Spill-Proof

I’ve complained before about the spillage that inevitably occurs when you try to pour water from a standard coffee pot into the coffee maker to make coffee in the morning. Thanks to the capillary effect, water almost always spills onto the countertop, leaving you to mop things up. It’s a supremely annoying way to start the day.

But there’s good news for those, like me, who are easily irritated by such mishaps. Some profound product engineer has figured out a way to control the capillary effect and prevent spills. We had to buy a new Bunn coffee maker this week–the heating unit on the old one gave out, for no readily apparent reason, which was irritating in and of itself–and the new pot has a tongue that extends from the lid out over the spout, as shown in the photo above. It looks strange, and I initially thought it was one of those extra packing pieces you need to remove. But in fact it’s part of the design, and it works like a charm. The water follows the tongue, and every drop ends up in the coffee maker. Whoo-hoo!

It’s a pleasure to make coffee in the morning without dousing the counters and muttering dark imprecations as I swab up the spilled water. Such small advances make for a happier life. And it’s encouraging to know that, even with a standard device like a coffee pot, some nameless person is still thinking about improvements.

Some Observations From The Road

We were on the great American highway a bit this weekend, traveling to and from a wedding in Pennsylvania. Here are some observations from the first big road trip we’ve taken this year.

• Lots of Americans are on the road this summer. Traffic was heavy on Friday, when we drove to the wedding, and Sunday, when we returned. It was even bumper-to-bumper in Maine. And the traffic wasn’t all semis or FedEx or Amazon delivery trucks, either: we saw lots of passenger vehicles, including many campers and RVs. (You tend to notice those big boys slowing down traffic on the hills.) That meant some long lines and frustrating stop-and-go traffic when we hit road work areas on Friday, so on Sunday we left early enough to breeze through those areas in light traffic. If you’re taking a road trip this weekend, see if you can identify highway work areas and time your travel accordingly.

Gas prices are definitely up, but there is a lot of variance in prices. In case you hadn’t noticed, the price of gas has increased. In some places, the price of a gallon of regular unleaded was more than twice as much as it was last fall when we drove from Maine to Columbus. But there’s a big range in prices as you roll from one area to another, whether due to supply problems in some areas, local taxes, or price wars. If you pay attention and are willing to stop before your fuel indicator hits “E,” you can save a few bucks.

Toll booths are an endangered species. Highways in the eastern U.S. used to be riddled with toll booths, and the long lines they caused. Now the toll booths are going the way of the dodo, and many of the toll booths we passed are in the process of being decommissioned and torn down. It’s not because states and highway administrations have given up on tolls, however: they’re just charging through EZ Pass and license plate photos followed by a mailed bills. Privacy advocates must hate this development, because it means detailed photographic records of American travel are being compiled and stored, somewhere. I’m not quite sure how the photo-and-bill approach makes economic sense, given the cost of postage, but I’m sure the tolls have been adjusted to reflect that. And in the meantime, states have cut toll collector salaries and related costs from their payrolls.

•. Gas station coffee quality continues to improve. If, like us, you like to hit the road early, here’s some good news: the coffee quality at the random gas stations you find along the highway is vastly improved. In the past, gas station coffee was either swill that tasted like it was dredged from the local muddy river or a thick, black, metallic-tasting sludge that had boiled down at the bottom of a pot that was kept on the burner too long. Now you can actually get a quality cup of coffee pretty much wherever you go, and all kinds of food and snacks, besides. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a service station with actual service bays—they’ve all been glassed in and converted to roadside convenience stores. You won’t be able to get your tire fixed or your radiator checked by a guy named Hank wearing a grease-stained shirt, but you can enjoy multiple coffee options and hazelnut- or french vanilla-flavored creamer.

Big Pot, Small Pot

We’ve had a bit of a coffee quandary in our household recently. The nagging question was about the size of our coffee pot.

We admit it: we like coffee and drinks quarts, if not gallons, of it each week. But that reality doesn’t really address the optimal pot size issue.

We had a small Mr. Coffee coffeemaker, shown above at right. The pot indicates it makes four cups of coffee, if you fill the pot to the brim, but that’s pretty misleading. Coffee pot “cups” are as arbitrarily undersized as the mysterious “servings” you see described on food packaging. This particular pot might hold four dainty cups that could be sipped by effete French elves, but it basically made enough for one steaming American mug of the black brew. It wasn’t wasteful, because we promptly drank every drop in the fresh pot, but we ended up making new pots constantly and walking around with partially filled cups so everyone could get their share of that precious caffeine. This clearly was not an ideal situation.

So we upped our game to the 12-cup Black and Decker model, which makes more than enough coffee to fill three cups—the kind with handles that you actually find in your cupboard—and more besides. We’re making fewer fresh pots of coffee, for sure, but estimating proper water intake to get the right pot size under the circumstances is more of a challenge. With the shrimpy model, you made a full pot every time, but the increased pot size requires careful consideration of your household’s likely coffee intake over the next hour or so. You’re aiming for the sweet spot that allows everyone to drink their fill of joe without leaving that remainder in the pot that boils down to an oil-like sludge that will curl your teeth if consumed. (Of course, on some days that oil-like sludge is precisely what you need to get that extra jolt.)

So, big honker, or elfin? All told, I’ll go for the bigger pot.

The Why Of Spillage

Every morning, my first task is to make a pot of fresh coffee. And on the vast majority of mornings, after I fill the pot with water from the faucet, as I am pouring the water from the pot into the coffee maker some water drips from the spout and runs down the side of the pot to the counter. There might be a rare day, once in a great while, when my combination of morning alertness and careful pouring technique prevents any spillage, but 99.9% of the time I’ll need a dish towel to mop up the water.

What causes this annoying event? Your sixth-grade science teacher would tell you it is the so-called “capillary effect” of water, which involves elements of cohesion, adhesion, and surface tension. Basically, water molecules like to stick together, and like to stick to almost anything — including the sides of coffee pots. Once the first water molecule decides to tumble over the spout of the coffee pot and stick to the side — rather than obediently falling into the coffee maker, like a good water molecule should — other water molecules will follow.

This is a common problem, and you’ll see all kinds of tips about how to address it. As for me, I think the best approach is to try to pour the water into the coffee maker very slowly, so there is no chance that the first rogue water molecule will make its break for freedom over the spout and down the side of the pot. But normally the urge to drink some hot coffee is too strong, the pour passes the tipping point, the first bad boy molecule leads the way, more inevitably follow, and it’s time to get the dish towel off the rack again.

This can be annoying, to be sure, but as the U.S. Department of Interior “water science school” website teaches us, capillary action is essential to the health of trees, shrubs, flowers, and other plants — because capillary action is a big part of how they get water from their roots up to their branches, leaves, and flowers. Capillary action also has been a real boon for paper towel makers, because that’s why water creeps up a paper towel that touches a water spill, thereby ensuring that Rosie the lunch counter lady can demonstrate that Bounty is the quicker picker-upper.

So that’s the capillary effect for you — helping trees and Rosie, while adding an inevitable extra step to the morning coffee making process. The morning spill might be irritating, but if that’s the price to pay for flowers and green leaves, I’ll gladly pay it.

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?