Magic Beans (a followup post)

Read this post. Then go have a look at Wikipedia’s Coffee Preparation page.

Notice anything about it?

I mean there’s a big notice at the top so you probably should have. No sources.

This is a huge problem in the “good coffee” industry. Lots of received wisdom, lots of talking heads, lots of blog posts, lots of “how to” advice, lots of expensive equipment “required” to make a better cup of coffee than the one you’re already making, you filthy casual.

(I also have a blog post… brewing… about what drives us to keep seeking out consumer perfection, but that’s a whole other thing for another day maybe. No promises.)

Here are a few choice examples of magical, unsourced coffee making voodoo:

Burr mills use two revolving abrasive elements, such as wheels or conical grinding elements, between which the coffee beans are crushed or “torn” with little frictional heating. The process of squeezing and crushing of the beans releases the coffee’s oils, which are then more easily extracted during the infusion process with hot water, making the coffee taste richer and smoother.

Well, the first bit of that is true. There are revolving abrasive elements. After that we’re back to proclaiming truth from the mount. Little frictional heating? Releases oils? More easily extracted? Richer and smoother? Really? Got any sources for that? Didn’t think so.

Many burr grinders, including almost all domestic versions, are unable to achieve the extremely fine grind required for the preparation of Turkish coffee; traditional Turkish hand grinders are an exception.

Those inferior domestic burr grinders. There’s no way a domestic grinder could make Turkish coffee! Again, note the lack of sources. Just some guy (almost certainly a guy, who owns a fancy, expensive foreign grinder) who says something.

Blade grinders create “coffee dust” that can clog up sieves in espresso machines and French presses, and are best suited for drip coffee makers. They are not recommended for grinding coffee for use with pump espresso machines.

Do a search for “burr grinder dust” on Google as a counterpoint. Find some forum post where someone (new to burr grinders) is wondering what they’re doing wrong. The responses will be “buy a better grinder” until someone honest comes along and says “well, all grinders produce some dust”. At which point the whole thing about consistent grind size is sort of debunked. How can your consistently grinding conical burr grinder be producing dust unless it’s… not really all that consistent after all?

Some coffee aficionados hold the coffee produced [by percolation] in low esteem because of this multiple-pass process. Others prefer gravity percolation and claim it delivers a richer cup of coffee in comparison to drip brewing.

Who are these coffee aficionados? Why is their opinion (which, even the coffee aficionado who wrote this has to admit, goes both ways) relevant to the article? Even if we agree that is is, which coffee aficionados? Where can I read these mysterious differing opinions? Why can’t they agree?

The coffee prepared by this [cold press] method is very low in acidity with a smooth taste, and is often preferred by those with sensitive stomachs. Others, however, feel this method strips coffee of its bold flavor and character. Thus, this method is not common, and there are few appliances designed for it.

Is it? According to whom? Where can I read a ph evidence? Where’s the study of people with weak stomachs? Who are the “others” who think this method removes “character” and “boldness”? Of course there aren’t any because this is just some coffee priest’s incantations, not actual reality.

The amount of coffee used affects both the strength and the flavor of the brew in a typical drip-brewing filtration-based coffee maker. The softer flavors come out of the coffee first and the more bitter flavors only after some time, so a large brew will tend to be both stronger and more bitter. This can be modified by stopping the filtration after a planned time and then adding hot water to the brew instead of waiting for all the water to pass through the grounds.

This doesn’t even really make a whole lot of sense. And much like the rest of the article it’s complete unsourced.

The AeroPress is another recent invention, which is a mechanical, non-electronic device where pressure is simply exerted by the user manually pressing a piston down with their hand, forcing medium-temperature water through coffee grounds in about 30 seconds (into a single cup.) This method produces a smoother beverage than espresso, falling somewhere between the flavor of a moka pot and a French Press.

I’d like to see a source for this. I’d also love for someone to tell me, without being condescending or talking to me like I’m a retard, what exactly they mean when they say “smoothness”. Is this a quantifiable thing? Can we measure some kind of chemical property of the coffee that we can call “smoothness”? Or is this yet another in a long list of religious terms the high priestly caste uses as a code to express their hidden knowledge?

Burr grinders, good coffee, and magical thinking

I’m not a huge fan of magical thinking, received wisdom, dogma, etc, etc. Sure, there’s going to be some value in received wisdom and we should have a bit of a think before tossing it out the window. But in general, unquestioning adoption of anything is a bad idea.

One place this kind of quasi-religious thinking shows up a lot is in cooking. Mostly, I think, because for a long time we knew that something did something but we didn’t know why. So people built up narratives about why because apparently we can’t say that seared steak tastes better without saying searing “seals in the juices” or whatever.

The worst of the worst, though, are a subset of cooking people, the coffee snobs. These people have turned a drug into a fetishistic individual or communal act. They know that your “average” coffee drinking prefers weak, milky coffee (maybe even with, gasp, sugar). These are the benighted, the heathens, who must (but frustratingly often can’t) be evangelized into the sacred cult of the good cup of coffee, whose sacraments are the fresh-ground bean and the burr grinder, the French press and the espresso machine.

Understandably, there isn’t much scientific data on whether or not any of this stuff really matters. Take burr grinders. There are two types of coffee grinders (leaving aside pre-ground coffee, that-which-must-not-be-named, the anathema, the Great Satan): Blade and burr. Blade grinders are essentially blenders. They’re what you use for spices. They whirl about and take a bunch of whacks at the beans until they’ve beaten them into submission. Burr grinders on the other hand gently caress the beans until they fall apart on their own. Or something.

Now as with most magical cook-think, the reasons not to use a blade grinder are many and change depending on who you ask. But there’s a general consensus that blade grinders produce a more uneven grind, tend to heat up the beans, and can’t make decent espresso grind. All these things are easily testable. But somehow no one has. Not really. And no one has tested whether or not an uneven grind makes a worse cup of coffee. Its seems like it should… but there are lots of things that seem like they should but aren’t. No one has tested whether a slight temperature increase makes a worse cup of coffee.

By the way, I’ve personally tested this, and I can’t tell the difference between burr and blade. I’ve been given lots of reasons for this (my eyes aren’t good, my equipment isn’t good, I’m too skilled a blade grinding, etc), but I see what I see. Lots of variability in grain size

And you can’t test this! You see the coffee nerds have constructed a completely test-proof ivory (but coffee-stained) tower where once we start a scientific approach they can say “oh but taste tests aren’t any good!” Why? Because the average people who do taste tests just don’t get it. The priests of the coffee cult get it, but some guy off the street isn’t good data. We’re not making coffee for them after all. The real reason is, of course, that no priest of the coffee cult wants to have their actual taste buds actually tested. They know what’s happened to the wine community with that.

I think at the end of the day, once there’s some science done here, we’ll find the same thing that we found out about wine. Everyone can tell the difference between terrible wine and decent wine. Very few people can tell the difference between decent wine and good wine. And almost no one can tell the difference between good wine and really, really good wine. I could be wrong. Maybe a lot of coffee snobs really can distinguish good coffee from really, really good coffee. Maybe they’re not using any kind of product or process signalling to make that decision. I could be wrong. But I don’t think I am.

This kind of investigation may strip the emperor of his clothes. But it doesn’t invalidate your personal quest to make the best cup of coffee ever. That’s your own hobby. Still, I think we can stop pretending that if only we could tell the unwashed heathens of the good news of Jesus Christ Aeropress or whatever that they’ll suddenly join the crusade.

Bullet points for a Wednesday Morning.

  • I don’t get stat holidays. I really don’t. If every person gets a certain number of days off per year for government-mandated vacation, why are there additional days off? I’ll probably understand this when I’m older and slower but for now they just annoy me. They throw a monkey wrench into my normally placid finances (I don’t have much money, but what money I do have is somewhat consistent), throw a hyena wrench into production at the shop (a four day week in which to do five days of work! hooray!), and just generally throw off my sense of time.
  • Fourteen hours. I worked fourteen hours yesterday. Just to be clear, I’m not a workaholic, I actually don’t like doing that. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, right?
  • Why do we make word that end in “aholic” when we mean to say someone is addicted to something? It doesn’t make any sense. It should be “workic”, not “workaholic”. One of those has much less snap, of course.
  • Clicking on the tag buttons is much easier than writing out tags. If they had keyboard shortcuts, it’d be even better.
  • For the love of all that’s good, don’t keep apologising to me. Don’t be sorry, do your job properly. Then we’re both happy.
  • Ever have a night of tossing and turning? I had one of those last night, only to roll out of bed and discover Laura slept like a babe in arms. I suppose that’s okay, though. I’ll give up my sleep for her in one of those mystical marital transactions that seem to happen with some frequency. We’re rarely both sick, or both hungry, or both interested in watching the same film; life is strange that way. People are strange that way.
  • I’d like to observe that even lukewarm coffee is better than no coffee at all, which pretty much blows that whole “warm, cold, lukewarm” example of Paul’s out of the water. Of course, he didn’t really have coffee. I try to imagine Paul of caffeine, and I sort of imagine him like, “We’re going to North America, beeyotches!” I think he might get quite annoying, actually.
  • Last night Laura and I read from Luke where Jesus talks about the end times, and I have to say that scripture confuses me sometimes. At one point the passage says that the end times (if it was actually talking about the end times) will come when people are eating and drinking and getting married, just like in the days of Lot and Noah… and says that these signs are like vultures gathered around a carcass. Which is nice imagery, but doesn’t help me much, because I see people eating and drinking and getting married right now. Maybe I’m just getting confused about nothing. I just don’t get it.
  • I love Talkdemonic’s “In the Machinery of Night”. It’s like they took equal parts IDM, hip-hop drumming, and awesome and mixed it all together to get an amazing song. Note my use of superlatives here.
  • The Dilbert comic about the guy who has no skills but compensates by “raising issues” resonates with me this morning. I won’t tell you why because that would be mean.

Bullet points for a Tuesday morning.

  • I’m listening to the Beach Boys right at this very moment. Check my Last.fm page for more detailed information. I plan to follow Pet Sounds up with Brian Wilson’s SMiLE, though I might break down and find some more recent music first.
  • The US government should split into divisions and IPO each one. You know, make it splashy. Why not? If America really values wealth more than anything else, should not those with the most wealth be able to participate more fully in the government?
  • I had a hard time getting to sleep last night and then woke up early this morning. Not a good combination. Needs coffee.
  • Why is it that when people see a problem with an obvious solution, they decide not to enact that obvious solution? I mean… I just don’t get it.
  • Boston Legal is a pretty awesome show. David E. Kelley is a pretty awesome creator of shows.
  • I’m especially boring today. That’s it, folks!

Later:

  • As it turns out, my cousin Bethany has had a baby girl, and named her Mackenzie (not sure of the spelling!) Hope. Congratulations!
  • I’m listening to Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ now. I sense a disturbing trend here.

Bullet points for a Thursday morning.

  • I feel like I just can’t get anything done at work. I can’t make promises to customers more than two days in the future, because I’m not really in control of production. If anything, I make suggestions and those higher up than me decide to ignore them. Honestly, it’s incredibly depressing, and I’m beginning to wonder why I keep trying; it’d be a lot easier and probably a lot better if I didn’t. Because if I can, every day, just, almost get what I need to get done done, I’ll never get any help. I’ll just get a snowballing workload. I’ll be my own Katamari Damacy, except at the end of the day I won’t be creating new stars. I’ll be the hollowed, burnt-out husk of one.
  • I have to say that technology has taught me at least a few lessons. In view of the price drop on iPhones yesterday, in view of any version of Windows’ security and functionality before at least two service packs, and in view of the data one can lose using alpha software, I have learned that Early adopters are idiots. Sadly, early adoption is something of an internal mechanism, a natural function that can hardly be denied. Or you could put it this way: I’m an idiot, too.
  • I’ll end my sentences with prepositions if I bloody well please, thank you and please come again.
  • Don’t assume that anyone you know is pronouncing a Japanese word or phrase properly. According to my research, there’s about a 92% chance a Japanese person would laugh at them. Politely. On the inside.
  • I like the taste of creamer. I hate myself for this.
  • Interesting thought here. According to classical evolutionary biology (forgive me for accepting the premise for a moment), there is no over-arching design in evolution, there is no God meddling in the process, there is only survival of the fittest. But then, there’s no such thing of survival of the fittest, is there? It doesn’t really matter if a method of adaptation is optimal or not, only that it sucks the least. So maybe it should be Survival of the Least Awful, eh? The point is this: evolution isn’t a linear progression and you can’t say something is “better” in any real sense because it is more complex. Also, evolution can’t be said in any meaningful sense to select for truth. (Consider how your eye vibrates, for instance, and the images it ignores, it simply deletes in those moments; consider how very little of actual reality we can see with our eyes, all the spectrum that’s simply invisible to us; consider that there’s little reason that there aren’t ten senses and we’ve only evolved into five.) In that sense, we could, technically, be living in a dream world that doesn’t actually represent reality, if that dream world somehow gave humans an evolutionary advantage. What does this all mean? Well, let me put it this way: if evolution doesn’t select for truth, merely for adequacy, and your brain is a product of that process, how can you say evolution is true, since it’s a product of said possibly faulty brains? Thus you can reasonably say that classical evolution is self-defeating; any evolutionist that trusts his own reasoning tacitly believes at least some sort of a guiding force
  • With that out of my head, I can finally get back to my sea of paperwork. Yay!

Bullet points for a Thursday morning.

  • I have a cold right now, one of those three-alarm colds that crawls up into your sinuses with a hot poker and goes to town. Upon waking up this morning, I blew my nose, and though I’ll spare you the gory details, there must have been about 20mm3 there. And, according to the scale this morning, all that weight is coming directly off my waist. Colds are such strange things.
  • Note to self: do not blog after taking two Sudafeds.
  • Speaking of which, my sister is about to give birth to a baby whose sex as of yet is indeterminate. [Editor’s note: Chris Hubbs has reminded me that the sex of the baby is indeed already determined. This should read “unobserved”.] I have taken it upon myself to remind her in every way possible that the pain of giving birth is just the beginning of a wonderful journey in snot and poop and vomit.
  • Babies, they’re everywhere. This Sunday past, I attended the baptism of Marlene and Mark’s baby. Cutest little thing ever, by the way. It was actually awesome to see all her friends and family come together to celebrate the sign of the covenant, actually (and pardon me if my wording sounds too, well, grandmotherish). Even though I don’t really know Marlene or Mark that well, it was good to be there, and inspired this little poem. That is, in fact, the first baptism I’ve consciously attended (rather than just happening to be there by default) since Kevin’s baptism back in the day.
  • Note to self: “Drink lots of water” does not refer to coffee.
  • Either I have discovered in myself an ability to make even the most clear issues unclear, or the world isn’t as simple as we sometimes make it out to be. I have a hard time, for instance, with the idea that everything is either black or white; or perhaps I have a hard time with the idea that we can know all the time, that we can differentiate. Sure, a lot of things are perfectly and obviously black and white; but a raft of others seem to be grey, whether they are or aren’t. Maybe I’m just arguing that humans can never actually know everything.
  • I have a friend who holds himself above scripture: he discards whatever he likes if it sounds stupid or old-fashioned to him. Since I figured this out, we’ve stopped arguing about a lot of things — except politics, of course — since we just don’t share any common theological ground to begin on. We don’t really agree on the basics, so of course our end points are dissimilar. A wise man, a preacher, once told me that the only thing you can do for such a person is pray that they will one day accept scripture as authority. I find more truth in that idea these days than I used to.
  • If you leave your job and don’t leave them with adequate resources and information to replace you, you are irresponsible. If you don’t at least make the effort, I mean. Two weeks notice is sometimes enough, sometimes not.
  • If there’s one album you must buy this year, it’s Sean Hayes’ Flowering Spade. It’s, simply put, freaking amazing.
  • If you’re considering picking up Interpol’s Our Love to Admire, don’t. They’ve managed to make an expanded musical palette more boring than the original four-piece.

Addendum:

  • When you specify a tolerance to the fourth decimal place and then find it undersize to to the fifth decimal place by three hundred-thousandths of an inch, I’m going to explain to you the concept of rounding up, and how, if you want to specify five decimal tolerances, you can twenty thousand dollars per tool. Then you can either take the tool and use it, or throw it in the garbage and see if anyone else will kowtow. I tell you, I should not be in customer service.
  • Language is important. It’s the language of deity, the great divider between humans and animals. This is why, when I hear people talking in hillbilly/hiphop slang, I think they’re stupid. They may not be, but they’re acting like it. Intelligence and language go hand in hand.

Coffee

As I stood in line at the coffee shop, waiting to order my boss a breakfast sandwich, I overheard a man ordering a 4×4. It took me a morning moment to wrap my head around that upon which I felt a little green about the gills. That someone could actually ingest such a beverage was — and is — beyond me.

Strange dreams? You decide.

I’ve had a series of strange dreams lately. It’s something to do with the rich holiday food before bed (perhaps richer food can afford to pay for weirder dreams); here, for your consideration, are two.

The Cat

I’m at Camp Tamarack. I know this, as there’s a campfire on a hillside. Laura’s cat, which is in the habit of making noises no cat should be able to make, is making child-dying sounds. It approaches me, even though it strongly dislikes me, and I ask what’s wrong. The cat shows me it’s paws in an Aesop-like gesture of friendship. Nothing wrong. I think to myself, “Maybe if I listen, the cat will speak to me,” as if cats are somehow like the Holy Ghost. Leaning down, the cat whispers to me, “I got too close to the fire and burned my face.” Like the cat is ashamed that it let such a thing happen. I told the cat – the cat that had just spoken to me, mind you – to go get some salve and apply it liberally; I suppose I figured a talking cat shouldn’t have much trouble figuring bottles of ointment out. Then I woke up.

The Tor

I very vaguely remember this one, except that I am having an argument with someone I can only assume is an agent of the state working in some sort of capacity to remove privacy laws. Shortly after the discussion, armed men break my door down, streaming into my apartment, shouting, “Where’s the onion router? We know you have one in here!” That’s all I can remember, except the impression it left that I’m some sort of uber-alpha-geek-type.

The Fishbowl

This one’s not a dream. It just happened. Let me put it this way: you often hear how a man needs a good woman around to keep him neat. You may not realise how true that is until you find yourself setting the your coffeepot to brew at 5:00am into an abandoned fishbowl.

A few notes.

I got the most awesome unbirthday present last night; thanks, guys, it was… priceless. And comfortable.

Jay-Z, here’s the thing; when you come out of retirement after the mostly-pure-gold that was The Black Album, people are expecting things of you. Like that you’d be, you know, good. Your latest song? It’s meh. It’s meh, and you’re recycling your lyrics.

Last night I worked till 6:30 just getting parcels out the door (this is not normal). Do you ever get an adrenaline rush from getting something done just under the wire? I know, it’s weird, and silly, but there you have it.

Pretty much every morning I have a venti bold at Starbucks. I like stopping off there and talking to the people, like TCG, and TAG. (Tasty Coffee Girl and Tiny Asian Guy.)

Now, to the batcave.