A Simpler Cup of Coffee

Although I love the aroma, I don’t drink coffee. I’m a tea person. But I brew coffee every morning for my other half, Rebekah. “Sometimes I think you married me just because I make your coffee,” I told her recently.

She smiled without looking up from her magazine. “That, and you clean the mug.”

She’s one of those people who can’t function without coffee. “It’s a drug,” she says. “I need it. I want the good stuff, but I’ll take whatever’s around.” Rebekah works in medicine, and medicine runs on caffeine. But the ridiculousness of modern coffee culture and its demanding, expensive, rarified preparation turned her against her favorite drink and sent her into the arms of a lesser lover: instant. Yes, the granules.

“Fuck it,” she said one day and bought a jar called The Blend 117. She’d gotten sick of the intricacy and preciousness, the public ceremony, nuances, and social expectation to act like this coffee is so amazing, oh my god. She deconstructed the process down to its ugliest essentials: acidic water laced with caffeine. It was like a smoker giving up cigarettes to chew nicotine gum. Instead of plunging her French press, she stirred in crystals and forced the brown solution down. That saddened me. She loved real coffee’s flavor. She loved that powerful surge and sitting with her mug on weekend mornings, reading. American coffee has gone crazy, but why should that force her to drink thin energy broth?

People in the 1990s called Starbucks expensive. Things got more complicated. Seven-dollar pour-overs. Fifteen-minute waits for a single-origin you drink in three. Yes, highly skilled baristas make delicious drinks you can’t replicate, but sometimes their “odd combination of the laidback and the intensely serious” can feel hard to take seriously. In Matt Buchanan’s Eater satire, people act like it’s normal to talk about “a remarkable local roaster who operates quasi-legally out of a sick loft and specializes in light — but not too light! — roasts.” It’s enough to make you embrace cheap, bad coffee as good enough.

But Rebekah didn’t want bad coffee. She appreciates the knowledge and devotion of people like fifth-generation coffee grower Aida Batlle. And she agrees with Seth Colter Walls at Slate, who said, “if coffee is something you drink every day — perhaps multiple times a day — why shouldn’t you want to learn how grind size affects extraction from a coffee bean?” It’s just that when other magazines tell you that “the perfect cup” requires a scale to measure by the gram and a “vault” to protect beans from CO2, it’s too much.

Rebekah and I appreciate coffee shops as fun, relaxing places to chat with strangers and work remotely, even though we know they function as measures of urban change and gentrification. But she gave up and bought instant because brewing had become self-conscious and overly complicated. For years, she’d simplified things by buying pre-ground French roast, which had sat drying out on the shelf. Since she rushes in the morning, she needs a simple system, so she’d dump the grounds into the French press, never measuring, and pour in some water. She knew her inconsistent brew could taste better. To me, she deserved better. So I bought her a grinder and some fancy beans. “Just taste this,” I said. “It’s so much more flavorful than that dead shit!” But grinding, brewing, and cleaning was still too much work before work. So I solved that by making coffee for her.

We devised a system. I grind and brew the beans. All she needs to do each weekday morning is grab the travel mug that I set on the dining-room table on her way out the door. It’s that simple. I even wash her travel mugs and put extra coffee in a ceramic mug so she can drug herself while she’s getting ready. Other people have morning rituals: making their kids’ lunches; watering the plants. My main ritual is facilitating her ritual. I make my daily green tea later, once I’ve sat down to work.

Do I sound like her servant? Then you have it wrong. Food is love, and I love her. Coffee is one of the few guilt-free pleasures she allows herself during her workday, so I make sure she gets it.

It can be a pain. The spent grounds get everywhere. Brown drips darken the counter, and I’m always cleaning her mugs, which she leaves in her car where the sludge hardens in the heat and sprouts mold in cooler weather. And yet, I look forward to perfecting her potion, getting the right ratio of beans to water to milk. Maybe I sound like one of those solemn baristas measuring grams and waxing his moustache before a pour-over competition, but I see why those coffee craftspeople are into it. It’s fun. Molly Osberg wrote at The Awl that “to covertly rob a caffeine-addicted asshole of their morning jolt was truly one of the sweetest pleasures of baristahood” — but the flipside is that getting the flavor right feels just as good. Feeling you have an area of expertise, that you are, in some craft sense, a master of something. People tell me I make great coffee and tea, and I like that. Maybe their standards are low. What matters most is that Rebekah likes it, too. She still has lapses.

When she reaches for pre-ground French roast at the store, I whisper: “Don’t do it. Remember how good the beans are.”

“You’re right,” she says, retracting her hand. It’s the same hand that holds the mug that I fill with coffee. It makes me happy to see.

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