One day I sat in my kitchen, took a sip of freshly ground whole bean coffee- and reared back. Blehh! It was definitely ‘off.’ Why?? The bag was fresh! I’d checked the expiration date! Yesterday’s batch had tasted fine! This sudden foulness made no sense…
No way was I gonna drink ‘the pestle-with-the-poison.’ I wanted ‘the brew-that-is-true!’ (I’ve just enjoyed Danny Kaye’s hilarious 1956 movie, ‘The Court Jester.’)
I poured the brew down the drain.
I always buy whole beans and grind a small amount. The result is usually wonderful- but just now and then, from the same bag- one pot is awful! For years I’d absently wondered why this phenomenon would occur, but then I’d get distracted by something and forget to investigate. Today though, the mystery sparked my curiosity.
Here’s the thing. (Bear with me, now.)
I’ve been filling my head with Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman’s lectures on nanotechnology (‘Tiny Machines’), after having re-read his fascinating biography. He revolutionized the study of quantum electrodynamics- QED- because he was immensely curious, and because it was fun!
What a guy!
Here’s an example of the sort of man he was.
Feynman was asked to join the Challenger disaster panel of select investigators meeting in Washington DC. Twelve higher-ups in NASA, including Chuck Yeager, Neil Armstrong and the usual politicians- would try to figure out why the space shuttle blew up. They proposed intricate tests that would cost millions and take forever, though obvious clues were ignored.
Feynman, who was fiercely allergic to The Establishment and political correctness, left the room during a break to fill a paper cup with enough crushed ice to cover a small O-ring seal he’d brought along. (O-rings are an essential seal for the shuttle’s rockets.) Toward the end of the long, boring meeting he asked for the committee’s attention, just for a minute. He plucked the seal out of the cup of ice chips and, with no fuss, dropped it onto the table.
Here was a graphic demonstration of how an O-ring behaves when frozen, as it had been on launch day. (Just one lone NASA scientist had begged them not to launch because he feared what would happen, but he was ignored. The higher-ups couldn’t disappoint the politicians, press and families. And besides, it had turned into a gorgeous sunny morning, never mind those huge ice cycles that still hung from the rockets...)
Feynman had gone straight to the heart of the problem.
Embarrassed by his cut-to-the-chase demo (recorded on film with great glee by the press), the commission’s head, Mr. William P. Rogers, tried to eliminate Feynman’s later, short written summation because it certainly didn’t show NASA in a good light. But when our rebel-with-a-cause threatened to expose the cover-up, they reluctantly included it- as an addendum (carefully pruned for political purposes) at the end of a very long-winded report.
Never mind: he’d made his point.
Inspired by my long-time hero’s curious cut-to-the-chase observations, I set out to discover the cause for ‘bummer brews.’ It couldn’t be complicated, surely. For fifty years I’ve enjoyed freshly ground coffee beans- but had never actually inspected the beans. So, after doing some elementary ‘beans-gone-bonkers’ Internet research, I dumped my bag of whole beans onto a plain white towel, upped the lights, and looked.
It was a revelation.
My newly developing researcher’s eye spotted shells with no beans, elongated shells curved like a flamingo’s smile, one ‘quaker’- an unripened bean which never roasts well, one ‘stinker’- a bean that had gotten stuck in a fermentation tank, and one ‘pale,’ which is an unroasted yellow bean that emits an objectionable smell when ground. ‘Pales’ occur from drought, or from harvesting immature coffee cherries. I collected two ‘full-of-junk' tablespoons, mostly empty shells and broken shards that wouldn’t have affected the coffee. There had very likely been just one other ‘pale,’ or ‘stinker’ lurking in there.
The rest of the bag has yielded excellent coffee.
(Visit the site I found during my research: www.zecuppa.com/coffeeterms-bean-defects.htm - it has pictures of defective beans, along with brief, interesting explanations for why they are bummers.)
My new ritual is simple: I inspect every small ration of beans before I grind them, a task that takes less than twenty seconds.
My reward? I enjoy the ‘brew-that-is-true.’
Feynman would have approved.