Sunday, October 23, 2016

I Will Disrupt Your Coffee


I want to disrupt your coffee.  I’m using the word “disrupt” because it’s so current and powerful.  Dang it!  I just realized maybe it’s already passé… maybe “disrupt” was current when I started the sentence but lapsed by the end.  Whatever.  I’m going to use it anyway.

(By the way, I’m just being flippant with the title of this post.  I hope to disrupt your coffee, but I don’t kid myself that I have much influence over my readers.)

What I’m saying is, I’m a newcomer to drinking coffee—in the last week or so I finally learned how to make it, albeit in a very old-fashioned way—but I’m going to have the audacity to try to get you, a coffee veteran, to change your approach to this ancient beverage.  That’s what I understand this whole “disruption” thing to be.

The ask

I’m going to ask you to consider drinking your coffee black from now on.  It’s that simple.  I’ll provide the rationale as we go along.  (If you already drink your coffee black, read this anyway because it might give you a pleasurable smugness.)

I am emboldened to suggest this because I’m not the first one to do so.  I learned this when talking to my daughter about the soda tax passed two years ago in nearby Berkeley.  Berkeley is the first city in the U.S. to pass an excise tax on sugary drinks, and according to this article it’s working out well.  Berkeley’s law covers “flavored coffee drinks,” a category which includes not just premixed, bottled beverages but also any coffee to which a barista adds sweetener:  “The distributor [pays] a tax based on the quantity of sweetener used according to the printed instructions,” according to this article.  (If you add your own sugar, oddly enough, it doesn’t get taxed.  A little loophole, I guess.)

So, how is it that Berkeley voters—despite fierce opposition from the American Beverage Association—gave this complicated proposition a landslide victory?  Simple:  Berkeleyites (aka Berzerkers, Berkleyistas) are enemies of freedom.  I don’t mean to imply that that’s a bad thing.  I myself am an enemy of freedom.  Society gives us freedom and what do we do with it?  We read Us magazine, buy microwave popcorn, and rudely lash out at strangers via the Internet.

What’s wrong with cream and sugar?

Look, I have no real problem with putting cream and sugar in coffee and am not here to render any expert opinion on what a cup of coffee ought to be.  As coffee achievers go, I’m pretty much a dabbler; I only have coffee when I really need the caffeine (though that’s more and more often these days).  For most of my life, I tended to dress up that rare cup of coffee with sugar, or maybe Sugar In the Raw if I was feeling all fancy, and either cream, half-and-half, or milk.  This increased the charisma of the beverage, and to this day I enjoy that flavor.

But then the other morning I had an epiphany.  I was rushing to get on a very early conference call (the downside of being the odd West Coast employee) and made up some instant coffee.  The brand I use—never mind what it is, especially since I’m about to bag on it—is fairly upscale and describes itself as “amazingly close to a freshly brewed cup of coffee.”  I used to tolerate this product okay, but either my jar has gone bad or my tastes have changed… this time, it tasted awful.  It wasn’t just bitter—it was sour.  I added plenty of sugar and milk but they didn’t help.  And then I thought, wait—is that what we use cream and sugar for?  To dampen the flavor?  That might make sense with a lousy product, but aren’t most coffee drinkers buying pretty good stuff?  The fresh beans, the Peets, the Keurigs, and all that?  Why would you dilute that?

Think of it this way.  Imagine you lined up a row of giant mugs, each a quarter filled, with a variety of coffees progressing from barebones to deluxe:  Brim, McDonald’s, Peet’s from frozen ground beans, Peet’s from their store, Peet’s from beans you grind to order, and whatever is served at the Four Seasons Hotel in Florence.  If you took a sip of each, you’d surely notice a great range of quality.  Now add a normal amount of sugar and cream:  you’d still notice a big difference, even if you used the same grade A organic cream and pure unadulterated cane sugar in each mug.  Now imagine adding more and more cream and sugar to each mug, tasting each at intervals.  The difference from one cup to the next would get blurred.  Eventually they’d all taste the same (i.e., like sweet cream).

So assuming you’ve settled on a favorite brand of coffee, something very upscale and high-quality, perhaps to the point that you even have a favorite bean and/or a favorite roast … why would you then go and add these very basic products—cream or milk and/or sugar—which blunt your coffee’s distinctive flavor?

Is coffee too bitter to drink black?

Perhaps you just like coffee better with cream and sugar, full stop.  And no, it’s not because you’re some kind of wuss and find the undiluted flavor of coffee too bitter to handle.  You don’t mind the bitterness; you just like a little cream and sugar, and you are this close to abandoning this essay except that on some level you’re enjoying your growing hatred of me and my unsophisticated opinions.

You know what?  I agree with you—coffee isn’t that bitter!  Nobody is trying to cover up the flavor!  Meanwhile, even if it is a tiny bit bitter, humans can learn to enjoy bitterness.  I give you the India Pale Ales that are all the rage nowadays.  I really do love them, and know from personal experience that they’re an acquired taste.  I remember the first time I had a Racer 5, which—at 75 IBUs—is a pretty bitter beer.  Man, I hated it.  But now it’s one of my favorites.  (My absolute favorite is the Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, which is rated at 90 IBUs; when I tried that one for the first time, I was far enough into IPAs that I loved it right away.)

And—though I’m no expert on coffee—I gather that to the extent that it is bitter, this is a failing.  This article suggests four possible causes of coffee being bitter:  it’s brewed wrong, the grind size is wrong, the water is too hot, or the brewing equipment is dirty.  So a really good cup shouldn’t be that bitter anyway.  So why do we sweeten it?

I don’t know for sure how people get into the habit of putting sugar and cream in their coffee, but I’d guess that when they started drinking it, the flavor struck them as unusual and they dressed it up to make it more familiar.  From there it just became habit.

“But wait!” you may be thinking.  “It’s not that!  It’s just that coffee with cream and sugar tastes really good!  You’re overthinking this!”

What makes us enjoy a flavor?

Let’s not be so hasty.  Let’s think about this.  What makes us decide something tastes good?  I read some article on sweetness and I’m not going to do try to dig that up, but it was something to the effect that we humans are hardwired to like the flavor of things that are calorically dense.  This was an evolutionary adaptation, a way nature gets us to lay in all the calories we can when they’re available, to avoid famine.  So a sweet tooth is pretty unsophisticated, isn’t it?  Like kids with their damn sodas and candy and Froot Loops!  Loving sweet things is natural … but I think it’s also kind of weak.  Fat isn’t so different … it’s calorically dense, too.

But coffee?  Black coffee has almost no calories.  Maybe we like it because, as described by this article, “caffeine enhances dopamine (DA) signaling in the brain.”  In other words, coffee produces a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.  But a) people also like decaf, and b) if this was only about caffeine, people would just pop NoDoz.  So coffee provides a more sophisticated enjoyment than mere dopamine response.  It appeals to our cultured side, not just our primitive impulses.  (Maybe this is why dogs and cats don’t crave it.)

So why blend this acquired taste with extra stuff?  Is it really necessary to pile these treats on top of each other?  If so, why not make every cup of coffee an Irish coffee by adding whisky, and/or always having a donut with it?  

I have two problems with this treat-upon-treat enhancement of coffee.  First off, the cheap dopamine buzz of fat and sugar seems like a vulgar addition to a fairy sophisticated product.  Nobody adds sugar or fat to an IPA, after all, and  I’m not the only person who considers it a travesty to put corn-syrup-laden ketchup on a hot dog.  Second, coffee isn’t a treat—for so many of us, it’s a habit we indulge several times a day.  If we can learn to enjoy it on its own merit, we don’t only elevate our taste, but we avoid gratuitous sugar and fat (and the temptation to ever make do with non-dairy creamer and/or Sweet'N Low).

I’m not saying we should cut out cream and sugar entirely—just that we get over the habit of always including them.  I think they really are just a habit, a rote add-on to the coffee ritual.  I remember watching a colleague customizing his Starbuck’s coffee:  first a splash of milk, then a splash of half-and-half, then two packets of sugar, then a little shake of cocoa on top.  He assembled this concoction several times a day.  I asked him, “Why not add the sugar first, when the coffee is hotter, so it’ll dissolve better?”  He shrugged and said, “I’ve always done it this way.”

Trust me:  it’s not hard to learn to like coffee black.  It took me all of three cups to see the light, whereas it took at least a dozen introductions to IPA before I acquired the taste.  (I’d inherited a bunch of it after throwing a party a few years back, and by the time they were gone, I was a convert.)  Black coffee is actually pretty dang tasty.  And you know what?  Now that I have a taste for it, I’m more versatile:  I can drink it black as a matter of course, but next time I’m at a fancy restaurant with the cute little pitcher of cream and the little hinge-lidded cup of fancy brown sugar cubes, I can fuss pleasurably with all of that because it’ll still taste good to me.

One more rationale

I’ll give you one more reason to drink your coffee black:  it makes you more cool.  At least, drinking black coffee makes me feel a bit more cool.  Not many behaviors can achieve this sense of cool.  I could smoke a cigarette, but that would just make me an idiot.  I could drive a sporty little convertible, but that would feel like a pose.  I could wear a badass leather jacket and/or ride a Harley, but—being a forty-seven year old dad—I would look ridiculous.  But to like my coffee black … that’s a little bit of cool that is still within my reach.

(This isn’t a male macho thing.  Drinking coffee black is also cool for a woman.  For example, the woman celebrated in the Cake song “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” would surely drink her coffee black.)

Call to action

To be clear, I’m not asking you to give up cream and sugar altogether.  I’m suggesting that the next time you have a cup of coffee—which is probably only hours from now—you not add anything to it.  Give this a taste.  If it doesn’t appeal to you, taste it some more and contemplate the flavor for a moment.  What’s wrong with it?  Couldn’t you learn to like this? 

Take like a week.  See if you don’t develop a taste for pure, adulterated coffee.  Assuming you do, now you can ask if there’s any reason to go back to cream and sugar.  And if there is—if you just plain enjoy that more—well that’s fine too and now you know your preference is real, and not just a habit born of unthinking repetition.

(Should you put milk in your tea?  That’s a whole other question….)

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