Coffee Clutch

Most of the drama of communal living, I have learned over the years, plays out around the kitchen sink. Tension among housemates eventually appears on kitchen surfaces. Who left the counter full of crumbs? Who always leaves the dirty bowls and cups in the sink? Of course, a kind and generous (and maybe a little compulsive) soul inevitably wipes the counters and cleans the dishes, but resentment can build if the bad habits persist. When I lived in community for the first time with other full-time lay volunteers, a used pot, left behind one too many times, somehow walked upstairs and slipped into the suspected culprit’s bed, a not-so-subtle reminder to clean up after oneself. Ten years later, we still laugh about it.

In a work setting, a similar battle can brew in the staff lounge around the coffee maker.

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When I graduated from college and started working in an office for the first time, I saw people drinking four, five, even six cups of coffee every day. Resolved to avoid that particular habit (I already had enough others of my own), I forsook coffee altogether. But perhaps there was a hidden reason I passed on the morning cup of joe: I wanted to avoid the inevitable tensions around choosing the type of coffee (light or dark, fair trade or not), purchasing the coffee, brewing it and, of course, cleaning up.

Years later, when I taught an early morning class, I surrendered; though I never drank more than a single necessary cup to get my day started. It also helped that I had a relationship of convenience with the coffee maker. I lived with 13 other Jesuits, so we had a sizeable percolator and a willing (I think) brewmeister. I never had to do any work.

After I finished the teaching gig, I stopped drinking coffee—until the fateful day when I encountered one of the greatest of American inventions. In one fell swoop, all of my concerns about communal responsibility for a coffee maker dissipated with the arrival of the Keurig machine, an ingenious device that delivers custom brewed single cups of coffee on demand. Everything was so easy. As the company sells itself: “Choose. Brew. Enjoy. Three simple words that started a coffee brewing revolution.” Immediately I started drinking coffee again. I am not even sure if I needed coffee or even wanted it. It just seemed so easy, so why not? No one needed to take responsibility for brewing a pot of coffee for the whole office. We could avoid any debate about what kind of coffee to buy. People could choose their own cup and do their own work.

Reflecting on these dynamics, I had a minor epiphany: the Keurig machine seems to foster individualism, which conflicts with my values of community and generosity toward others. But that isn’t my only concern.

First, it is expensive. We typically buy Keurig-cups for just under a dollar each, which may cost less than a latte at Starbucks but is far more expensive than a cup of Folgers. Second, it is not environmentally friendly. With the individual Keurig-cups, which admittedly offer a nice array of roast and flavor options, we create more trash after each brew. Third, even this method of brewing is not entirely effortless. It takes a little time for the cup to brew. And who will refill the water? Who will buy the coffee? Who will clean the machine when old coffee begins to cake on it? The shadow side of this brewing revolution has become glaringly apparent.

In time, we have made an effort to be more conscientious. To avoid the high cost and needless waste associated with K-cups, one of my co-workers purchased a plastic cup that could be refilled with any brand of coffee and reused. Brilliant. I loved the idea and started doing that immediately.

This practice, however, raised another question. If I am filling the plastic filter with ground coffee each time I make a cup for myself, why not instead use a larger filter, put in more coffee and brew enough not just for myself but for others?

In one of the most mundane practices in the culture of American workplaces, I think I have learned something about the false promise of individualism and the unexpected efficiency of communal commitment. We started with a large coffee maker, sought an individualist solution in a Keurig machine, and now it appears we may end up right where we started.

Next time, rather than avoid doing a small favor for my co-workers or community members, I will embrace the opportunity.

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Bruce Snowden
4 years 3 months ago
. Hi, I'll say it again as I did in "A Coffee-Maker Experiment." As a coffee drinker, sometimes five cups daily and certainly four, I enjoyed reading Jesuit Father Luke Hansen's contribution on "coffee-making" and had some laughs too. My MD told me to keep drinking as long as it doesn't give me arrhythmias, or sleeplessness, neither problems for me. Besides for whatever its worth, a recent media announcement claimed that coffee helps prevent bladder cancer! Health advantages help, but the simple truth is, I like the stuff, always without sugar and always with Half and Half. Years ago I knew a priest who on a Saturday night preparing Sunday's homily, would sit in the dining room and drink empty a large pot of coffee, no milk, no sugar. He said it helped him write his homily! Well, I can't vouch for that, even though he was a pretty good homilist! Thanks Fr. Hansen - you have confirmed me in my "sin!" (TWO times!) I hope you're laughing! .
Bruce Snowden
4 years 3 months ago
P.S Hi, Father Hansen, let me add I'm not now, never was, or ever will be a Keurig person - too much brainwork to use it! I do coffee the old fashion way, in a glass pot in a coffee machine with hot plate, making only what I need, rinsing the pot until the next time. I know all about "messy" Community kitchens, been through that, but now because you can't teach an old dog new tricks, I am thank God, FREE AT LAST to do it the right way, drinking coffee my way. Hmmm good!!! I like your homey style articles, often "mirthful" to use a Fr. James Martin word.
Mary Sweeney
4 years 3 months ago
You should try a French Press. They come in various sizes, but are designed for "make and drink" not make and wait. The coffee tastes so much better. You use less coffee than you would otherwise which is an economic benefit as well as reducing your caffeine consumption. The one thing you must beware of with a French Press is to make sure that the plunger actually reaches the bottom of the carafe. (cf: https://www.facebook.com/notes/mary-sweeney/political-insights-from-my-french-press-no-not-paris-match/628822667129621) This seems obvious but regrettably it is not. I purchased a brand new single serve BonJour in a Salvation Army - tags still on - for $5.00. You can heat the water in a microwave and then you just pour it into the carafe, wait, plunge, and pour :-)
Vincent Gaitley
4 years 3 months ago
You just bristle at the mention of individualism. Community living also has its limitations, including the limits on fretting over every little thing. Relax over the coffee--you liberals make the personal too political. There are no false promises in individualism unless you make them to yourself. Communities, families, towns, villages, and states, well, there are the false promises…and promise makers! When you go to God and account for yourself you will be glad that you stand alone with your virtues, graces, and sins--and not with mine. Now go and drink tea and sin no more.

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