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Coffee and Gas

January 26, 2011

My kids learned at a very early age that coffee makes adults go. It’s probably not the best lesson to be teaching them. But in our family it’s true. And I imagine it is also true for many people. Coffee’s power as a stimulant is one of the reasons that it is so popular all around the world.

Given its invigorating effects, it is no wonder that coffee is sold at gas stations everywhere.

Long distance driving can get dull, and drivers can get sleepy. Sometimes a slow but persistent caffeine drip is exactly what one needs to make it safely through the last 100 miles of a sizable road trip. So we rely on gas stations to fuel up both the car and the driver.

To some, gas station coffee is coffee. And there are many who think more upscale coffee places are nothing but pretense and marketing. In many regards, they may have a point. But if you can keep an open mind, I’d like to make a counterpoint.

First let’s agree on a few things. Coffee is dirty water. It is. Given that it is grown and harvested in developing nations, where even a relatively good wage is a pittance by our standards, it should be cheap.

The Marxists or the more ethically minded among you might say that it should be expensive given the backbreaking labor that’s involved or the wretched poverty in which many coffee growers live. But I’m basing this assessment on current conditions, not the realm of ideals.

Places like Starbucks aren’t selling coffee, they are selling an experience and a brand. So when there is a backlash from gas-station-coffee drinkers, saying that it’s fancypants and not for them, I completely understand.

But a lot of gas station coffee is just terrible.

The fussiest brewed coffee drinkers obsess over the beans, the roast, the grind, the temperature of the water, the ratio of beans to water and the brewing method, just for starters. However, many mass-market coffee sellers have a critical flaw that you don’t have to be a coffee snob to appreciate.

Far too many places brew coffee in glass pots that they then put on electric burners to keep them hot. There they sit, so that customers can fill up their own cups. It’s a system that is familiar to anyone who has ever been to a diner or who works in an office with a coffeemaker.

These pots, if left unattended for too long, or if the hot plate is set too high, burn coffee.

It should be a crime, because cheap, watery coffee is one thing. Thin, acrid and burnt coffee that can’t even be saved with cream and sugar is something else entirely. And I’ve come to the point where I flinch every time I see one of those glass coffee carafes on a hot plate. There is even a local café that uses this as their primary method of holding coffee.

Whatever your feelings may be about Starbucks or places of its ilk, at least they do not engage in this heinous practice. And truth be told, Starbucks’ brewed coffee isn’t nearly as ridiculously priced as its frilly, super-sweet, silly-sounding, frou-frou drinks. Their brewed coffee is even less expensive than the swill served at Dunkin’ Donuts.

You may not care for the darkness of the roast at Starbucks. You could even criticize their beans as being burnt. But you cannot say the same thing about their coffee. Burned coffee results from brewed coffee that is held at too high a temperature, or even gently heated for too long.

Now you know.

Luckily a lot of gas stations are now using insulated press pots. Maybe you’ve seen them.  They are the long tall cylinders with a handle on the top that you pump to pour the coffee. These don’t cook the coffee, and manage to keep it hot for a good long time.

If I’m confronted with those glass carafes of coffee, and I’m taking a pit stop before the last stretch of my drive, I’m skipping the coffee and getting a soda. Seriously. I can tolerate bad coffee, but I have my limits. Burnt gas-station coffee is where I draw my line.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2011 8:37 pm

    Makes me think of Stewie’s — so even if the pot is full, they’re still burning the coffee? I’m pretty sure they don’t think of it that way (though when I worked there in college, we were supposed to toss the ends of pots if they sat there for a while, ’cause it would assume that that last little bit would be burnt).

  2. Stevo permalink
    January 27, 2011 6:45 am

    I couldn’t agree more. I’m no coffee connoisseur, but I hate coffee that’s been sitting and cooking. I’ll never understand how people can drink burnt coffee. I brew my coffee in a french press, so mine never sees a burner, ever. If it gets cold, I nuke it for a just a few seconds to take the chill off.

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