Swill for the masses

  • Article by: DAVID BANKS
  • Updated: February 9, 2012 - 9:26 PM

Longing for the good life -- one cup at a time.

As a reader of this page, you are no doubt a serious-minded opinion leader who has expended a great deal of mental energy grappling with budget shortfalls, economic inequity, stadia, the world order and dozens of other matters that are not to be trifled with.

But everyone needs diversions if they're going to stay sharp. Time for a coffee break.

Literally. I'm going to write about coffee; thus, you're going to read about coffee; thus, you really ought to have a cup of coffee by your side before we proceed. Take your time -- brew it right. I'm just dried ink or digits at this point. I can wait.

You're back? Finally. Let's start by talking about costs.

As you know, there have been numerous studies about whether coffee is good or bad for your health. I've always assumed that the results depend on whether the research was done by people who love coffee or by those who just don't know it yet.

Since those are the only two types of people in the world, let's just declare now that this bean is a blessing for those who wish to live a long life.

But coffee is also serious business, and as such can have a deleterious effect on your ability to prosper. This was brought up recently by the Economix blog, which observed that Americans looking for cheap -- nay, affordable -- thrills are treating themselves to barista-brand brew at a flow rate of 20 bucks per week.

Making your coffee at home, the blog noted in full killjoy mode, would over the course of a year amount to a nice new sofa.

Whatever. I came across another article explaining that introverts like me enjoy coffee shops because it allows them to be among other people without having to actually interact. Discuss amongst yourself.

I personally have two gripes about how we consume coffee. One is about waste.

Consider the popular Keurig, with its one-cup cartridges. Each dose comes in a little plastic tub. Add to that the paper cups and plastic lids and cardboard cozies from coffee shops, and you're talking trash.

I may not quite make the environmentalist A-list, but at Starbucks, I seek ceramic. At home, I brew through a $3 plastic cone that has been in service for 18 years, in conjunction with paper filters, one cup at a time. The whole disposable mess goes into the back-yard compost.

My other complaint is that it's hard to find a nice, tight espresso in this town. There's a wonderful array of coffee shops, both chains and independent, but only a handful of places that serve up a solid, 1.5-ounce shot -- yup, that's all -- that feels like velvet on your tongue, not too hot to swallow whole.

The San Francisco Chronicle once devoted a front page (in the early '60s, before the decade boiled over) to the quality of the coffee there, including the headline "A great city's people forced to drink swill."

I've always admired that; newspapers seldom present such memorable display text on purpose.

Anyway, you can find the full story on the Internet, and it's worth a read, because if you can imagine substituting almost any other noun for "coffee," you have an all-purpose lament about an erstwhile industrial existence with little sweetness of victory and no real bitterness of defeat.

Come to think of it, one of my more profound experiences with coffee occurred as I was sitting in San Francisco one sunny afternoon this century, in "The People's Cafe," in the Haight. The food was organic, the vibe was Che chic, and the place was a vision of our coming econo-cultural clash.

All around were the fortunate few -- those select coffee beans that would never be run through the grinder nor have their soluble essence leached away. They lounged in comfy compartments under the tops of see-through tables, upon which the working beans of the world lay weary, soaking, spent.

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David Banks is the Star Tribune's assistant commentary editor. 

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