Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Evolution Of A Cup O Joe

If you look in my basement (you’d think I’m a pig)
As a sort of an archaeological dig
You’d uncover a history, of husband and wife
And the coffee we had in our life.

Automatic drip brewers? We’ve got them galore
And espresso machines—there are two on the floor
There’s the time we decided to try a French Press
Now an artifact, there in the mess.

There’s a pot for unfiltered—that’s Turkish or Greek
In a pile of old pans, playing hide and go seek;
And a ghastly device that’s a microwave cup
Whose inventor was truly messed up.

Through the decades of methods we’ve tested and tried
There are some that we modified, some that just died—
It’s not like a problem we tackled and solved,
But rather, our method evolved.

There’s an art to it—no, what I mean is, a science—
Not simply a hunt for the perfect appliance,
But a test of each variable, to see what you find
That persists when you test double-blind

Now the people who’ve taken the trouble to test
Have agreed that my method is really the best—
A little more effort, one cup at a time,
But really, the coffee’s sublime.

Via Scicurious and others (via twitter), a delightful little essay at the Scientific American guest blog on "science in the neighborhood: how to make a really good coffee", in which the co-owner of a coffee shop applies experimental methodology (controlling some variables, manipulating others, double-blind taste testing) to really understand the process of brewing coffee. The resulting method, I note with pride, is exactly how I've been brewing my morning cup for years now.

I tell my students that there is precious little in their lives that cannot be systematically examined through science--and that the more important something is to you, the more reason there is to use this incredibly powerful set of tools. The morning cup of coffee is an extremely important thing.

Is it possible to just stumble upon the same solution that scientific investigation will give you? Of course! Orgel's Second Law ("Evolution is smarter than you are") tells us that with replication, variation, and differential success, and a whole lot of time, evolution (in this case, coffee is a parasite, depending on us for its reproduction) will find solutions. The fossil record in my basement reflects this.

But science is powerful. The barista in the article "spent well over fifty hours perfecting his technique". Took me over 20 years to stumble upon it. But the good news is, we stumbled upon it quite some time back, so we have had many years of excellent coffee, using a method that the experts are now "discovering". If I could wrestle with this metaphor a bit, it's odd to have a cup of coffee remind us of the importance of preserving ecosystems. Evolution has been solving problems since long before we were here; in our rush to clear land and tame wilderness, we are most assuredly obliterating treasures. If only for selfish reasons, it is imperative that we look where we are stepping.


Melissa said...

That is a wonderful article (and the poem, as always). It's making me want to give coffee another chance.

Science makes everything better.

Katrina said...

Since returning from Italy, I find there's no place I can get a good cup of coffee - except at home.

I eventually figured out that the American baristas were using a "single shot" worth of coffee in a "double shot" worth of water. Blech.

Thinker said...

Although this is about the gadgets and methodology for making coffee, this reminds me of an old post of yours about analysing it .

In that post, you expressed how inadequate you felt with machines, but now you're "spilling the beans" that you are actually an expert barista. Thus, my comment then still stands:

You worry, dear Cuttlefish, overly much,
dissecting each skill that you miss.
You analyze this and you analyze that
just like these coffee-crazed Swiss.
No, think of the impact of what you serve up,
What you are and what is, not what’s not.
For your poetry’s just like the brew in my cup:
A life-giving powerful shot!