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How do you like your coffee?

His cup runneth over

Coffee machines aren’t just conveniences, they’re windows into the soul. Jonathan Beckman pours over the options

Coffee machines aren’t just conveniences, they’re windows into the soul. Jonathan Beckman pours over the options

Jonathan Beckman | December/January 2019

When political scientists examine the great divide of our age between nativists and cosmopolitans, they can point to a number of underlying causes: unemployment, class, education. But to my mind, the thing most likely to determine on which side you fall is your favoured hot drink. Recent American populism began with the Tea Party, a movement that memorialised direct action to lower the price of a brew. What unites Brexiteers across England, from golf-club bores in Godalming to trawlermen in Grimsby, is the love of a good cuppa. British patriotism has always come sodden in tea. Yorkshire tea is one of the nation’s great oxymorons – a brand that leads tourists to scour the landscape around Pontefract in search of the famous sub-tropical microclimate.

Coffee, on the other hand, has always been devoutly metropolitan. It fuelled the rise of the middle class, who, in the 17th and 18th centuries, sat in the coffeehouses of Paris and London discussing news from the East Indies, the price of jute and the overthrow of kings. It sustained salarymen and salarywomen who mainlined it from Styrofoam cups under strip-lighting at 2am in 25th-floor offices. And recently, it has become indelibly associated with the figure of the hipster, for whom the rituals of coffee production – the single-estate beans, the small-batch roasting, the foam-drawn ferns atop lattes – provide life with much of its meaning. Third-wave coffee has proved to be more durable than third-wave feminism.

Every morning, I buy a black filter coffee from Pret A Manger. There is nothing refined about this. It looks and smells like something you would use to asphalt a road. But the slap of acrid liquid onto tongue is as invigorating as the caffeine itself. Yet though coffee is, ultimately, so much fuel, the means of its production are far from utilitarian: the essence of character and identity are laid bare over the decision to pop a pod in a Nespresso machine (a device whose brilliance lay in convincing Americans that George Clooney was an adequate substitute for sugar and cream) or listen to a Bialetti pot rattle and bubble
on the stove top.

During the 1990s, coffee machines were hulking, chrome-clad things that steam-tortured coffee grinds into relinquishing their caffeinated liqueur. The artisanal revolution has made brewing a gentler, more tactile experience. The Rok has a multi-limbed arachnid look. Pour the water in the top, raise the levers then press them down to force out a cup of espresso. Coffee making feels like a minor triumph of competence, like changing the tyre on your car or delivering a lamb.

The Canadiano is even simpler in construction, consisting merely of a block of wood with a hollow that contains a mesh cone. The block is placed on top of a mug, coffee spooned into the depression and water poured over. This may be taking natural methods too far – at best my cup tasted like licking a coffee bush after a downpour. Less generously, the only transformation that occurred as the water dribbled through was that it got browner.

The Aeropress is another contraption that demystifies coffee while making it seem otherworldly. It looks like a magic trick. There are two pieces of plastic tubing: into one you add coffee and water, while the other plunges through. With some vacuum voodoo, a cup of espresso bursts out of the other end. Given that, initially, I was far too clumsy to insert and depress the plunger before all the coffee had dribbled out, I have doubts about how essential it is to the process. Even so, the Aeropress turns coffee-making into an act of radical transparency and simplicity, a gesture of zen resistance to coffee-powered capitalism.

Finally, the Bariseur is a solution in search of a mild inconvenience. Worried that when you wake up in the morning you’ll have to stagger to the kitchen to make the first cup of the day? Well, the Bariseur will alleviate your dread, as it combines alarm clock and coffee-maker. A miniature distillery of flasks and filters sits by your bed. Five minutes before you wake up it burbles into action – boiling, evaporating and condensing your cup of coffee to coincide with the alarm. My attitude to the Bariseur is the same as my attitude to car seats that massage you as you ride. How did so much human ingenuity go into so marginal a problem? It’s a sign of civilisational decadence. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a drip-pour.