A Dummy’s Palate

Stonington and Deer Isle are blessed with an excellent local coffee house, 44 North.  (44 North is the latitude of Stonington and Deer Isle, in case you are interested.)  The shop roasts its coffee right here, and its location in Stonington, at the edge of the downtown area, is a classic, comfortable place to sit and drink a cup of coffee and enjoy a cookie or a scone — in normal times when social distancing doesn’t require that you drink your joe outside, that is.

But here’s the problem:  whenever I go into 44 North to get some of their fine, fresh ground coffee, I feel overwhelmed, like a junior high school algebra student sitting at a table listening to a bunch of college physics professors talking about the finer points of their lates calculus equations.  I might get that they are chatting about math in some mysterious sense, but that’s about it.

It’s the same with 44 North’s terrific coffee.  I love the smell, but when I taste it I just can’t appreciate the subtleties of the roasting and preparation process.  I’m sorry to admit that, when it comes to coffee, my palate is not only not educated, it hasn’t even begun its schooling.  Sad to say, I’ve got a dummy’s palate.

This week, for example, I bought two bags of coffee.  One, the Colombia, is described in the “tasting notes” on the bag as having a “sweet and spicy aroma with a rich dark chocolate body.”  The “tasting notes” on the other bag, the Sol Y Luna Blend, refer to “bright raspberry and dark chocolate.”  But try as I might, even squinting in a physical effort to maximize the discernment of my taste buds, I cannot detect the raspberry — or for that matter the dark chocolate.  I can enjoy the sweet and spicy aroma of the Colombia and when I take a slug I can recognize that it is a darker roast than the Sol Y Luna (at least, I think it is), but that’s about it.  They both taste to my poor dummy’s palate like coffee — excellent coffee, to be sure, but still coffee.

Well, at least I can enjoy the smell of the coffee grounds when I open the bag.

Creamer Bias

When I was on the road recently, I got up very early, as usual, fixed myself a cup of coffee on the in-room coffee machine, and was immediately subjected to a little noticed form of discrimination:  creamer bias.

Creamer bias afflicts those of us who like cream in our coffee.  The hotel chains that have in-room coffee makers typically will provide little cellophane-wrapped packets of coffee-related items, with sugar, creamer, a coffee stir straw, and a tiny napkin.  And that’s where the bias comes in. 

The coffee service packets inevitably include plenty of sugar options.  There are always at least two sugar packets, plus multiple faux sugar “sweetener” alternatives.  The coffee packet at the New York City hotel I stayed at recently, pictured above, included no fewer than six sugar-related items:  two “sugar in the raw,” two standard sugar, and two sweetener packets.  That’s six packets to satisfy the coffee sweet tooth.  Six!  Really?  You could bake a cake with that much sugar! 

And yet, in studied contrast, the coffee packet included one measly pouch of artificial creamer.  You can’t even get halfway to pleasant cafe au lait territory with that meager offering.  That’s a 6-1 ratio in favor of the sugarholics over the creamer crowd.

And have you ever thought about what happens to all of the unused packets of coffee items when you tear open the cellophane and use whatever suits your taste?  Unless you are using it all, there are bound to be multiple packs left over.  What happens to them?  Are they recycled somehow, or does the cleaning service just sweep them into the trash?

Hotels are changing what they are doing to be more environmentally sensitive, which I applaud.  I think it is high time that the sensitivity process move beyond shampoo delivery systems to the in-room coffee service.  I say it’s time to ditch the cellophane wrappers, can the stirrers that people can do without, eliminate the skimpy napkin, and offer creamer and sugar in packets that are kept in a decorative container next to the coffee maker.  And while they’re at it, how about evening up the creamer and sugar offerings to finally address the rampant creamer bias — or at least dialing the bias back from a 6-1 to a 2-1 ratio?

In The Public Domain

A few days ago we went to buy groceries.  In the coffee aisle I found a bag of ground coffee sold by a local company that was called the “Einstein Blend” and featured a drawing of Albert Einstein sipping a cup of coffee.  The slogan under the drawing read:  “An intelligent, medium roast blend of African and Costa Rican coffees.”

Albert Einstein, that unique, world-changing genius, probably the most famous scientist in history, on the cover of a coffee packet?  What’s the world coming to?

The value, and price, of being famous is that your image has value.  But at some point your image and likeness is no longer your own.  When a notable person dies, the clock starts ticking, and ultimately the right to publicity expires and the famous person’s image and likeness slip into the public domain for anyone to use.  That’s why it’s not unusual to see Abraham Lincoln, stovepipe hat and all, in TV ads for car insurance and other products of the modern world.  In the case of the Discoverer of the Theory of Relativity, who died in 1955, a 2012 court ruling concluded that his post mortem publicity rights had expired.  As a result, Albert Einstein’s grandfatherly likeness, with that familiar halo of hair and wise, kindly look in his eyes, is now fair game for advertisers.

At least coffee is a product that Einstein actually used (and enjoyed), unlike Abe Lincoln and car insurance.  And by the way, I bought a pack of the Einstein Blend — how could I not? — and it’s pretty good coffee.  Drinking it, I feel smarter already.

 

Water Is The New Coffee

We’ve got a nice water fountain on our floor at the office. I like to drink cold water and the fountain is only a few steps from my office, so I visit it regularly. The water bubbles out ice cold and really hits the spot.

Recently, though, I’ve noticed that the fountain water has fallen decidedly out of favor. One day I was enjoying a few hearty, quenching gulps when one of the people who work on the floor looked at me aghast, and asked how I could drink from the fountain. “It tastes good,” I responded as I wiped the water from my lips with the back of my hand. “It doesn’t taste as good as my water,” she replied.

And last week I got onto the elevator with one of our attorneys who was lugging an empty half-gallon jug. “What’s with the jug?” I asked. He responded that he is trying to drink a half-gallon of water every two days and goes to our kitchen to fill up on some special filtered water. When I asked about fountain water, he said: “I don’t drink that stuff. The kitchen water is vastly superior.”

I think water is the new coffee. No one (except me) wants to drink the office coffee; they’d rather go to Starbuck’s or Cafe Brioso and shell out a few bucks rather than drink the free stuff. Now they’re snobbishly turning their nose up at our free water, too.

I guess my “water palate” is just not sufficiently educated. It it’s cold and wet and doesn’t have a funny or metallic taste, that’s good enough for me.

Coffee As Candy

On our drive up to Maine, Kish wanted to grab a cup of coffee, so we stopped at your basic 7-Eleven in a small town in western Massachusetts.  It’s the first time I’ve been in a 7-Eleven in years.

7-eleven-coffee-stationIt’s safe to say that the current 7-Eleven coffee station, even in your basic 7-Eleven in small town America, is . . . elaborate.  In fact, incredibly elaborate would not be an exaggeration.  Whereas there used to be one little area with a few coffee pots where you could pour yourself a generic regular coffee or decaf coffee and add your standard creamer, sugar, or non-sugar sweetener, now there is a long row of different coffee options, depending on your preference in strength and flavoring, and then an extensive choice of creamers and additives that apparently is offered to allow you get your 7-Eleven cup of coffee as close to what a high-end coffee house barista might serve you.

My mind reeled at some of the flavoring options.  There’s hazelnut, of course, but cinnamon?  Marshmallow?  There had to be more than a dozen different creamer flavors, and that doesn’t even account for the dry materials you could add to your cup.  The standard creamer bin was totally outnumbered by a host of sweetening alternatives.

Coffee is increasingly becoming less like coffee, and more like candy or ice cream or dessert.  Americans apparently have such a sweet tooth that even the old cup of joe from a 7-Eleven store needs to be gussied up into some frothy, hyper-sweet concoction.  Is it any wonder that we’ve got an obesity problem in this country?

What’s In It?

Every morning, I get up bright and early, stumble downstairs, and brew myself a fresh pot of coffee.  I then liberally coat the bottom of a coffee cup with powdery Coffeemate, so when I pour the coffee it automatically mixes with the Coffeemate and produces a hot, steaming concoction of caramel-colored goodness.  It tastes pretty good, too.

img_6278Coffee with Coffeemate in the morning is a matter of standard routine.  But today I thought — what’s in this powdery stuff, exactly?

The answer is written on the side of the container.  There’s corn syrup solids, hydrogenated vegetable oil (which, according to the label, might include “coconut and/or palm kernel and/or soybean,” just to keep you guessing), sodium caseinate (which the label helpfully discloses is a “milk derivative”), dipotassium phosphate (but fortunately, the label points out, “less than 2%” of that stuff), mono- and diglycerides, sodium aluminosilicate, artificial flavor, and “annatto color.”

Hmmmm . . . “sodium aluminosilicate”?  I suppose I at least should be happy that there is a “milk derivative,” and “corn syrup” and “vegetable oil” in there among the chemical compounds that Walter White probably lectured on in his high school chemistry class.

Is there value in these kinds of product labels?  I think so, especially if you’ve got allergies to certain foodstuffs and want to find out whether a particular product might provoke a reaction.  But labels that list a bunch of chemical compounds — a group which includes virtually every label these days — aren’t especially illuminating.  I’m not going to research “dipotassium phosphate.”  Instead, people tend to make judgments based on products they know.  Mom had Coffeemate, in both its liquid and powdery forms, around the house in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and I doubt that the formula has changed much over the years, so it seems like a safe option to me.

And that dipotassium phosphate and sodium aluminosilicate really hits the spot!

Coffee Roulette

Our hotel room here at Pelican Bay has a kind of coffee maker that I’ve never seen before. It’s called a Respresso. You pull a handle, a chamber opens, you load in one of these brightly colored pellets, the chamber closes, you push a button, and espresso is produced. It’s disturbingly like loading bullets into the chamber of a rifle — which, come to think of it, is a pretty apt analogy for guzzling a shot of espresso in the first place.

The brightly colored pellets aren’t really helping with the decision-making process, either. To be sure, the wheel on the inside of the box explains the color code, but all of the names are in Italian. How is “Roma” different from “Livanto” or “Fortissio Lungo”? Does the color of the pellet provide a clue? Is the jet black “Ristretto” the strongest option? I have no idea, but I’m wondering whether my blind selection process will cause me to inadvertently pick the most high-powered, heavily caffeinated option that will leave me jittery for the rest of the day.

Add the fact that the color chart looks like a roulette wheel to the gun chamber similarity, and you’ve got a classic case of coffee roulette.

Caffeine Cut-Off

Over the past year or so I’ve noticed that my sleep patterns had become much more erratic.  Whereas I once slept soundly and peacefully from bedtime until morning, I began waking up during the night and — most disturbingly — finding myself unable to fall back asleep readily, even though I still felt physically tired and sleep-ready.  At the first instant of wakefulness, my mind seemed to immediately shift into overdrive and begin churning through pending issues rather than remaining in a sleep-receptive mode.

cofffecupI attributed this to age, and a heavy workload, and lots of travel that was affecting my circadian rhythms, and other extraneous factors.  But then I started wondering whether there were things I was doing that might be influencing my sleep patterns, too, and whether I could in fact take steps to avoid the unsatisfying crappy sleep nights.  I’d known for some time that too much coffee consumption during the day left me feeling jittery, and that the price of having a rich cup of coffee after dinner was staying up much later than normal.  Extrapolating from that evidence, I decided to practice a little self-science, and experiment with my caffeine intake to see whether establishing an earlier coffee cut-off would help me to get a more restful night’s sleep.

It wasn’t easy, because I’ve long enjoyed a cup of coffee after lunch and another one around 3 p.m., to keep me sharp during the afternoon.  Old habits die hard — but sometimes you’ve got to drive a stake through them, anyway.  So I started to consciously stop drinking coffee at about 2 p.m., and start drinking water at that point instead.   I missed the mid-afternoon steaming cup of joe, but that simple change had an immediate, positive impact on the soundness of my sleep, and particularly on my ability to fall back asleep, which was the problem that was bothering me the most.  Now I’ve backed off the deadline even farther, to 1 p.m., just to be on the safe side.

I definitely like my coffee, and I can’t imagine doing without my morning intake, but if the choice is between coffee and good sleep, coffee’s going to lose 10 times out of 10.

Saturday Morning Rewatch

It’s a miserable morning in Columbus this morning — unseasonably cold, gray, with a driving, soaking rain.  In short, it’s a perfect morning to rewatch the Buckeyes’ triumph over Indiana Thursday night.

I like the weekend morning rewatch.  You plop down on the couch, stretch your legs out onto the coffee table, and enjoy a steaming cup of joe and some orange juice, besides.  The morning rewatch is a relaxed affair.  You know it’s a good outcome — if it weren’t, you wouldn’t be watching it again, right? — so the pressure is off.  You can skip the crappy parts (in Ohio State’s case, that means fast-forwarding through virtually all of the first half), focus in on the good parts, and pay more attention to the nuts and bolts, like blocking and tackling and route-running.  

I always feel like I’ve got a better grip on the game after a good morning rewatch.  And coffee goes well with football, too.

Eternal Questions

Some questions seem to be eternal ones.  Typically, they involve choices between competing views that are so obviously debatable, with good points to be made either way and strong, often passionate proponents ready to vigorously argue either side, that they’re just never going to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Think Beatles versus Stones.  Apple versus Microsoft.  da Vinci versus Michelangelo.  Star Wars versus Star Trek.  Einstein versus Newton.  The Gettysburg Address versus President Trump’s Twitter feed.

You get the idea?  So, is cone versus basket filter one of them?

This is a question I’m ill-suited to resolve, because the niceties of coffee brewer technology are lost on me.  Obviously, there is a difference between the basket and cone approaches.  One directs the water flow through coffee grounds that are configured to end in a fine point, and the other doesn’t.  The difference in approach and design apparently is so significant that, when you go to buy coffee from one of those high-end coffee snob shops, the barista will ask you whether you have a basket or cone filter coffee brewer.  In short, the cone versus basket debate even affects how they grind the coffee for you.  Why?  Beats me!  But I sure as heck want to get the coffee ground in a way that is most suitable for the battered, aging coffee machine we’ve got at home — one of the basket-filtered variety.

I raise the potentially volatile basket versus cone question because we’re thinking of replacing our coffee pot with a new one.  In the past we’ve had both cone and basket design machines, and to be honest I really haven’t noticed a marked difference in the quality of the coffee they produce, because my coffee taste buds just aren’t that nuanced.  But now we’re being asked to definitively choose, again — like being exiled to a desert island and being told that you can only listen to the Beatles or the Stones while you’re there — and I want us to make a good, reasonably educated choice.  And presumably one design isn’t definitively better than the other, because manufacturers keep churning out machines with both designs, leaving people like me in a quandary on this question that evidently involves significant judgment and taste.

Can somebody out there who is knowledgeable about the topic and pays attention to their coffee let me know the competing views on the seminal cone versus basket filter issue?  Simply put: why should I care?

Logan Airport, 5:07 a.m.

At 5:07 a.m. at Logan Airport in Boston, where red-eye flights have just dropped off their loads of bleary-eyed cross-country travelers, the lines at Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are long.  As the would-be customers try to clear their heads and vow to never, ever take a red-eye flight again, their very willingness to wait in line testifies that a hot cup of freshly brewed coffee is just what is needed to kick-start the morning and make the bedraggled traveler feel a little bit less like a grit.

Back To The Porch

  
With the weather taking a turn for the better, we can finally get back to using our screened-in porch.  This snug little space is one of our favorite spots in the house.  On a cool but sunny Sunday morning, it’s just about the best place in the world to drink a hot cup of coffee, listen to the church bells ring, and watch the squirrels play.

The Dark Roast Effect

They’ve introduced a new coffee flavor packet at the office.  Before, we had Italian Roast and Donut Shop.  Now we’ve got Donut Shop Dark, too.

pflav-23116880t500x500I really like the Donut Shop Dark.  The packet says it’s “dark and intense,” and I agree with that evaluation.  It’s got a really rich, almost chocolatey flavor.  It would definitely go well with a chocolate-covered donut, like the one that’s on the packet.  And when you guzzle a cup first thing in the morning, it really gives your day a nice little kick-start jolt.

But here’s the issue:  at the end of the work day, I feel really . . . caffeinated.

If you do a Google search about whether dark roast coffee has more caffeine, you are told that there is no correlation and that the notion that dark-roasted coffee has more caffeine is a myth.  I can’t dispute that, because I’m no expert.  All I know is that dark-roasted coffee seems to have more of an impact on me.  Whether that’s because of some negligible caffeine difference, or because my brain is reacting to my (erroneous) understanding that I’m getting more caffeine . . . . or because I’m just drinking more coffee because I like the taste of this new blend, who knows?

Feeling more caffeinated at the end of the day isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Among other things, it makes it easier to rationalize having a glass of wine to celebrate the arrival at home after a long day’s work.

One Day Without Coffee

Yesterday, at about 7 p.m., I was making myself dinner in the kitchen.  I passed the coffee maker and realized, with a start, that I had gone an entire day without drinking so much as a single sip of joe.

IMG_0583It happened by accident, thanks largely to Kasey.  With Kish out of town, I’m in charge of our little beagle mix buddy.  When I woke up, she needed to be fed and walked immediately — with Kasey, pretty much everything having to do with food or bodily functions is urgent and requires urgent barking treatment — and I decided we would just head in to office after she got her grub.  Once at the office, I kept my office door closed so Kasey would stay put, and I didn’t want to risk her darting out and running around the floor if I left to make myself a cup of coffee.

By the time I was done with work and we had walked home, the morning hours had passed without the customary java infusion.  I set out to a nearby eatery to get some lunch — a meal where my customary drink of choice is always water with lemon — and then puttered around the house doing some chores and reading.  By the time dinnertime rolled around, I discovered that I had been surprisingly coffeeless for the whole day.

This isn’t that big of a deal, obviously.  I’m sure that once or twice during the 40-odd years that I have been drinking coffee that I have missed a day . . . but I sure don’t remember it.  Coffee has been a standard part of my daily routine, but routines are made to be broken.

One of my friends, the Wrestling Fan, decided a few years ago to give up coffee.  He’s happy he did it and says he feels less wired and more relaxed.  I’m not ready to give coffee up entirely — in fact, I’m happily slurping down a cup as I write this — but it’s nice to know that I can skip a day or two now and then without feeling terrible withdrawal symptoms.  Thanks, Kasey, for showing me that living in the coffee-free zone can be done.