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How Not To Make Coffee

Photo credit: Sergi Alexander/Getty (I added the circle and slash)

How you make coffee is, you bring the dried and roasted and probably ground seeds of a Coffea plant together with some water, typically hot, for some period of time, and this turns the water into coffee. That’s it. It is not a complicated procedure.

You can do this all types of ways. Turkish coffee, for example, is prepared by simmering the extremely fine grounds in a little pot and serving the resulting beverage unfiltered; when you drink Turkish coffee, you will find some bitter sediment just chilling at the bottom of your cup at the end. Your typical American cup o’ joe is made by pouring hot water slowly through grounds held in a paper filter, to drip down into a pot sitting on a hot plate. Espresso involves tightly compacted grounds and near-boiling water forced through under high pressure. A French press involves coarser grounds and the mechanical action of your arm pressing a metal filter down through a column of hot water. But in all cases the basics are the same: Water + Grounds = Coffee. For all the hundreds of years that humans have been drinking this beverage, if you had water, and dried and ground-up seeds of Coffea plants, and some means to combine the two other than dumping them both on the ground, then you could have some coffee to drink.


My wife had a Keurig coffeemaker. In general our family is not the everybody-gets-their-own-appliances type: We all watch the same TV in the same room at the same time; nobody has a small fridge stashed in their closet for the stuff only they like; the master bathroom has a his-and-hers sink but both sides of it have my toothpaste foam encrusted on them. The Keurig was hers in the sense that I, a Luddite, did not use it and regarded it with some suspicion, preferring the analog ritual of the silly French press I bought as a way of making my frankly obscene coffee intake feel more like self-indulgence than like self-medication. Whereas my wife just likes to drink coffee and took a flier on a new gizmo, a decision admirably unburdened by paranoia or existentialist dread. This is all a little beside the point.

Probably you are familiar with the Keurig coffeemaker.* If you are not, what the Keurig does is, it brews—it only brews; it only can brew—a single serving of coffee at a time. You insert a little individually packaged pod of grounds into a special opening in the Keurig, you push a button or a couple of buttons, and inside the Keurig a series of mysterious electronic mechanical things happen, and then a single serving of coffee pours out of a spigot into the mug you have placed beneath it.

* The Keurig company has been in the news over the weekend, thanks to some kind of shit involving right-wing media buffoon Sean Hannity. I don’t know what it’s about and I don’t want to! I started this blog several days before this news peg arrived to make it timely!

At the purely individualistic level at which our culture’s present doctrine of techno-libertarianism encourages us to view our lives, this is Convenience and Ease and Efficiency. You, the individual, do not have to measure quantities of water and grounds; you do not have to replace a paper filter or clean a metal one; you do not have to monitor water temperature; you do not have to flex your elbow to press a filter down through the water. The Keurig machine will do all of this. All you, the individual, must do is select and insert your preferred single-serving grounds container, place your mug beneath the spigot, and press a button or a couple of buttons. The closest thing to the plebeian drip coffeemaker’s vile, antiquated communitarianism the Keurig machine demands of you is that you check and possibly refill the water tank.


Of course, at any level even slightly more holistic than pure individualism, the Keurig looks quite different. The machine itself is exponentially more sophisticated and wasteful than even a commercial espresso maker, expensive to make and involving rare-earth computing materials and so forth. A box of plastic single-serving grounds containers (“K-Cups”) multiplies the packaging of a simple bag of coffee beans many times over. And then, to produce a quantity of coffee equivalent to that produced by, say, a single iteration of a drip coffeemaker’s brewing cycle, it must power through its much more mechanically elaborate brewing cycle over and over again, consuming electricity all the while, during which time it is of no use to anyone but the one person who will drink that serving of coffee. The farther back you pull from the immediate experience of one libertarian end-user unconcerned with anything beyond his own immediate experience, the worse it looks: For the individual, the Keurig has some claim to convenience and ease and efficiency; for, say, an office, or a household, it dramatically slows down and complicates the process of preparing coffee for everybody who wants some; for human society, it is a wasteful inefficiency; pound-for-pound, for terrestrial life as a global organism, if you are silly and sentimental enough to still entertain the idea of such a thing, it is an outrage.

And all of this for a purpose that is, on its face, highly dubious. Common defenses of the Keurig go something like Yeah, but when you’re staying by yourself in a hotel, it’s really convenient, or I live alone so it’s really great for me. But the thing is, you can brew a single serving of coffee with a drip coffeemaker that involves no computing components whatsoever; even at the level of pure individualism, it only slows the process down by a few minutes, tops. You can brew a single serving of coffee with a French press involving absolutely no moving parts; I do it every day, and it takes maybe 10 minutes from the time I turn the heat on under a kettle of water to the time I fill my absurdly large travel mug. To whatever extent people did not brew single servings of coffee prior to the advent and widespread adoption of the Keurig machine, it was not because they couldn’t do it; it was because it makes more sense to just brew a pot of coffee so everybody can have some.


But here is the thing. My wife’s Keurig machine, a slightly fancier model than the most basic Keurig machine, had on its front a little touch-screen LED, maybe two inches across. With the Keurig machine plugged in and powered on, the screen would light up, and you used it to lock in the settings for the next brewing cycle: How much coffee you wanted, and how strong it should be, and so forth. First you locked these settings into place, then the actual physical button on the front of the Keurig machine would light up, signaling that, with its data fields now adequately populated, the Keurig was ready to brew your coffee. Then you pushed the button and the Keurig brewed your coffee.

If you did not use the screen to input your coffee settings, the button would not light up; the Keurig would not brew your coffee. You see, in order to have a claim to convenience and ease and efficiency, the Keurig had to be programmed just so, to your specifications. Or else, what would it do? What would tell it to stop brewing coffee? Or how strong to make the coffee? The entire conceit is, the serving of coffee you get from the Keurig is precisely and only the serving of coffee you have told it to give you; without this, the Keurig is nothing.


This is not only or even mostly an ontological point. The LED screen on my wife’s Keurig began to flicker. You powered the Keurig on, and the screen remained dark for long, ominous seconds, and then flickered, dimly. Eventually it would figure its shit out and light up, and then you could use the screen. Until the day, a couple weeks ago, that she powered the Keurig on and the screen remained dark, and remained dark, and only ever remained dark.

The Keurig machine was not dead! You could hear it heating water inside itself, in preparation for brewing coffee. The mechanical parts involved in the process of brewing a single serving of coffee, so far as anybody knows, were fine. But the touch-screen LED was dead. What had failed, inside the Keurig machine, were components completely unrelated to the brewing of coffee—the bringing together of hot water and dried and roasted and ground seeds of the Coffea plant. Of course, without the touch-screen, you could not input your brewing settings. Without your brewing settings input, the Keurig machine could not be prepared to brew your coffee. The button would not light up. The Keurig machine, reduced to a level of technological sophistication still far surpassing that of, say, a regular drip coffeemaker, with apparently perfectly intact and operable coffeemaking machinery, was, in quite literal terms, useless. You could not make it brew a serving of coffee. From now until the end of time, unless and until someone repairs computer components that have nothing, whatsoever, to do with brewing coffee, that Keurig coffee machine will not brew another serving of coffee, ever. I wonder if that ever will happen, at the landfill!


(My French press, if you were wondering, works fine, despite a completely nonfunctional and nonexistent touch-screen LED. I can even program it to brew coffee at the same time every morning, by setting an alarm clock and getting out of bed when the alarm clock goes off and then using the French press to brew some coffee.)

The world has lots of very stupid ideas in it. One of them, one of the most harmful, is the prevailing idea of what it means for one thing to be technologically superior to another. Only a culture sunken to a really frightening and apocalyptic level of libertarian stupidity would regard the Keurig machine—a sophisticated, automated robot designed specifically and only to brew a single serving of coffee, rather than a big efficient pot of it; which presents only illusory ease and convenience only to whoever is using it at the moment of his or her use and to no one else, and only via fragile technologized mediations it wears atop its primary function like an anvil, or a bomb collar; which can be rendered literally unusable by the breakdown of needless components completely ancillary to that primary function—as a technological improvement upon the drip coffeemaker, or the French press, or putting some coffee grounds in a fucking saucepan with some water and holding it over a campfire for a little while until the water smells good. It is not technologically superior to any of those! It is vastly technologically inferior to all of them. It is a wasteful piece of trash. It is not a machine engineered to improve anything or to resolve a problem, but only and entirely the pretext for a sales pitch, a means to separate someone from their money.


Appropriately, then, it also makes shitty, bad-tasting coffee! The Keurig machine is the stupidest machine in the entire goddamn world; it is as stupid as the society that called it into existence. I would suggest taking your Keurig machine outside and smashing it with a fucking sledgehammer, but the exotic materials inside it probably would irradiate a watershed. Bury it in a salt cavern. Jettison it into space.

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