How a $26 coffee maker made me better appreciate the world and the people who make things work

I was not totally unfamiliar with the idea that coffee could be actually decent. While the product of chain coffee places—when not drowned under milk and pumpkin spice™—is pretty much as terrible as the leavings at the bottom of a greasy carafe that’s been set aside and reheated because no one in the office had the energy to brew a fresh pot, occasionally the wandering coffee addict runs into something mildly better, if only by chance. 

(Author’s note: The use of the phrase “pumpkin spice” makes this officially holiday content.)

People have tried to interest me in an espresso machine (tiny coffee, huge counter space, nonstarter), or French press (sure, what my coffee needs is more grounds in the cup), and the horrors of flavored coffee (all flavors seem to be derived from recycled cough drops). But for years, I’ve brewed up a pot of the most generic high test light roast I can find—light roast coffee has more caffeine, and at least it doesn’t add charcoal to the list of unpleasant notes I’ve come to expect from my cup.

Then a few years back, I watched some YouTube. And I changed my coffee ways. 

I don’t know what quirk of the algorithm first threw a video from James Hoffman my way. I’m often pleased by how the ads and suggestions I get on YouTube—commercial uses of 5-gallon buckets, an unboxing video for a Nerf gun, and the best booze for your eggnog—demonstrate that the platform does not know me. Which is cool. 

In any case, one day a couple of years ago I clicked onto a video by Hoffman reviewing a coffee machine I would not buy in a million years. However, like all true aficionados, it was immediately obvious that Hoffman loved his topic. So I kept watching, treating his videos as a kind of English-accented background noise—dispatches from a land where coffee wasn’t measured out by the bitter pot-full.

And somewhere, not so many videos in, I found myself getting … interested. There was the sheer symmetrical beauty of the Chemex brewer—a design so lovely it’s got a shelf in museums. There were the seemingly endless versions of the I’ve-never-seen-one-in-a-store V60 brewers. There were grinders that cost roughly as much as my old car. And again and again there were mentions of something called an “Aeropress.” Which turned out to be cheap and small.

Somewhere about this point, I spent $26 on the Aeropress and tried it out. Sure, it made coffee just one cup at a time, and yeah, it meant boiling some water on the stove, and hey … that’s not bad. 

Soon enough, I had acquired a cheap hand grinder ($30), a small scale ($35), and a little curvy-throated kettle ($29). All of which seemed like a lot for making coffee one tiny cup at a time. But by then I had also acquired some beans from the Sidama region of Ethiopia, which had been lightly toasted for me by a local roaster. 

Put some water in the kettle and set it on to boil. Put the bottom of the grinder on the scale and measure out 12 grams of beans. Pour those beans into the top of the grinder, add the handle and cap, grind them down to a not-quite-espresso fineness. Put a paper at the bottom of the Aeropress, pour on the grounds, then set the whole thing back on the scale to wait for the water to finish. As the kettle starts to whistle, put 200 grams of water into the Aeropress and lightly insert the plunger. Start a timer, wait two minutes, then press slowly. 

Enjoy.

The coffee that lands in the cup is citrusy, and sour, and sweet, and a little molasses-y all at once. Yes, it takes at least five minutes to make a single cup where before I pushed a flippy switch and let the machine crank out Mass Quantities. But I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. At least, now that I’m down to three to five cups a day, I usually fall somewhere on the chart of all those “coffee is good for you” articles (and yes, I’m aware there are “coffee is bad for you” articles. I don’t read them.)

But … 1,012 words later, here’s the point: 

One morning as I was making my first cup, I spilled a bean on the countertop. As I picked it up, I looked at the tiny bit of plant matter and realized that someone had picked that bean by hand off a Coffea arabica plant near a town called Yirgalem in south central Ethiopia. Someone at that same farm had then hulled the bean and dried it. Someone had packed it up. Someone had shipped it, on a literal ship that made its way across oceans. It, and a million more like it, made their way to a small roaster in St. Louis. At that roaster, genuine artisans waited a few weeks for the bean to hit peak flavor before giving it a light roast and sending it to me. This bean. Had come. From Africa. It was the product of someone’s hard work and stewardship. And now it was in my hand.

By putting that bean in my hand grinder, and dribbling the grounds with just the right amount of water, and converting them into a cup of coffee that wasn’t just drinkable, but genuinely good, I felt I had done that bean—and the person who grew it—some tiny, tiny level of justice. I felt like I had honored their work. I felt connected.

Truthfully, the thing of much bigger importance here is that the grower of that bean was part of a group that negotiated directly with roasters in the U.S. and worked with organizations that helped to guarantee a fair price, an organic product, and safe working conditions. Those are the things that really matter for the person at the other end of what happened on my kitchen counter. But it mattered to me the way that bean, and all his bean-y brethren, were treated. 

Changing the way I make my morning coffee made me have one of those kind of revelations you really shouldn’t be having when you’re this-many-years-old: that revelation that everything you take into your home, everything you eat or drink, everything you wear or use, has its origins somewhere in the world, in the work of others. And that maybe the best thing you can do in light of that is not worry so much about buying for quantity, or getting the biggest “bang for your buck.” Because someone pays for that bargain pair of socks. At both ends of the line.

Make purchases more carefully, choose things that create value, think more about the quality of life—especially the quality of life for those people making the things that you consume. And drink a nice cup of coffee now and then.


One last note: Don’t consider this an ad for the Aeropress. It’s a little plastic tube, for all I know there’s some corporate horror story in its background, and there are sure to be many, many other ways to make coffee that are just as good. I may move on to something else soon enough—that Chemex sure is purty. But hey, it was part of the story, so I left it in there, name brand and all. Do watch some of Hoffman’s videos. There’s a reason people keep joking that he’s the “Attenborough of coffee.”



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