If You Like It, Drink It

As the two people who regularly read this weblog already know, I once-upon-a-time last year conducted a little exercise I called “Espresso Week.” Sort of an anti-fast, Espresso Week was seven straight days where I only made and drank espresso and espresso-based beverages. Wow.

I learned a couple of interesting things during Espresso Week, but first, a little background. I had a question asked by a commenter to my blog, wondering why I preferred press-pot coffee over espresso even though I claim to make and enjoy both. I gave a nice, long, rambling answer that (as often happens on blogs) didn’t really answer the question because I didn’t really know the answer. So I decided to do a little experiment. My Bodum French Press got tucked up into the kitchen cabinet, and replaced on the counter by my nice, shiny, La Pavoni Europiccola lever espresso machine.

Originally, I gave two answers to the question of why I prefer press-pot coffee to espresso. The first reason is that my press pot is bigger than my espresso machine, and therefore provides more coffee. Even allowing for the near-perfect extraction that espresso provides, the press-pot method gives me more of a good thing. I called this the “quantity-over-quality” reason ― I’d rather have a whole lot of good coffee than a little bit of perfect espresso.

The second reason is just simple laziness. Espresso is a lot of work, what with the measuring and the grinding and the tamping and the cleaning and all. As my brother put it, after watching me prepare, pull, and drink a shot: “all that work for that little bit of coffee?” It’s just easier brew a regular pot of coffee than to fire up La Pavoni for an espresso or two.

But now, looking back on Espresso Week, I’m not so sure either of those answers is completely accurate. Yes, I think quantity is sometimes to be preferred over quality. And yes, I’m still lazy. But I think the real reason I prefer coffee to espresso is simply this: I like coffee better.

Well, thanks, Chris. You really cleared that up. Stupid circular logic…

So much for Espresso Week, and on to the topic at hand: Good coffee.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously defined pornography by saying that he couldn’t define it, but he knew it when he saw it. I think he’s on to something there. After spending a couple of the most productive years of my life (and a great deal of virtual ink in my last article) fruitlessly trying to answer the question, “what makes a cup of coffee good?” I’m beginning to agree with him: I can’t write a definition of good coffee, but I’ll know it when I see it. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Or the cup.

I have a whole list of things that might help your coffee taste better: fresh beans, clean water, the right atmosphere, a couple of friends, a nice solid mug, and plenty of time. But none of those things by themselves will do it. Is there something on that list I’m missing? Will three out of six do it, or is it all or nothing? Is there an elusive synergy at work here that’s just too subtle to detect?

I guess it’s possible. Maybe someone more type-A than I am will come up with a checklist of items in descending order of importance for the production of a good cup of coffee. But I’m guessing it’s not nearly so technical as that. I’m going with the old standby:

Q: What makes a cup of coffee good?
A: I’ll know it when I see it.

And so, like so many things in our modern American society, this question, too, boils down to one simple thing: it’s all about me. I get to pick. I choose whether I like espresso or coffee better, and I don’t even have to give you a reason if I don’t want to. I decide if the coffee’s good or not, and no one can question my appraisal of the situation.

Maybe if I want to be really “open-minded” (another cardinal virtue of our society) I might admit the advice, counsel, and opinions of a few other people. But if they end up disagreeing with me, it’s only because of our differing backgrounds or philosophies, and neither one of us is really any more right than the other one. Their opinion has no bearing on mine. I can praise and snub at will, and pesky little things like other people’s standards will never stop me.

But surely, even someone that relativistic has to admit that there are some cups of coffee that almost anyone will admit are good cups of coffee, just like there are certain spectacles which every Supreme Court Justice who has ever served on the bench will agree fit almost anyone’s definition of pornography.

Well, yes, of course I’ll admit that. But it doesn’t prove anything about the definability of good coffee or the identification of the constituent parts that make up good coffee. All it proves is that our individualistic, subjective opinions all happen to overlap at certain mutually acceptable points.

What this all comes down to is this: don’t get too fancy-schmancy and hoity-toity about your coffee, because sometimes beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I guess you are allowed to take a certain amount of pride in your workmanship, to enjoy a certain amount of highbrow delight in the perfect, scientifically-controlled roasting of your beans, the virgin pureness of your water, the refined exactitude of your brewing technique and the stylish brand-name cups in which you serve your world-class gold-medal coffee.

In the end, though, none of that really matters. As is the case in so many other aspects of our society, the objective standards by which coffee is measured and defined and quantified and hegemonized fade very quickly into a warm, fuzzy subjectivity that qualifies an experience not by what it is, but by what it means; not by what happened, but how we feel about it. It’s not about the coffee. It’s about my reaction to the coffee.

Here’s an example. I met some new people a while back. Same age as I am, same demographic, similar educations, interests, all that. It really was a good match. I was floating around this guy’s pool about midnight and the topic came up of what we did for a living. I mentioned my day job, then talked about the writing I do on the side. That, of course, brought up the topic of coffee, and I was quick to launch into my explanation of the benefits of home-roasting and a defense of my general level of coffee-snobbery. My new friend told me that he liked coffee, too, and told me about a new little machine he uses that makes coffee one strong cup at a time, really fast, using packaged pods of pre-measured, pre-ground, coffee beans. Then he observed that he probably drank “really bad coffee.”

Then I told him something that he probably didn’t expect to hear, something that would have made every subjective individualist from Harry Potter to Potter Stewart very proud. I said, “If you like it, drink it.”

If you like it, drink it. When I first started drinking coffee, I made fun of people who put cream and sugar in theirs. (Why don’t you just drink hot chocolate?) When coffee shops finally became trendy in the Midwest, I made fun of people who drank flavored coffee. (Raspberry truffle? Who does that?) I still make fun of students who tell me they “love coffee” and then talk about the latest creamed, fluffed, iced, syruped, little-bit-of-coffee-with-their-milk concoctions from the corner café. There was a time when I would have made fun of my new friend for drinking wanna-be espresso from a prepackaged coffee puck. But hey ― if you like it, drink it.

As for me, I know what I like: single-origin coffee with a strong, easy-to-discern varietal distinctiveness, roasted a little past Full City in my drum roaster, burr-ground by hand in my Turkish mill, steeped for two minutes and forty-five seconds, stirred twice (once at the beginning and once at the end), pressed, and served in the same thick ceramic diner mug I’ve been using since college.

But that might not be you, and that’s OK. There might be objective standards of taste that coffee professionals choose to adhere to, but no one says you have to like what they like. You might not enjoy the same coffee as your friends or your spouse or the next Supreme Court Justice, and that’s OK too. As I said last time, de gustibus non disputandum est ― there’s no arguing about taste. If you like it, drink it.

Now, this might put us on some rather shaky ground sometimes ― you can’t choose to obey the Law Universal Gravitation based on how you “feel” about it. There are other things that are true, whether we believe (or even know about) them or not. And it occasionally makes sense to base our opinions on reality rather than random whim. But whether this increasing subjectivization in society as a whole ― and in matters of religion, economics, politics, or anything else ― is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, is a conversation I leave to you and your friends over your next cup of coffee.

I bet it’ll be a good one.