Brain Pickings

Coffee, It’s a Man’s Drink: Esquire’s Vintage Rules for Brewing the Perfect Cup

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“No aspect of your cooking skill will bring you greater or more lasting pleasure than the ability to prepare the drink that stimulates wit and digestion.”

We’ve seen how coffee changed the world, inspired Bach cantatas, became 20th-century art, and came to dominate many writers’ daily routines. But how, exactly, does one brew the perfect cup? After George Orwell’s 11 golden rules for the perfect cup of tea, it’s time for a vintage guide to coffee bliss. From a section titled “Coffee: The Cup That Cheers” in Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts: A Time-Honored Guide to the Perfect Party (public library) — the same 1949 time-capsule of the era’s gender stereotypes that gave us this amusingly appalling questionnaire to determine your attractiveness to the opposite sex — comes Esquire’s guide to the art of coffee. The magazine, of course being in the business of selling men their masculinity and assuaging their gender-role dissonance over mastering the domestic sphere of cooking and entertaining, makes no apologies for depicting this as a decidedly man’s art. Imbibe and chuckle.

When coffee was introduced in Europe in the 16th century, people thought that it rendered women frigid and even barren; a law was promptly passed in Constantinople giving husbands the right to prevent the use of coffee by their wives. Maybe that’s why the average woman, to this day, can’t make a good cup of coffee. It must be that, basically, coffee is a man’s drink. When subjected to the economies of drugstore waitresses or the casual inattention of wives, the cup that cheers but does not inebriate is apt to become a mean, thin liquid with almost unlimited capacities for discouraging real coffee lovers.

So know ye this: no aspect of your cooking skill will bring you greater or more lasting pleasure than the ability to prepare the drink that stimulates wit and digestion. Coffee splices all loose ends, greets the cheese gladly, and spreads a mantle of aromatic warmth.

Here are some of the basic rules for making it properly:

  1. Use only freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee.
  2. Start with cold, fresh water — and if it is to be poured over the coffee when boiling be sure to pour it as soon as it boils, lest the oxygen be dispelled and the water be made tasteless by long boiling.
  3. Make sure your equipment is spotlessly clean.
  4. Always measure ingredients carefully and time the brewing-period exactly — so you can be sure to duplicate your method time after time once you have settled on the proper combination of water, coffee and time.

Beyond that, your own taste is boss.

The guide then outlines four types of coffee to play with preparing:

Using one of the following systems, experiment until you’ve reached coffee of the proper strength to match your memory of the best cup of coffee you ever sipped. The proportion usually recommended is 1 tablespoon of coffee to each cup of water, with an extra tablespoon of coffee “for the pot.” With men who ken coffee, 2 tablespoons to 1 cup is a more favored strength. And some, to avoid long perking or simmering and the consequent bitter taste, use even a greater proportion of coffee. But there’s as much variation in the strength of different coffee blends as there is in the tastes of coffee-drinkers, so suit yourself.

DRIP COFFEE
Coffee is put into the top part of the drip coffeemaker. Water is brought to a boil separately, then poured over the coffee — to drip through to the bottom part of the coffeemaker. Some fanatics insist that the water be poured over the coffee a mere spoonful at a time; others run the water through the coffee 2 or 3 times for added strength. The only certain rules are: preheat the coffee pot with hot water; use drip-grind coffee; stand pot in a warm place so coffee won’t cool during the drip process.

GLASSMAKER COFFEE
Water is put into the lower bowl, upper bowl is fitted in, complete with filter or rod, then coffee is placed in the upper bowl. When water is hot, it rises through the tube into the upper bowl. Then as soon as stream comes up through the tube and agitates the mixture, the fire is turned off. Gradually, then, the coffee filters into the lower bowl — from which you serve it. Or — you may prefer to allow the coffee to simmer in the upper bowl for 2 to 5 minutes, for a stronger brew. Or — you may put only an inch or so of the water in the lower bowl (enough to create a vacuum when it boils) and heat the remainder of the required water separately, to be poured over the coffee grounds as for drip coffee. In any case, pulverized coffee is used.

OLD FASHIONED COFFEE POT
For this method, favored of our forebears, coffee should be coarsely ground. Dry coffee goes into the pot (or ordinary saucepan) first, then cold water. Bring to a boil, simmer 5-8 minutes, then take it off the stove. A dash of cold water will settle the grounds — or an eggshell thrown into the brew at the outset will have the same effect. Even so, you need a strainer for pouring.

PERCOLATOR COFFEE
Use same proportions as for pot coffee, but use medium-ground coffee — halfway between drip grind and pot grind. Coffee goes into the basket in the percolator, water into the pot; then the water “perks” through the coffee until it is the strength you like: about 8 minutes. With a glass percolator, you can see how you’re doing throughout the process; others have a glass piece on top so you can get a glimpse of the brew as it perks.

Whatever the method used, coffee is best when freshly made. ONce you’ve got your own coffeemaking timed, you’ll know just when to fade from your dinner table in order to have fresh coffee ready by dessert-time or maybe you’ll latch onto an electric coffeemaker that can do its fragrant work right at the table. Ben Jonson said, “as he brews, so shall he drink.” Good drinking!

Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts: A Time-Honored Guide to the Perfect Party goes on to offer a toolkit for entertaining spanning from the fine points of sauces to the art of conversation to after-dinner dirty tricks.

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