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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Give Me a Break

“. . . But only one chemical substance gets out the lead.”
                                                         – Frank Loesser

KEEP IN MIND THAT I drink only decaffeinated coffee. You of the hard core may label me fraud, and I accept that. But I’m better off not aggravating the upper reach of my busy blood pressure, at which I’m already throwing a morning cocktail of medications.

(But you of the h. c. should know that many a restaurant is passing off decaf as regular, brewing only the low-test and pouring it regardless so as not to get in trouble with people like me.)

I came to coffee relatively late. I was in my thirties and easing back into theatrical work after a hiatus working in radio. Which is odd, because the radio studio is one of coffee’s glorious homes, especially for those on overnights. But I’d turned myself into a tea snob before then, ritually brewing pots of loose Earl Grey or Lapsong Souchong, exulting over the flavor notes in a superior Darjeeling.

By the time I married Susan, in 1985, this tea-centricity had infected her to the point where Earl Grey became her favored morning brew, but with typical high-handedness she corrupted the very soul of my obsession by favoring the stuff in tea bags. Floor sweepings, in other words. It’s a practice she cheerfully defends in the name of convenience. Sometimes the Philistines crawl right into bed with you.

Yet it was convenience that drove me coffee-ward. The world at large still tends to proffer sorry bags of Lipton’s, while the coffee – all right. I suppose that’s no excuse. But your standard restaurant serving of something drip-brewed through grounds from a sealed bag is better than what I was exposed to as a child.

My father’s morning ritual began with a percolator, into the basket of which he carefully measured canned Maxwell House. Followed by the throat-clearing noise of the water within coming to its boil and the triumphant spatterings of brown brew against the glass knob on the percolator’s top as the liquid lunged through a vertical stem.

This for me was coffee’s only face. I had no idea how wrong it was. As Mark Prince writes in an essay on the helpful site, “When things got bad enough (read: quality) eventually consumers in the US wake up. Percolator coffee is like torture to the coffee bean (no matter how bad that little bean has been), but perc was king in the 1960s ... then Mr. Coffee came along. I'm sure the percolator companies never saw that coming and thought the gravy train was gonna last and last.”

My father switched to drip, which meant that a critical-mass shift was taking place. By the time I began sampling the stuff, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a percolator anywhere. Backstage, the coffee rigs ranged from Mr. Coffee to an industrial Bunn-o-Matic, and flavored brews crept into the market. I make my confession here, and I will not be ashamed: It was the hazelnut flavor that won me over.

Mr. Coffee moved into my house. With enough added half-and-half, the beverage proved appealing, and the caffeine kick was more focused than that which came from tea. When the sphygmomanometer reported the b.p. blues, I gave up the caffeine. And discovered espresso, and found one of the loves of my life.

Invented around 1900, possibly by an Italian industrialist who wished to shorten his employees’ coffee break, it’s produced by forcing hot water at a specified pressure through a carefully measured and tamped puck of finely ground dark-roasted beans. Made properly, it sports a rich crema on top. And, as you know, when combined with hot milk at varying levels of frothiness, it becomes a latte or cappuccino.

When I research the stuff, I’m dizzied. Because I know I could be as obsessive as any of those who do all but roast their own, fussing over how it’s ground and what temperature the water is at and how long it brews and on and on, and I admire their assiduity.

For myself, it’s like this. I’ve collected gadgets enough to produce any style of brew. The drip coffeemaker is a straightforward model, awkward to fill with water but with a time-start feature that’s helpful on busy early mornings. On a more leisurely morning, my stainless, insulated French Press lets me enjoy two large cups over the course of the first two hours, usually enough time to get something written and off my desk.

After lunch, I treat myself to a latte. Although I like being able to retain control, I surrendered the process of grinding and puck-tamping to a Saeco Odea automatic espresso maker, which has a built-in burr grinder. And, although it has a panarello wand with which to steam and froth the milk, I prefer nuking the milk and inflicting air into it with an Aerolatte frother.

And in the most compelling irony of the situation, when I seek the deepest and darkest of brews, my stovetop Moka Express is a marvel. It’s a percolator.

Stop by for coffee some day. You’re going to get decaf. You’ll love it.

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