Strong Coffee

IT FALLS to each of us sooner or later to breakfast at the home of someone else. As a general thing, the reward or punishment for the guest in that circumstance can be predicted with some accuracy just before entering the dining room. It depends on whether the fragrance of impending coffee can be perceived. If all is well, no such odor is present, and the guests stand glumly about, each the victim of his own particular 9.00 A.M. psyche. Cause for alarm comes when one of the guests casts an eye towards the ceiling, inhales rapturously, and remarks, “M-m-m-m I smell the most delicious coffee.”

Such a guest rarely understands the implication of his assertion. What he should say instead, had he the brains, would be: “M-m-m-m — a great pity. That delicious aroma of coffee which we detect is being dissipated from the beverage which we are about to drink and which, in consequence, will be flabby and tasteless stuff indeed.” In launching such a comment, he should not roll his eyes piously at the ceiling, but stare accusingly at his hostess.

I am moved to press this matter of coffee on account of the dictum published in the Atlantic last month by M. F. K. Fisher, to the effect that coffee should be, among other things, strong. I agree. All coffee should be strong, embarrassingly strong. But because some like it weak, a pot of boiling water should be served along with it. On that basis, the consumer can put to his lips any degree of heft which he wishes. The hostess and the world at large should realize that, whereas one can always weaken strong coffee, there is no remedy by which miserable, weak coffee can take on strength. Unfortunately, one finds very few kitchens in which strong coffee is prepared.

It is all but impossible to make strong, richly flavored coffee in a percolator. The fragrance insists on escaping via the spout. The longer it percolates, the more fragrance lost. In addition to this difficulty, most percolator users are on the niggardly side, measuring out carefully a tablespoonful for each cup and — lavishly — a great big extra tablespoonful just to be reckless. These are the same people, as often as not, who put cheap sherry into handsome decanters, and their interest in coffee is no more enlightened.

When coffee is made in the glass bulb devices, it is plain to even the dullest witness that a large fraction of the water never rises from the lower ball into the coffee compartment, but remains instead to water down the beverage. Until the manufacturers succeed in exhausting this diluent or in providing a petcock for its release into a spare cup, coffee from these machines will continue to be diluted, whether it can afford the loss or not. It will do no good to let the coffee come down and be run aloft for a second time, since further boiling will worsen the finished beverage in any case.

This brings us to the old-fashioned coffeepot. For this school, here is my challenge: If you can produce from your pot a gallon of completely clear coffee essence, intact as to flavor and strength, and without even a minute fluff of sediment in the bottom, it will be an excellent pot indeed. To this end you would be permitted all the eggshells, beaten eggs, incantations, and cold injections which this school seems to require. But, mark you, no sediment in the bottom, please.

This leaves us only the dripper—at its best the perfect way but, if misunderstood, the worst of the lot. There is nothing the matter with the device itself, and the theory is sound. None of the losses, irrilants, and failures of the other schools will attend the correct use of a drip pot. It will produce stronger coffee than any of the other methods, but it takes a great deal of time and incredible quanties of coffee. Good drip coffee, just for its raw materials, costs fifteen or twenty cents a cup. To make a quart of it lakes a full half hour; but once you have made it, the beverage is completely free from sediment, has no tendency to turn stale, and will keep perfectly in an earthenware pot or in a corked bottle for a day or more.

To get the worst results from most drippers, simply follow the manufacturer’s instructions. He has developed these with a view to giving you the illusion that fine drip coffee is economical and that it can be made in a jiffy. Simply use a tablespoonful of coffee per cup, add an extra one if you want it especially strong, and then pour in so many cups of boiling water.

The leaflet neglects to warn you, for instance, that one could hardly make from such a recipe two or three cups of coffee which would even take on the faint color of coffee. Three or four tablespoonfuls of grains would barely cover the bottom of the coffee compartment. The water would go through it so quickly that the resulting beverage would be negligible. Even if a richer portion were undertaken, the coffee would still be woefully understrength if the boiling water were all dumped in at the same time. What actually happens in that case is that the water simply cools off, and the final tricklings are no more than hot or lukewarm by the time they reach down through the coffee grains.

The first obligation, then, is to fill the coffee compartment of the dripper with all the coffee it will hold, regardless of how much or how little you wish to make. Next, add the boiling water in small quantities of perhaps a quarter cupful at a time, or even less. Some extremists hold out for no more than a tablespoonful at a time. Never allow water to accumulate and thereby to cool off above the coffee compartment; and try to add the boiling water at approximately the rate of drip. Sample the beverage from the lower compartment from time to time.

The first drippings will represent the maximum possible strength of the batch, and the beverage will become weaker as more water is added. The coffee in a half pot, for instance, would be much stronger than that in a full pot made from the same grains. If the half pot seems to be at just the right strength and you expect to need more coffee, throw out the grounds and start all over again with fresh coffee grains.

In offering this preachment, I am painfully aware of casting an extremely small pebble into a very large pool. Experience suggests that most people Experience suggests like weak coffee, liberally adulterated with cream and sugar. Neither would I argue, esjDecially to the weak-coffec school, the merits of the French roast. Do as you will with filter papers, too. But if you have ever drunk the breakfast café au lait in rural Louisiana or the jet-black afterdinner version served there, take it as a yardstick of strength.

Our national taste is still for pallid, grounds-specked, boiled slops, and already we have communicated this failing to better coffee drinkers than we are elsewhere in the world. In Paris before the war, the smart restaurant offered, and at an extra price, not the decent filtre but coffee from the hateful glass bulb which the French called the machine. In Havana, where all good Cubans drank hard-hitting, fragrant drip coffee, it is considered chic to serve the visitor “ American coffee,” a standard tea-shoppe drink that is not readily distinguished from tea-shoppe tea.

Well over a century ago, drip coffee received the blessing of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who wrote: ". . . having a thorough knowledge of the matter, I decide in favour of the method . . . which consists in pouring boiling water on coffee placed in a porcelain or silver vase, pierced with very little holes. Then let this first decoction be heated again almost to a boiling point, let it be strained anew, and then you’ll have a coffee as clear and as good as it is possible to get.”

Thus far, nobody has named any restaurants after the fellow who invented the percolator.