“Is this coffee? Well, no. This is coffee.”
I first came across this 1961 video by the Coffee Brewing Institute through Bon Appetit, and I decided I ought to write about it after my brother (not a coffee pro, but a designer) tweeted a link at me:
The video is hilarious for its campiness, but is also surprisingly relevant to coffee brewing today. The influential SCAA publication The Coffee Brewing Handbook by Ted R. Lingle “is based on the initial research of Dr. E. E. Lockhart, compiled while he served as Scientific Director at the Coffee Brewing Institute” (p.ii), and the CBI was also responsible for brewing control charts and the standard of 18-22% extraction which is so often referenced today.
The video cites three “elements” of coffee brewing: water, coffee, and time (the most metaphysical of the three).
These elements seem a bit strange compared to the way we talk about coffee brewing today. Water and coffee are ingredients, while time is something we look at as more of a “variable.” But if you listen to the breakdown of the “elements,” you’ll find the other most familiar variables as well:
On the topic of water, we hear about the amount of brew water and the temperature:
Too much or two little? Boiled first or later or not at all?
On coffee, we hear about grind and dose and the familiar concept of matching grind setting with brewing device.
On time, we hear about stopping the process when “all that is good has been extracted.” one of my favorite dramatic elements here comes with a close-up on a spent coffee bed:
From these grounds there remains nothing more to gain but bitterness. No amount of cooking can extract another ounce of good taste – not another iota of good flavor.
The first time I watched, I was somewhat confused by the menacing intro – the music, the disorienting camera angles. The narrator’s cynical musing: “Is this coffee? Well, no.” Only upon rewatching did I realized what made this non-coffee’s preparation different (and apparently horrifying): nothing is measured.
And for the CBI, coffee’s secret wasn’t the “three magic ingredients,” but the care with which they are measured:
water, fresh and carefully measured; coffee, the proper grind and carefully measured; time, carefully measured.
Despite the hilarious kitch factor in this video (or perhaps augmented by it), I find something both heartwarming and strange in it. Even as technologies evolve and coffee nerdery flourishes, there is something simultaneously encouraging and uncanny about looking into our industry’s past and seeing that our practical understanding of how tasty coffee is made really hasn’t changed so much in half a century.
In the end, it remains a simple thing – easy to obtain, well made, and well enjoyed: a good cup of good coffee.