Unimpressed By… Part I: Coffee

It takes something really special to get me excited about a cup of coffee.

It takes something really special to get me excited about a cup of coffee.

Intro to the “Unimpressed” Series of Posts

I’ve been loitering on this planet for over five decades and I’ve become a bit jaded. A lot of things that apparently impress a lot of people underwhelm me and what’s worse is that the situation has gone well beyond my being blasé, I’m beginning to get downright irritated at some modern trends.

It’s so frustrating to see people buying into stupid crazes like sheep. Because of this I sometimes find myself cranky and can imagine myself twenty years down the road as being one of those old guys who scream at the pigeons in the park —some might argue that’s pretty much where I am right now. So let’s take a look at some recent things that really get my goat and, if you’re lucky, I might even mention some solution you can personally implement or point you in the direction of some bastion where scum-sucking “progress” has not eroded a once good thing.

Intro to “Unimpressed Part I: Coffee”

Just so you know, you’ve just dodged a major bullet.

Did you notice the “Part I” part of the title of this post? Originally this post was to be a laundry list of about ten different things that I would dictate be done better or simply done away with if I were King of the World. It was getting ridiculously long, even by my standards, so I figured I’d break up that original “Unimpressed” mega-post and spread out the griping over the coming weeks or months, one topic (maybe two) of personal disappointment or disdain at a time, allowing at-length ind in-depth individual treatment of each subject ! What I’m getting at is that this rather long-winded explanation notwithstanding, I’ve saved you probably 10,000 words of reading this afternoon. You’re welcome!

Let’s get down to business and begin our coffee discussion.

My own personal coffee corner.

My own personal coffee corner: 1. Glass stovetop percolator 2. Espresso blend coffee 3. Vietnamese cup-top coffee filters 4. Stovetop espresso maker 5. Squirt bottles for flavorings 6. Containers for blended-myself coffees 7. Electric cappuccino maker 8a + b. Milk frothing cups 9. Toaster (interloping on the Coffee Corner because of a shortage of electrical outlets) 10. Coffee grinder 11. Filter coffee maker 12. Tea box 13. Brown sugar 14. Current utility blend 15. Stainless steel double-walled cappuccino cup 16. Demitasse cup 17. Double sized “Sunday morning” coffee cup 18. Glass double-walled cappuccino cup 19. Handleless glass single-walled cappuccino cup 20. Utility filter coffee cup 21. French press [not shown]. I also have a bunch of other coffee cups including dedicated cups for friends and family members who regularly stop by for a coffee.

The Actual Rant

Coffee, Quality, and Marketing Speak

First of all, I have a problem with the state of coffee in Canada, or at least in the places I’ve recently drunk coffee. The usual all-purpose coffee served in Canadian restaurants, doughnut shops, and, yes, even cafés, is too weak to be considered coffee in the traditional sense… it’s more like coffee-bean tea. I’m old enough to remember when everyone served coffee that was flavourful, strong enough to be opaque, and kicked up your alertness a notch.

In the premium specialty coffee shops I find the pretense factor vs. what you actually get insulting — the names, for example, of the different sized cups are ridiculous! What do those names mean, anyways? Are they districts of Tuscany or something? Whatever happened to “small, medium, and large” where “medium” actually meant the middle size? And the names they give the blends, if they even give you a choice, have nothing to with the actual variety of bean or the country of origin! And in case you missed it, they’re selling weak coffee at a premium price. I need a coffee strong enough to make a lumberjack grind his teeth.

Coffee, like almost everything else in life, is a matter of opinion. I drive past Tim Horton’s quite often and I often see the line for the drive-through window spilling out onto the street. I can understand people going to work and picking up a snack to get their day started off but people rave about the coffee and I find it weak, dimensionless, and unimaginative. It’s not that I find it offensive, it’s just that if circumstances put me in a Tim Horton’s for the purpose of having a coffee I have to resign myself to the fact that I cannot expect a really good cup of my favourite beverage. Their brew, to me, is OK if you want to hydrate yourself with a hot drink but not worth much more than that. One thing that actually bothers me about the place is that you order it with the cream and sugar added by whoever is behind the counter—maybe if I could adjust the sugar and cream to the brew’s strength it would turn out to be a stellar weak coffee. They do have specialty coffees, like cappuccino, but the last time I had one (admittedly a long time ago) I think it was a powder added to hot water. Apart from the convenience angle, I don’t get Tim Horton’s popularity.

Surprisingly, the best utility coffee I’ve found is served at A&W, which is a shame because if I go to A&W to eat a burger, I’m getting a root beer to drink. But their coffee is good enough to be the hook to get me to go in and have breakfast there, and I’m generally against eating breakfast in restaurants unless you’re driving cross country or you’re camping and it’s raining or something like that. I just don’t understand the idea of eating breakfast out — it takes two minutes to fry an egg and make toast at home so just parking your car offsets any time advantage. And is it even legal to drive a car to a restaurant before you’ve had your first coffee of the day? Even if it is, I wouldn’t do it. That being said, whenever I’m in a shopping centre with a food court that features an A&W and I’m in the mood for a coffee, I go to A&W.

A&W offers you the North American standard filtered coffee, but they do it better than Tim Horton’s, Starbuck’s, or Second Cup. All three of these places supposedly pride themselves on their coffee but have, over the years, dumbed down the strength of their brews for some unknown reason. Maybe it’s to save a buck, maybe there has been a change in what the public thinks is the proper strength, or maybe it’s just me and my aging taste buds. At least A&W’s coffee is aging right along with me. I intend to go there tomorrow for lunch and order a root beer and ask them if they sell their coffee beans for people to make at home. I suggest you do the same to support a true rebel in this world of dimensionless weak coffee.

Honorable mention goes to Brûlerie St. Denis, which used to offer an extensive choice of coffees and preparation methods. I haven’t been in one in years because they don’t have any locations anywhere near where I live but I know they still sell good coffee beans because my son brought me a care package at Christmas, so there’s hope that they also remember how to brew a nice cup. If you don’t like Tim Horton’s or Starbuck’s and live near a Brûlerie St. Denis, pop in, drink a cup, and report back to us.

Really good utility filter drip coffee can also be found at the 5th Wheel Truck Stops chain but, again,  it has been quite a while since I have done much driving on Ontario’s highways.

Decaf

I don’t go anywhere near decaf. They can put a man on the Moon with a glass of Tang in his hand but they’ve never been able to put anything that remotely approaches a decent-tasting cup of decaf into mine. I have my Black Belt in caffeine tolerance — drinking real coffee helps me keep alert when I want to stay awake but it doesn’t keep me from sleeping if that’s what I want to do so drinking tasteless coffee that doesn’t have any medicinal properties makes about as much sense to me as going to a red light district just to flirt. I sincerely hope that when a lifetime of consuming caffeine and carbonated drinks catches up with me and my doctor orders me off coffee I hope they’ll have developed a good-tasting decaf.

The Homophobic Conspiracy
D300-188-10605

The one who came up with this should be tried in The Hague for crimes against coffee.

About 95% of coffee-serving establishments that are not full-service sit-down restaurants have homophobic policies and no one seems to be doing a damned thing about it! Before we go any further, I’d like to clarify that by “homophobic” I mean that the stirrers you get with your coffee are inadequate for the task of homogenizing your coffee/sugar/cream beverage.

You get either a dinky plastic stir-stick, which makes trying to mix sugar and cream into your coffee like trying to paddle a canoe with a baseball bat, or you get a wooden Popsicle stick, which is just lovely if you like your weak coffee with a hint of oak flavour. Please, if you happen to own a coffee shop, provide your customers with spoons made of either plastic or steel!

Is it Hot Enough for You?

And then the most stupid coffee-related trend is those sleeves you slip over your throw-away cup to keep your fingers cool. And just when I thought things reached the pinnacle of stupidity, even dumber is that some of these sleeves have a little blurb on them claiming how “green” they are! OK, maybe they’re not made of plutoniumated dioxin, but even if they are pure unbleached biodegradable cardboard it’s still wasteful in my view. If you’re so fragile that lifting a hot cup of coffee up to your lips is going to burn your dainty little fingers, here are a few suggestions for you (especially if you buy into “environmentally friendliness”)…

  • Drink your coffee sitting at a table so you can put the cup down between sips. If you still feel like you’re charring your digits, ask for a glass of water in which you can cool your fingers between gulps.
  • Order your coffee in a not fully filled cup. Grasp the cup above the level of the coffee where it will be cool enough to handle.
  • If you’re drinking your coffee in a coffee shop, insist on it being served in a reusable cup or mug with a handle.
  • If it’s a coffee-to-go, bring your own insulated travel mug.
  • If your coffee shop refuses to fill customers’ travel mugs, have a friend whittle a jacket that will fit your standard take-out coffee cup.
  • Wear an oven mitt.
  • Switch your beverage of choice to tepid milk.
Pay it Forward

Have you heard of this scam? This is where you walk into a coffee shop and you give the cashier money beyond what it cost for your order so that some unseen needy person can walk in and ask for a free coffee. This idea seems all humanitarian and altruistic on the surface but it is a seriously flawed system, in my humble opinion.

  • How do we know that 100% of customer donations is going to those in need and not into some corporate off-shore account where untraceable profits are squirrelled away?
  • Is the coffee shop writing off these “free coffees” as charitable donations for some tax benefit while offsetting the cost of the coffees with the proceeds of the Pay It Forward donations?
  • Who is determining who qualifies as someone in need? Could Bill Gates walk in and get a free coffee? How about Justin Bieber, Danny Bonaduce, or Jan Michael Vincent? Where are they drawing the line? I bet Willie Nelson could get one easy, and of all the celebrities he seems like the type who would buy you a coffee and sit with you just like a regular guy so he’s OK in my books.
  • Do you really want your Pay It Forward donation to go towards a free coffee for that squeegee kid who broke the $500 mirror off your car because he was insulted by the $2 you gave him for dirtying your windshield and vomiting on your disk brakes?
  • If I pay forward a beverage with known diuretic properties to some homeless guy who gets caught peeing on someone’s doorstep, can I be charged with Accessory to Public Urination? Wouldn’t being deemed an accessory to that particular crime be more shameful than having on your record a conviction for Simple Public Urination? Think of the visual “Accessory to Public Urination” is likely to produce in the minds of people who don’t know the details of what really happened. How would you explain that one in a job interview?
  • Can I stipulate that I do not want my Pay It Forward donation to be used to buy anything I wouldn’t buy myself, like bottled water, decaf, or those disgusting Vegemite-glazed asparagus-and-kelp-filled doughnuts?
  • What happens if someone down on their luck and truly in need of a coffee goes in and asks for a coffee but the pay-it-forward balance is at zero? Will he be refused a coffee, causing him to feel tremendous shame, or will the house give him the coffee and begin a credit system for this voluntary donation account? If the pay-it-forward deficit soars, will it affect the interest rate?

Just where are the checks and balances? I don’t think there are any.

If you have the spare cash to buy a non-present stranger a coffee, maybe you should be using that money to upgrade the type of coffee you drink.  Go nuts and splurge for a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain for yourself. And for God’s sake… try brewing your coffee stronger.

The most stupid feature on an otherwise useful machine ever conceived.

“The Bold Button”: The most stupid feature on an otherwise useful machine ever conceived. When actuated, this somehow makes your coffee “bolder” (I’m guessing this means stronger). Who is not pressing this button? By turning this off you are resigning yourself to a process that is inherently wasteful—the machine is purposely making weak coffee. If bold coffee is not your cup of tea, use less coffee.

Smoking and Having a Coffee

Coffee and cigarettes are both legal products and go together so well but it seems like you cannot legally enjoy both together indoors anymore. Is there any place on Earth where squat-and-drop latrine toilets are not the norm that still allows people to sit indoors at tables and drink coffee while smoking a cigarette? We can have restaurants that require you to dress up in a tie and jacket and other places that let you go in wearing a speedo and flip-flops. We have certified vegan restaurants right next door to Brazilian BBQs. Same thing with bars—some are very quiet and upscale and others where the servers are naked a lot of the time. If we can cater to widely divergent clienteles in such establishments, why can’t we have bars, restaurants, and coffee shops where it is understood by all that if they walk through the doors they will be exposed to second hand smoke?

Tips for Broadening Your Coffee Horizons

Because I’m all about finding a great cup of coffee and know that the only thing that remains constant is change, I intend on going into a Tim Horton’s and trying a coffee or two of theirs and maybe bring some beans home to brew up myself. Maybe they have good raw materials but they’re doing the brewing wrong. It’ll be worth it if I can add another coffee to my “OK List”. I do a lot of experimenting and check out brands and blends I have never had before.

Sometimes I am presently surprised, like when I tried the President’s Choice coffees that are packaged in foil-looking bags (especially the Kenyan and Hawaiian, but the Hawaiian is no longer available). Here are some tips to get more from the wonderful world of coffee.

  • If you are using a drip coffee machine, shake the filter basket to make sure the ground coffee is fairly level. That will keep the water in contact with it so more of the flavour makes it to your cup.
  • Use coffees for one process in another, like use espresso coffee in your drip machine.
  • Play around with the fineness/coarseness of the grind bearing in mind certain limitations of your equipment… using fine espresso grind coffee in a percolator will result in a muddy cup of coffee while perc-grind coffee in an espresso machine won’t restrict the flow of water so you’ll likely get a weak beverage (try it anyway—the result might be just what you’re looking for!).
  • Try out as many coffees as you possibly can and remember what you like and what you don’t.
  • Try out as many different coffee-making methods as you can. Try a Greek or Vietnamese coffee. I’m itching to try siphon-method coffee.
  • Add stuff to your coffee like spice, chocolate, fruit, etc. Try adding it right to ground coffee.

Do whatever you want. There are no rules and your successful innovations will be much appreciated by your coffee-loving friends and family members!

Civet Coffee

Also known as Kopi Luwak, trying this coffee is taking the advice from the previous section to the extreme and I’ll tell you why. During the 18th Century the Dutch imported coffee plants from the Middle East and began operating coffee plantations in Indonesia. They forbade the native workers from using picked-off-the-bush beans, but the workers were curious about what coffee tasted like. They found undigested coffee beans in the feces of an animal called a civet cat, washed them off, roasted them, and made coffee out of it. Supposedly this coffee has “a special flavour” that attracted a following that continues to this day.

I have heard that some of the civet coffee producers cage large numbers of the civet cats and feed them a diet comprised almost entirely of coffee beans. Many operations have no concern for the animals’ wellbeing.

I saw that this coffee was available where I live for $40 a cup but people have mixed opinions. Some say it is singular in its wonderful flavour, and I have heard others actually say, “It tastes shi**y”. The price seems a bit steep for something that came out of an animal’s bum but if given the chance to try it for a more reasonable price, I just might chance it.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

In case you have never heard of this show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is simply delightful. The episodes run between 12 and 18 minutes and feature Jerry Seinfeld calling up a famous friend and picking him/her up in a car Jerry selected to match his guest and then they chat over coffee in some public cafe or eatery. Check it out at the link above or on your smart TV on Crackle. I found the show much more enjoyable if I was drinking coffee too. I suggest you do the same.

The Last Sip

So we’ve reached the bottom of the cup. Do you have any favourite coffee stories or tips? Please comment below!

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About HoaiPhai

I'm up late digging up the dirt. View all posts by HoaiPhai

10 responses to “Unimpressed By… Part I: Coffee

  • Ellen

    I too love a strong, flavourful cup (or two) of coffee. Have you tried any of the Cuban coffees? They are very good!!

    • HoaiPhai

      I don’t want to give the wrong impression… weak coffee is inherently flawed but strong coffee is not necessarily good, but I know what you mean and agree with you 100%. No, I have never tried Cuban coffee! That’s something to add to my “carafe list” (i.e., a coffee lover’s bucket list).

      You wouldn’t happen to be a Montreal singer would does weather forecasts as a sideline, are you?

  • pussyhasfurballs

    It’s time to back away from the coffee and go have a nap gramps. You need to be fresh for those pigeons.

    • HoaiPhai

      I’ve found a solution to the pigeon problem… I soak popcorn in coffee and feed it to the little dung hawks. The caffeine keeps them moving so even if they land in the park, they tend to move on quickly. I hope no animal rights people scold me because coffee makes pigeons grind their beaks or anything.

      • pussyhasfurballs

        Well they already fornicate like they’re all jittery on coffee, so I’m not sure coffee would really make much of a different to the way they act. Except that when they’re going through withdrawals, you would suddenly find yourself walking through a park full of homicidal birds.

      • HoaiPhai

        Why do you think they call sudden and complete cessation of consuming a substance to which one is addicted “cold turkey”? PCTS (Pigeon Cold Turkey Syndrome) is the reason why if there is the slightest chance that I’ll be traversing a park I bring my Wilson collapsable and foldable pigeon racquet. Did you know that over 97% of dance moves are based on male pigeon courtship displays? It works, too! My wife finally accepted my marriage proposals only after I pooped on her window sill.

      • pussyhasfurballs

        HoaiPhai’s wife: If he has you held prisoner in his basement and you want to be free, blink once for yes and twice for no.

  • Mark Petruska

    Interesting post. You really have a lot to say about coffee! I actually pulled up to a Starbucks drive-thru and was told the guy in front of me “paid it forward,” so the system does work at least some of the time. Unless I was supposed to do the same for the guy behind me. Instead, I was all, “free coffee – score!” and drove away happy.

    BTW, I have that same alien mug (or one very similar).

    • HoaiPhai

      I’d be tickled pink to get a free coffee, too but how do you know that you got what the guy in front paid for? Maybe he wanted you to get a Tenor Rotundo but they gave you, for example, a Pinocchio Miniscus. That would mean they’re pocketing the value equivalent of a Minogue Mundus!

      I just find it hard to trust a company’s altruism when their product seems to be marked up pretty high.

  • Ape No. 1

    I have not visited Canada yet so I can not comment on the boldness of your brew but I have found on my few travels to the land of Freedom and Democracy that the right to bear good strong coffee is not a battle that has been won yet. I am not sure why this is the case.

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