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Sunday, January 18, 2004

The daily grind

Technology rocks! I love that no matter how good - how perfect - some device has become, someone can always come along and make it better. Most of the time when you see the little improvement alongside the older model, you think, “Of course that’s the way it’s supposed to work! How obvious!”

However, occasionally the engineers, designers, and mad scientists, go sailing past that exit ramp marked, “Leave it alone…it’s perfect as it is!!!”, and go driving off towards late night infomercial hell.

My personal favorite example of this is the coffee grinder. From the first time that somebody in rural Colombia or Kenya started pleasantly twitching after chewing up some of those yummy berries hanging off a wild coffee bush, there arose a need to reduce that little berry into its most ingestible form.

The part of this process that happens on the supply side (picking and roasting) hasn’t changed much over the centuries, except perhaps, for the scale (i.e. using greater numbers of twitching locals to pick the stuff, and bigger roasters to…well, um…roast it.)

The part that happens closer to home is where all the innovation seems to have taken place. First, the roasted beans came home and need to be ground up. This gave birth to a wide range of hand grinders…some freestanding, and others mounted on the wall. Then, someone came up with the idea of grinding it at the factory. Then someone else came up with the nifty idea of brewing it at the factory and freeze-drying the stuff. If it hadn’t been for the tailspin that was taking place in the taste department as a result of all this ‘smartness’, I feel confident that some Wyle E. Coyote in the R & D department would have arrived at the notion of actually drinking it before it left the factory – thus completely eliminating the need for an end-user.

Eventually, people on the periphery of the coffee industry started looking back over their collective shoulders to see exactly where the train had gone off the tracks (i.e. where in the process coffee began to taste like pond water). The consensus they arrived at was that, unless the coffee beans were ground shortly before brewing, the end result would be…ahem, unsatisfactory. The result of this epiphany was a two-pronged assault:

On one front were the entrepreneurs that realized that most people were so achingly lazy / addicted that they would gladly pay roughly the same amount for a freshly ground & brewed cup of coffee as for, say, a sports car. This gave birth to the unctuous barista, an unintelligible new vocabulary for ordering the morning drug-of-choice, and a here-to-fore never seen level of coffeeshop snobbery. It also put paid to that cherished diner perenial: The ‘bottomless cuppacawffee’.

On the other front, you had the engineers who were madly trying to backpedal to the good old home-grinding days without actually having to force the caffeine-junkie to do any real work. Thus were born a wide range of spiffy electric coffee grinders. Only problem here is that the process of putting the beans into the grinder, grinding the beans into dust, and transferring the dust into the brewing system was a noisy, cumbersome, inaccurate, and above all, messy job. Also, most electric grinders burn the flavor out of the bean as they grind it into dust, which results in those expensive coffee beans ending up tasting like motel room 'freebee' coffee.

Since I’m not a trust fund baby, and couldn't sustain long periods of public coffee consumption, I went looking for a solution to the home grinding problem. What I discovered was that the perfect coffee grinder existed between the years 1890 and 1930. These wall-mounted grinders could hold about a pound of coffee beans in a pretty glass jar, and the hand crank delivered the ground coffee (adjusted to exactly the desired grind) to a removable, glass, measuring cup. No guessing…no bare feet stepping on spilled coffee beans…no gritty ground coffee collecting in the dark corners of the counter; Just simple, functional design. Heck, you even got to work off some of that ‘grandma-tricep-jiggle’ as you operated the handle. A lot of these grinders are still floating around junk shops and e-bay (I know…redundant).

The ones I’ve found to be the best (and which I have restored for friends and family) were made by a company called Arcade, and were sold under the ‘Crystal’ name. My advice is to go find yourself one…invest in some rust-remover, steel wool, and a can of appliance enamel (white or avocado for you purists), and turn back the clock to when something, for a moment in time, achieved mechanical, aesthetic, and above all, functional perfection. Don’t thank me…I’m a giver.

By the way...If you have to splurge somewhere, buy the better beans. I happen to be a fan of Peet’s, but there are too many good suppliers out there to really get uppity about brand names.

See you on the balcony…[sip] mmmmmmmmmm.

Posted by David Bogner on January 18, 2004 | Permalink


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