Coming to Terms With Keurig Coffeemaker Guilt

Once you get used to the ease and simplicity, there is no going back to anything else.
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Okay, Keurig, you win. Late last night I finally admitted to myself that the convenience of pod-based coffee makers outweighs the loss of flavor and aroma you encounter when you stop preparing coffee the old way.

We mathematicians are one of many social groups who tend to make a big thing of coffee. The famous, late Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos coined the oft-repeated slogan that "a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems." While only a mathematician's spouse might take that as more than metaphorical, it is the case that mathematicians do tend to make a big deal about coffee. In my experience, the only human grouping that makes a bigger deal are the inhabitants of Melbourne, Australia.

Oddly, the Italians don't have a "coffee thing," but that is surely because no native-born Italian ever experienced anything other than excellent coffee.

At the other end of the spectrum from Italians are the Americans and the Brits, who live under the illusion that the lower ranks of society drink instant coffee, the middle class and 7-Eleven stores everywhere make it in a filter system, and the more sophisticated make it in a device called a "percolator."

The drawback of the Italian approach (Melbournians imported good coffee expertise with waves of Italian immigrants) is it requires a large, chrome-plated device the size of a small car, which operates on the little known physical law that the volume of coffee that ends up in the cup is inversely proportional to the size of the machine that produces it, a problem that can be easily disguised by (i) using a very small cup, or (ii) topping it up with highly frothed milk.

For the rest of us, including all mathematicians outside of Italy and Melbourne, there was only one viable method: the French Press. Coupled with a small coffee grinder and good, freshly roasted coffee beans, this simple device could be relied upon to produce an excellent brew. Grind the beans just before you tip them into the jar, add water just off the boil, stir the scum lightly so the grounds sink, wait half a minute or so, then gently push down the sieve to press the grounds to the bottom. All the while, enjoying the aroma of those freshly ground beans.

Then, a few years ago, the "Keurig system" came along. Want a cup of coffee? Take a small plastic pod from the box, pop it into the elegant looking machine on the kitchen counter, hit a button, and voila: a fresh cup of coffee. Discard the pod when you are done.

No hassle. And no mess -- coffee comes from a grinder with a high electrostatic charge that flings fine coffee powder everywhere, and the thick black mess left in the bottom of the press uses every trick to avoid being disposed of. I tried a pod system once, and was hooked. Sure, all those preparatory aromas are then just a memory, as is the whole routine. But, although the coffee does not have the same quality of taste or smell, it is good enough. Definitely better than filters or percolators. And the sheer convenience and lack of mess more than compensates for the losses.

Or so I kept telling myself. I suppressed my sense of loss and a touch of guilt. The nostalgia and guilt got the better of me recently when I was preparing to head across country for half a year, taking leave from Stanford to take up the offer of a Visiting Professorship at Princeton. Rather than buy a second Keurig for a mere half year, I would use the occasion to rekindle my earlier obsession with the whole routine of making freshly ground coffee in a press.

I dug out the grinder and the press from the back of the kitchen cupboard, bought a fresh pack of Peet's Italian Roast coffee (a Bay Area wonder), and packed them along with my road bike, safe inside the industrial-strength plastic shell of the airline-baggage-handlers-proof bike box.

For my first few days in Princeton, I reveled in re-running my old routine, timing the grinding just right, basking in the aromas, gazing at the hot black liquid as it poured majestically from the press, and bringing the cup to my lips for that first sensual sip. This was the way the coffee experience was supposed to be. How could I have ever given in to the crass temptations of convenience, in the process adding yet more plastic litter to the environment with every discarded pod? I was a child of the Sixties. I knew better. I had discovered my former self.

This morning, nine days after arriving in Princeton, I drove four miles down US 1 to Macy's and bought a small, single-cup Keurig coffee machine and a supply of coffee pods. I just could not stand all that hassle and all that mess. As with buying your first Macintosh, once you get used to the ease and simplicity, there is no going back to anything else.

My brief nostalgia trip into "handmade" coffee was every bit as enjoyable as my occasional dives into Unix. Both put you in direct touch with the "real thing" -- computing in the case of Unix, coffee making with a grinder-press combo -- and as a result are far more satisfying. Your amygdala loves you. But it doesn't take long before your more rational neo-cortex starts to ask, "Why are you putting up with all this hassle? There's a simpler way."

Make no mistake, pod coffee ain't great. But, unlike filters and percolators, it's good enough. And good enough always wins. (Pod) coffee anyone?