The problem with your coffee

Posted by Ryan Jerz on Tuesday October 27, 2009.

Make no mistake. I love coffee. I drink it just about every day. I don’t think I am dependent on it, as people will often claim to be. I can go several days without it and see no discernible difference in my body’s general state nor my mind’s. I do not feel physically better after having a cup. I simply enjoy drinking it. I also enjoy making it.

I drink it black, as it should be, and without any added froth, sweetener, or the good mojo that your favorite barista might magically make you think you’ve gotten. In fact, the vast majority of the coffee I drink, approaching 100%, is brewed by yours truly. In my office. By a small, 4-cup, basket-filter, Mr. Coffee Brand™ coffee maker. It’s quite simple. I buy the beans from Costco, in a 2-pound bag that is roasted, I believe, on-site by the Costco coffee roaster guy. I use the Costco-provided grinders to grind the beans before they are actually purchased. I store the bag in a drawer in my office. I do not measure out the amount of coffee used other than with my eyes. And it tastes great every single time.

My coffee maker: This coffee maker saves me thousands of dollars. Photo by Ryan Jerz.I do all of the above for these reasons:

  1. It is cheap. I pay < $10 for the two-pound bag, which lasts a long time. I have never paid attention to how long it lasts, but I’m willing to bet it’s > 5 days, which is how long it would take me to spend that amount if I bought it at a coffee place.
  2. It is easy. Granted, I have to fill up the 4-cup carafe with water and walk that back to the office. Oh, and then I have to separate the filter from all the other filters. Sometimes two get stuck and I have to do it twice. Then I have to pour the coffee in there to what I deem to be the appropriate height and somehow manage to get the full filter of coffee back into the little basket without spilling. Somehow, I pull it off.
  3. It is nearby and convenient. It’s in my office. I do not have to leave my office to get it. I do not have to find parking on my way to work to get it. I do not have to tell anyone what I want. I do not have to grapple with it potentially spilling on me while I drive to drink it.
  4. It is sustainable. I reuse one cup over and over and over and over. I do not have to remember said cup, as it is already in my office. I do not have to use a paper cup because I forgot my cup. I do not have to drive one block or two blocks or three blocks or any blocks out of my way on the way to work to acquire the coffee. I buy organically-grown, fair-trade (when available) locally-roasted coffee every time. I would compost the grains, except I don’t compost at all. Neither does any coffee shop I’ve ever heard of. It heats the water as it’s used and not overnight when my office is dark and locked. Grinding the beans all at once is more efficient than grinding them as they are needed (I dare you to time the amount of time you spend with the grinder on through a full 2-pound bag of coffee).
  5. It tastes wonderful. How much more needs to be said?

So how is this a problem? It’s not—for me. I don’t subscribe to the Coffee Experience™ thing. You know, that thing where you drink coffee bought from the local shop because it’s local and indie and local and hip and local. A major part of the problem I have with it is that it’s a lie. It’s like how Trader Joe’s got second in a local weekly’s Best of for the “Independent Grocery Store” (Trader Joe’s is not local in any sense of the word, at least in this country). These places are considered local because the owner happens to live around here. You might know the people who work there. Maybe they get their beans from a local roaster. And they certainly feel local because they want you to think that way. That’s what Trader Joe’s does, too. But they’re not doing that because they thought of it. Oh no. They do that because another company paved the way for them to be able to sell their ridiculously overpriced coffee in their shops teeming with riser-bike dudes. That company: Starbucks.

Yes, the very bane of the indie coffee shop regular is the company that made the indie coffee shop possible to begin with. In Reno, anyway. I frankly don’t care about that one coffee shop you know of in Portland that has been around forever blah blah blah. The entire culture in this town that I have to deal with on a daily basis is the spawn of Starbucks—yet it stops at nothing to try to tear Starbucks down. It’s too corporate. It’s generic. It’s EVIL. Whatever the rolled-up pants leg, part-time artist/indielocal coffee shop employee tells you, right? Yeah, well let’s think about this, shall we?

Starbucks might be corporate, but I can’t actually argue that’s bad. They pay their employees better than probably every other coffee shop in town. And they give them benefits. Time off. Health insurance. Education reimbursement. People skills. It is never a place that you might feel under-cool going.

Starbucks might be generic. Another word for that is “consistent.” You know what you’re going to get there. It may not be the best coffee you’ve ever had, but it’s good. And I happen to believe that coffee is something that falls under the Law of Diminishing Returns. That is, once the coffee hits a certain level of quality, it’s economically unfeasible to continue trying to get better coffee. It very definitely can be “good enough.” Frankly, Starbucks is at least good enough. Driving out of the way to get that “best” cup of coffee just isn’t worth it.

Starbucks is most definitely not EVIL. In fact, around here Starbucks might very well fall under the “good” column. They have a roasting plant just about an hour’s drive from Reno and employ a lot of folks there. Wait a minute. That means that they not only are a major employer in the area, but their beans are also local. And spare me the “yeah well they’re not grown locally” garbage. As far as anyone knows, they’re not growing coffee beans in Washoe Valley that could possibly supply one indie, barely staying open coffee place. Everybody’s beans are grown far away. Like in another country. So that whole “getting your beans from local suppliers” thing is out the window. Bummer.

I wasn’t here today to convince anyone that Starbucks was good for them. I didn’t even mean to defend them. But I think I’ve laid out a decent case as to why they might be worth not discounting in the world of coffee joints. But that’s not even something I care about. What I care about are the people who take time out of their day to feed me mouthfuls about why their coffee place is superior to every other coffee place. People, it’s coffee. I make it every day. The cost (in time, energy, and cash) is very minimal. It’s possible to make a damn good cup right in the very office I spend the rest of my day in. Who cares if your coffee place is “better,” “hipper,” “localer?” I don’t. And trust me—neither do a lot of other people. It’s COFFEE.

Ryan JerzRyan Jerz is an all-around good guy who wants people to eventually refer to him as "that dude who climbs mountains."

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