The Path to a Better Cup of Coffee
-Burr Grinders: It’s been said by many a coffee expert that you’d be better off with bad beans and a good grinder than a exceptional coffee and a shitty grinder. A bad grinder (like those cheap whirling-blade grinders most people use) breaks the beans down into particles of all sizes, meaning some will be over-extracted and some will be under-extracted, making for a very uneven cup of coffee. Good grinder means a burr-style grinder, which uses rotating plates to ensure the coffee is ground evenly (and without heating up and compromising the beans’ essential oils).
-Water: “It’s 90% of the drink, yet nobody really thinks about it,” says Drop Coffee barista Benjamin Norman. Before going to the World Barista Finals in South America last year, the team trained with a variety of different waters in order to get the perfect product. You’re looking for a relatively hard water, with a mineral content of at least 150-200 parts per million. Play around with tap, filtered and bottled waters to find what works best in your hood.
-Good beans: Look for suppliers that carefully source their beans and roast them in house. Single origin trumps blends anyday. In the US, Intelligentsia in Chicago, Stumptown in Portland, and Counter Culture in Durham are all world-class roasters.
-V60: Not only has it emerged as the most common single-cup brew system in the new coffee universe, but at $15-$20, it’s also the cheapest. The ceramic cone fits right over your mug and allows for a slow, controlled extraction that yields an exceptionally high-quality coffee. All you need is a filter (and, if you really want to get serious, a timer, a scale and a V60 kettle) and you’re ready to brew.
I don’t need you to tell me how fucking good my coffee is, okay? I’m the one who buys it. I know how good it is. When Bonnie goes shopping she buys SHIT. I buy the gourmet expensive stuff because when I drink it I want to taste it. —Jimmie Dimmick, Pulp Fiction (1994)
No doubt Jimmie meant every word he told those two blood-soaked gangsters standing in his living room at daybreak, sipping their mugs of tasty java, but Jimmy’s idea of quality coffee wouldn’t satisfy even the least-dogmatic coffeehound these days. Did the beans come from a single farm, preferably in the sweatiest part of Honduras or Ethiopia? Did he use a burr grinder to whiz the beans into perfect particles no more than 60 seconds before brewing? Did he weigh the coffee and the water and make sure the proportions were just right? Did he brew individual cups for Jules and Vincent in an AeroPress? Or at least a Chemex? Well, then by today’s standards, Jimmie don’t know shit about the gourmet expensive stuff.
A bit of (grossly oversimplified) background on how this all got so serious. The coffee origin myth is a particularly romantic one. As it has been told, a 9th century Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi noticed that his flock displayed a certain special vitality after rustling through a patch of red berries. Intrigued, he picked a few berries, gave them a chew, and soon found himself overwhelmed with energy. He took the magical berries to the local monastery, where the head monk, angered by the suggestion that this fruit was somehow special, tossed them into the fire. Soon, the room filled with a warm, toasted aroma. Intrigued, the monk scraped the roasted beans from the ashes, ground them up, infused them into hot water and… magic! Coffee.
For the first thousand or so years, a cup of coffee was, for the most part, a cup of coffee, ground whenever convenient, brewed however possible, consumed more for the energy it imbued than the subtle flavors it gave off. Sufi monks, some of the earliest coffee drinkers, used the magic brew to stay alert during long religious ceremonies. By the 17th century, coffee had begun to make its way from northern Africa and the Middle East to the western world, first through trade to Venetian merchants, and later to the Americas, where a little brouhaha in the Boston harbor helped turned coffee into the drink of choice for the colonists.
Despite some light resistance (opponents called this strange brew “the bitter invention of Satan”), coffee flourished in Europe and the New World as coffeehouses soon became centers of social interaction and political discourse. In the three hundred years since, it’s the West that has been responsible for most of its important innovations, the good (precision grinders), the bad (freeze-dried industrial grounds), and the debatable (Starbucks, pod coffee). Among the earliest western innovations was espresso, a dense distillation of extracted coffee particles that would go on to change the way much of the world gets their caffeine fix. It wasn’t just the intensity of the beverage itself, but the café culture it spawned. Suddenly a brave new world of caffeinated options appeared on menus, and brewed coffee took a backseat to all the grinding, tamping, and steaming required by the mechanized extraction and its many milky iterations. In this new era, the man behind the bar wasn’t just a faceless peddler of muddy water, but a craftsman, one whose skill was both highly visible and immediately discernible. Thus began the age of the barista.
But espresso had its limits, the coffee nerds eventually discovered, not the least of which was the legion of soccer moms and dilettante dads ordering skinny mocha pumpkin soy lattes covered in cinnamon snow. By the time the 21st century arrived, the purity of the craft had been drowned out by seventeen-syllable drink orders. The response was as prosaic as it was potent: black coffee.
Trigger warning: if you are angered by people who are deadly serious about their coffee, if hearing them talk unironically about how to make the best single cup of coffee on the planet would send you into a rage, stop reading now. Take a look instead at our less-geeked coffee stories—our mini-documentary on the delightful Department of Coffee in Cape Town, perhaps? However, if you care deeply about coffee, or even are curious about what combination of beans and roasting and water would make others care as deeply as they do, then please, by all means, keep reading.
The full story, in all its obsessive coffee glory, is on Roads & Kingdoms.
At its core, Christmas in Sweden is about light in the darkness. I’m not talking about the symbolism of the winter solstice and the return of the sun. I’m talking about literal light in darkness, starting with lighting candles on the first of Advent, with lights and stars in every apartment window, and with the glowing Lucia celebrations on December 13. I stood in afternoon darkness about a week ago with temperatures in the teens and watched a procession of four- and five-year-olds walking up a hill, with most the girls wearing crowns of electric candles, and I wept, partially because my own kid was there but partially because it was just such a powerful moment of vulnerable light in the black.
You have to be in Sweden for more than just Christmas to understand the darkness, though. There is a line on the globe somewhere—my wife and I think it’s about Copenhagen—where the eternal waxing and waning of the light and dark breaches some psychological barrier, so that a rainy day in June can set off explosions of dread for the November to come, and where walking your kid to and from school on a dark and rainy night is loaded with existential fears of every moment of bad weather or unexpected sun.
In the middle of all this comes Christmas, and Swedes have fashioned their own celebration from a mix of ancient and borrowed traditions. So, for instance, the traditional Christmas goat that gave presents to children became a little Christmas elf who is rapidly becoming Santa Claus. Christmas trees came from Germany in the 19th century, and a beloved Disney hour of cartoons came from the US in the 20th.
Christmas has been commoditized here like in most places—easy listening versions of American Christmas songs play in all the malls, and the kids’ TV shows all come from either the US or odd Canadian-French-Belgian collaborations, and they all feature Santa and his reindeer and so on.
But there remains a soul to Swedish Christmas that is unchanged. Swedes celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve because the old pagan days started at sundown. There are ginger snaps, mulled wine and a uniquely Swedish Christmas soda—julmust, a fizzy mix of hops and barley that tastes like a sweeter version of root beer. They eat special Christmas rice pudding and a smorgasbord of ham and fish and potatoes that you don’t get anywhere else. Many of these things are either not so old or not so Swedish, but Swedes have incorporated them into a celebration that at least stands apart from the mass produced version on those kids cartoons.
In a way, it’s the same process Sweden has used to navigate its way to a fairly independent cultural prosperity—and churned out so much successful pop music: take in the foreign influence, smooth out its rough edges and incorporate the homogeneous remnant into a new menu or a catchy chorus.
But back to the dark. People try to talk up all the lights as cozy and sigh with relief when it snows because the snow will reflect the moonlight. There are Christmas markets by torchlight and lots of people skating down rivers in the wan light of midday. Some say they like it. I say they are kidding themselves. That’s why I’ve spent only two actual Christmases in Sweden, usually flying out about a week after Lucia. That’s why I’m writing this from California, and that’s why thousands of Swedes flee the country every Christmas for places like Phuket in Thailand—because in a few weeks we’ve got to go back to the dark and then fight through a winter that lingers six weeks longer than in New York.
And the sun is a good deal brighter than Advent candles.
Nathan Hegedus is an American writer and content strategist in Stockholm. He contributes to Slate and others, and can be found on Twitter at @NathanHegedus
For more of our 13 Christmas dispatches from around the world, visit Roads & Kingdoms