smooth recovery. I toweled up the drops, rinsed my coffee-making implements, and swore to never make my morning coffee at work again.

I suppose all's well that ends well enough. Aside from a burned mouth and scalded pride, nothing was hurt.

I use this story as a cautionary tale: beware the coffee paradox.

*Note: as with most generalizations, this has only a grain of truth. Most decaffeinated coffee is gross, but part of the reason this is so is that decaf coffee doesn't have a large enough following to make it worth pouring resources into it. Most people, I would imagine, drink coffee for the caffeine and not the flavor. (At least, this is the result of my informal observations at the church coffee table, where cups emerge with a higher cream-and-sugar than coffee content.) Connoisseurs drink the pure stuff without the mechanical process of removing one of coffee's greatest virtues. Thus, most decaf coffee is sold pre-ground, which is the absolute worst way to buy coffee. Whole bean decaf is worlds better than what most of the world knows as decaf. And fresh-roasted whole bean decaf is better still--there's hardly a difference between it and caffeinated coffee.

1 comment:

  1. Hilarious post! We are french press coffee drinkers in the morning -- heating water in the kettle allows for time to measure the coffee and wake sufficiently for the rest of the process. :-)