The Conspiracy of Bad Coffee Is Real, but Ending Soon

(Jakub Dziubak via Unsplash)





Every so often the forces of new scientific findings and opinion columns align to produce a certain sense of dread and unease. In this case, that dread and that unease are acute if you believe in the power and pleasure of a good cup of coffee.

Yes, there are myriad other developments to be concerned about, such as whether or not Boeing’s recent news of cost-cutting measures endangers commercial flying, or whether or not the leading lights of one of our nation’s leading political parties has at last gone off the deep end. Before crying foul, rise to the challenge of naming even one other beverage beloved by millions of morning people—or hell, even professed night owls—that could take precedence over conspiracy theories and news stories that survive no matter what we do. Stated simply, coffee is not just important. It is not just the delivery system of a stimulant that motors and motivates the masses. Nor is it merely the clichéd invocation of some daily “ritual.” Coffee is more than either combined. In fact, to my shock at even writing these words, this eternal beverage is something of a surrogate family member. Your aging parent or busy sibling may or may not call you on your birthday. Good coffee never misses its calling.

But with every precious commodity—gold, oil, internet service, or acne cream—good coffee must be not only protected, but advanced as the public good it has always been. This week, both goals became easier to attain.

The first development was news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will once again, decades after its initial decision, consider the dangers of methylene chloride, a solvent long used to decaffeinate coffee beans. For this push we can thank the good folks at the Environmental Working Group, which filed a petition for the FDA to reconsider use of this odd chemical, which is also used to strip paint, degrease metal, and other sundry industrial uses. As part of this push, the Environmental Working Group has pointed out that since the FDA first approved used of the solvent decades ago, people sipped their decaf coffee in servings far smaller than the now almost-standard size of grande and even “dessert coffee” monstrosities that have made Starbucks the “supersize me” brand of coffee chains. The ginormous size of today’s coffee servings is not news to anyone paying attention—then again, they may be decaf drinkers—but the Environmental Working Group deserves attention for at least waking the FDA up to this fact. Score one for authentic coffee and zero for the malevolent advocates of bad coffee stripped of its natural ingredients. Decaffeinated coffee was always the whipping boy of beverage paradoxes. Any day now decaffeinated drinkers may be forced to come to grips with all the caffeine they have been missing.

The second front in the war against great coffee is the snarky appeal to obvious imposters, as in this tepid prose appeal for instant coffee. “Instant” anything is a dead giveaway that all attempts at authenticity have been surrendered for convenience even if, in the case of great coffee, that “convenience” is nothing more than a handful of seconds saved that could have been spent grinding fresh beans while waiting for the water to reach a boil. Flavor subtracted for such minuscule time added is no tangible benefit at all. More than anything, it is a sure sign of intransigent sloth. Reasonable people save their definitions of “time wasted” for the physician’s waiting room, the line at the post office, or a traffic light that refuses to turn green. Similar to your grandfather’s bumper sticker about fishing, there ought to be a bumper sticker stating “Time spent grinding fresh beans cannot be deducted from a person’s life.” Instant coffee is no such thing, just as instant powdered eggs, milk, and cakes should be saved for military service mess halls and survivalist bunkers instead of drab, everyday existence that desperately needs the extravagance of authentic ingredients and experiences.

Those of us paying attention—because we drink real, great coffee, thank you!—understand that there are already forces sufficiently beyond our control that threaten great coffee. Oddly, we cannot rightly call them conspiracies because, while they may be set in motion by humans in the Anthropocene, they are not quite deliberate enough to qualify as malevolent. They are only quasi-clueless. Decaffeinated coffee is most certainly a conspiracy, and therefore malevolent. So are faux-hipster essays promising to extol the pleasures of instant coffee when no such pleasure exists.