A Coffee Miser Goes Shopping, Part 1: Blueberries In My Grinder

This being National Coffee Day, critic Trey Popp has some thoughts on the steep prices some of us pay for our morning fix–and how to bring that cost down to more reasonable levels.

The first time I ever paid $3 for a small cup of coffee was at the OCF Coffee House on South Street.  I’d popped in to check out the newest addition to my neighborhood—which is not chiefly peopled by millionaires—and found myself wondering if it would be more cost-effective to start my day with a pint of beer.  I’d never shelled out this much for 12 ounces of regular coffee.  Not even in London, where merely walking three blocks down the King’s Road can end in foreclosure proceedings.

It was a fine cup of coffee, but I wasn’t completely sold.  Sold enough, though, to give into the temptation to buy a bag of beans to take home—which is how I also came to pay more than I ever had for a bag of beans.

It worked out to about $20 per pound.  The Counter Culture package promised “surprising notes of blueberry, strawberry, dried fruits, and pastry.”  To which my thought was, We’ll see. I like good Ethiopian coffee, but to be honest I’ve never been able to sniff it hard enough to draw strawberries from its the surface.

(Which is not to say it can’t be done.  Scientists believe that there are some 360 individual esters, aldehydes, ketones, alcohols, terpenes, furanones and sulphur compounds that influence the aroma of a strawberry.  It would take an unsustainably tremendous amount of coffee (and by financial necessity the cheapest stuff available) for me to check that list against the more than 800 aromatic compounds reported in roasted coffee beans, but I’m willing to allow that there’s a good probability of some overlap.)

I took the beans home.  I ground some up.  I took the lid off my grinder.  And there was no getting around it: As I brought the grounds toward my face, a blast of cognitive dissonance punched me in the nose.  It was as though the Foodie Magician of Long Island had stolen into my kitchen and switched out the coffee for a bag of pulverized New Hampshire blueberries.   The scent was unmistakable.  And though it faded dramatically when drenched with water just off the boil, the resulting coffee was still probably the best I’d ever sipped.

Now I was sold.  Why not $20 for a pound of coffee, anyway?  When I stopped to think about it, it started to seem like a steal.  After all, to go from the cheapest table wine to the greatest grand cru involves a price multiplier of 100—or upwards of 1,000, if you’re talking about the 1982 Mouton-Rothschild.  So if the best coffee you’ve ever had is only four times more expensive than the cheapest, well, that’s a no-brainer.

And so the summer unspooled, one bag of micro-lot coffee after another.  I’d finally out-snobbed my snootiest coffee-drinking friend–a man with whom I’d once emerged from a café in Healdsburg, California, sipping contentedly on my purchase, as he took one taste of his, dumped it into the storm gutter, and drove to the next coffee shop on Highway 101.

But then child number two started daycare, bringing our monthly check to twice our mortgage payment, and my inner miser regained control.  No more $20 pounds of coffee, it declared.  (And you’re not getting a goddamn SodaStream, either.)

“But dammit, I want a SodaStream!  I want it now, now, NOW!” I screamed at the top of my lungs while writhing on the floor.  My three-year-old dropped his Legos.  “See,” I told him, for there is no parenthood without multitasking, “this is how you look when I tell you there’s no treat for boys who don’t eat dinner.  Don’t I look totally ridiculous?”

Long story short, my son still wants his cookies before his chicken, but my inner miser and I came to an understanding.  I would figure out how to enjoy coffee for less than $10 a pound, and we’d talk about the SodaStream later.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you how I got it down nearly to $7—and for the first time since that original bag of Counter Culture a few months ago, took the lid off my grinder this morning to discover the scent of blueberries once again leaping out.

Part II: A Coffee Miser Goes Shopping [f8b8z]