On Coffee

I’m still getting settled and oriented here in (hot) Houston, which is part of the reason I’ve been lagging on posts. Today, however, I was reading my list and saw Big Bear Butt’s coffee post. I feel inspired. Pardon me while I meander. Or blather, as some call it.

I used to hate coffee. Despised the taste. If I wanted a hot drink, it was tea or hot chocolate. I got through my undergraduate without changing my mind; my caffeine needs were adequately met with either strong tea or Mountain Dew.

Then, I joined the army. And the EVENT occurred that changed my tastebuds forever. Not necessarily for the better, mind you.

It was basic training, and we experienced weirdness. I was infantry, and then as now enlisted infantry had basic and AIT at beautiful Fort Benning, Georgia. That’s south Georgia, mind, warm enough to grow cotton and to consider any snow of more than a dust as reason to shut down everything. I was in basic/AIT from March through May. Spring.

It snowed. It did this while we were in the field. Unlike the natives, the army continued business. So we were cold and wet and tired – a state I was to learn was normal for infantry, but I digress. Our breakfast was delivered.

I need to digress. I know one or two of you have never been in the army or the marines and haven’t experienced this pleasure. The army knows that food is important and there have been literal decades trying to make food better. Most of this effort has been, well, it’s better than it was in the times of my father which was better than those of my grandfather, but still. The solution in place at the time for getting “hot” food (the quotes are there for a reason) to the troops in the field was a green metal tub that got filled with boiling water, into which was placed two deep pans filled with food fresh from the stove. The lids were clamped over this both to trap the food and water and to try to contain the heat, and the food was delivered. It, well, sorta works.

Unless, of course, the snow on the roads means the normal 20 minute drive becomes closer to an hour. Unless the ambient temperature is barely above freezing.

The food in those containers started as scrambled eggs and sausages. It still resembled those, though they were cold. Not lukewarm, cold. The toast had cooled. EVERYTHING was cold.

Except the coffee. Because the First Sergeant was with our platoon, and there isn’t an NCO or enlisted on this planet who wants to give a First Sergeant cold coffee.

I got a cup just so my hands would get warm. I put it inside me because I hoped it would warm me – which it did. And I got another cup because it was warming my hands.

By the end of three days of this (the next two, though not as cold, were still cold for south Georgia) I was drinking coffee and liking it. When we left the field I discovered I craved coffee. Oh, I didn’t get the shakes or otherwise suffer withdrawal if I didn’t get it. I just wanted coffee. And one of the dirty little secrets of the US Army of the 1980s (and 1990s) was that you could always get coffee.

Now as I said, I was inspired by BBB’s post and his medium coffee cup. See, the longer I went the more I drank.

By the mid-1990s I was drinking one and a half 42 cup urns of coffee by myself. I had learned, by then, what good coffee was. I had learned several ways of making coffee, almost all of which I liked. But the only way to afford as much as I drank was to get the store brand and use an urn percolator. I used a canteen cup most of the time. It holds two cups of liquid (actually a bit more, but two cups if you don’t want to spill and splash). I’d use styrofoam and mess hall cups if I had to, but that just meant more trips.

Eventually, somewhere, I got old and my tolerance faded. Oh, not to the caffeine; not to the jitters and such, anyway. It’s just that in addition to stimulating caffeine has a couple of other things it does to the system, and I was tired of pretending to be Fish. (Barney Miller, for you young punks that missed the reference.) These days it’s “only” two small (well, small for me, they’re 11-12 ounce) mugs in the morning, and “only” one or two through the rest of the day. Since I’ve reduced the consumption, I’ve increased the pleasure of making coffee a bit differently, trying things other than the coffee urn.

I’m going to repeat an earlier statement. There is no one true way to make coffee. There is probably a way YOU like it best, but to each their own. Case in point. These days, I’m making my coffee like I’d make a cup of good tea. I’ve got a 2 inch mesh teaball. Now, I’m using canned pre-ground coffee – and not the Good Stuff though not the sawdust either. I fill one half of the ball, slightly rounded, and close it. I bring a tea kettle of water to boil and pour it directly on the ball, then let it steep. It works and works surprisingly well.

It is slightly reminiscent of the taste of turkish coffee. Partly that’s because some of the finer ground escapes the mesh and I get a bit of a foam top. For some people that’s unacceptable. For me, well, it’s not bad.

If I’ve time and the urge I’ll make cold brew. For that put cold water and grounds into a container and let it steep overnight. Strain, heat the liquid, and serve. It’s less bitter. Some folk just flat miss that bitter, others find its absence liberating. Me, it’s another way to make a nice drink.

I’ve got a percolator and a drip percolator. I’ve got a press. I’ve used – and someday will probably get for my own – an aeropress. Each makes a slightly different taste of coffee. All this said, there are some constants to making coffee better.

Rule one, clean. Coffee has oils which are volatile and get rancid fairly quickly. When you’re done making and drinking coffee, clean the maker and whatever you’re using for drinking.

Rule two, water matters. Or rather, the taste of the water does not disappear when it goes through the grounds. If you like the taste of your water it’s fine for your coffee. If you don’t like it, use different water. Note I’m not saying use pure or distilled or spring or anything like that, not unless that’s YOUR taste. (see rule four). I’m saying use water you like to drink, because that’s what makes up most of your coffee.

Rule three, use enough grounds. That needs a bit of expansion. “enough” is enough for YOU. The smaller the quantity of grounds in comparison to the water, the harder they have to work. You get a less dark drink. You also extract a lot of the coarser tastes, oils and flavors that make the coffee more bitter. However, for some people that’s the way they like it. I go heavier on the grounds. It means my coffee is darker. It’s also less bitter – or at least has fewer of the sharper bitters the heavy extraction brings.

Rule four: it is your coffee, your taste is what matters. If you like heavy mineral water run through scant tablespoons of coffee, make it that way. Do not subjugate your taste to what others think “should be”. In light of rule four, do not hesitate to try another way. You might find something you like better — or perhaps something to avoid. Either way you win. (and feel free to toss the drink that’s unpalatable to you.)

Rule four also brings us to additives and tastes. Eggshells (or even an egg) in the grounds, salt, cinnamon, there are a lot of things out there. For example once I put a couple of cinnamon sticks into the freshly opened can of coffee and let them stay till I’d used all the grounds. I’ve also done that with a bit of nutmeg, and with a teaspoon of cloves. I’ve also mixed in some cocoa powder a few times. In all cases the taste is different. Sometimes I liked them, sometimes not, but as I said, I won regardless.

I’ve come a long way from hating coffee. Heck, I’ve come a long way from “It’s the only warm thing for miles around, gimme.” I still like my teas and my chocolates, and I’ve also added tisanes and toddies and ciders and mulled drinks and, well, a lot of other hot drinks to my personal menu. It’s been quite a trip. Go take one of your own.

Have fun.

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2 thoughts on “On Coffee

  1. That was a really interesting and enlightening read. Thanks!
    I’m was/am a huge tea drinker and I think in cases of tea its the brand you buy that makes a whole lot of difference, but anyway recently I’ve been getting into coffee a lot more. I think my taste buds are changing or I’m just getting tired of the same drink. I drink both now. Probably near to equally!

  2. Neat. I got the “Fish” comment all though I don’t think I am old. Maybe I am wrong. Anyway, was wondering why coffee is the only thing that warms me inside out. Besides fresh ground garlic. You can’t go around with garlic breath all winter. At least, I can’t. I hated coffee, until one day I was so stinking cold my fingers were blue and I was actually in the office. Tstat said 70 degrees…I didn’t believe it. I got a cup of coffee ’cause it was the only hot thing left after two cups of tea. Within a few sips I started to get warm, from the inside! I was hooked. Not withdraw hooked…Just if I am Cold I know a quick cup of coffee will warm me to my toes. I just want to know why? And It can’t be caffeine…my was caffeinated.

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