Sometime way back at the dawn of the current century, there was a man who had a lack in his life. He wanted to make a single cup of coffee that truly pleased his palate, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not find a way. He could have made a whole pot of coffee, and that would have been fine, but he only wanted one exceptionable cup. There was always something wrong, and that upset him. But Alan Adler did not spend his days moaning and groaning about his problem. Being an inventor, he did what he did best; he figured out how to solve his problem. He invented the AeroPress, and the world became a better place. His creation was elegant, and it was simple. At least, in his own mind, it was simple. Take a plastic tube into which you pour a scoopful of coffee (the scoop comes with it); pour in hot water up to a marked level; insert a second tube, which acts as a plunger, into the first tube and press down, expelling the brew into a cup, a mug, or a carafe of some kind – your choice. (Trust me; this article will make a lot more sense if you look at the video linked above.) As I said, simple. In fact, it couldn’t be simpler. Except for one fatal flaw; there are few thing in life so simplified that they can’t be re-complicated.
I’m writing this on a 27” iMac. Every day, I awaken it from ‘sleep mode,’ and get to work. I don’t have to do anything to it; in fact, I’m not able to ‘make it better,’ even if I wanted to, which I don’t. People I know hate Apple computers. Why? Because they can’t do anything to it, as in take it apart, add this, add that, redo this, redo that, put it back together. Because they know better than the engineering talent assembled in Cupertino CA how a computer should work. In effect, Apple has done what Alan Adler never thought to do, never thought he needed to do, stop people from re-complicating his product.
Here’s Alan Adler showing you how much coffee to use with how much water, and who is his target audience? Someone slapping some random amount of Nescafe into a cup? Maybe even wanting it served lukewarm? Injected directly into one’s veins? Hardly. Only people who take their coffee drinking S-E-R-I-O-U-S-L-Y, who have reached a certain level of obsessive coffee nerdliness, would consider using one of these devices. And when you’re always aiming for the best cup of coffee on the planet, it goes without saying that you’re not going to leave well enough alone.
Actually, that’s what I was doing – leaving well enough alone. I’ve been getting the best coffee available in The Land, thanks to Brandon at Power Coffeeworks, and grinding it myself day by day with my new Wilfa machine. I have a Melitta filter for pourover coffee, a French press, and a Moka pot. If I’m real lazy, I can pop a pod into our Nespresso machine. That should have been enough gear to keep me going for a long time to come. However…….
After much deliberation and consideration, my Main Coffee Guru, James Hoffman decided to wade into the AeroPress waters and posted this YouTube video, the first of several on the topic. When he posted a series of reviews of coffee grinders costing between one thousand and three thousand dollars, I was unmoved. You’re out of my league, James. But part of the appeal of the AeroPress is its modest price. Plus, it is designed to make one cup of coffee, which is as much coffee as my internal organs will allow. If Hoffman is interested, maybe I should give it a look-see. And so I pondered the matter. Should I get one; shouldn’t I get one? Back and forth, yes, no, yes no, until……… Of course, in the end, I gave in and ordered one from Cafelix, an outfit in Tel Aviv.
While I was waiting for my MCG to post his version of AeroPress perfection, I began doing some ‘research’ on YouTube. And when I saw what was out there, it scared the living daylights out of me. For more than a decade, there has been – are you ready? – a World AeroPress Championship. It started out modestly enough with three contestants in a coffee shop in Norway, and now thousands of people all over the globe fight to compete, going through regional and national eliminations, until the finalists assemble in one venue (not 2020 for obvious reasons), all trying to make the best single cup of coffee with their trusty AeroPress. And these ‘champions’ weren’t the only ones. Dozens of MCG wannabees had preserved their AeroPress recipes for all of posterity, each one seeking to be the best barista on the block. If you’re with me so far, you might be asking, if you only have these two plastic tubes to work with, how do you make one cup of coffee that’s markedly different from the next one? That’s the scary part; that’s where the obsessive nerdliness comes in, tinkering with this, tinkering with that until NIRVANA has been reached.
How much coffee to use? How fine or course to grind it? What’s the coffee to water ratio? How long is the brew time? How hot should the water be? Then we get into matters of hyper-nerdliness. You’re supposed to use a little paper filter in the brewing process. How about using two? How about using a specially ordered metal filter instead? How about sandwiching the metal filter between two paper filters? How about using a special kind of spring water instead of what everyone else is using? My favorite flavor of nerdliness is inverting the two plastic tubes and using them upside down. There I absolutely draw the line. My world is topsy-turvy as it is; no point gilding the lily.
A few days later, my AeroPress arrived via UPS. By that time, Hoffman, by his own admission one of the world’s great nitpickers, had done his own extensive testing. He posted his own method of AeroPressing, a simple way to get started using the device. (Instead of using 20-30 grams of coarsely ground coffee, use 11 grams, finely ground. DO NOT turn anything upside down. Use one paper filter and don’t wet it ahead of time.)
But what’s most interesting is his rationale, why his method is so different from dozens of others, especially the ones that were World Champions. Those, he insisted (and others agreed), were designed to stand out in a competition. LOOK AT ME, or better still, TASTE ME. The judges in these competitions go around sampling dozens of entries in order to select the three that made the best first impression. They weren’t going to sit down to finish the cup. They certainly weren’t planning to use these exotic recipes for the next week in their morning brew. Hoffman was admitting that his way of making AeroPress coffee wasn’t the splashiest, the punchiest, the most flamboyant; it was what you’d want to drink day after day for as long as you have the wit and the strength to continue.
Is this a lesson in life, or is this a lesson in life? Whereby something that seems great at first glance turns out to be a bummer in the end, and you wish you had never met him/her/it. Think about that. And while you’re thinking, let me continue with my saga, The AeroPress in my life.
I had the equipment, I had the instructions, and, yes, I had the coffee. The good folks at Cafelix in Tel Aviv sent me a freebie, a few hundred grams of a Colombian Yellow Bourbon, a light roast, very finely pre-ground. I did exactly what Hoffman said: 11 grams of coffee, 200 grams of water, let it sit for two minutes, swirl it around a little bit, wait 30 seconds more, gently plunge. There should be some kind of anti-climax, but there wasn’t. The result was as good as I could reasonably expect. Do exactly the same over the next several days to check for consistency. Yes, this is the quality of coffee that I want day after day for my mid-day excursion into luxury.
I was almost there, but there was one more hurdle to cross. MCG had made it clear that his recipe was fine-tuned for a light roast similar to the one I had. (Just so you know: the coffee obsessives in London prefer light roasts, whereas the standard preference on Agrippas St. is for dark roast. As they say, go figure.) Supposing I wanted to AeroPress my Tarrazu (from the interior mountains of Costa Rica), how would I modify the formula for a full-bodied dark roast? The obvious solution was to take the recipe and start tweaking it one variable at a time until I had it right. That might take a while, if I were making one cup a day. I’d better take notes. In fact, I’d better make some sort of a chart to chronicle my efforts.
Now what did Hoffman suggest? For a darker roast, use more coffee; grind it a little coarser; drop down the water temperature a tad. I picked an arbitrary setting on my grinder, added a couple more grams of coffee, made sure the water was a little cooler. That was good; in fact, that was very good. Just a l-i-t-t-l-e strong. Instead of 13 grams of coffee, go back to 12 and try again.
That was too easy. Here I was, gearing up for weeks and weeks of trial and error to get the right cup of coffee, and right off the bat, I did it. There will always be the temptation to keep fiddling, adjusting my grinder half a notch, adding or subtracting half a gram of coffee, getting the water a little hotter or a little colder, going a little longer on the brew time, but……. I’m the guy with the iMac; I’m the guy who wants to maximize my use, my enjoyment, and minimize my fiddling-around time. I feel no need to make my coffee while standing on one leg or turning my equipment on its head. So, my heads-up to my go-to-get coffee guy, Brandon Treger, my MCG, James Hoffman, and especially to you, Alan Adler (I know you’re out there, AeroPressing away) for trying to make things simpler and adding a little gusto to my life.