In Defense of Bad Coffee

I admit this freely – I’m a connoisseur of bad coffee. Something about bad coffee stirs my imagination. Something in the stinging shock and realization implied in the phrase “Dear GOD, what am I drinking!?” speaks to the awesome power of bad coffee, particularly when it’s a phrase that you’ve repeated many times over the course of your life. I’ve had so much bad coffee that I’ve begun to appreciate it.  Make no mistake, I’ve had good coffee too. I appreciate good coffee, but there is something about bad coffee that fires the imagination at the same time that it assaults your taste buds. There is an entire culture built around bad coffee, and in response, the clamor for good coffee has created marketing opportunities as well. However, these are entirely different things, and without bad coffee, there would be no market for good coffee.  I think a celebration of bad coffee is long overdue. In this fast paced, overworked, sleep deprived culture that we live in, bad coffee keeps society moving.

We all know what good coffee is. Good coffee is an experience. You seek it out with delight. It can be made at home, according to your own exacting standards. It can also be made by highly skilled and cheerful young men and women whose skill turns a bitter caffeinated beverage into something sublime. Good coffee is a subtle balance of factors and flavors, lovingly blended into a taste worthy of calling an “experience”.  It has taste, presentation, and even anticipation going for it. Good coffee takes TIME. When you have good coffee, the world awakens around you. You don’t mind waiting for good coffee. Or paying a higher price for it. Good coffee is the stuff of dreams.

So let us ignore good coffee and extoll the virtues of bad coffee. Now I know that there are people who will tell you that there are no virtues associated with bad coffee – but I’m here to tell you they’re wrong. Bad coffee does have virtue, you simply need to be in the right frame of mind to recognize it. The universal truth about bad coffee is that bad coffee is cheap, simple to brew, available immediately when you need it, is hot, distracts you from dealing with other problems, and best of all, will keep you alert and functional.  Bad coffee has drawbacks, and most people can name one or two without thinking too much, but bad coffee serves a purpose. In many ways, it’s like a bad drug.  You know the long term effects are dangerous, but you don’t particularly care about that when your need is prodding you RIGHT NOW.  Bad coffee isn’t inspiring.  It won’t move you. It will get you moving though.  That can be a virtue.

Bad coffee can be found almost anywhere.  Convenience stores, gas stations, diners, the continental breakfast at affordable hotels, and even in some places where drinking bad coffee is counter intuitive, such as most kinds of waiting rooms. It is supplied in many businesses as a courtesy to the employees, and is always the kind of coffee dispensed from public vending machines. You cannot get good coffee from a public vending machine. It simply isn’t possible, for reasons that will become apparent as we explore the topic.

It is widely known that bad coffee, shared among friends in the right conditions, doesn’t actually feel like it’s BAD.  Particularly if you don’t know the difference between a really good cup of coffee and a bad one. However, the key point in this situation is that the focus is on the friends and conditions, which distracts the drinker from the realization that the coffee is in fact bad.  This might be the only time when bad coffee and good coffee have overlapping experiences.  However, the realities of bad coffee will always apply – it is hot, cheap, simple and immediate.  Bad coffee can be sophistication for people who lack the time and resources to be truly sophisticated.  That is a wonderful thing, and I applaud it.

Putting that aside, bad coffee can be defined as a virtual need. Bad coffee does not require context like good coffee does. Bad coffee hits you like a lead pipe to the back of your head and makes you alert. Bad coffee transitions you from a sleep deprived, fatigued and potentially dangerous individual to a functional individual. (Though perhaps with a few uncontrollable tics or twitches that are usually just harmless side effects. Your experience may vary.)

Good coffee requires care in preparation.  Bad coffee just seems to happen to you.  It is prepared quickly, often in large quantities. You can add sugar or milk or creamer to it.  Often the creamer is powdered. Usually that doesn’t matter though.  The intent of bad coffee additives is not necessarily to add flavors; in fact many purveyors of bad coffee provide flavored creamer for just that reason, but that isn’t important. Bad coffee additives are there to make bad coffee drinkable to each individual. Bad coffee is dangerous in its unaltered form. Even decaf.  Most people use these taste buffering additives to personalize the cruel shock that they’re actually looking for when they seek out bad coffee. It is sometimes offered in a way that gives you choices other than simply regular or decaf, but in the end no matter what flavors are bound up in the beans and the brewing, no matter where bad coffee is sourced from, the effect is the same, because the process of delivering it to the consumer is similar.  Coffee that is delivered with care is done where maintenance and care actually HAPPEN.  Not so with bad coffee.  Speed requires shortcuts.  Cleaning drip baskets or carafes takes time. Time that isn’t available to the consumer of bad coffee, and to keep up with demand, the tar buildup in bad coffee delivery systems is often extreme. This is why you can’t get good coffee from a public vending machine.  Bad coffee is quick. It includes various things that won’t be delivered with good coffee due to speed, including whatever falls from the beard of the guy preparing it into the filter before the coffee is brewed.  Bad coffee is not for the weak.

Bad coffee is certainly corrosive to the digestive tract, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it were found to be corrosive to everything else as well. Most bad coffee comes in paper or Styrofoam cups for convenience. (Remember –cheap, fast and hot are the benefits.) When cooled, bad coffee will leave a ring of sludge in the cup. (Probably in your esophagus as well.) This leads me to believe that in time, bad coffee would dissolve a paper cup. This is why it is stored in more durable containers that are highly corrosion resistant, such as ceramic, glass or stainless steel. Thankfully the benefit of bad coffee is such that you’ll finish the coffee before the coffee can destroy a paper cup.

What bad coffee will do for you is get you moving when nothing else will.  It will keep you alert when you need to be alert. It will do so quickly and cheaply. Who could ask for more?  I have a variety of ratings for bad coffee, from the highly rated selections in the unfortunately named Wawa convenience stores, to the extremely bad offerings in waiting areas at tire shops.  They’re all bad, but they all fill a need.

So the next time you finish a cup of coffee, purchased in haste, which renewed your will to live while mugging your taste buds and scouring your esophagus, and think “what an awful cup of coffee” please remember to smile.  That bad coffee just did exactly what it was intended to do. Don’t forget to appreciate it.

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