The Case for Bad Coffee

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Standing at my kitchen counter, I measure out two teaspoons of Maxwell House instant coffee into my favorite mug, pour in 12 ounces of hot water from a tea kettle, and stir for a moment. I look toward the automatic drip maker to my left and feel a pang of sympathy for its cold carafe that once gurgled and steamed each morning with the best coffee money could buy. On top of the refrigerator, my old friend the French press has gathered dust. When I notice a dead housefly decomposing inside it, I wonder what the hell has happened to me.

I wasn't always like this. I used to spend silly amounts of money on sturdy brown bags of whole-bean, single origin, locally roasted coffee at the gourmet market down the street. I would scowl after sipping an inadequately poured espresso shot pulled by an inexperienced barista if the taste was a little too bitter, the crema a little too thin. I waited fifteen minutes in the morning for a pour-over at a coffee house in my old neighborhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. When I spent a semester in Italy during my senior year in college, I made sure to follow local customs—to never order a cappuccino after 10 a.m., to stand with confidence at the local cafe counter as I downed my umpteenth espresso of the day, perfectly paired with a rum-soaked baba or, in most cases, a cigarette.

For a time, coffee wasn't just my passion, it was my livelihood. In my 20s, I managed a coffee shop in a tony Cincinnati neighborhood where we played Yo La Tengo on the stereo in the morning and Miles Davis at night. When Starbucks came to town in the mid '90s, I signed on as an assistant manager, and remained in that position until I was 28 years old. I watched with little shame as my friends became lawyers and business owners, journalists and chemists. I was proud of the fact that I knew my ginger-bready Ethiopian Sidamos from my rummy Ethiopian Harrars. I knew that it took 19 seconds to pull the perfect espresso shot. For a while, I considered entering a Starbucks training program that would allow me to manage a location of my own. I wanted coffee—really good coffee—to be my life.

But lately, something has changed. Lately, I've been reacting to fancy coffee the same way a child reacts to an accidental sip of red wine mistaken for grape juice. I don't know when it happened, but I've devolved into an unexpected love affair with bad coffee. It's not just instant coffee that I hanker for each morning, either, it's any subpar coffee I can get my hands on. (As I write this, I am a sipping a watery cup of java from an old pancake house down the street from my office in Little Italy.) Instead of that gourmet market in my neighborhood, I've begun perusing the coffee aisle of my local Ideal Supermarket like I once did the cereal aisles of my youth. I'm delighted by the big, red jars of Folgers, the yellow Chock-full-o-Nuts, the sky blue cans of Maxwell House.

The worst part of this new-found obsession is that it isn't even an affectation. I don't drink cheap coffee to be different. I don't boast of my love for Cafe Bustelo, which has become the PBR of the bearded Brooklyn set. I usually buy Maxwell House. There is nothing cool about Maxwell House.

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Maybe it all started a few months ago when I found myself paying $18 for a pound of what turned out to be so-so coffee beans from a new roaster in my neighborhood. It was one of those moments when I could actually imagine my cranky diner-coffee-swilling Irish grandfather rising from the grave and saying, "You know what, kid? You're an idiot."

It's more than just money, though. I'm as tired of waiting 15 minutes for my morning caffeine fix as I am waiting the same amount of time for my whiskey, cardamom, and pimento bitters cocktail at my local bar. I am tired of pour-overs and French presses, Chemexes and Aeropresses. "How would you like that brewed?" is a question I never want to hear again.

But perhaps my newfound allegiance to the House of Maxwell is that I simply prefer it over the expensive stuff (which, don't get me wrong, I still occasionally enjoy). Cheap coffee is one of America's most unsung comfort foods. It's as warming and familiar as a homemade lasagna or a 6-hour stew. It tastes of midnight diners and Tom Waits songs; ice cream and cigarettes with a dash of Swiss Miss. It makes me remember the best cup of coffee I ever had. Even though there was never just one best cup: there were hundreds.

The best cup of coffee I ever had was the leftover swig of overly cream-and-sugared Taster's Choice my father would always leave in his mug when he departed for work each morning (I would come downstairs in my pajamas and down it like a shot when I was just nine years old). It was the Folgers my father and I drank out of Styrofoam cups five years later while attending his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in a church basement off a suburban commercial strip.

The best cup of coffee I ever had was the dirty Viennese blend my teenage friends and I would sip out of chipped ceramic mugs at a cafe near the University of Cincinnati while smoking clove cigarettes and listening to Sisters of Mercy records, imagining what it would be like to be older than we were. The best cup of coffee was the one I enjoyed alone each morning during my freshman year at Ohio State, huddled in the back of a Rax restaurant reading the college paper and dealing with the onset of an anxiety disorder that would never quite be cured.

Then again, maybe the best cup of coffee I ever had was the one I drank in high school, right after my mother married a man named Ted.

Ted was short and portly and vulgar and gruff. Unlike my father, a dapper Italian and gifted home-cook who had a fondness for Strauss waltzes and old Platters records, Ted prefered polyester shirts, chain restaurants, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. He was a coffee and cigarettes kind of guy who liked to sit in window seats and watch the world go by. He grew up in a rough neighborhood, had an eighth-grade education, was a Korean War vet, and owned the largest blueprint company in Ohio. He wore a big gold bracelet with the word "Ted" spelled out in diamonds.

The two of us had nothing in common, but my mother would often send us out to pick up food for dinner at the local Perkins or Frisch's Big Boy. "Let's get a cup of coffee while we wait," he would always say with a sparkle in his eye as we arrived at our chain of choice. "We'll sit back and relax. Sure, just relax a little bit." But it was never just "a cup" of coffee—it was always three, and sometimes four. The idea of being stuck with Ted at a booth or a counter stool made my head spin. We would be there for at least an hour as he talked about things I couldn't even pretend to understand—the blueprint industry, the stock market, the wisdom of the Republican party.

Ted drank his coffee black and I remember being self conscious as I peeled the lids off at least three plastic containers of half-and-half and stirred a second packet of Domino sugar into my mug. Eventually, though, I started to enjoy those little coffee sessions of ours. I learned that Blue Chip stocks were always a better bet; that you should pay for everything with cash; that Loretta Lynn's voice was the stuff of heaven; that George H.W. Bush wasn't as bad as he seemed.

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Sitting at Ted's funeral a few years ago, I remembered the little phrases he would use every time we went out on those suburban hunting and gathering missions. When a waitress asked us how we were doing, his response was always, "If I was any better I'd be twins." His parting words to the cashier were always, "Take no wooden nickels and buy your own Cokes." After we buried him with full military honors, I honored him by going alone to one of the old Perkins we used to frequent and drank not one, but three cups of coffee.

I don't have memories of such bonding experiences taking place over a flat white at a Manhattan coffee shop or a $5 cup of nitro iced coffee at a Brooklyn cafe. High-end coffee doesn't usually lend itself to such moments. Instead, it's something to be fussed over and praised; you talk more about its origin and its roaster, its flavor notes and its brewing method than you talk to the person you're enjoying it with. Bad coffee is the stuff you make a full pot of on the weekends just in case some friends stop by. It's what you sip when you're alone at the mechanic's shop getting your oil change, thinking about where your life has taken you; what you nurse as you wait for a loved one to get through a tough surgery. It's the Sanka you share with an elderly great aunt while listening to her tell stories you've heard a thousand times before. Bad coffee is there for you. It is bottomless. It is perfect.