The Science of Coffee, Part One

I like coffee. No, that’s far too tame. I love coffee. That is, I love good coffee. There’s a fair amount of science (and a pinch of alchemy) involved in creating the perfect mug o’ mud—or if you’re an espresso aficionado like me, the proverbial “God shot.” And with the current flowering of technological gadgetry, it’s no surprise the engineers and geeks have turned their collective genius to the humble coffeemaker—and trotted out their pricey offerings just in time for Christmas.

Before I go any further, I would like to categorically state that you can produce very respectable joe with a simple press pot (aka: French press, cafetière) or AeroPress, or if you like your coffee on the stronger side, a moka pot. Any of these can be acquired for a modest investment of around thirty-five simoleons. You will also need to score some high-quality fresh beans and an adequate burr grinder (manual mills can be had for under $100). Yes, there is a bit of technique involved (that’s where the alchemy comes in), but that’s half the fun! When all’s said and done, it’s “good” coffee if you like it, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Taste is a subjective thing; making good coffee is as much art as science.


Blossom One Limited

Perhaps you find the above-mentioned appliances to be a bit pedestrian for your artistic sensibilities. You’re after something a smidge more precise, a bit sexier, a little more outré—what’s the word I’m looking for… oh yes, snobby. The Blossom One Limited is just the ticket; it’s got snob appeal by the bucket-load! A minimalist, utilitarian aesthetic belies its technological underpinnings, and this handcrafted work of functional art will lighten your wallet by—are you sitting down?—$11,111 (one has to wonder why they bothered with those last three digits—must have something to do with “artful design”).

Based on the press kit, we should be suitably awed by the bios of the techno-triumvirate that cooked up this percolator-on-steroids: Jeremy Kuempel (Head Honcho) is a mechanical engineering type from MIT who worked on the Apple iPad team, and at Tesla, where he designed the 17-inch touchscreen for the Model S; Matt Walliser has the NASA Ames Research Center on his CV as a former employer; and Joey Roth is the owner of the Joey Roth Design Studio (snappy title, eh?)—he apparently conceived a really cool teapot. Not seein’ any barista background here…

Gaggia Gilda
(orphanesspresso.com)

Rather than being satisfied to improve on the current “Best of Show” in coffeemaker technology, the boys claim to have been inspired by “sports cars, premium furniture, and the Bauhaus movement.”

Though it’s not an espresso machine, the Blossom One Ltd. does incorporate technologies that are commonplace in the high-end “prosumer” espresso market, and that makes perfect sense—plain ol’ coffeemakers have lagged far behind the state of the art in espressoland, so why not marry the two? In fact, Blossom’s basic approach to the process seems to be a variation on the lever-actuated espresso machine originally patented by Achille Gaggia in 1938 (which later appeared in a more compact iteration called the “Gilda,” the first espresso machine designed for consumers—you can read a fantastic profile here).

Hark! Mr. Kuempel declared, “The world is ready for truly great-tasting coffee.” The Blossom marketing team extrapolates on this profundity: “Designed to combine the best parts of immersion brewing with the ease of a standard coffeemaker, the revolutionary Blossom One Limited makes the perfect cup of coffee every time by allowing precise control of every aspect of the brewing process.” The exalted testimonial continues unabashedly, “To achieve this, our Blossom One Limited machine employs a novel brewing process that perfectly controls important brewing variables independently of environmental influences, empowering baristas with the right tools to make truly great-tasting coffee.”

Perhaps it’s the editor in me, but I’m really leery of products pitched with such hyperbolic prose as “revolutionary,” “perfect,” “every time,” “precise,” “every aspect,” “novel,” “perfectly,” and “empowering”—all in the same breath.

In addition to computer-controlled operational variables via a proportional integral derivative feedback control loop (PID)—which is to say, maintaining the ideal constant temperature—Blossom One also boasts an onboard WiFi camera(!) that can scan QR codes allowing “users to connect directly to a roaster’s preparation recommendations making it easy to share complex coffee brewing recipes direct from the coffee roaster to the final customer.”

As we went to press, no roasters were known to be providing such key data about their beans via QR codes, but maybe the appearance of 10 Blossom One machines (the entire inaugural production run) will provide the impetus to initiate the revolution. In the meantime, at least you can take pictures of yourself making some awesome coffee and post them on Pinterest. (Update: Apparently, the camera is a dedicated unit, it only feeds data to the Blossom—there is no USB port or other means of uploading images to another device, so strike that comment about taking pictures of yourself making really expensive coffee.)

Your $11,111 coffeemaker can be clad in the exotic wood trim of your choice (premium furniture, remember?), but perhaps most importantly—and folks, this is truly the pièce de résistance—every unit comes with an official signed build placard, and will be hand-delivered by “the Blossom team” (I trust they’re really attractive and very appreciative).

Currently in its second prototype incarnation, the Blossom One Ltd. is slated for initial delivery in a few months, so you’d better get your order in quick.

Aside from bragging rights, stupid-expensive digital coffeemakers have one thing in common: the dumbing down of the process. They appeal to the convenience factor that is so prized by the self-important. Hey man, time is money! Hence, “the premium Blossom One Limited machine requires little instruction to operate, enabling brewers of all experience levels to create the absolute best cup of coffee for the most discerning coffee aficionados.” Even a minimum-wage, teenaged Starbucks barista can do it!

So is it just me, or is it patently absurd to demo this highest of the high-end coffeemakers to someone who admits he is “not as much of a ‘coffee person’ as many of my caffeine-addled colleagues and friends”? I guess he drew the short straw. Well, in an attempt to garner some good press, the fellas who are trying to gin-up enthusiasm (and seed money) for this handcrafted, limited edition product humped it over to the Huffington Post offices and did just that.

You don’t have to be able to identify the fruity notes to appreciate a really outstanding brew, but having such a philistine review this chunk of high-tech wizardry would be like having—well him—review a fine wine (“I’m the kind of guy who will gladly drink wine out of a cardboard box.” Yes, this is a quote from the same review.).

What’s the point? Why should a reader care what this rube thinks of this $11,111 wunderkind? After all, the reviewer (who I suspect would prefer to remain nameless) concludes, “I will not be one of the initial buyers.” Still, I’m sure the mission was accomplished: generate enough buzz to actually convince someone who “can afford elevators for your cars” (again, same reviewer) to lay down some serious jack to bankroll this harebrained scheme. Of course, the only person who comes to mind who meets that particular qualification is morally averse to drinking coffee. Quite the conundrum. Then again, he’s an ace vulture capitalist, so who knows?

One has to wonder why they’re showing this thing to people who are totally unfamiliar with the boutique home or professional barista scene. No matter. I’m sure it’ll be a hit in the Hammacher Schlemmer holiday catalog—right alongside that nifty $190,000 flying hovercraft…

Good thing you get to choose the exotic wood trim, for as the Blossom One website sagely concludes, “Simply having great technology isn’t enough.” I couldn’t agree more.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Knowledge + Creativity = Magic!

In a recent issue of Brain Pickings (one of my all-time favorite blogs), Maria Popova posited, “Though Steve Jobs may have been right in asserting that ‘creativity is just connecting things,’ it’s more than that—it’s connecting the right kinds of things. And, above all, it’s equipping oneself with the very things to connect in the first place—it’s building a mental catalog of knowledge, then cultivating the right ‘associative trails’ running through that catalog.”

This comment brought to mind Einstein’s pronouncement that “Information is not knowledge.” To which I would add (to bring it full circle): “Knowledge is not creativity.”

I have often heard it said that (ahem) older folks don’t “get” technology. Of course, this is nonsense. Despite the meme that asserts you need a 12-year-old to program your remote, young ’uns do not possess some special gene that graces them with digital intuition. There is no genetic or organic predisposition to techno-savvy. (Sorry, kids.) My friend Jeff McClurken, who does his darndest to teach digital history to college students, emphatically insists that beyond their texting and facebook dexterity, his charges are ill-equipped to employ new media in productive or creative ways. They are consumers rather than creators.

Achieving a certain comfort level with digital tools is a behavioral or social conditioning thing—we learn how to do it. Simply spending some hands-on time with devices and programs is a great place to start, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to be immersed in a social network that’s using technology to do creative things every day; it tempers the fear factor.

Life experience helps, too. Steve Jobs kenned this: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” This is, according to Popova, “because creativity, after all, is a combinatorial force. It’s our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources—ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration—that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways.” Life is an interdisciplinary enterprise.

So if you’ve been on the planet for a while and you have the willingness and desire to learn new things and then connect the dots, you actually have an advantage over the “chronologically challenged.” The longer we have functioned as “hunter-gatherers of interestingness” (as Maria phrases it), the more experiential material we have to draw upon—a much larger library, if you will.

Popova summarizes, “In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas—like LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our creations will become.”

Oh yes, and the expanded Einstein quote is: “Information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience.”

Ergo, experience > knowledge. And knowledge + creativity = whatever you can imagine! So C=ke2 or something like that. It ain’t rocket science…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

(Illustration: Nicole Lacriola/Pinterest)

It’s Not About the Tools

I’m no technological determinist, but neither am I a Luddite. I see technology as a tool rather than an end in itself. But tools must be considered in context—a hammer and a chisel provide a day laborer an expeditious means of breaking up concrete, while in the hands of Michelangelo they become instruments of creative expression. Creating isn’t about the tools; the magic is in the way you wield them.

There is an ongoing debate within the nascent digital humanities community that questions whether “digital literacy” (i.e. proficiency with programming and coding) is a fundamental requirement for membership in the club. It’s a sort of right brain vs. left brain or art vs. science argument.

One camp believes this is a given. Its proponents migrated to the humanities from a computer science background and are therefore predisposed to think computers (and their programs) are the essential core element of any DH project. For them, you can’t be a serious digital humanist if you don’t code.

The other side of this tug o’ war comprises humanities scholars who are learning how to utilize computers to expand their creative horizons; they are humanists first and geeks-in-training second. They tend to view the computer as a tool, a means to an end, and feel that the ability to engage with those more at home with building digital tools is crucial to the collaborative nature of the enterprise.

Of course, there is also a growing cadre of folks who are quite comfortably ensconced in the space between. So in a way, it’s really just a matter of perspective—yin and yang.

The iconoclastic physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman noted in his quirky memoir, “Then there were artists who had absolutely no idea about the real world. They … would say things like ‘I want to make a picture in three dimensions where the figure is suspended in space and it glows and flickers.’ They made up the world they wanted, and had no idea what was reasonable or unreasonable to make.”

Feynman’s dry wit makes it difficult to discern when he’s being sarcastic, but in any event, it is interesting to note that about the time he was working on the atomic bomb, a French colleague, Denis Gabor, was developing the holograph. Apparently, Pablo Picasso was onto something when he pronounced, “Everything you can imagine is real.”

Another well-known theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate named Albert Einstein once quipped, “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Nothing, it would seem, is impossible…

As any artisan—or digital humanist—will tell you, good tools are not only essential to producing good art, they are a joy to work with. Hence, a certain level of knowledge of one’s tools is a very important element of the creative process. But without that other key ingredient, imagination, technology is little more than a sophisticated means of breaking up concrete.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

(Illustration: Patty Cooper/Pinterest)