Suffer No Mediocre Coffee

Recently I became aware of some serious deficiencies in my life regarding coffee. Not too long ago I was satisfied with my coffee consumption as I thought I was doing things the right way: get the dark roast and drink it black. This made sense to me as I personally prefer both my coffee and tea dark and bitter (just as I like my women, hey-oh!). My coffee usually came in one of two methods: Mr Coffee brand drip machine at home or the “Big Nasty,” the huge percolator at work. On rare occasion I’d buy coffee at Starbucks, in which case I was that jackass that refused to get on with their absurd size-naming conventions and just flatly demanded “large coffee, black.”

Little did I know, everything I was doing was wrong.

Well, not everything, but I’ll get to that. What I want to do right now is share the four-plus years I spent achieving coffee enlightenment in order to save as many people from mediocre coffee as possible. This is not to say I am about to provide home barista-level instructions, just high-quality, simple, and very enjoyable coffee. Water, tea, and coffee (and alcohol, but that’s for a different post) are really the only purely liquid drinks (smoothies and such are again for a different post) worth consuming, so it only makes FYMP sense to do it right.

Let’s just get straight into it. First of all, doing coffee right does not mean making it overly complicated. Big, expensive, shiny machines with knobs and gauges are completely unnecessary in the making of good coffee, so do not go out and invest in one of them. There are only three simple pieces of equipment necessary: A kettle, a grinder, and a French press. Not only are these items simple, they are all multi-purpose (as in beyond coffee), can all be acquired for less than $100 total for some pretty high-end versions, and take up maybe 0.1 square meters (about a square foot for those Imperial holdouts) of counter space.

  • The Kettle: I use a plug-in kettle that can boil water in a minute or two. These are super common throughout the world, but not so much in the USA. Many other cultures drink tea to an extent that a kettle like this is the only practical way to keep up, but even more locales need to boil their water every time simply for safety reasons. I live in China, so both.
  • The Grinder: Mine is an oblong shaped Krups grinder. I like the oblong shape because a circular grinder tends to take longer to complete the grind. The oblong versions kick the beans back towards the blades and get the job done very quickly. This is important because spinning the blade for too long can actually scorch the grounds and screw up the flavor. Besides coffee, a good grinder can be used on a variety of spices, herbs, and other things I’m sure.
  • The French Press: Sounds fancy, actually simple. It is nothing more than a vessel to mix the hot water and coffee, then filter the grounds from the coffee. Mine is so simple that I actually drink from it; I don’t even need an additional coffee mug (arguably the 4th and most versatile piece in this equation). I love my mug. A French press is super intuitive and easily available online or at any home store.

Now that the equipment is in place, here is the process. Again, the emphasis is on both quality and simplicity.

  • Set the water to boil
  • Put coffee beans in the grinder
  • Grind
  • Put the grounds in the French press
  • Pour the just-boiled water into the French press
  • Stir
  • Put the French press filter into the press and press the plunger down
  • Pour
  • Drink

That’s it. It all takes about 5 minutes and will create some amazing coffee. Adjustments in the amount of grounds, water temp, and steeping time can be made to suit, so experiment with it. It will be seriously difficult to go back to Starbucks after drinking such homemade goodness. And it is cheap. I drink about three to four cups of black coffee just about every morning, so basically a “venti” at Starbucks. If this costs $3, in 3-4 months I have made back my initial investment, plus a bag of nice beans. Not that I am really hurting for cash or anything, but I would rather responsibly spend my money (as in not give it away to a hulking multinational that does not need it) and I can invest my coffee expenditure into something worthwhile, no matter where I live. Even further, I can better control my own coffee waste, i.e. no paper to-go cups, coffee grounds are composted (notice the lack of a disposable filter in the above method?), and a much lower energy expenditure as compared to the huge powerful machines used at any coffee shop, let alone a chain joint.

Chances are pretty good that if you make coffee at home, you have grounds or even whole beans in the freezer right now. You may as well finish them off as you would normally, but after that it is time to step up your game, starting with the beans. First, let’s start with selection. The biggest thing that shattered my world when it came to bean selection was learning that “Dark Roast” is actually terrible. This whole time, I thought that dark roast meant stronger, more flavorful –and even manlier – beans. Nope. Dark roasting is simply the way that a bean seller masks the low-quality of a bad bean by cooking the ever-living bejeebus out of it. It kind of works like steak in that some cooking is necessary, but the more it is roasted, the harder it becomes to distinguish quality (and the less quality matters). Light roasts are actually best as lightly roasting beans is a signal from the bean grower/seller that the bean can stand alone in its flavor thanks to its quality, not because it was torched. I became suspicious while drinking coffee in Cambodia – most SE Asian coffees are of a super-light roast yet have a huge flavor range. This led to further research, through which I learned that our affinity for “Dark Roast” is basically a conspiracy of American coffee companies passing off crappy coffee as something delicious and desirable. Damn corporations.

After finally buying some good beans, now you have to store them. First of all, if you have coffee in the freezer, GET IT OUT OF THERE AND NEVER DO THAT AGAIN. Phew, ok. Anyway, coffee is flavored by the oil in the beans. Have you ever put olive oil in the refrigerator? It turns solid. Cold environments cause oils to turn solid. Science. While you may not be able to actually see the coffee bean oils congeal in the freezer, you are basically rendering them inert and thereby flavorless or dull by storing them in there. Room temperature is your best bet; freezing coffee for freshness is a myth. Next, you are going to need a suitable container. The bag that they come in is usually fine if you are confident you can seal it well, but with recent information about the nastiness of certain metal and plastic storage containers, I just stick with a sealable glass jar. These things have worked for hundreds of years, so why fix what is not broken. Simple. Finally, keep it out of the sunlight. Again, this is because of the sanctity of coffee bean oils and how they can break down and turn rancid when exposed to sunlight. This applies to your olive oil too, take it off the window sill and just put it in a darker corner or in a cabinet.

This entire change in coffee lifestyle can be done in one day, is more financially and environmentally responsible, is super simple and easy, and most importantly, leads to some damn fine coffee. Delicious.

I did mention however that I wasn’t doing everything wrong, so what was I doing right? Well, it comes down to one thing: always bet on black. Coffee is HEALTHY. I will never understand the universal belief that caffeine is simply a bad drug, should be avoided, and those that consume it are “addicts.” I don’t want to go too far down this rabbit hole, but as with just about everything consumable in nature, it is healthy IF CONSUMED IN MODERATION. Simple as that. Caffeine is the world’s most common and most studied drug, but is a drug nonetheless and can be overdone. Again, in moderation caffeine is GOOD. Too much is BAD. Beyond caffeine, coffee is rich with antioxidants and all that other goodness. So yeah, coffee is healthy, duh.

Anyway, off my caffeine pedestal and back to black: coffee is healthy when it is not used as a vehicle for the absurd amounts of sugar that most “coffee” drinkers consume. It might not seem like much, but even adding a single packet of sugar adds up. Single packet = 4g of sugar carbs. 1g sugar carb = 4 calories. Therefore, 1 packet = 16 calories. If I go back to my own coffee consumption at 1 packet/cup of coffee, that’s an additional 64 calories a day from sugar in my coffee. In not quite two months, that leads to enough additional calorie intake to constitute a pound of fat. That’s six to seven pounds a year. Granted real life rarely reflects this kind of math directly, it is still an indicator of how significant a seemingly negligible lifestyle variable can affect the body. Now check out Starbucks’ nutrition facts and you’ll see drinks that many people consume on a daily basis that beat my math by over a magnitude of ten. That’s nuts.

My point is that while I may not have been drinking as good of coffee as possible, I at least was not consuming the sugar equivalent of a 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola each day. When termed as “2-litre bottle of Coca-Cola,” it sounds absurd, but that’s the math. Also, don’t forget that the rest of a person’s diet – especially an American’s – is already sugar-laden (with Coke!) so this is simply just a piece of the big fat puzzle. While there may be those additional antioxidant and caffeine benefits that Coke doesn’t have, that is still not a good excuse. Finally, don’t even think about “working it off.” Exercise plays a much smaller role in calorie burning than most people realize, so working off a sugar-heavy “coffee” is not really a thing, nor is “earning” one of these bad boys after a “solid workout.”

For some reason, it is just plain difficult for many people to accept just how bad coffee can be when turned into a sugar vehicle. Just drink it black. I understand that this may not suit many people’s tastes, but try it with good beans and the method described above. Maybe people just don’t like crappy coffee and actually do need to cover it up with dark roasts and pounds of sugar. That makes sense, but not getting fat or coming down with The ‘Beetus makes more sense. When coffee is made well and made with high-quality ingredients (something you should demand from EVERYTHING you consume), it can achieve a huge range of flavors that will suit just about anybody’s tastes. The worst thing anybody could do would be to make good coffee and then trash it with all of the extras. That would be like asking for a bottle of A-1 to help set off the flavor of a $35 steak at a professional chop-house. You may as well go back into the kitchen and slap the cook across the face (in the case of homemade coffee, you’d be the cook in this scenario…).

Just for fun, here is an interesting and super simple recipe for iced coffee at home:

  • ¾ cup ground coffee
  • 3 ½ cups cold water
  • Put the coffee in a large container. Add the water and stir well. Let sit for 10+ hours (overnight)
  • Credit goes to Thug Kitchen, you can find them on facebook

Enjoy your FYMP coffee!

Paleo is for Chumps

Seriously. Paleo is stupid, quit talking about it. Quit “being Paleo,” whatever the hell that means anyway; quite making “Paleo brownies” and quit getting sucked into the ever-stranger world of Paleo. Am I supposed to be capitalizing that word, “Paleo?” What’s the standard convention? You know what, I don’t even care. Paleo is not worth the extra effort to utilize the Shift key (except at the beginning of a sentence…not much I can do there).

For the uninitiated, here’s a quick rundown of what it means to be paleo. “Being paleo” can refer to people or food, the former of which is one who eats the latter. It is a recent craze in diet wherein a person limits their diet to the items that would have been most likely (read: perceived to have been most likely; more on that later) consumed by our Paleolithic forbearers. The reasoning behind this limit is that, in the past, humans thrived and did not suffer from many of our modern illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. There are some critics that like to cite abysmal life expectancy rates from earlier time periods as evidence that being “paleo” might not have been all it was cracked up to be. However, the paleo faithful are quick to point out how infant mortality rates and the lack of intensive care for acute injuries skew those life expectancy rates from long ago – a rebuttal with which I agree. There is plenty of solid paleontology research that shows that if a person made it through their teenage years and didn’t get mauled by a tiger or otherwise suffer a nasty case of nature attack, they were likely going to lead a long and healthy life. And have sick abs.

The idea of shedding industrial food from our diets in order to achieve better health is a great idea. An amazing idea in fact. Quite frankly, I do not understand why or even how there is a debate in regards to the negative impact of modern industrial food on our health. Jamming tons of unrecognizable chemicals and poor quality nourishment down our maws is a two-fold, guarantee for poor health through “tons” and “unrecognizable chemicals and poor quality nourishment.” So, trying to reverse the damage that we’ve done to our food since the industrial revolution is good and is what paleo dieting hopes to achieve.

A great goal. However, past that is where paleo starts to suck. And by suck, I mean to suck people into its universe of fads, expensive labels and detrimental elitism. In fact, the paleo diet was labeled as ” founded more on privilege than on logic” by Ferris Jabrd in Scientific American. Jabrd, like me and several other “rogue” analysts, see some pretty serious fundamental flaws that prevent paleo from achieving in reality the lofty promises that it makes. Likely the most critically bad aspect of paleo is the idea of Grok. Jabrd does an excellent job of dismantling Grok, so I’ll just summarize briefly as the paleo crowd has an overly particular and unrealistic of who Grok is and what he ate. Basically, the idea of coming up with a “paleo diet” is absurd because there is no such singular diet:

Paleolithic diets around the world as much as their environments as can be plainly seen in the infographic above. However, paleo dieters seem to have a never ending list of ideas as to what rules apply to paleo. Obviously there are certain universalities, for example, despite all my research I still have yet to find an even pre-industrial, let alone Paleolithic society that had Froot Loops on the menu. But oh how the arguments over which nuts or beans or yoghurt or whateverthehell they’re debating that day get intense. In fact, let me share my favorite paleo story:

In February 2013, I was lucky enough to train with Vic Verdier on a MovNat retreat in Thailand for a week. It was awesome and I’ll be sure to put my review up soon, but for now, let’s focus on the food. Vic promised us three copious paleo meals a day and he wasn’t kidding, the food was great. I was intrigued since I had never given any serious effort to paleo yet I had heard good things. On morning two I believe, after I had finished a huge salad, about a dozen over-easy eggs and probably half my body weight in bacon, I figured I’d top it off with a bowl of fruit with yoghurt. And then it got real. When I returned to the table with my bowl, a pretty intense inquisition began over whether or not I was breaking a paleo rule of some sort. I mostly kept quiet and simply admitted to the fact that I had no idea what I was doing.

After a few days, I had learned quite a bit about paleo and I came to a conclusion: Who gives a shit.

All that effort and stress just to eat healthy? I feel like that is kind of defeating the purpose. It’s really difficult to counter the argument that there is no such thing as a specific “paleo diet” and selecting or even combining multiple paleo diets from generations gone by is a fool’s errand. First, we have to way to conclusively know everything about any ancient diet, we can only know bits and pieces. Second, to simply write off any dietary habits or measures between today and the Paleolithic era is also to simply write off the amazing capability of the human body to adapt. We are undoubtedly the most adaptable creature on the planet. Seriously, I think only the cockroaches could compare…though I have to wonder what that parallel draws…

Again, here is another argument that is nothing new to the paleo faithful: genetic changes in some Northern European people have allowed them to process dairy well into adulthood as opposed to losing it in young childhood like most of the rest of the world. I’m sure the pro-paleo community has plenty of evidence and arguments to deal with this silver bullet, but the take away is ultimately that things are more complicated than most would like to believe – is lactose intolerance not possibly the most well-studied subject in the science of human digestion and we only just know figured out the whole Northern European thing? We have a long way to go.

It would be too easy (and too typical) to assume the paleo argument to be complete at this point as the paleo community has one last and very important contribution. Usually at this point, paleo’s finishing move is to implore that people simply remove as much industrial food and other non-paleo items from the diet as possible and then slowly reintroduce the natural items and see how it impacts the individual body. Basically, ditch the HFCS and legumes, but bring the legumes back if you want – under the auspices of close examination of its effects, if any. This, again, is a good thing. Paleo does have good things, but it is still for chumps.

This last positive aspect, the analysis part, is great but “being paleo” in order to accomplish that analysis becomes a contradiction and sets up the modern paleo dieter for some serious heartache and chump status. One thing that can be agreed upon in regards to paleo is that it is a label. No matter how you define it or how nebulous it ultimately is, it is still a label. By “being paleo,” an individual has in turn labeled themselves and acquiesced to these labels. By having a label, an individual has an instruction manual which gives them the excuse to excise critical thinking – kind of an important detail if you are going to do any sort of serious analysis.

Furthermore, how is Grok supposed to analyze what he eats according to the final paleo guideline above if there are so many rules in contemporary paleo-dom? With cookbooks, websites, coaches and whatever else is out there, there will always be a sense of guilt and/or lack of satisfaction for the hardcore paleo folks as there will never be anything they can do to actually fully pull off paleo. Better yet, all of those cookbooks, websites, coaches and whatever else all cost money. It’s ironic that the very same people that would immediately agree that big box gyms are only interested in money and not health are individuals who simply do not think of paleo possibly following the same model. The combination of guilt and/or lack of satisfaction pairs really well with the business model as it creates a rabid customer base. Rabid. Seriously, I dare you to run into a CrossFit gym and shout “paleo sucks!” as loud as possible. You’d be better off throwing a chair.

At this point, I think my analysis of paleo has been pretty much 50/50. It has some pretty good points despite its built in mental baggage and I would even say that if I had to, gun to my head, pick a single diet that I had to follow the rest of my life, it would probably be paleo. However, it is poorly defined and ends up playing the role of ultimate excuse for people that aren’t ready to fully think about their diet because it goes way beyond guidelines and establishes hard rules – something it should not be allowed to do. This leads to the constant and intense (and annoying) debates frequently had by its adherents. My final verdict is that those who want to be this technically undefined thing, to be paleo, are way better off than the average American but it comes at a cost.

Why label yourself with the sheep? Especially when that label is going to bring you pedantic debates, mental stress, and an assured spot at the table of an industry business model focused on money. It would be unfair to offer all criticism and no solution, so stay tuned for how I think about food.