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The Case Against ‘Good’ Coffee

Credit…Illustration by Marine Buffard

Not long ago, I went through a long period during which I awoke every morning with absolutely no desire to make coffee. Don’t misunderstand: I still wanted to drink the stuff. With a 3-year-old and 1-year-old waking me up around — if I was lucky — 6 in the morning, I relied on coffee’s sharpening effect more than ever. I was just tired of working for it.

Picking which beans to use that day (I was always buying beans), grinding them, placing the grounds in the filter, wiping up the grounds that spilled on the counter, measuring out the water, waiting. Not long ago I loved the ritual of it all; together the steps were part of the machinery I employed to coax myself into consciousness and face the day. But now I didn’t want to be coaxed. I wanted to be woken up as fast as possible so I could tend to my kids. The routine had, at some point, devolved into yet another chore — especially once I started forgetting to empty the filter when I was done, leaving as a gift for my future self an unpleasant deposit of sodden grounds.

One day in the grocery store, I found a solution staring me in the face in the form of a surprisingly large array of instant-coffee options. Experience had taught me that it tasted horrible. In my 20s, I worked abroad at a newspaper staffed largely by expat British journalists who drank Nescafé as if it were water. I wondered what — historically, culturally — could explain this; maybe the Blitz? Nescafé tasted to me like something formulated in a malicious lab experiment involving dust and cinders and few, if any, coffee beans. It didn’t help that the dehydrated crystals resembled the droppings of a small, disease-carrying rodent.

The instant coffees I encountered more recently on the grocery store shelf looked exactly the same, albeit in some instances in slicker packaging, adorned with stylish labels. Maybe, I told myself, instant had improved. The next morning, up again with the kids, I spooned a heaping tablespoon of instant-coffee crystals into a mug, poured in the hot water and … that was it. Process done.

The coffee was fine. Not as good as a cup of freshly roasted, single-origin, shade-grown made at my favorite shop, but it was recognizably coffee. There was no process worth speaking of to enjoy, but there were no grounds on the counter, either, and I soon felt the caffeine caressing my synapses. If I had to pick one word to describe the process, that word would be: “instant.” And if I had to pick one word to describe how this simplified process made me feel, that word would be: “good.”

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