JANE: Last time, I promised you a story about instant coffee. My mom went to England to visit my sister, who was studying abroad for a year. They went out and enjoyed various tourist options, then stopped for lunch.
You Figure It Out!
When the waitress asked for her drink order, my mom said, “Do you have coffee?”
“Yes, ma’am, we do.”
“Brewed coffee, not instant?”
“Then I’d like some, please. Black.” Coffee arrived. Mom took a sip, set the cup down. “This is instant.”
Waitress, eyes wide and startled. “Ma’am, you’re the first person ever to notice!”
ALAN: Lightly roast a single coffee bean so that the wonderful smell goes everywhere. Then serve instant coffee. It fools the punters every time…
Actually I quite like instant coffee. (I drink Moccona.) However, I regard it as a completely different drink from real coffee. Given the choice, of course, I’d always go for properly prepared real coffee. How do you make yours? I keep it very simple. In my opinion, coffee does not require elaborate mechanisms to brew it. I make filter coffee – the coffee sits in a filter paper and water drips through it into a pot.
JANE: I do the same thing. I’ve even been known to horrify purists by re-heating coffee in the microwave. I have had “cold pressed” coffee and find it wussy.
My friend Hilary works in a coffee bar. She was telling me about Siphon coffee, which is made in a weird-looking hourglass contraption (sometimes called a vacuum pot). Water is heated in the bottom, until the pressure buildup causes the water to flow up into the top through a filter. Once the water has reached to the proper temperature, you gently stir coffee into the water, let sit, then stir again and pull off of the heat source. The coffee will then go down through the filter and you’ll end up with a clean cup of coffee in the bottom half.
One of these days, I need to meet her over at Michael Thomas Coffee and try this, just so I can say I have.
Of course, when I was a kid, the standard way of making coffee was in an electric percolator. The white with blue design pot was a standard feature in most kitchens. Occasionally, I see an old one at an “antique” store and consider trying it out.
ALAN: I had a percolator. After I left university and went out into the wide world, pretty much all I owned was a few clothes, a coffee percolator and a big floor cushion. I still have the cushion – these days it does duty as a dog bed. In retrospect, I think percolators concentrate the drink a bit too much and the taste tends towards the bitter end of the spectrum.
JANE: Interesting. You almost make me want to try it again, just to compare. I wonder if the concentration offered by a percolator is one reason that those weaker blends we mentioned last week – Maxwell House, Folgers, etc. – used to taste better.
Back when I was in grad school, I was too poor to afford a proper coffee pot. Somehow I acquired a stove-top percolator (it may have been left in the apartment by the previous tenants) and started using that. When the little glass knob that fit in the lid broke, I was too poor (yes, I really was) to afford a replacement. However, a friend had been over and brought a coffee drink in a small bottle. The threads on this matched those on the percolator lid, so I used that as a replacement.
For a while, when I’d make coffee, it would go up from the pot, into the bottle, swirl down, and up again. Very Cthuluesque.
ALAN: Wow! A coffee percolator and a lava lamp all in one. How wonderfully surreal!
JANE: Oh! You just made me laugh. I never thought of it that way, but that was precisely the effect.
I didn’t keep doing this forever. A friend’s mother came by – for Thanksgiving, I think – and was horrified by my jury rigged lifestyle. Next time my friend came, he had a new knob for the coffee pot and a set of nutcrackers.
ALAN: Nut crackers?
JANE: Yeah. I’d been making do with a hammer.
ALAN: Have you ever tried to crack a macadamia nut?
JANE: No, I don’t think so… Here, I’ve only seen them sold already shelled.
ALAN: They have the toughest shells in the world. Hit a macadamia nut with a hammer and there’s a good chance that the hammer will shatter. Perhaps that’s why the shelled nuts are so expensive in the shops. The cost of the dynamite they need to actually get the nuts out of the shells must be quite exorbitant…
JANE: That’s amazing. I had wondered why macadamia nuts were so pricy and I bet you’ve – wait for it – hit the macadamia nut squarely on the shell.
Y’know, one advantage with collaborating with someone on the other side of the globe is that I don’t need to worry you’ll throw something at me for making a really bad joke.
ALAN: Oh I’ve thrown something at you. But Jake caught it in midair, shook it until it was dead and then ate it. So you got lucky.
JANE: Thank you, Jake!
But getting back to coffee… You were talking about “coffee culture.” Certainly it has developed here in the U.S. There’s an entire show held each year at our convention center built around nothing but coffee and chocolate. I haven’t been yet, but someday I will… I’ll just plan not to sleep the next day.
ALAN: That sounds like something I’d enjoy, as long as it doesn’t get too complicated. I don’t know about you, but I find the range of coffee drinks on the average coffee bar menu to be quite bewildering. I’m clearly not alone in this feeling. There’s a New Zealand singing group called When The Cat’s Been Spayed (don’t ask, I don’t know) who sing a song called The Coffee Bar Blues which goes (in part):
Cappuccino, cafe negre, cafe latte, and more
With chocolate, and cinnamon, and froth to the floor
Long black, short black, two flat whites
I got the low-light coffee-bar blues
Do you have that huge range of choice at your end of the world?
JANE: We do indeed. Since my mom comes from an Italian-American background, I was already familiar with some of them – including various espresso drinks and putting cinnamon in coffee or lemon peel in espresso – before Starbucks made them trendy. But a lot of the names remain a mystery to me.
When Jim bought a new vehicle a few years ago, the salesman gave us tickets for free drinks at a local coffee and dessert place called Flying Star. We went in and then had to ask the barista to explain to us what the heck some of the choices actually tasted like.
That said, I quite enjoyed mine, although I found myself thinking of it more as a coffee-flavored dessert, rather than a cup of coffee.
ALAN: I don’t have much of a sweet tooth so I tend to avoid those kinds of things. Robin rather likes them though.
JANE: All this talk about ice cream vans and coffee vans has made me philosophical. Let me mull until next time.