Last week, I had one of those days when things just don’t go quite right. I’d ordered some specialty coffee from a supplier I’d heard good things about. Specifically, I ordered a pound of Sumatra Mandheling in a dark roast, one of my faves. I ordered whole beans, as I always do, or at least I thought I had ordered whole beans. Perhaps from overly enthusiastic fingers, or maybe it was just because it was still early and I hadn’t yet fueled up on high octane and my neurons were misfiring, I pulled the “Buy Me” trigger without carefully reading the description. Two days later, nicely packed and delivered to my door was a pound of pre-ground coffee.
I don’t buy pre-ground coffee for a couple reasons. First, as soon as the beans are ground, flavor and aroma begin a race against time. Some of the carbon dioxide (CO2) created during the roasting process is trapped within the bean. This actually has the beneficial side-effect of slowing down oxidation. Once ground, this trapped CO2 will dissipate quickly, and the coffee will begin to oxidize. Additionally, many of the aroma and flavor components trapped in the beans are volatile, migrating out of the grounds more quickly than they do while still encapsulated by little chemical shells within the bean. Sadly, this combination of oxidation and dissipation of volatiles results in ground coffee losing much of its more delicate and interesting character fairly quickly, and there’s nothing to be done to stop it. Time always ultimately wins that race.
Equally important, at least to my weird brain, is that whim often takes the driver’s seat in the morning when I’m choosing which method I want to use for my morning cup. Chemex? French press? My cherished mini Bialetti? Each method works best with a different grind, and with pre-ground, I’m stuck with whatever granule size I would find in that bag. Right, then.
I called the company. They listened compassionately, and very kindly offered to replace the unopened bag of pre-ground with one of freshly roasted whole beans, once returned, but, considering it would cost me postage plus the time packing it up and making a trip to the post office, I decided it didn’t make economic sense. And, I was perilously close to running out of beans, so, I just ordered another pound, this time of the right stuff, and decided to give the pre-ground a go. Freshly opened, it was quite nice in the press pot, less so in the Moka. We’ll see how long it holds onto its goodness.
If you’re questioning my sanity at this point, you’re in good company; I often do. But, I know coffee heads who are far more obsessive about their brew than I am. Why not get a Keurig and be done with it? Not going to happen. There’s something deeply comforting about my morning coffee ritual—preparing the apparatus, bringing a measured quantity of water to temperature, weighing and grinding the beans. It’s one of the little routines that anchors me to the reality of waking consciousness, especially on those mornings when the night’s dreamscape was particularly vivid and fascinating. (To be truthful, I’m really not a morning person. In a chat with an east-coast buddy, I was amused by the fact that his 3am rise time is about two west-coast hours before I’m even thinking about sleep.) Plus, in today’s world of immediate gratification, instant communication, and so many things being driven into a frenzy by technology’s incessant interruptions, I enjoy things that slow life’s pace a little. Like making coffee. Like cooking. Like smoking a pipe.
Admittedly, I’m equally impassioned with my pipe smoking rituals. I like to take time selecting the pipe that I want to smoke, and pondering the blend I want to fill it with, sometimes selecting a different pipe if the first one doesn’t “feel” like the right fit for the blend. This process sometimes goes through a couple more iterations, and on the most indecisive of days, can take almost as long as smoking the thing. Bonus if the tobacco happens to be a flake, or especially a plug, since I then get to think about how to prepare it, and in the case of plugs, it’s a good excuse for playing with knives. It’s all part of the process, part of the experience that makes each smoke just a little bit more special.
As pipe smokers, we’re pretty fortunate. We’ve always got a go-bag at the ready when we need a temporary escape from the Island of Instancy. Pipe smoking is not a hurried thing. It’s something we can count on to bring moments of sanity and solace in an increasingly crazy world. It gives us a good excuse for taking a little time to focus on pure pleasure. It’s a delicate thread that connects us abstractly with a long and colorful history, with many great thinkers, artists, scientists, literary giants, and with each other. It’s a little bit like magic.
Sometimes, it even helps us forget that we pushed the wrong button.
Photos by G.L. Pease