From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

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Friday, August 19, 2011

Displays of Authenticity (5)—Fresh Coffee

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series Displays of Authenticity. 
[a] Fresh  RL
So I was standing in line at my local (coffee) brewery the other day, and had some time to kill while my compatriots struggled to make their brown liquids palatable (this is the subject of tomorrow's post). As I waited to get to the "dark roast" thermal pot I noticed something that I had not spent much time thinking about before—"freshness times." Each kind of coffee (light roast, dark roast, hazelnut, and decaffeinated) had a little card with the time that the pot was brewed (presumably).

Surely that is a display of authenticity worth considering.

[b] Stale  RF
So let's just do a little thinking about the matter and call it a day. Pour yourself a (fresh) cup of coffee, and we'll get started. To begin, why would anyone need to see the time that a pot was brewed? If you are quite young and have only grown into your coffee tastes at places such as Seattle's Best or Starbucks, you might not have the same view of these matters as someone a little older, with a little more diversity of experience. Yes, today's post requires some historical imagination.

Let's say that you're a little older—maybe born in 1930. In the last ten or fifteen years, you might have noticed fairly consistent coffee quality at a wide range of places. This came on so slowly that you were not startled, but one day, about five years ago, while sitting in McDonalds, you realized that the coffee was consistently pretty...not bad. Your mind (you are pushing eighty-two right now) flows back to an earlier time. You remember sitting in the diner outside of Little Rock and knowing when you ordered a cup of coffee at 3:00 in the afternoon that the pot had been on the burner, a third full...since the end of the breakfast rush. When Skip the cook, poured it for you (a cigarette hanging over his stubbled chin), it seemed as though little chunks of brown plaster were falling into your cup.

[c] Diner  RF
That image could be replayed for almost anyone over the age of thirty—all over the country, in images of burnt, stale coffee that seemingly was turning back into the grounds from whence it came—a caffeinated version of dust to dust.

In other words, there was a lot of pretty bad coffee before 1970...or 2005. It was dependent on timing, technology, and commercial pressures. Oh, that fresh cup from a fresh pot was a wonderful thing back in 1955 or 1995.

Oh, that last cup from an old pot...was awful.

People of a certain age probably remember that few of us would complain to the staff about that last cup. It was beyond impolite. The diner or café had costs, too, and who were we to expect new coffee every single time? It was just the luck of the draw, and we would wait for the next time (or sit around long enough to get a fresh cup after swallowing the bitter acidity of the old stuff). There was art, chance, and imagination involved, not to mention good manners. It was much more complicated than a fresh, perfect cup every single time.
[d] Authentic  RF
And that is why (I think) we have that little display of authenticity I call "freshness times." The world has changed, and no one (not even our fictitious octogenarian friend outside Little Rock) tolerates coal-dirt coffee anymore. We demand proof these days, and one way to meet that demand is through a little card meant to display authentic freshness.

1 comment:

  1. When I was still waitressing, about a month ago, two women very politely told me that their coffee was completely intolerable--extremely old--and asked me to please brew them a fresh pot. I agreed, but suspected that the coffee was fresh anyway, and they just didn't like our coffee. Checking with the other waiter verified that both our pots of coffee had been brewed within the past 15 minutes, so I brought out the same coffee again, smiled, and told them that I had just brewed this coffee (which was basically true). Suddenly the coffee was wonderful, and they could not thank me enough. It completely changed the course of their day (they said) to have this much higher-quality, fresh-brewed coffee.