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Ask the Profussor – Lingering Over Coffee

October 21, 2010

I don’t understand why there were 99 mostly positive comments for a post taking a borderline crazy stand on the preparation of a cup of coffee, and so little feedback when I’m giving away free croissants and cinnamon rolls.  Perhaps it is just the capricious nature of the interwebs.

Four of those ninety-nine comments asked really good questions about coffee, and while they could have been included in this week’s Ask the Profussor, I thought the answers deserved a dedicated post.

So here they are.  Some are a bit nuanced, as I try to walk a very narrow line.

Dadsprimalscream compared coffee to chocolate, which was interesting but wrong:
Have any of you ever tried chocolate without any sweetener? It’s nasty. Just because I like milk chocolate doesn’t make it any less chocolate.

Yes.  At the Scharffen Berger chocolate tour they used to give samples of ostensibly pure, unsweetened chocolate.  I found a nibble of it to be so intense, that my face started to get hot.  Although I’m still not sure I would call it nasty.  It’s not what I would eat for pleasure, but I know there are chocolate lovers who snack on the stuff straight.

But if you add milk and sugar to chocolate, or even if you add nuts or marshmallows, by its very definition you’ve made it less chocolate. 

Allison Huyett was curious about my further thoughts on coffee:
Do you find it best enjoyed in good company? Dear Daniel, one lump or two?

This is going to sound a little weird.  I enjoy having coffee with people, but that’s because I enjoy people.  In these situations drinking coffee is just really something social thing to do in the company of friends.  But I find good coffee is best enjoyed alone.

Talking with people is distracting from the pleasure I take at being in the moment with a cup of coffee or even a plate of food.  I know that this may be hard to believe, but when sitting down with a friend over coffee, most people don’t want to contemplate the drink’s aromatic properties at length.  And really that’s fine.

Especially because sometimes people are super annoying when they talk about food or drinks.  The irony of this last statement isn’t lost on me.  Finding someone with whom you feel comfortable talking about food and flavors is a rare treat.

Now, I was on the record saying that good coffee can be enjoyed black.  Mediocre coffee could probably be improved with sugar and cream.  Regardless, if I’m in a decent diner with respectable diner coffee, I’ll probably have it black.  But I’ll call my last cup my “dessert cup” and make it into a warm coffee ice cream in a mug.  For this meal ending sweet treat, I’ll add a couple of packets of half and half and more sugar than one might think is reasonably possible.

Tonia was picking up what I was putting down, but took it a step further:
How can you be a true lover of coffee if you take it light and sweet? You are just covering up the flavor… why not just have milk and sugar?

Here’s the thing.  I’m not ready to question anybody’s love for the stuff just because of how they drink it.  You could love coffee because of the ritual, you can love it because of the way it makes you feel, you can love coffee because of what it symbolizes.

I think coffee is great, and I think there should be more coffee drinkers.  Really great coffee is difficult to make at home and hard to find out at cafés.  That means most coffee people drink will have some kind of flaw.  These need to be corrected.  And I think you can truly love something even if it’s fundamentally flawed.

Plus drinking coffee sweet and milky is the gateway drug to black coffee.  It brings people into the tent, and once here, they can expand and grow as coffee drinkers.

Blackwatertown was upset by some of the implications from the coffee post:
Why drink it if it is so unpalatable? Why mask the unpleasant taste to make it bearable? Drink something else until you can get a decent cup of coffee in, say, France.  I’d suggest a cup of tea in the meantime, but if the local coffee is that bad, God knows what the tea is like.

Just because coffee is bitter doesn’t mean it’s unpalatable.  And masking these off flavors often does more than make coffee bearable, it makes it delicious.  You drink it because it’s hot, wet and stimulating, much like the British drank tea.  You mask an unpleasant taste because the effects of drinking this coffee are worth it.

Sometimes good enough is good enough.  Plus having a lot of inferior coffee really makes the good stuff taste even better.

It’s the silver lining of mediocrity.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. MattW permalink
    October 21, 2010 1:16 pm

    I would like to know why the Profussor is always wearing flip-flops even when it’s cold out like yesterday?

  2. Cindy permalink
    October 21, 2010 2:47 pm

    “…drinking coffee sweet and milky is the gateway drug to black coffee.” [applause] Winner, Best Blog Line of 2010.

    Yep, that’s how I started. My defining coffee moment: many years ago, I was preparing a very mediocre cup at work, doctoring it with sugar and powdered creamer. I picked up the jar of powdered creamer, read the ingredients and said to myself, “WHY am I consuming this stuff? I am going to learn to like my coffee black.” And so I did.

    I soon grew to actually dislike the taste of sugar and (even real) cream in my coffee – unless it’s one of the overpriced fancy latte beverages that I sometimes indulge in. But those really aren’t coffee at all. They are, as you’ve said, more like coffee-ice-cream treats or desserts.

    Coffee really is an acquired taste. And once it’s truly acquired, one really can discern good from bad, and thoroughly enjoy a well-prepared cup, black. My theory is that many people haven’t truly acquired the taste, so they add the familiar, comforting milky and sweet flavors to bring the taste “down a notch.”

    Your original post, and this follow-up, are right on target – and I have enjoyed reading them, and all the comments, immensely! Keep up the good work.

  3. October 21, 2010 5:24 pm

    Interesting comment that I must have missed when it was originally posted – why drink bad coffee (when we are say, in France? :) just drink something else. Why do we do that? I do that all the time. For me a bad cup of coffee is still better than an alternative beverage in circumstances that call for coffee – breakfast, or after a meal. A bad day of fishing beats a good day at work? What’s up with that?

  4. AddiesDad permalink
    December 3, 2010 11:42 am

    Daniel (et al commentors),

    My Cuisinart drip coffee machine has finally died. This is the one with the internal reservoir, and both my wife and I adored it and the coffee it brewed (but probably not hot enough). We are now in the hunt for a new coffee machine, and while I’d love to buy the Tecnovorm Moccamaster with its copper heating elements, 5 minute brew time, and perfect 19o* degree brewing temperature, I just can’t drop $300 on a coffee machine before Christmas.

    So, I’d like to hear from the Profussor and his milleu regarding best bets for a home coffee machine. I’m open to all brands and methods, as long as it’s not too, um, fussy.

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