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May 20, 2008

The Weary Epicurean—May 20, 2008

There are at least five ways to make coffee in my apartment. I can boil it in a pot, percolate it on the stove, drip it through a filter, force steam through it under pressure, or if I'm not feeling violent, just gently bathe it in a French press. I've also tried the cold-brewed stuff, though it really doesn't seem worth all the trouble.

Of course, each of these methods requires a slightly different grind. Until this March, my roommate's espresso grinder, a truly top-of-the-line professional number, made this task delightfully tunable. With coarseness settings from one to 100, we had dialed in every contraption in the house—I don't think I drank a bitter cup all winter. But, alas, he left us to study abroad, and apparently couldn't bring himself to leave it behind, so I've been reduced to buying my coffee pre-ground. It isn't too much trouble to get a good grind, though; Istria Café, for instance, does a great job.

My favorite method is definitely the Moka Express, a stove-top "espresso machine" often (incorrectly) referred to in the States as a percolator. I enclose "espresso machine" in scare quotes because the brew concocted by the device is not actually espresso at all, at least not in the modern sense. True espresso requires water somewhat cooler than the Moka Pot can produce, forced through the grounds at a somewhat higher pressure than it is capable of producing. But the resulting fluid is perfectly espresso-like for most purposes. In particular, if you make it with Café Bustélo and mix it with scalded milk, you have a delicious café con leche that I like just as much as a café au lait or a latte.

French presses are lovely devices for dinner parties. Nothing revitalizes dessert conversation quite so well as the introduction of a French press—everyone still gets a childish pleasure from pressing the plunger in. Its other chief advantage, besides pure elegance, is the strength and freshness of the coffee produced. The brew's strength is due to the total immersion of the grounds, and its freshness to their rapid removal. Its major drawback, however, is rather serious in terms of daily use: The presses are a pain in the neck to clean. Unless you have a garbage disposal, the grounds have to be scraped out with a wooden spoon into the garbage pail, and I find this task singularly unpleasant. Then you miss the little grounds that get stuck between the mesh and the screen of the filter, and they rot, and you need a new one—it's a whole mess.

Next-best in quality terms would be drip coffee, like you make with any regular old black or white machine. It really doesn't matter which kind you buy for any but the ultra-high end of drip machines, though thanks to my coffee-geek roommate, I happen to have an ultra-high-end drip machine. The important thing with drip coffee is that it not be left to cook on the heating element because after 20 minutes or so, it goes stale and you have to make a fresh pot—no good for late-night studying. Or worse, some moron leaves the hot plate on for three hours, and the lid on the jug melts or some similar catastrophe. It's also important to clean out the guts of the drip machine with white vinegar every few weeks, or whenever the coffee starts to get that sort of alkaline, rotten taste so endemic to truck stops and church socials.

Of course, what one always ought to drink is espresso. The fact is that I just don't have the touch for the manual-pull machines or the bank for a good automatic one, otherwise I always would. Espresso pulled well is heavenly; espresso pulled incorrectly breaks the machine. I leave that particular feat of dexterity to the pros―or to those who invest in good automated machines. Cheap automated machines, by the way, do not make proper espresso, because the pressure is never high enough, nor is the temperature of the water low enough. If you're considering spending less than $200 on an automatic espresso machine, just get a $20 Moka pot and you'll be drinking essentially the same stuff. When we had a machine, we brewed only Intelligentsia coffee in it, which you can get at Istria or at their shop in the South Loop.

Finally, there's plain old boiled cowboy coffee, my secret favorite. There's nothing more pure and American-feeling than sitting on the back porch with a blue enamel pot sipping coffee through your teeth to strain the grounds out. Boiled coffee, though bitter, bland, and sinful, is the most homey, the most heartwarming kind of coffee. I refuse to give it up for gastronomically superior brews.