Last Word

Bilge in Jam Jars

How hard can it be to make a decent cup of coffee? I was in a café the other day, and I had a cuppa that tasted like dirt and served in a jam jar. The last time I was sold such undrinkable coffee I took the cup back three times, finally offering to jump the counter and make it myself. I was given my money back.

Even so, New Zealanders can justifiably take a lot of pride in the fact that the quality of our coffee (mostly) is in line with our expectations. The downside, though, is that when travelling overseas our experience can be coloured by what passes for the local beverage.

Take France, a nation of chauvinistic gastronomes who sneer at the British and transatlantic diet, yet their coffee generally is little better than the stewed filter brews Americans serve in their “bottomless” cups.

Hunting down a decent double espresso in Paris is often a triumph of hope over experience. Stick with the hot chocolate and wait till Italy.

It’s the same in Germany where blockaded generations have had to improvise with found objects for coffee substitutes – ersatz (or “muckefuck” – it sounds bad and looks even worse) has lowered the bar to the point that several Germans I know seem to view an insistence on coffee brewed more recently than 24 hours before to be an eccentric extravagance. I once read a thesis comparing coffee served around the world that claimed that the standard of the drink was in inverse proportion to the percentage of GDP spent on defence. Buckets of instant coffee, made from caffeine-laden robusta beans, are an essential and cheap means of maintaining wakefulness in bored troops.

Russia and the US had the worst coffee, but Germany must have been an outlier, given its piking on Nato commitments).

We do have a reputation for being fussy with our coffee, and to thank for that was Robert Harris, who had a virtual monopoly on fresh-roasted espresso coffee sold from a nationwide café chain. When the firm was bought by Cerebos Greggs in 1990, I’m told, operations were centralised to cut costs, and former RH-trained roasters and technicians set up on their own, establishing a standard of competition in bean roasting and coffee dispensing that was second to none, and sometimes the pursuit of excellence pops up in the most unlikely places: one can get a great espresso in Benneydale.

Good coffee hinges on following a strict routine with the freshest ingredients and a properly-maintained machine. So there really isn’t any excuse for serving bilge in jam jars. Most of us don’t need the grief, but the remedy lies in customers taking the cup/jar back and politely requesting it be done again, properly.

Of course, adding to the satisfaction of a perfectly crafted espresso is the knowledge that we are also doing ourselves a power of good. In the past decade studies in a range of august medical journals have proclaimed the healthful benefits of coffee.

One of the more recent was a meta study in the European Journal of Epidemiology that confirmed a significantly decreased risk for coffee drinkers in most causes of death, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Which reminds me of an incident related by Joan Rivers, who was sick of being

pestered by an alternative health nut to try

a coffee enema. Finally she relented and,

she said, found the effects so marvellously invigorating that she just had to have another. “Of course I could never show my face in Starbucks again.”

Louis Pierard is a Hawke’s Bay-based writer and editor.

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