Coffee, specifically caffeine, is the world’s most popular drug (next to video games) and few seem able to get through a single day without it. There are some right ways to drink coffee, some socially acceptable “but I mean, really?” ways to drink it, and some that are just distressing beyond our wildest measure.
What I find fascinating is how these methods have socially evolved, and how our concept for drinking coffee has changed in profound and sometimes bizarre ways. This is especially so as it relates to coolness.
The question on everyone’s mind as they enjoy a cup of coffee, whether they want to believe it or not, is this: “Do I look cool while drinking this?”
The Cliche of Bad Coffee (Drinkers)
First, we need to take a step back and look at the truly horrendous ways we enjoy a cup of coffee. There are few cliches more immediately apparent than the bearded hipster drinking a fair-trade latte in a reusable mug. It’s a universally accepted cliche. It’s a cousin of another favorite, the Karen, late for her job, ordering a 24 ounce iced macchiato with extra whipped cream and caramel.
There are two extremes being played with here. On one hand, you got the hipster who asks about the region of origin and wants the purity of the coffee’s innate taste. He seeks perfection. The once-a-morning Starbucks drive-through visitor also wants it perfect, if you mean perfectly like an after-dinner coffee-flavored dessert. Both want coffee in almost existentially different ways. The hipster is drinking the culture of coffee and making a vocal stance. The Karen just wants the biggest container of sugar and candy to make it through another day.
One thing is for sure: neither of these people are cool. They are the opposite of cool (though I’m partial to fair trade). And as we joke about them enough and highlight how absurd the whole thing is, we find ourselves drifting comfortably into the middle. The middle is the world of pour-overs and French presses.
What is a Pour-Over?
I feel the need to define a pour-over as much as I feel the need to define a cortado (half espresso, half steamed milk, dollop of foam in a short glass, obviously). A pour-over is as it sounds (thank God). You pour hot water over fine coffee and into a container. It’s essentially water tainted with coffee, but it doesn’t contain grounds, and sometimes, when done poorly, it lacks that visceral coffee taste, for better or worse.
It’s part of the niche that Folger’s, the boomer coffee, has carved for generations.
What is a “Real” Pour-Over?
Now, while Folger’s drinkers and automatic coffee machines do pour-over technically, what’s really taking over the coffee world is the slow, meticulous, and intentional step of a pour-over. By slowing down the drip speed and really controlling the flow, you get a coffee that is flavorful, rich, and more taken by the aromas of the fine beans. Automatic machines do this, but lazily, like a bored teenager watering the plants.
The method, done well, results in a fantastic cup, and is a step up from the automatic coffee pot used by grandpas everywhere with its one blue button and its lack of tact.The technique dates back to 1908 in Germany, surprisingly recent given coffee’s long history of use. Melitta Bentz punched holes in the bottom of a pot and positioned a piece of paper from her son’s notebook inside it. Innovative and probably a little bored, she and her husband patented the technique and sold a contraption to help propel the pour-over into a nearly century-long coffee consumption dominance.
The Ol’ French Press
The French press derives from France, nearly 60 years before Bentz’s pour-over technique came to fruition. It requires taking coarser grounds than what you would use in a pour-over and compressing it with hot water. The result is a bit ground-y (sometimes) and usually a bit stronger than your pour-over.
Why the Pour-Over has Taken Hold
The pour-over is the superior method, and it has a bit to do with craft beer culture (and like many things, young people). Coffee elitists and casuals alike enjoy the process, and the customization that comes with it. That’s why we have tens of millions of different craft beers (and only about 37 that are any good). French press is somewhat singular, varied by the place of origin but arguably less palatable and customizable.
There’s something about the delicate care and precision of a good pour-over. This perceived carefulness, and the craft that goes into making it, is part of the appeal. Between pouring and temperature controls, and the mixed concoctions and aromas that a pour-over allows, people have found it to be more enriching and compelling than a French press.
Now, let’s see if it overtakes espresso.
Coffee as a Culture
The one thing I don’t see going away (until climate change destroys all the coffee bean plants, of course), is the culture around coffee shops. Coffee shops are like diners in that they are universal, mostly basic, and everywhere. They are not like escape games in that they proliferate for four to five years and then immediately vanish in a single 2020.
Coffee culture is healthy, vibrant, dynamic, and social. Most importantly, it’s cool. It’s about enjoying a cup with friends all paying $5.50 for their own.
Even the traditionally non-cool Starbucks understands this. Starbucks’ 2018 initiative to develop further as an expansive “third place” really announced its future, as it prioritized mobile ordering and drive-thrus even pre-pandemic. For Starbucks, “the third place” is sort of everywhere that someone is holding a Starbucks cup. You can pour and press all day long at home, but you can never have the brand and the social connectedness Starbucks provides: a neutral zone of social familiarity. Anywhere.
You can pick on bad coffee drinkers all day long. And yes, anyone who genuinely likes Dunkin Donuts is committing a crime and should be fined accordingly. But, coffee culture is the future, not the method. One day we may all be drinking pumpkin spice coffee sourced from South Carolina out of paper straws, but we will all be doing it together. And looking cool.