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Dec 04 2013

Coffee snobbery

I start each day with a cup of coffee. I have done so since I became a teenager because children drinking coffee was not as uncommon in Sri Lanka as it is in the US. While I like coffee, I don’t drink a lot, with at most one other cup during the day, usually in the afternoon, with an after dinner cup of tea. But despite my fondness for the beverage, I am definitely not a coffee connoisseur. I drink instant coffee and add milk and sugar to it, a practice that is scorned by the purists.

But coffee aficionados can bring to their beverage some of the same zeal that one finds with wine drinkers, describing it with the same level of loving detail that is baffling to me. When I am traveling and go to a coffee shop for my morning fix, I am usually bewildered by the array of choices that are presented to me. I meekly ask the barista to give me a small regular coffee and they usually pick something suitable for me.

But now I read about an even more micro-level of personalizing coffee called ‘single cup brewing’ that requires a special coffeemaker and is becoming the craze, even though it is more expensive than even so-called artisanal coffees and generates an enormous amount of packaging waste.

For the unfamiliar, single-cup coffee comes in individual portions, encased in plastic capsules or packets that you put in a special coffeemaker to brew one cup at a time.

The coffee comes sealed in pods and pouches, shelf-stable until it’s plucked from the cupboard and popped into a machine that coaxes a personal cup from it in seconds. Afterward, the spent capsule gets tossed in the trash. No preparation. No cleanup.

However, this convenience has a dark side: “It creates a huge amount of waste. In fact, it’s already producing hundreds of millions of pounds of unrecyclable trash for the nation’s landfills each year.” Others have said that it in addition it produces terrible coffee.

In his book The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee, Blue Bottle founder James Freeman railed against single-serve coffee. In a passage dubbed “A Special Place in Hell: Pod Coffee,” he blasted producers for hijacking the trappings of excellence while delivering a craft-less cup. “Pod coffee is bad and wrong,” he wrote. “[I]t teases people into an industrially produced product masquerading as handcrafted.” After figuring out the brewing ratios and extraction times of two popular pod brewers, he concluded that it’s simply impossible for them to make a truly tasty beverage.

I think I will stay out of this debate because my views about coffee are similar to that of David Mitchell (starting at about the 2:20 mark).

32 comments

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  1. 1
    Chiroptera

    Every once in a while I consider a pod coffee maker for that rare case when I want only one cup of coffee. The idea of buying lots of disposable pods and throwing them out is the biggest reason I haven’t bought one. If I were to get one, I’d probably use the refillable pods.

    As it is, I also find it hard to justify buying what is really an expensive toy when there is a coffee shop just a short walk from my office.

  2. 2
    Brandon

    I find the taste of Keurig coffee to be perfectly acceptable, but the waste and cost inherent in the product to be completely unacceptable. I really, really hate buying additional packaging that I throw out in just about any context and doing it on the repetitive scale of coffee pods seems totally unreasonable.

  3. 3
    Avo, also nigelTheBold

    I am definitely a coffee snob, in that I like good coffee. (Though I have to admit I will most certainly stir up a cup of instant coffee in a pinch — they aren’t bad.)

    I can’t stand most coffee brewed in most offices. It’s usually very weak, and has a taste liked scorched styrofoam diluted with hot water.

    There is most definitely a lack of decent coffee shops here in Cleveland, which is unfortunate. But, since I’m a shut-in, I guess not that unfortunate.

  4. 4
    CJO

    When I am traveling and go to a coffee shop for my morning fix, I am usually bewildered by the array of choices that are presented to me.

    Heh. Anthropological oddity: the strange tribe of urban North Americans has 200 words for coffee.

  5. 5
    left0ver1under

    I make one cup or mug at a time, but I use a drip brewer similar to this:

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ae/Kaffeefilter.jpg

    The grounds are put inside the filter, and boiling water is poured overtop. Granted, it means sitting by the kettle and refilling as the water drains, but it’s not the worst way to do it. And unlike waste of “pod coffee”, coffee grounds and the unbleached filters can be composted. I doubt that fast food coffee (convenience store, McDonald’s, etc.) is as wasteful as “pod coffee”, especially if you bring a thermos.

    As for brewed versus instant, it’s not snobbery to prefer freshly made, only to look down the nose on those who do. The flavour is definitely better, and I love the smell of brewed coffee wafting throughout my apartment long after I’ve drunk it. Making coffee for oneself is as enjoyable and self-indulgent as making a nice dinner.

  6. 6
    ChasCPeterson

    I have prepared myself a single cup of excellent coffee, in an ecologically friendly way, every morning for 25 years. All that is required is one of these (which can function for decades), and, daily, one of these.
    Recommended.

  7. 7
    richardelguru

    …But no word for “single-payer health system”

  8. 8
    Vicki

    I don’t drink coffee, but I live with someone who does. So, in the morning, I put the kettle on the stove, measure out my own tea (loose leaves, so the main ecological impact is shipping it halfway around the world to get to me), grind some coffee beans, put them in a bamboo filter cone, and when the kettle boils pour water on both the coffee and the tea.

    Single servings of fresh coffee, made with your choice of beans, and no complicated hardware required.

    (It’s hard to feel like I’m not being particular about tea, living in North America, where far too many people don’t comprehend that the water has to be heated to boiling first. But that, again, doesn’t require a high-tech fix, just a stove, a tea kettle, and a little patience. Or, in a pinch, a microwave oven and some patience.)

  9. 9
    DsylexicHippo

    Coffee snobbery is directly proportional to the number of hyphens in a Starbucks order.

    “I’d like a Caramel Macchiato, Venti Skim,Extra-Shot, Extra-Hot, Extra-Whip, Sugar-Free please”.

    - you, sir, are a douche-bag. Why can’t you drink the swill at the local 7-Eleven and be a normal non-hyphenated douchebag like the rest of us instead?

    .

  10. 10
    countryboy

    Not to rain on the parade or anything, but K-cups are recyclable.

  11. 11
    colnago80

    I take it that Prof. Singham is not a connoisseur of Starbucks or Tim Horton.

  12. 12
    Marshall

    I use the Aerobie Aeropress, which uses regular grounds, creates a single cup, and uses a tiny filter. It creates wonderfully smooth coffee–I found it because it’s one of the top rated items on Amazon.com.

  13. 13
    Marshall

    Hi Mano, I just noticed that clicking on the name of a commenter brings you to the current page that we’re already on. Is this a bug?

  14. 14
    leftwingfox

    I’m curious about the waste issue. Are those plastic pods worse than, say, the plastic lids on disposable paper cups at a coffee shop?

    I’m a coffee addict. Unfortunately, it’s easier for me to grab a cup of coffee on the way to work than it is to wake up early enough to make a proper breakfast at home, so the good beans and burr grinder have to wait for the days off.

  15. 15
    Avo, also nigelTheBold

    Yes we do! We have several. “Socialism!” and “Communism!” and “Marxism!” and probably “Fascism!”

    Yes, with all the exclamation marks. Those are part of the words these days.

  16. 16
    lorn

    I grew up around navy bases. The navy, indeed most of the armed forces, seem to run on coffee. The old joke was that the Russians would win if they could ever develop a bomb the destroyed all the coffee and carbon paper. The mention of carbon paper dates it. On a ship, and the behavior transfers ashore, there is always coffee brewing. Typically the five or fen gallon stainless coffee urn is going 24/7/265 simply because the ship is manned and watches posted 24/7/365. When mostly empty they add water, grounds, and a pinch of salt to cut the bitterness. Within a month of commissioning the coffee is thick and quite strong.

    New recruits, and those affected, may add cream and sugar (the adulterants are always provided) most everyone drinks it black. It is a matter of cleanliness and practicality. Cream and sugar are gummy and sticky enough to foul controls and delicate mechanisms, they attract vermin, decompose, ferment, are messy and difficult to clean up. Black coffee dries to a dark ring that wipes away smartly. It does not ferment or rot, and it doesn’t attract vermin.

    In fact black coffee is a popular cleaning agent. The hot black coffee mopped over the floor will dissolve the first few layers of wax and leave the floor shiny. Long before there were any Mop-and-Glow products there was coffee. The grounds, while they are still warm and damp, make a very effective sweeping compound. Dump the grounds on the deck, distribute them evenly over the area with a broom, then sweep normally. The dust and grit adhere to the oils and moisture in the grounds so they are not scattered by the sweeping action and the floor is dust-free.

    The requirements for coffee and few. If should be hot, black, and strong. (Thus the joke about liking your coffee like you like your women) tasting okay is also good. Just don’t expect it to happen very often.

    Coffee is also a key qualification of becoming senior chief. It is important that you look good while holding a coffee cup. But it isn’t just a beauty contest, you also have to have the chops. A senior chief should be able to cover the length of the DC deck at a full run, hopping coamings, dodging projecting fittings, ducking low pipes, do it with a full cup of coffee without spilling a drop. Extra points if he can relight the stub of a cigar he perpetually holds in his teeth, make an E-2 cry, and cuss hard enough to loosen rust, at the same time.

  17. 17
    Mano Singham

    A senior chief should be able to cover the length of the DC deck at a full run, hopping coamings, dodging projecting fittings, ducking low pipes, do it with a full cup of coffee without spilling a drop.

    Ha! I consider it a good day when I can walk slowly back to my desk without spilling anything. So much for my chances of becoming a senior chief.

  18. 18
    smrnda

    Even as a coffee snob, I detest Starbucks since they’ve taken the whole name thing to such an absurd level. There are a number of fairly standard coffee drinks that would more or less fit the bill for anyone’s taste, where the only possible question to be asked is size (which we can use words in the local language for, or better yet, just quantities) and type of milk.

  19. 19
    Mano Singham

    I read about a coffee shop in England that deliberately mocked this by advertising their coffee sizes as small medium, big, really big, really really big, and so on. As for the varieties, they went with milk, frothy milk, and so on.

  20. 20
    wtfwhateverd00d

    u were lucky. We lived for three months in a paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six in the morning, clean the paper bag, eat a crust of stale bread, throw 40 coffee beans in our mouth and drink hot water right from the heater, go to work down t’ mill, fourteen hours a day, week-in week-out, for sixpence a week, and when we got home our Dad would thrash us to sleep wi’ his belt.

  21. 21
    WithinThisMind

    We bought one for my mother in law. Due to MS, her hands barely work anymore. She’s unsafe carrying a pot of hot water. She also can’t get out to a coffee shop.

    The Kuerig works at a touch and allows her to get variety in her coffee, as well as tea.

    There are cups made out of recycled materials, as well as refillable cups. And some cups are recyclable, plus my son loves using the empties for various craft projects. He’s got a couple dozen now lined up, filled with dirt, and growing various seedlings.

  22. 22
    mnb0

    “with an after dinner cup of tea”
    Yes, you’re definitely a barbarian. We Dutchies know that one should drink tea at breakfast and coffee after dinner (but don’t ask me why, because I don’t have the slightest clue).

    “It creates a huge amount of waste.”
    This is called economic growth, the very aim of the liberal-capitalist order of western society. Mind you, I don’t know a better order either, but that doesn’t discharge us from criticizing its excesses.

  23. 23
    lorn

    Wandering through Target I noticed they do seem to sell a reusable plastic and stainless steel cartridge that allows you to put your own coffee/tea/whatever into it and use the device in the Kuerig brewer. Using the single-use, disposable, pods in a Kuerig the system is outrageously wasteful and overpriced. With reusable cartridges I can almost see the machine having sufficient utility to justify its existence for a select subset of people.

    Then again I use a Mr.Coffee and drink the stuff by the pot, black hot and strong. I’m thinking of going back to a percolator.

  24. 24
    hyphenman

    Good morning Marshall,

    All hail the Aeropress! I bought the metal filter for mine a number of years ago that not only allows the oils to flow through into the coffee, but eliminates having to compost the paper filters along with the coffee grounds.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff

  25. 25
    hyphenman

    Good morning Lorn,

    On the Bainbridge (CGN-25), we had a tradition in the after-misslehouse of not cleaning the coffeepot on deployment. That the ship never sank is clear evidence of the mojo of coffee.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff
    (GMM2)

  26. 26
    colnago80

    Well, it appears that Prof. Singham is out of luck; there don’t appear to be any Tim Hortons in the Cleveland area.

  27. 27
    Dunc

    What you want is a moka pot – no filters, no waste whatsoever other than the coffee grounds, and better coffee too (IMHO).

  28. 28
    Jared A

    No, all that crap is for people who don’t actually like coffee.

    Every coffee snob I know drinks their coffee black. Starbucks is a last resort, and if you must go, you get the blonde roast.

  29. 29
    schmeer

    Heathens! This coffee snob prefers black coffee from the darkest roasts. Blonde roast?! Yuck!

  30. 30
    schmeer

    I really liked the Erie Island Coffee Co. in Cleveland and I’m generally a Starbucks drinker. It wasn’t as dark as Starbucks, but good coffee.

  31. 31
    Jared A

    Starbucks in general overoasts their coffee, so the “light” roast is still rather dark by most standards.

    And if you prefer darkest roasts, that’s fine, but strictly speaking, the shorter the roast, the more the bean’s flavor is preserved. So if you like your coffee black and flavorful, you’re undermining yourself with the dark roast. Over-roasting causes the Maillard reaction byproducts to overwhelm the more subtle coffee aromatics. This is why some people describe Starbucks coffee as tasting “burnt”.

  32. 32
    Mobius

    I suppose one COULD one of these one-cup pod coffee makers, but why? I have a small four-cup drip maker with a gold mesh cone filter and it does a great job.

    One of the nice aspects of a cone filter over the flat filter you get with Mr. Coffee is that you do not have to make a full pot . If I want one cup, I can put one measure of ground coffee (freshly ground of course). A full pot, four measures. And the coffee will come out the right strength in both cases.

    Plus the gold mesh is so easy to clean and reuse, and no paper flavor from a paper filter.

    OK…I am a little bit of a snob about my coffee. But there is virtually no waste with this machine other than the coffee beans. And it is inexpensive as well, though using coffee beans you will need to add an inexpensive grinder. Total price, around $40.

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