Three stories about coffee

No more pods

The whole pod coffee revolution seemed to happen overnight while I was happily unaware of them in my tiny island refuge, drinking tea and eating Tunnocks cakes. One day I visited continental Europe, and everyone was raving about the new coffee machine they had bought.

Someone I knew during my university years lived in a newly built duplex and had a little espresso machine with which they made us a couple of foamy cappuccinos to help us go through the exams (or was it to impress us?!). It was incredibly middle class, an utopia next door, or next block, to be more precise.

So there I was years later, imagining this person had just acquired a similar little espresso machine and was perhaps going to tell me about their upcoming duplex move, only to be quickly disappointed when they showed me a Nespresso machine taking over half of their kitchen counter, attached to the one and only power socket and surrounded by metal racks of multicoloured capsules.

"Oh", I said, trying to conceal my enthusiasm.

Obviously because this was the first time I saw one of these machines, I was totally unaware of how they worked, what the pods were and what happened to the pods once you were done with them. I was looking at the whole thing and wondering where were the levers? Where was the temperature indicator? The pressure dial? And what were those coloured thingies on the rack?

This all just lasted for fractions of a second, because obviously this person was really into the Nespresso machine. They made a demonstration: see, you put the pod here, then clickety clack, put a cup underneath, oh, wait until it's hot, OK, now... TADA! Coffee!

I tasted it. It was... okay. A step above Nescafe, but certainly not the best coffee I've ever drank.

I mean, if your baseline is "instant coffee", Nespresso is an improvement.

Personally, I had already converted to flat whites, and images of lining up for a Monmouth coffee came to my mind each time I approached Seven Dials in London, so the Nespresso spell didn't quite have much effect on me.

Later on I learned how much waste the pods generate, and specially, realised how much space the whole implement takes. I was also in between mesmerised and terrified by the queues in the Nespresso shop in one of Barcelona's big shopping avenues, and how proudly people emerged from them with a huge bag that held a tiny box with pods. And what about maintaining the machines? There is the water tank you need to fill, the water refuse thing you need to empty, the empty pods you need to dispose of... So. much. waste.

I kept loyal to my cafetière and hand grinder. I can put them away when I'm done with them, they can be cleaned thoroughly, and they don't monopolise my kitchen sockets and counter.

The city of Hamburg has banned coffee pods from state-run buildings to reduce waste. Is this a first step towards the end of coffee pods? Will people change their minds, and what will happen to all those racks and machines? Will artists repurpose them into something nicer, like those artists that made rings out of used pods? We'll see...

Coffee is as much about the coffee as it is about the process

I think the other aspect I dislike about instant coffee is that it removes the fun preparation side (measuring, grinding, waiting for the brew) and leaves you only with the boring side (cleaning the residue) and an average coffee. I don't think you save that much time overall, and the amount of pleasure is certainly not comparable. It's like junk food, but for coffee. Junk coffee. Fast junk coffee.

Last year we were at a conference in Paris, and there was this huge queue during the break to get access to a coffee machine. I said "this is horrible, we cannot accept this, we're in Paris!" So we left the conference building, walked across the square, and had coffee at one of those stereotypical Parisian outdoors but not really outdoors area, because it was January and we were inside a sort of big plastic hut to protect customers from the sharp continental breeze. The waiter was yelling things to someone else, in French of course, we looked at passers by, and froze every time someone dared unseal the door to get into the cafe. But we were drinking strong coffee in proper ceramic glasses, sitting in proper tables, so it was an acceptable sacrifice.

Meanwhile, people in the conference were in a basement, queueing for bad coffee in plastic cups.


I think I know you

Last Saturday I went into a new-ish coffee shop. I might have been there three or four times by now, since it's slightly out of my normal whereabouts, and I have never been there at the same time on each visit, so I am not really familiar with the staff yet.

I got in, had some friendly chit chat with the person at the till, placed my order and moved to the other side. I heard "Flat white?" from behind the espresso machine, and thought, "hum, this voice sounds familiar". I moved aside, so as to better identify the source of the question and...

"Hey, I think I know you? Didn't you use to work at XYZ?"

"Oh! Yes! Yes, I did! How do you know me?"

"Because I used to go to XYZ too!"

"Ohhh! I spent some time in Europe, and now I'm back. What happened to XYZ? Do you still go there?"

"Very nice! XYZ seem to have changed owners, and all the staff are gone and replaced with other people... they're OK but they're boring. Plus they are more expensive now, and changed the fidelity card, so you now need 10 coffees instead of 6... And the worst of all..."


"They removed the outside bench!"

"Oh no! Although it makes sense because the council complained so much about it, they were always giving us trouble"

"But drinking the coffee outside was the best part... So now I go to ABC which does have an outside bench! Anyway, it was nice to see you again!"

I left the shop in between amused and puzzled. Are there so few baristas that at some point I will know who they all are? Or was that just a coincidence?