April 3, 2015
A couple of weeks ago, my partner, Rob, and I were at Wegmans—our local grocery store—staring at what had once been a robust coffee bean selection. At another time, we could have chosen from Starbucks, Peet's, Seattle's Best, Dunkin' Donuts. That day, the only brands available were from either Peet's or Wegmans, and only three were "whole bean." The rest were all K-Cups.
A woman bent over to pick through them. It wasn't so long ago, when Rob and I had to go to our local bed and bath chain store to buy our coffee. Then, only stores and a few online outlets sold Keurig machines carried K-Cups.
I scowled at the woman, and turned to Rob, speaking in a stage whisper, "I can't believe this. You used to be able to get gourmet coffee at Wegmans. Now all you can get is that plastic shit. I can't believe people buy that crap."
I've had a long relationship to hot steaming cups of caffeine, that spans the globe, and indeed my life. When I was 18 months old, in Lancashire, England, my mother used to give me all sorts of things in my nighttime bottle to take to bed with me, carrying down what she learned from her mum. The bedrooms in our house were heated only by a coal stove, so I drank hot things. Cocoa often, but also tea. I am English, after all. It was milky tea, more milk and sugar than brew from the pot, but it was my first taste of caffeine.
Thirty years ago, I was working at a coffee house in Seattle's University District, where regulars would come in to play Go! and speed chess, and students would write papers, cram for exams, and hang out. I was fluent in the language of espresso: latté and café au lait; ristretto, and cappuccino with varying degrees of foam; Americano and mocha. Regulars always left the same tip. Irv, the owner, required them to buy one cup per hour to keep their table: 90 cents with tax. "Keep the change," they’d say, as my apron pocket sagged heavier with the dimes they’d let me keep.
My co-worker Cathy looked at her paycheck. Irv paid us two bucks an hour because we're tipped employees. "I spent $120 on lattés this month," she said, stuffing her check into her backpack. "At least this paycheck is a positive number. Last week, I owed Irv for my espresso tab."
I hadn't seen a patch of blue sky in weeks. Weather forecasts fell between "partly cloudy" and at least eight synonyms for "rain." Coffee made our miserable Seattle weather tolerable. Irv let us drink drip coffee for free; espresso for half-price. I could drink seven or eight cups of drip in a six-hour shift. At least I wasn’t spending more than a hundred bucks a month on espresso.
My now-ex-husband, Mike, and I moved to Ithaca, New York, in 1993, from Seattle. We drove, and though it's unimaginable now, for 2,600 miles we didn’t see a single Starbucks. But Mike could drink any kind of coffee. Gas station coffee. Truck stop coffee. Diner coffee—the only coffee I could tolerate—was a once-a-day treat.
Friends said there was good coffee in Ithaca. That turned out to be half-true. There was Dunkin' Donuts—which everyone swore had the best coffee in town—and Wegmans' own brand. We soon ran out of the Starbucks beans we’d brought with us, and had to resort to the grocery-brand coffee. And it sucked all the joy of coffee out of my life. It took us a few years to discover mail-ordering coffee—which we did: ten pounds of Starbucks every three months. That was, until a local guy opened "Gimme!," a coffee outlet that resembled the coffee houses we used to frequent. And my love of coffee was returned to me.
In 2012, Mike and had I been broken up for over a decade, and I’d been with Rob for four years. My relationship with coffee, however, is forever. Starbucks had already conquered the world at this point, and become an evil giant corporation. Still, I was buying their beans at Wegmans.
Because Rob's schedule has him up and out the door by 6:30 a.m., and I was waking up nearly two hours later, I would find myself dumping his old coffee and making my own pot. A waste? Maybe. But it was a matter of taste. We thought we’d discovered a solution to our problem when we visited his daughter and son-in-law—they’d served us coffee from their new "system": a Keurig. It seemed like a gimmick the first time we saw it. Em and Drew had a cupboard shelf full of plastic cups: not just coffee, but tea, hot chocolate. Even cider. We thought we'd found the cure to being wasteful. With a Keurig, Rob could make the one fresh cup he needed to get him out the door, and I could make my two cups—maybe three. No more washing coffee down the drain.
The following Saturday, we brought home our Keurig, along with a "starter pack" of coffee. Starbucks had K-Cups—we picked up some of those, too. We were in love with it—it delivered a cup o' joe in about the same time it took to count out the scoops the old-fashioned way. We bought different K-Cups, hunting for a magic one that really satisfied. Stimulated as much by cognitive dissonance as caffeine, we assured ourselves that the reason we couldn't find a great coffee is that the technology hadn't had enough adapters. We joked warily about the cost—K-Cups are about 80 cents or more a pop—but we'd dropped some serious cash on this contraption and both agreed that the convenience made it worth it. We shopped around online, and found K-Cups for 60 cents each. In for a penny, in for a pound, as my mum likes to say.
For years, I've worked at home two days a week, writing, or reading for classes that I teach. I always have coffee at my elbow. Some days I would drink six Keurig brews. It was too easy to make a cup, so why not make six?
Before we bought the machine, we read that K-Cups would soon be recyclable. That eased our conscience about the little bits of plastic crap piling up in our garbage. After 18 months, though, it was becoming unbearable: We couldn't continue with the cup thing. How could we claim to support green politics when we were contributing to waste? My students were writing about islands of plastic garbage in the Pacific, and here we were contributing hundreds (okay, maybe thousands) of K-Cups to it. I worried, Could a whale suck a K-Cup into its blowhole?
Rob began researching the best reusable K-Cup filter. A few days later, one arrived in the mail. Another round of experiments ensued, this time about which ground coffee works best with reusable K-Cup filters. Finally, we returned to using ground coffee. Not surprisingly, it was much cheaper than the $50-per-pound K-Cups. We traded off the Keurig's convenience, as we had to wash out the reusable filter after every cup. But at least we felt like responsible adults, now that we'd stopped endangering whales.
A month later, our Keurig machine broke.
And, suddenly, we were jolted awake.
"We can always go buy a regular coffee maker," I told Rob.
He agreed. "You know what? I just want the basics. I want water, coffee, and some sticks to build a fire," he responded. He wasn't kidding. This is a man who has been on a nearly decade-long quest for a simple alarm clock—one that I'm not sure even exists. Each morning, he wakes up to static from a busted tuner, because he won't replace his old clock radio until he finds old-fangled item of his dreams.
"Let's get one of those old Melita thingies," I said. "The plastic one that you fit into your cup? It makes one cup at a time. Pretty simple."
We returned to the store where we'd purchased our Keurig. The coffee maker aisle made us cringe: There were ten different Keurigs, each more complicated and expensive than the next.
A cheerful blonde salesperson asked to assist us.
"We're looking for a way to make coffee that's not a Keurig," I said.
"I want a pot to put coffee in, and a filter to put over the pot," added Rob.
The saleswoman pointed to a shelf with enough chrome to incite a migraine.
"That's not going to work," I said. Then I saw it. "Here we go!" I picked up a French press and reminded Rob how it works.
The tension left Rob's body. The French press was $30. We took it home; it worked. We bought a good coffee grinder, some beans, and got back into the swing of “crafting” coffee. We pressed it, not unlike (we imagined) rustic youngsters stamping around in huge wine vats, crushing French grapes. We celebrated tiny victories at finding the right grind with the right blend. We're drinking good coffee again. We went back and forth about whether our coffee tastes better with seven or eight scoops, and leave each other notes: "Tried 25 sec grind, Ethiopia, with cafetiere. Bit chewy, beans too fine. Try 20 next."
The other day, we bought a different simple coffee maker, just to try it: a cafetiere, which is even easier to use. It's a glass carafe with a glass filter holder blown onto the top of it. A gold filter means we'll never have to buy paper filters again. And we purchased a thermal carafe, so no more dumped coffee.
With either method, our only waste is compost.
Now I've no idea how we ever convinced ourselves that the teeny K-Cups made drinkable coffee. So enamored of the idea of Keurig coffee, we'd forgotten what real coffee tasted like.
I should be able to report that we lived happily ever after.
Before we stopped using the Keurig, I hadn’t noticed just how much shelf space had been given up to K-Cups. We never had a problem finding ground coffee we could use in the reusable filter. Now, where once were several rows of whole bean coffee, we're left with only three different whole beans, and one of them is decaf. Even Folger's and (heaven help us) Taster's Choice are now available in a K-Cup.
I'm really trying to not be so offended when I watch people place their K-Cup coffee packs on the belt at checkout. I feel, however, as if I'm watching someone light up after I've just quit smoking. I don't want to have one more reason to hate the culture that I was so recently a part of. I want there to be a way to ask people if they have thought, examined with their hearts, why they're drinking coffee that tastes like crap while adding to the Earth's bigger crap problem. I already spend enough time practicing compassion toward those whose behavior horrifies me.
It is, after all, just coffee.
I stare at those last couple of words, not unlike the way I stare at coffee dripping into the pot. I let them steep for a moment, delete them, type them back in, and delete them one more time before—after a sip from the cup by my side—deciding to let them sit.