Fast coffee, Slow coffee

How too much too fast has gotten me worried

You got a fast car
Is it fast enough so you can fly away?
You gotta make a decision
Leave tonight or live and die this way

Fast Car, Tracy Chapman

Let's talk about a trend I've observed in myself: the desire for faster coffee.

Like any Singaporean kid, my first taste of coffee was kopi, that traditional local coffee shop coffee brewed with a sock and hot water over coffee beans that were dark-roasted in fat (butter or margarine) and caramelised sugar, served with a dollop of sweetened condensed milk. It was a strong start and took a while to like.

In junior college (16-18 years old), with a tiny bit of savings from my pocket money, I started to buy Starbucks coffee. I didn't like those because they were, ironically, too sweet for me. In those days I'd drink a bit of this kind of coffee and a bit of that.

Then I was conscripted for the Army and there I drank mostly brewed coffee from the cookhouse. Coffee had never been more of a utility drink than it was during my Army days.

When I entered university, I met some coffee snobs, some of whom became close friends, and I began to make coffee in my dorm room and at home. I first tried small portable brews like the French Press and an Aeropress. They were nice, though French-pressed coffee gave me too much of a buzz.

As a coming-of-age coffee aficionado with friends who were in a similar stage in their lives, I graduated to an espresso machine. I didn't have enough money of my own but my mum did, so I pitched her a future where she would drink healthier and tastier "ang moh" (slang for Caucasian people; not necessarily derogatory) coffee at home made with fresh beans and freshly frothed milk. She either took the bait or loved me enough (or both) because she said "okay, go buy the machine" without needing further persuasion. I had to tell her it was two machines, a grinder and an espresso machine, and each would cost over SGD 1,000. She still greenlighted it.

So for my four years in university and a couple of years beyond, I made specialty coffee and drank these every day.

The difference between espresso-based coffee and all the other types of coffees? Expediency. In decreasing order of speed of coffee preparation:

  1. Instant coffee (fastest)
  2. French Press
  3. Aeropress
  4. V60 Filter
  5. Espresso machine (slowest) ← I was here

I'm not sure if you see it, but I was trending towards slower coffee. I was taking time to make an enjoyable cuppa. At the peak of my interest in coffee, I was spending 10-15 minutes brewing a cup of coffee because of various fiddliness like waiting for the espresso machine to warm up, calibrating grind size and tamping pressure, steaming milk, and washing up.

I look back at those times and I think, Ahh, such young and carefree times. So much time to waste...

Waste?! It certainly didn't feel like a waste of time then. I remember enjoying the special time each day that I would spend making coffee. It wasn't about the result, not really. It was a hobby that involved craftsmanship.

And therein lies the tension that exists in my head now.

You see, ever since we moved to Berlin from Singapore close to 3 years ago, because shipping two hunks of metal cost too much and risked damage, I've moved without my fancy coffee setup. In Berlin I've been making coffee using a simple Moka Pot and an Aeropress.

I didn't realise it then, but this started a reverse trend. Instead of taking more or equal time to make coffee, I was spending less time again. I was getting my coffee done faster.

Most recently, however, I've felt that even the Aeropress took too long to make coffee. It takes me roughly 7 minutes from grinding fresh beans to having a cuppa ready for drinking. This was a feeling, and when I examined the reason I felt that way, I realised it was because 7 minutes wasn't fast enough for me to make a cup between meetings while I worked from home.

I've started viewing coffee solely as a thing to drink, not a thing to enjoy making (just like my coffee-as-utility-beverage days in the Army). My context for drinking coffee has changed from drinking as a break to drinking for a mental boost.

How did I respond to this "7 minutes is too slow" realisation? I went looking for a new brewing method that would produce decent coffee in less time. This is when I found the Moccamaster filter coffee machine:

Moccamaster has been made by their Dutch manufacturer since 1968. It’s a classic!

I've now used this beauty for a week and I'm happy to report that it fits the bill. I'm making tasty brewed coffee in roughly 5 minutes. The best part is that I don't have to be there for the whole 5 minutes! Because of the way it's designed, the workflow goes like this:

  1. Grind coffee
  2. Fold and insert filter paper
  3. Pour coffee grounds onto filter paper
  4. Pour the desired volume of water to be made magically into coffee
  5. Switch on the machine
  6. (I can go away and do something else now)
  7. Return anytime within the next hour to grab warm coffee from the carafe

Wonderful, right?! Contrast this to the Aeropress brewing method (around 7 minutes):

  1. Grind coffee
  2. Start boiling water
  3. Insert plunger into body
  4. Insert filter paper
  5. Pour coffee grounds into the body
  6. Wait for boiled water to cool slightly
  7. Pour hot water into the body to start brewing
  8. Wait around for 3 minutes (if I leave, I'll have extremely strong coffee)
  9. Lock the filter head and push the plunger to extract coffee into mug

Brewing with the Aeropress is not only a long process, it requires me to stick around to prevent the coffee from over-steeping. I can't set and forget with this method. I can't set and forget with any other method I've tried so far. (Except for Nespresso capsule-type systems, which are tremendously wasteful; don't get me started on their "recycling program"!)

Anyway, as I was saying, tension. Where's the tension? Well, as soon as I noticed the trend, a voice in my head went, Listen to yourself. Do you hear what you're saying? Saving two minutes? Multi-tasking while making coffee?

Back to the earlier sorted list:

  1. Instant coffee (fastest)
  2. French Press
  3. Moccamaster ← I’m here now
  4. Aeropress
  5. Moka Pot
  6. V60 Filter
  7. Espresso machine (slowest)

I don't like convenience. I enjoy it, but I don't like it when I make it a priority in any aspect of my life, coffee-making included. It has to do with the conveyor belt effect of efficiency:

  • Conveyor belt brings work to you at the rate of X units per minute
  • You learn to become more efficient at doing the work
  • Conveyor belt speeds up, now bringing work at the rate of X+1 units per minute

Efficiency is never the answer to life's problems. It could very well lead to more problems. As Oliver Burkeman writes in Four Thousand Weeks:

The problem isn’t exactly that these techniques and products don’t work. It’s that they do work—in the sense that you’ll get more done, race to more meetings, ferry your kids to more after-school activities, generate more profit for your employer—and yet, paradoxically, you only feel busier, more anxious, and somehow emptier as a result.

This is what's troubling me about my recent purchase of the Moccamaster. I'm trending fast, which means I'm trending efficient, productive, and probably as a (further) result, impatient.

So, should I force myself to go back to slow coffee? Or can I stick to my fast coffee and just be careful with where I'm headed?

I don't yet have an answer, but I have a feeling that this whole thing is less of a normal distribution curve and more of a sinusoidal wave. At the next stage in life, I'll probably head in the opposite direction again. Maybe it's not me wanting fast coffee now so much as my age and corresponding life situation demanding it for now.

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