What I Learned from the Breaking Bad Percolator

Those of you who caught my talk at Ignite 21 already know that I’m a thoughtful coffee convert, going from 1-2 cups per week to 2-3 cups per day when I discovered that I was a fast caffeine metabolizer by having my DNA sequenced, leading me to buy a bunch of bluetooth peripherals and breathe while sleeping again.  (What can I say; the talk covered a lot of ground).

I’ll post the talk in a week or two when it’s available online, but after extolling the virtues of my coffee consumption mechanism of choice over and over again, it’s time to put it on line.

For most people, coffee is a lifelong habit.  Suggesting improvements is like optimizations to their shampooing technique… it’s just not really a subject of life that’s much open to change.

But I was going at it from a fresh slate.  I always liked coffee, but had never mustered up the necessary commitment to get a really good addiction going.  As a result, I drank it when it was around, and didn’t when it wasn’t.

That was going to have to change.  My inspiration was this piece of sculptured magnificence, which was named “Yama Northwest Glass 25-Cup Cold Brew Drip Coffee and Tea Maker, Black” by its creator, but which I will refer to henceforth as the “Breaking Bad Percolator”.

One of the Google Kirkland coffee bars (yeah, ‘one of‘) features this piece of caffeinated elegance.  I became a regular, and it’s output was sublime.  And holy henna, was it ever strong.  12 ounces and I was ready to go. A second cup and I was a useless, quivering blob for the bulk of the afternoon – only made that mistake once.

The wonderful nature of this thing is due to two factors.  First, it turns out that you’re supposed to dilute the output of this amazing contraption 3:1 or more with water, but nobody told the barristas. (If you still work there, please don’t!)  Drinking cold-brew coffee without diluting it first is AWESOME, more or less akin to putting four shots of espresso on ice in intensity (ask me how I know). Second, because cold brew has less acidity – you get more of the acid out of the beans with hot water (Wikipedia says it so it must be true) – so it’s far, far smoother than the aforementioned espresso on the rocks.

And as a bonus, you can bulk-brew it and it keeps wonderfully for more than a week.

So after deciding to take the summer off, I decided I had to replicate the magical output of this machine at home.  And the iteration began.

I began low-tech.  I got a giant mason jar, added 12 oz coffee and 7 cups of water, shook, and left it over night.  The next morning was tasty but gritty.  Filtering it to drinkability took ages: I would sieve it, pour it through a paper cone with the help of one of these, and then do it again because the first time left a weird scum. The first filtering took forever because the paper clogged up, so I had to tend it constantly, pouring more in.  But it tasted pretty good.

My next effort was a Bodum Iced Coffee Maker, which has been helpfully discontinued. It’s basically a french press with a larger capacity and a cap so you can leave it in the fridge all night without putting the stink of the coffee bean your kids yogurt.  I tracked one down, ordered it… and the seal had cracked.  (Discontinued – probably sat in storage forever).

Not to be dissuaded, I tried a regular coffee press.  Eh.  Still had that scum on top, so I still had to do a pass with the filter.  Not as bad, but still not coffee nirvana.  Around this time I tweeted:

Iterating to cold brewed coffee Nirvana. Salvation remains elusive. pic.twitter.com/90Z33y124u

— Dan Shapiro (@danshapiro) April 22, 2013

Which lead to a nice twitter exchange with Corey Doctorow, where I discovered his treatise on radical hotel room coffee independence. And there he goes mentioning the Toddy again.

If you’ve spent more than a few seconds investigating cold brew coffee methods, you’ve discovered the Toddy monstrosity.

It’s uuuugly.  And cheap, at only $35.  The instructions looked like voodoo, involving ‘layers of coffee’.  But the reviews… well, I suppose I should give it a shot, right?

…and I’m a convert.

It takes me about 5 minutes to prep enough coffee for the entire week.  The liquid ichor that drips forth is as good as anything I’ve had, perhaps just shy of the BBP.  It’s $35.  I hide it when it’s not in use.  It’s ugly, goofily designed (the handle slides off; there’s no lid), but damn it WORKS.  And it works fast.  And it works deliciously.  It’s so good that when I want hot coffee, I zap a mug full of cold brew, because it’s better than making “fresh” with my now-defunct french press.

A quick note about beans before I wrap this up: garbage in, garbage out.  I tried a dozen blends with multiple different brewing systems, and the bad ones turned in to terrible iced coffee, the good ones turned in to  brown magic.  Middle Fork Roasters is outrageously delicious, locally produced (if you’re in Seattle), and the best I’ve found.  Any decent bean will do nicely.

So, then, here then is my recommendations: Get the cheapest solution (Toddy) or the most expensive (Hama).  Do not lollygag about in the middle.  Hama for looks and the last 5% of excellence; Toddy to get your joe on with a minimum of fuss.

And if you’ve got a long night ahead with little to do of consequence… then, and only then, try a second glass.


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