In Search of the Perfect Cup of Coffee

January 27, 2012

By Colleen Watson

Perhaps each of us has our own unique culinary quest. My sister developed her sauerbraten recipe over the years until it evolved into a legend among family members, to be discussed only in hushed tones of utter reverence.

Likewise, my husband labored for a while to produce the ultimate pancake. I don’t know whether he perfected his recipe or just got tired of eating pancakes every other morning, but he abandoned his quest after a short time.

My quest has been for the perfect cup of coffee. Coffee meets all my criteria for a good cooking experience: 1) there are only two ingredients; 2) both ingredients are items I have heard of and can even pronounce; and 3) when I’m done making it, the kitchen doesn’t resemble a natural disaster area, with stacks of dirty bowls packed into the sink and cooking paraphernalia scattered across the counter tops like so many hapless trees uprooted in a windstorm.

Don’t let its simplicity fool you, though. There are more variables to good coffee than first meets the eye.

I became a coffee aficionado long before Starbucks was a household word. I fell in love with the brand served by a certain restaurant and learned that I could order it direct from the company that roasts it (back then this was really exciting stuff). It was a real kick. You called and placed your order for 2 pounds of flavor X. They would tell you, “We’ll be roasting flavor X on Thursday, and so your order will be ground to your specifications and shipped on Friday. You should receive your coffee on Saturday.”

Two days after it’s roasted! You could hardly do better if you owned your own plantation.

When my first order arrived, I just wanted to sit there all day and smell it. I mean, this was real coffee: black as night and richly aromatic. It made our store-bought stuff look like peat moss. And the taste was superb.

When you find yourself so close to gastronomical perfection, a force takes hold, drawing you imperceptibly deeper under its spell, entangling itself into the very fiber of your taste buds, until one day you wake up and you know beyond a doubt-as if it had come in a vision-that you must dedicate your culinary talents to attaining that pinnacle of epicurean perfection.

And so it was with me. It started out with subtle additions: an airtight canister to preserve the freshness of the coffee, then a carafe to maintain the beverage temperature without overcooking it on the burner. And, of course the carafe must be preheated with warm water before pouring the coffee in, to take the greatest advantage of the carafe’s thermal properties.

Next, I turned my attention to the water. Since our water comes in the “chunky” variety, replete with pine needles, twigs, unidentified floating objects and who-knows-what invisible pollutants, I felt a water filtration system would greatly enhance the quality of the second major ingredient in my recipe. We bought a system that not only makes the water liquid and clear again, but also takes the lead out.

A major improvement. The only problem was that the filters quickly clogged, and our “clean” water supply was reduced to a paltry trickle while we tried in vain to locate replacement filter cartridges. No wonder that filtration system was on sale.

So now it takes about 20 minutes to fill the pot with suitable water each time, but that’s no big deal. We’re not just boiling beans here; we’re creating liquid art for the taste buds.

New gadgets keep appearing in the kitchen. An electric coffee grinder and a gold-plated filter were my latest acquisitions. By now, coffee brewing in our household has advanced from a one-minute activity performed by rote to a lengthy ritual.

I think I’ve almost got it, though. I just have to work out the taste differentials between regular and decaf. And then there’s the mug versus cup dilemma. And I haven’t even tried the French Press method yet. There’s so much more to explore… I can see I’m going to be busy for a long time.

Then again, maybe I should just switch to tea.

Colleen Watson is an Oregon-based freelance writer. 

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