Not Your Grandfather’s Coffee


Clyde Martin 1917

This is a picture of my grandfather Clyde Martin in 1917.  He was a really nice old guy by the time I met him, though you can detect a certain ornery streak in this picture.   I always understood he was a character in his youth, a bit of an eccentric, but well liked and active in his community, once being mayor of Reynoldsburg Ohio (Republican, when they were the progressives).  He was a pharmacist and a good one at that, but he was lousy at coffee.  I remember the coffee as I was encouraged to try it, probably to punish me for some serious infraction as I think back on it now.  Let me tell you it went down pretty rough.
Clyde learned to make it in the hills of South-Eastern Ohio where he grew up (Monroe County).  His people made coffee right next to the still.  Strong liquor required strong coffee, so they made it as “strong” (that is bitter, almost jet black, heavy, rancid) as they could take it. It’s as though they thought it had to taste bad to be “good”, kind of like medicine.  Grandfather said he learned his basic chemistry there in the hills of Monroe County, and he would have been perfectly happy making sour mash, hunting squirrels and slopping the hogs, except for the revenuers who convinced him to put his experience to good purpose instead of continuing to be a renegade savage, so he opted for pharmacy instead of jail.  At least that’s how the story goes.

Laura Conrad Martin 1917

Laura Conrad Martin 1917

My grandmother was making the coffee by the time I was introduced to it.  She was a woman of substance who believed in doing the right thing and staying in the right (see photo at right).  She kept to the right in just about everything except politics and coffee.  Laura would get out the coffee pot, which was your basic camp kettle with a spout.   She would put in some water, no particular amount, and she’d shovel in some ground coffee out of a can from the pantry shelf, no particular amount but she wasn’t a piker when it came to quantities.  She’d set it on the stove being more or less attentive to avoid boiling it (though when it did boil we drank it anyway “Waste not wont not” being one of her favorite sayings, along with “An idle mind is the Devil’s playground”).   At any rate, when the brew (not exactly coffee as we’ve come to know it) got up to temperature (starting to steam) she’d reduce the heat and simmer it.  And simmer it.  And simmer it….

As I recall it smelled like coffee, but by the time a cup was poured for Clyde (in those days wives did things like that) it had the consistency of Kayro Syrup, the color of Brer Rabbit Blackstrap Molasses, and the taste of the Seventh Level of Hell.  In fact, as I think back on it, this brew tasted quite a lot like some of the major brands currently in vogue (starts with an “S” as in “Star” and ends with a rhyme for a very naughty four letter word, only plural).  Their coffee smells OK but often tastes  burned, overdone, sour, bitter, acidic, etc.  But my grandfather never flinched when confronted with his daily dose.  He just downed it as he would Caster Oil and went about his business.  It was so acidic I’m sure we could have pealed paint with it.

So with an introduction like this you must be wondering why I ever took coffee up at all, and the answer to that is bridge, which we played in preference to going to class when I was in college.  In point of fact we played most of the night, so we needed coffee to keep us awake while we played many, many rubbers.  We’d generally had it by the time the sun was coming up, so we’d sleep through most of the day (and our classes, isn’t that the way everyone did college?) until it was time to start the cycle again.

But upon arriving in San Francisco I happened across a couple of venues in North Beach where I discovered really good coffee, one of the things we’d been deprived of all those years in the past.

Actually my grandmother didn’t have it entirely wrong as I have made some surprisingly good tasting (though unbelievably strong) coffee out of a can of Robusta grounds in this exact way (avoiding the boiling), with one very important modification.  So it’s possible, but neither economical nor timely nor exactly healthy either as it is absolutely loaded with caffeine, so we suggest you try another approach.

I guess my point in this is; people can become accustomed to, acclimated to, can adapt to, just about anything, even terrible coffee.  When it was hauled over the mountains in a Conestoga wagon it was probably a blessing that it didn’t taste like buffalo chips.   But that was then.  Why tolerate bad coffee today when really good coffee is just SO easy to come by?  Why settle for the highly and very effectively marketed swill that passes for coffee when really good coffee is just SO good?

The things my grandparents missed (that you can avoid):

  1. They had no good coffee.   They bought the canned stuff roasted (smelted?) by big companies headquartered in San Francisco.  By the time it got to Ohio it was a mere shadow of itself.  Who knew?
  2. Don’t be confused by hyped up claims and glossy packaging.  After all, who ultimately pays for the advertising and the packaging?  Wouldn’t you rather be paying for coffee, not hype?
  3. Try different varieties and see what works for you.
  4. Try custom blends to meet your taste inclinations. BUT..
  5. Make sure you PREPARE IT RIGHT, otherwise what’s the point?
  6. Measure it properly
  7. Grind it properly
  8. Have the water at the right temperature.
  9. Don’t leave the water on it too long (or not long enough)

It won’t take you long to sort out what you’ve missed out on all these years.