Confessions of a Rocket Scientist
Tuesday, December 07, 2004
  The Search for a Really Good Cup of Coffee
It’s about time I addressed the other reason for my blog (besides providing an outlet for my inane ramblings,) the search for a really good cup of coffee.

I love coffee. I learned to drink the stuff at an early age.

Some of my earliest memories are of mornings at the Sullivan household. Mom and Dad always got up ahead of us kids and started getting ready for the day. Dad would hit the shower and Mom would hit the kitchen. The first thing she always did was turn on the radio in the kitchen. The second thing she did was make coffee. By the time I was waking up the house was filled with the fragrant aroma of coffee percolating.

Naturally, we kids never drank coffee. That was something for grown-ups, like drinking beer and smoking. Kids drank milk. And that’s all I ever drank with breakfast except for an occasional cup of tea until I was sixteen. That’s when I started drinking coffee.

It wasn’t some rite of passage, a cup of coffee to acknowledge that I was now a man. It was because I had a job after school that kept me up until about midnight when I would get home. It was really hard for me to get it together in the morning, and I found myself falling asleep in school. So my mom suggested that I try drinking a cup of coffee to get myself going.

I still remember that first cup, sweetened with sugar and lightened with canned milk. I don’t know what exactly I expected; all I can say is I never expected what I got, a curious mingling of bitter and sweet with that wonderful aroma and the incredible jolt of caffeine.

At this point I was only taking one cup with breakfast, and only on weekdays. I usually slept late on weekends and continued to drink milk with all of my other meals. This pattern continued for many years, up to the time I joined the Air Force.

In Basic Training and Tech School I continued the pattern of a cup of coffee with breakfast and milk with all other meals. Then I was assigned to a fighter squadron in North Dakota, and ended up working the night shift on the flightline.

North Dakota is mostly flat and incredibly cold in the winter. I remember about five weeks in January and February when the high temperature was still below zero. (That’s degrees Fahrenheit for all of my metric friends, and equals about -18 degrees Celsius.) I learned that coffee had another wonderful quality; it was hot! Nothing could beat a good steaming hot cup of coffee when you had just spent a couple of hours in -40 degree weather with 20 knot winds. I learned to enjoy strong Air Force coffee. We brewed it extra strong so it would not slosh out of the cup when we hit turbulence.

A few years later, when I was finally married and stationed in Florida, another milestone occurred in my appreciation of coffee. Mr. Coffee was launched.

Mr. Coffee was the first mass-marketed filter drip brewing system. Baseball great Joe DiMaggio was the corporate spokesman. While drip pots and Mellita filter cones had been available, this was the first time an integrated filter-drip system was marketed. Most people used some form of percolator to make coffee. The filter cones sold by Mellita and others were basically a niche market. Restaurants had used filter drip brewing for years, but the machines were bulky and expensive, suitable for a large production environment and not for home use.

Mr. Coffee changed the way America makes coffee. We bought one just about the time it became available, and we loved the results. The best part of the system was the elimination of coffee grounds in your cup. Coffee drinkers rejoiced.

It was right about this time that I discovered varietal coffee.

A little coffee shop opened in the newly built shopping mall. It boasted an elaborate espresso machine and served cappuccino, espresso, and about ten different varieties of coffee. Now I had heard of espresso and cappuccino, but I had never actually tried the stuff. By the time I was old enough to appreciate a beatnik coffee shop, beatniks had faded from existence and the coffee shops had closed.

I didn’t know what to try and I was afraid of looking stupid, but I also didn’t want to drink something so bad I might never come back. I asked the waitress what she might recommend, and she suggested a cup of French Roast.

It was a delight. The French Roast beans are roasted longer than regular coffee, making the beans darker and bringing out more of the coffee oils. It produces a rich, dark brew with an intense flavor and one wallop of a caffeine kick.

I kept coming back for more. I learned that certain coffees such as Mocha Java and Columbian are better when roasted normally, but Kona was best roasted lightly. Other coffees such as French Roast and espresso were roasted dark for an intense flavor. Then there was Turkish coffee, which is so incredibly strong that it is only served in very small cups. It is also quite muddy in consistency.

I soon discovered the joys of buying whole beans and grinding them just before brewing. It makes a coffee that tastes absolutely alive and fresh. I have a tendency to grind the beans into a powdery consistency so that the grounds look like wet mud when the brewing is complete. Thank the Lord for coffee filters!

Our current home brewing system is a Black & Decker thermal carafe system. Instead of a glass carafe with a warming plate the coffee drips into a Thermos bottle. This keeps the coffee warm without needing to be constantly heated. I don’t know about you, but I find that when coffee sits on a burner for more than half an hour it really tastes burnt and nasty. With this system I can enjoy coffee throughout the day. Provided it lasts that long.

My wife and I latched onto some really big coffee mugs. They were a Christmas present from our sister-in-law, and they each hold about 16 ounces of liquid. (That’s about half a liter for my metric friends.) So our so-called 10-cup coffee maker is usually drained in four cups.

So now, every morning, either my wife or I brew a pot of coffee. The aroma permeates the house as we prepare for the day. I try to enjoy a cup with breakfast, but sometimes the rush of this modern world prevents me from that leisurely cup. I always take a cup with me for that long drive to work. Once at work I refill my cup from the coffee bar in the company kitchen. (Free coffee! What a company!) And with my cup close by, I sit down at my PC and do all of those engineer things I do.
The continuing story of a man, his hobby, and the search for a really good cup of coffee.

"The first cup of coffee in the morning recapitulates Phylogeny." -J. Pournelle

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Location: Quakertown, Pennsylvania, United States

Two time cancer survivor, happily married, LaSalle Alumnus

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