Coffee In The Movies

As someone who misspent some of his early life viewing movies, I can’t help but recall some of coffee’s more exhibitionist moments before the camera.

Here are but a few moments memorable to me:

The 1952 film noir classic, The Turning Point with Edmond O’Brien as a well-intentioned but naive politician trying to clean the rats out of government featured a scene making coffee using a vacuum maker. The film’s director wisely starts the scene during the vacuum drawing the finished brew back down into the lower carafe. I can’t watch the scene without shoveling some fresh Guatemala Antigua into my own vacuum Silex.

For the best “coffee as sacrament” you can’t do better than Air Mail, my favorite John Ford film. Cheerless airline executive/pilot (from the days when they did both) Ralph Bellamy must pour twenty cups or so of coffee to maintain his seemingly eternal vigil running his airmail operation during an equally endless fog bound night. As atmospheric as these exciting early years of airborne heroics were, I think in balance I prefer the boredom of modern airlines. The safety, but not the coffee, has improved, however.

Another noir classic, The Stranger on the Third Floor, sets much of its dark story line around the confines of a diner called Nick’s. Nick, a Greek restaurateur steals a scene in which he explains why his coffee is so good to two dewy-eyed starlets who ask his secret. “The secret”, Nick says, “is I put a raisin in the every cup”. I’m thinking of remaking the film with this same scene in it. Only in my remake it turns out that I am Nick’s killer, after I discover he’s been flavoring my coffee without my knowledge.

Any film with alcoholics in it is guaranteed to feature early morning “lots of black coffee” scenes and Lost Weekend is no exception. Ray Milland’s portrait of a boozer is liberally peppered with the coffee-making activities of crusading Jane Wyman, whose employment of a percolator almost excuses Milland’s habit, at least in my book.

Preston Sturges, whose work seems to age even better than the best Sumatra green beans, obviously knew how to weave the coffee into a good yarn. His classic, Christmas in July, is about an advertising wannabe, Dick Powell, who tries to seduce gal pal Ellen Drew with his phrase, “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee. It’s the bunk.” In fact, he enters the slogan in an advertising contest sponsored by a major coffee company. At one point his mother notices that he has accidentally dropped a penny in his coffee cup. “That’s lucky”, she says with her first generation brogue. Sorry, Mom. Not in my house, where you couldn’t see a penny in the bottom of the cup. It’s never good luck to look into a coffee cup and see anything but coffee. If you can it means the coffee is weak.

Patricia Fitzgibbon, Coffee Companion staffer, forced me to endure one of her favorites films, the ultra-campy Pillow Talk. Other than watching Rock Hudson method-act love interest in Doris Day, this film does have our top-rated Chemex coffee maker as its scene stealer. Once I spotted the Chemex, I re-wound and ran the scene several times.

A somewhat late entry in classic coffee-making in film comes from an early 60’s cold war comedy, One, Two, Three, starring James Cagney as a Coca-Cola executive trying to sell Coke in the Soviet Union. His secretary is shown in a photo accompanying this article making coffee and, yes, that is a vacuum maker. No wonder the Soviets resisted his efforts to introduce Coke when they apparently still had superior coffee-making equipment.

The 70’s and 80’s proved to be dark ages for coffee makers, as for coffee in general. It speaks volumes about our culture’s subconscious shame in using electric percolators and switching to high-content robusta-grade coffees that there is a drought of good coffee-making scenes in films during this period.

Perhaps the 90’s will prove to be a more coffee-focused time period. Already we have Café Romeo (a film so dependent on Joseph Campanella that even after he dies he is brought back via flashback for the film’s duration). Although Groundhog Day has no noteworthy coffee scenes in it, I was impressed by rumors that Bill Murray insisted on specialty coffee from a local roaster during shooting. A recent Christopher Walken film, in the Company of Strangers, has him sipping espresso in Venice while playing intense psychotic games with two impressionable British.

I haven’t yet seen the ultimate coffee cinema scene. When I do, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, if you do, let me know.

Speak and Brew Coffee Maker: It can talk to you, but can it brew?

The Audi Roadjet with coffee maker. What's worse: Useless coffee makers or useless coffee maker features?

The review of the Speak and Brew coffeemaker will depend upon the willingness to send one to me because I actually test coffeemakers. This is true for the Audi Roadjet a concept car with built in coffeemaker too. I put measured ground coffee in them, press the button and brew. While it’s brewing, I take the water temperature as it cascades down through the grounds. I time it to make sure it brews for the proper amount of time and, yes, there is an ideal time, or at least a range of times.

My purpose if writing of this is there are so many coffeemakers that try to achieve greatness by doing everything imaginable… but brew good coffee. I’m not against these features. The ability to speak to me might be important. Let’s say I’m married to a very chatty spouse and I never get a word in edgewise (I’m not, but we’re just “let’s say’ing”). Or let’s say I’m single and want a little conversation. Well having a coffeemaker that speaks to me might be pleasant. Of course I start thinking of the machines that speak to me in my life: my GPS speaks to me. But, it rarely says anything except barking orders at me, or correcting me if I make a wrong turn, more often a turn it doesn’t know about that involves a shortcut.

A coffeemaker with a clock in it seems like a good idea, but is it? The coffee isn’t as good if you grind and set it up the night before because flavors are released into the air, but I agree it might still be worth it. Of course I can do all this except press the on button the night before with any regular coffeemaker.

But, there are legitimate conveniences I truly wish would work, such as on-board grinders. These almost never are good grinders, even the burr grinders. And, they are difficult and sometimes impossible to clean. And still, the brewing needs to be right.

I’ve been looking over reviews for the past years. I can’t find a single all-in-one coffeemaker that is in the top rank. If it did, I’d almost guarantee it would be a bestseller. But, there isn’t and that’s the truth. Is it that they don’t know? Has the SCAA and various authors and coffee experts done such a poor job of teaching the brewing basics?

I suspect the answer is the manufacturers of such machines automatically presume the enduser of such gear has no interest in anything but the gimmick or feature. Or they feel that by being the single player that satisfies this particular need they no longer need to try to do it all.

But, I wish otherwise. I genuinely like gimmicks. I like extra features. I simply wish a machine with extra features would also make good coffee.

Zojurushi 5 Cup Coffeemaker Review

Zojurushii coffee maker, zutto coffee maker, zojurushi reviewThe Zojurushi 5-cup coffeemaker attracted my attention at a previous International Housewares show. I’d been trying to find a successor to the legendary Kitchen Aid 4-cup. Could this be it? My appetite was whetted when I ran into it again at Oren’s Daily Roast. I practically begged him to let me try it, but I’m already into him for so much coffee, he put me off. Finally I got the courage to scarf one from their sales rep at this year’s Housewares show. I was pretty excited to see it. It has the second most important virtue of any coffee gear, good looks.

The 5-cups are to me really four, but that’s what I’m looking for.

Number one, though, can it brew great coffee?

I finally scarfed one off Zojurushi’s PR people who I met at the International Housewares Show. One showed up on my doorstep a few days later.

It uses a number 2 Melitta filter. It has a removable water chamber and an inline charcoal filter. I was surprised that the filter appears to be located after the water is heated. As I use mostly low-mineral no-chlorine water I hardly need such a filter. No mention is made in the instruction book as to where to buy replacements.

Using the Zojurushi is easy. Fill the water tank up to the line. The instruction book may be light on the water filter replacement but it is excellent about its suggested formula, specifying 35 grams of fine grind coffee for a full pot. That works out to the industry formula. This might not seem astounding but recipes are almost never mentioned in coffeemaker instruction manuals, and when they are, they are usually wrong.

Monitoring the brew temperature showed me what I wanted to see. It really gets hot, not quite as instant on as the Technivorm, but very close, 200 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the brew cycle, even a little above towards the end. Best of all, the water gets all the grounds nicely wet. It’s a little appreciated fact that the biggest advantage manual drip has over auto drip is your hand always knows where to pour hot water. I found the best way to ensure this is to remove the top during brewing; I presume this is because the lid must be located precisely, but it’s easy to try it once and see if you agree. With minimal futzing, this coffeemaker just works almost perfectly.

Result? After years of searching I’m done. The Zojurushi does a stellar job, almost the equal of the Technivorm in temperature and actually, gasp, a little better in its drip performance. You almost can’t do better yourself.

Recommendation? Place 35 grams fine grind coffee for a full pot. Flip it on and in seven minutes, you’re ready to enjoy. Seven minutes may seem overlong to American drip aficionados, but trust me you will like the coffee. I ascribe the slightly longer contact time to Japanese fascination with European standards (I’m half-kidding) and the fact that during the first minute the water is just under ideal brewing temperature.

I brewed several batches of Bridgeport Coffee Company’s El Salvador Finca Las Nubes – Ernesto Lima. They charge for heirloom bourbon coffee grown by the kind of farmer who walks around dusting his plants every afternoon and, using this brewer, I could taste it. I then brewed some very different Oren’s Daily Roast Viennese Blend, which is make up of two stellar Colombian coffees, one light and the other French roast. It’s my favorite summer after-dinner coffee. I get a lot of local produce during the summer months and this coffee is able to add to a meal already chock with rich flavors. This brewer actually made coffee virtually identical to what I could do with a Hario V60, no mean feat.

This review has a simple ending: Zojurushi is top rated, the current five cup champ.

Making My Best Cup: Coffee Fest 2011

I spoke of my best cup of the Coffee Fest 2011 Show as a Sumatra coffee slow brewed for me at the Counter Culture exhibit. My best coffee from Coffee Fest was the Backpacker’s Blend given me in the hall by a small-batch roaster, Kalamazoo Coffee Company from, where else, Kalamazoo, Michigan. He appeared to have just two packages of it, so it seemed all the more precious when he offered one of them to me. I came home and opened the sack to take a whiff – too dark roast, I thought. I didn’t even brew any that day. Kalamazoo Coffee, My best cup of coffee, coffeeThe next day lunchtime rolled around. I often brew something slightly darker roasted for my afternoon coffee. I chose to use the Sowden SoftBrew, which steeps the coffee. For reasons thus far unexplained by science, there’s a significant difference between steep method brewers and highly agitated drip or vacuum methods. I’ve heard plenty of conjecture, but no solid facts. Let’s just say they’re different.

To brew using this method, I decided to emulate the formula used by Peet’s Jim Reynolds in his French press tutorial in my Coffee Brewing Secrets DVD. Jim used a rather robust grounds-to-water ratio: 57grams for four six-ounce cups. Of course, I ground coarse, as coarse as my Preciso grinder would allow. I preheated the SoftBrew inside and out so that when the water was poured in to mix with the grounds it would not be suddenly cooled by unheated porcelain or the filter’s cold steel. I heated the water to a full boil, and started a stopwatch. One minute from the boil, I poured enough water over the grounds, just as Jim did. After another minute, I poured the rest of the water into the SoftBrew. I covered it and timed the entire time from the first water was place in contact with the grounds until I poured the coffee, four minutes.

kalamazoo Coffee, Sowden Softbrew, brewing coffeeOften I find steeped methods have paradoxically harsh flavor, which I believe comes from people pouring still-boiling water over the grounds. I say paradoxically because the brew often tastes underdone, indicating the water has cooled too rapidly. All steep methods are going to experience heat-loss during brewing, but the act of pre-warming the pot would seem to circumvent at least some of the initial temperature drop.

Just before I poured the coffee brewed in the SoftBrew I gave the whole mixture inside a stir. I did this because the grounds can’t help but move towards the top of the brewer during soaking. This means the coffee towards the top is going to be stronger than that at the bottom. I want everyone to enjoy the same brew strength in their cup. The stirring does increase the likelihood of fine grounds in the coffee, but I think it’s a small price to pay as well as a small increase in fines.

The coffee was perfect. The roast was definitely towards the dark side, but minus any perception of bitterness or burnt caramel that dominates so many darker roast coffees. There was still a healthy brightness of acidity in each taste. This was a coffee that would stand up to cream nicely, but I enjoyed it just as it was.

My thanks and compliments to Kalamazoo Coffee Company. It was indeed my best cup after the show.

Let’s Talk Water: Myth Versus Reality

Water is the number one subject people ask about. Water is the solvent that brings for the oil from the grounds. Without water, there’s no coffee. Learning about water and how to view it helped me enormously to brew better coffee. As in most things coffee, there are lots myths surrounding water. I want this to be short and sweet. Here’s my quick opinionated practical guide to brew great coffee.

Hard Water
“Hard water won’t extract because it’s already too full of minerals.”I hear it all the time. Don’t think of water as absorbing coffee oils. Think salad dressing. Oil and water don’t mix. Think of heated water being a solvent that removes coffee oil from the grounds and they get mixed into the hot water, making the beverage known as coffee. Also, when water is heated the minerals go into suspension. They are virtually unimportant during brewing. What minerals do is add taste. The reason not to use highly mineralized water is they risk adding a flavor that competes with or clashes with your coffee flavor. If that’s not reason enough, hard water suspended during heating, cools and hardens on the insides of your coffeemaker’s plumbing. It doesn’t take much to clog your coffeemaker’s arteries and interfere with the flow. This causes everything from substandard brewing temperatures, to slowing down brewing to simply halting the process. A coffeemaker manufacturer’s repairman once told me the majority of their service was simply calcium-choked coffeemakers.

If you have highly mineralized water, you should do the following: Drink some. If it tastes good, you can brew coffee with it. If the water doesn’t taste good, you shouldn’t brew with it because it will flavor your coffee, almost always it will taste bad. For bad tasting water use bottled water. For very hard water, you can choose. If you are willing to routinely be running vinegar or Urnex (a good coffeemaker cleaner) through your machine, and use fresh water (better still distilled or low-mineral bottled water) to rinse afterwards, you can continue to use hard water. But consider if your water is hard enough, you won’t save much by just switching to bottled water, compared to buying vinegar, coffeemaker cleaner and bottled water to rinse the machines.

Bottled Water
If you use bottled water, check to see that it is low enough in minerals to make a difference. Usually it is lower simply because most bottled water manufacturers do some filtration to make their products consistent… but not always. Some bottled waters are full of minerals and not even any softer (meaning lower in mineral content) than the hardest tap water. The most reliable waters for brewing coffee are so-called drinking water, which are usually highly filtered municipal waters. Most often, they are treated with reverse osmosis filtration, which all but eliminates minerals. Then, the water bottler adds some particles in controlled amounts, just enough to add ‘normal’ flavor – water with no minerals can taste ‘flat’. There are some excellent good-tasting bottled waters, both low in minerals and with good taste that are not r/o filtered, but they take a little patience to find.

Softened Water
Under no circumstances should you use softened water, meaning water that’s been treated with a home water softener. Actually, there is an exception – espresso machines sometimes benefit from softened water, but these are dedicated machines and it’s a special case. I’m still not certain I fully approve of it, but at least it qualifies as a possibility – with espresso. This is not true using drip, vacuum or press pots. Softened water is especially problematic with automatic drip machines, where softened water and ground coffee can combine to make gelatinous goo that will become stuck in your brew basket.
Softened water is virtually undrinkable anyway due to its elevated sodium content. I anticipate the question of alternate softening methods. To be honest, I don’t know, nor do I know if it’s been researched by anyone. I’m eager to learn if any tests have been done.

So, there are the coffee basics you need to brew great coffee minus the myths.

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