I got a bit of sardonic amusement from a commenter the other day who was worried that I'd turn TOP into an iPhone-only website. Right—like I could stay interested in just one thing. I can't even confine myself to just photography, and that's a pretty big tent.
If Apple came along and said, "We'll pay you $50,000 a year if you write about nothing but Apple products," I'd get called on the carpet within two months and fired within six. I couldn't write about iPhones exclusively if I had to.
One comment about the iPhone, though: Angry Birds bad. Angry Birds very, very bad.
People should realize, too, that my unfamiliarity with cellphones is no accident. I do enjoy the occasional telephone conversation with friends; there are a number of people I enjoy talking to (my friend Peter Turnley is a particularly companionable telephone conversationalist...in fact I think I've learned from him how to be better at it). But I often keep my home phone (my land line) turned off, and I don't intend to give my iPhone number to anyone but my son.
Perhaps this will be more explicable when you consider this: I like to concentrate.
Every age of humankind has stupid ideas and boneheaded conventions. Two of ours, in my opinion, are the ideas expressed by the words "multitasking" and "quality time." Both are complete B.S. in my opinion. "Quality time" is simply the answer to the question, "How do I feel better about not spending enough time with my kids?" The important thing with young kids is not quality time—it's time. Spend time with them even you think there's no purpose to it or there's nothing at all to do. Just being in their company counts. If you're on a drive with your kid and your attempts to make conversation fall flat, be comfortable riding along with them in silence. It's enough. The hell with the debased notion of "quality time" and all it really stands for, I say.
And as far as "multitasking" is concerned, I know it's a concept that's greatly beloved of those who like to feel busy and constantly in demand, and I'm not in charge of their lives or their outlook. But I say, don't multitask—do one thing at a time, concentrate on what you're doing, do it well, and then move on to the next thing. "Multitasking," to me, is another way of saying distracted, fragmented, and unfocused.
Anyway, you can probably imagine, given the above views, how I feel about carrying a cell phone and letting anyone who wants to do so interrupt me at any time no matter what I'm doing. To me it's like asking for junk mail or arranging for a parade of salesmen to come to my door and ring my doorbell...while I'm sleeping. An emphatic "no, thanks" to that from me.
Likewise, the suggestion that I could blog from a smartphone is almost...well, an insult. Writing anything, even something as trivial as a blog post, isn't a technical problem; it's a mental state. I could do the work with a pencil and a piece of paper if all the other conditions I require were met. The idea of doing it poking at a tiny glowing screen with one finger while I'm out driving or shopping is ridiculous. Does anyone really imagine so little effort goes into writing well?
So anyway. Back to a far-off-topic topic.
When last we left our discussion about coffee, I had bought a new coffee grinder (this one) and come to a new appreciation of the art of grinding. However, as my dear friend Gabi says, "coffee and OCD go together like bread and butter," so naturally I couldn't stop there. Right now I'm drinking a wonderful cup of faux "Mocha Java" that consists of Yemeni Mocha Harazi and Sumatra Mandheling Gayo Mountain Organic. The latter does a good job of approximating Java coffee. Very little arabica is grown on the Indonesian island of Java, the world's most populous island (yes, that takes into account Great Britain and Japan) since a rust plague killed off most of the original coffee stock in the 1880s. And the coffee I'm drinking was roasted 23 hours ago...by, um, me.
It turns out that coffee is very "darkroomy." It's really very similar in its craft aspects to darkroom work: you work carefully to stabilize some variables so you can usefully vary others according to your own tastes and aims. Ken Davids says that the difficulty of roasting your own coffee is "somewhere between boiling water and making a white sauce." Being no sort of cook, I'm not even quite sure what a white sauce is, exactly, so I'd say it's closer to boiling water. It's almost disappointingly easy.
Not being made of money, I bought a Behmor 1600, a coffee roaster invented by a guy named Joe Behm that's based on a Ronco rotisserie. Assuming small batches and medium roasts (both of which suit my preferences), there's nothing to it: you just watch the color, pay attention to the smell, look for smoke, and listen carefully to the beans, and it's easy to tell when they're done. I bought a Variac voltage regulator so I could be assured of a constant 120V, but I don't even think that's necessary unless you insist on roasting whole pounds, which I won't be doing. Cleanup takes less than two minutes.
Rates of extraction and total dissolved solids
Brewing coffee turns out to be highly susceptible to scientific analysis: the variables are the consistency of the grind (the finer the grind, the faster the extraction; the coarser the grind, the slower the extraction) and the extraction yield. The ideal ratio of coffee to water is well established at about 1:17, with a small range of variability according to taste and preference, and the degree of extraction is likewise well established: virtually everyone agrees that a cup of coffee tastes best when the percentage of extraction is between 18 and 22% (less, and the coffee tastes flavorless, more, and it tastes bitter) and the amount of total dissolved solids (TDS) in the cup is somewhere between 1.15 and 1.35% (less, and it tastes weak; more, and it's too strong).
Where within that window your own tastes lie is your own adventure, but I'm not going to sweat it. It's coffee: you drink it, and then it's gone.
One hitch is that a refractometer, which is the device you would use to measure TDS, costs about $285. I'm obsessive, but I'm not that obsessive. Fortunately, extraction yield and TDS are closely linked, and the coffee tells you when the TDS is "about right."
Finally, it turns out that brewing methods essentially describe a spectrum that goes from most flavor clarity and least body (the vacuum method I linked to two weeks ago is down at that end) to least flavor clarity and most body (French press is close to this other end). You make your pick along the spectrum according to your own taste—I'm currently using an AeroPress, which, interestingly I think, was invented by the same guy who invented the Aerobie.
I have to admit that I got so enamored of the Quest M3 coffee roaster made in Taiwan that I almost left the Behmor sealed in its box when it got here—I mean, really, the Quest M3 must be the Nikkormat FT3 of coffee roasters—but as soon as I got my tenth or twelfth roast with the Behmor the urge had faded to nothing. The Behmor just works fine, and I don't need anything else.
Quest M3, the Nikkormat FT3 of coffee roasters. Photo courtesy Coffee Shrub.
The only problem with all this? Just that two mugs of coffee every morning is still my limit, because I get overcaffeinated otherwise.
And I wouldn't want that, because being overcaffeinated affects...yep, my ability to concentrate.
P.S. Much of the information in this post, although it can be found in many places including various websites and web videos and published books, is usefully summarized in the slender volume Everything But Espresso: Professional Coffee Brewing Techniques by Scott Rao. He has another book that is mainly about espresso (but that also includes brewing techniques for tea), hence the title.
Open Mike is a series of Sunday posts by Yr. Hmbl. Ed. that wander far afield. Or farther afield than usual.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Rene Theberge: "I was happy to see you referencing Scott Rao's book. I first met him when he opened his now locally famous coffee shop where I live (Amherst, Mass.). Since I was a regular there, we got to know each other a little bit and a more knowledgable person about coffee would be hard to find. After he sold his business, he went on to help others in the area start their own places."
Featured Comment by John Krill: "Last time I tried to multitask I walked into a lamppost. And that's the truth."
Featured Comment by Dave Chao: "I think you'll be happy to know, or you know already, that your rant about multitasking and it's effect on cognitive function has been scientifically backed up for the past 20+ years."
Featured Comment by James Liu: "Mike: A refractometer is the densitometer of coffee. Happy coffeeing. Keep me up to date."
Featured Comment by latent_image: "Absolute worst place to multi-task is behind the wheel of a car.
"Years ago I heard on the radio a driving safety instructor suggest that people turn off the car radio and stereo and curtail other distractions in order to drive with full attention. It's what I've done ever since, and I actually find it more relaxing. Sure, I might have the radio or stereo on softly on an uncrowded highway in good weather, but otherwise it's a damn fool who doesn't give full attention to the fact they're wrapped in a couple of tons of moving steel with the potential to create extreme mayhem in a split second. When I see a multi-tasking driver, I think: there goes someone who really doesn't give a damn if they run over a little kid in a crosswalk."
Mike replies: I'll go further: no food or drink in the car, ever. In fact I can go even further...I'm convinced I'm a better driver when I'm driving alone. Just slightly, but noticeably.
Featured Comment by beuler: "When my four-year-old asks me to play with him, he does not let me touch any of the toys. I just have to sit there and watch what he does. That's his idea of quality, and I can't disagree based on my own childhood memories."
Featured Comment by Antony Zmyślony: "A Zen master used to tell his students to be mindful of what they do, and his instructions are simply, 'When you read, just read. When you eat, just eat.' One day when his students came down to the breakfast hall, they saw their Zen master reading the newspaper over breakfast. One horrified student approached the Zen master and asked, 'Master, how can you read the paper while having breakfast? You always teach us, "When you read, just read. When you eat, just eat"?' The Zen master smiled and said simply, 'When you eat and read, just eat and read,' and then went back to reading the paper over his breakfast. (Via this link.)"
Featured Comment by David: "Hey—if it weren't for multitasking I'd never have time to read this blog! (What? No one wanted to say it?) ;-) ."
Featured Comment by charlie: "That is the fastest transformation to coffee nerd ever recorded. I might need to try the Aeropress. Happy New Year Mike and everyone...."