People always say to me, "How can I make the perfect cup of coffee?" And I have to break the bad news: One does not make the perfect cup. One tries to become the kind of person who is worthy of attendance at the elaborate ritual known as the perfect cup of coffee. This isn't amateur hour. Frankly, some people may never have a knack for it. Try juice, is my advice. Stick to the safe fluids.
But I'll share a few hints. First off, the perfect cup of coffee is not a substance but an event, one that usually happens first thing in the morning. Cups later in the day are often tarnished by distractions. The serious coffee drinker anticipates the first cup of the morning with something very much like lust. As you're making the coffee, you find yourself whispering, "Baby, you're so hot."
Obviously, the perfect cup of coffee begins with exquisite coffee beans. You mustn't buy pre-ground coffee, any more than you would buy food that has already been chewed. Remember when buying beans to specify not only the country of origin and the type of roast, but also the socioeconomic condition of the coffee workers. I always buy French Roast Papua New Guinea Fair Trade Socialist Collective, though I'm still trying to find it in decaf.
Some people buy green coffee beans and roast them at home, but if you're really serious, you should grow your own plants. It can add some time to the process, however, and my children hate it when I wake them at 3 in the morning to start the harvest.
Once you have the whole beans, you must "grind" them, a word whose brutality gives me shivers. We love the bean and want to treat it humanely. Its molecular genius, however, can be liberated only if the bean is disintegrated. Blade grinders burn the coffee; for just a few thousand dollars you can buy special coffee grinders that lovingly break the beans into tiny pieces. I like to smash the beans with a hammer. When my neighbors hear loud hammering before dawn, they know another great cuppa joe is on the way.
You can't use tap water to make coffee (that's hardly better than using gasoline or meat drippings). The water must be filtered or bottled, or, ideally, manufactured by chemists in the form of H3O (the extra hydrogen atom gives the coffee a pleasant nutty taste).
Next comes the apparatus by which the coffee is prepared. I am not a big fan of "Mr. Coffee," for reasons of gender discrimination. And I loathe any coffee maker that is too much of a contraption; it shouldn't look as though it doubles as a device for detecting radon in your basement. All you really need is a technique for allowing water that's nearly boiling to consort with fresh grinds. Many purists make "cowboy coffee," in which they add the grinds to a pan of hot water, swirl it around for a minute, and start drinking and eating the resulting mixture. Another term for cowboy coffee is "chewy coffee."
I have gone a step further and experimented with a technique in which I place dry grounds in my mouth -- really pack it in there, the way a barista loads an espresso filter basket -- and then slowly sip scalding water. It's dangerous and messy, but if you were able to speak you'd say, "That is coffee."
Let us stipulate that, by hook or crook, you find some method of producing a cup of coffee that meets your specifications for excellence. But wait: It's still not the perfect cup. You need to work on location. In the right place, even the sludge from the hot plate at Exxon can be sublime. Great coffee is 1/10 chemistry, 9/10 environment.
I often go to Carbucks. The great thing about Carbucks is that, in addition to the fact that you're the sole proprietor and barista, a new location opens up anywhere you decide to park.
After making my coffee one recent Sunday morning, I drove to a small park that overlooks the Potomac River and decided that it was an excellent Carbucks. I brought a fine novel. The first rays of sun struck the bare trees on the bluff across the river. I drank the coffee. Spectacular!
As the caffeine worked its way through my veins, the philosophy neurons woke up. The notion arose that the river emerges from deep time, that it is older than human civilization, that everything we have ever accomplished is but a brief conceit. That we're just little people, living on a tiny planet in an eye blink of time. How intimidating! How scary! How could we possibly claim any significance in such a vast cosmos?
Well, you start with the perfect cup of coffee.
Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.