Q&A With Ruth Brown, the Coffee Nerd

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Have you ever wondered where coffee comes from? Or how it’s made? How to drink it? We’ve definitely thought about it a few times while sipping our morning brew. Ruth Brown, a New York-based journalist, also wondered about coffee, so she decided to do something about it and write a book. “Coffee Nerd” goes over everything you would want to know about coffee, from its history, to where it’s produced, to how to make that perfect cup of coffee. The Manual caught up with Brown to ask her about all things coffee.

Why did you decide to write a book on coffee?

I’ve written a lot about coffee and the coffee industry as a journalist. And when I looked around at the other coffee books out there, I found most of the ones aimed at beginners are out of date, because so much has changed in the coffee industry in the past decade and especially the past, say, five years; and most of the more recent ones are written by roasters or baristas or other coffee industry professionals, and they often presume a certain amount of prior knowledge about the subject and they tend to talk a lot about that person’s perspective or experiences. So I wanted to write something from a consumer perspective, and something for people who are maybe a bit intimidated to walk into a really cool cafe and order a drink they have never heard of, or buy a packet of beans with a bunch of words on the label they can’t even pronounce. I wanted to write a book that was a really easy read, and that broke everything down in a really simple way and makes the new wave of coffee really accessible to newcomers. I also wanted to poke fun at the whole scene a bit, because it can get pretty pretentious and silly; I think saying “If this whole thing seems kinda ridiculous to you, that’s fine, because it totally is” takes some of the mystery and intimidation out of it all.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about coffee while researching this book?

Hmm, well I learned a LOT of things, because I’m from Australia originally and have only lived in the U.S. about five or so years. So there were a lot of things about coffee in America I had to research. It was interesting to learn that around the ’50s, Italian immigrants brought espresso machines over here and all the beatniks in New York and San Fran started hanging out at Italian cafes sipping espresso. Because the exact same thing happened in Australia, but over there, it really caught on — especially in my hometown of Melbourne — and Australia has had a really strong café and espresso culture ever since. Like when people in Australia — truck drivers, your grandma, anyone — say they’re going for coffee, they almost always mean espresso. Whereas here, it didn’t catch on very widely, and it wasn’t really until the arrival of Starbucks that most of the country started drinking espresso drinks, and even now, a lot of people still don’t.

How much coffee did you drink in your research?

I didn’t really drink a lot for research, but I drank waaaaay too much while writing. I have a full-time job, so there were a lot of caffeine-fueled late nights and marathon weekend writing sessions. Ironically, I drank a lot of not-so-great coffee in the process, because a lot of the better cafes in my neighborhood don’t have wi-fi or power outlets, so I’d have to make compromises when my laptop battery got low or I needed to look stuff up.

So what actually goes into a perfect cup of coffee?

I mean, the “perfect” cup of coffee is probably whatever makes you as a drinker happiest. But for the sake of argument, I’ll say that it is two things: one is good beans — grown and processed well, stored and transported well, roasted to highlight the beans’ best characteristics, and used as a close to the time of roasting as possible; the second is good preparation — ground evenly in a good burr grinder right before brewing, and then extracted perfectly, which basically means the water is applied to the grounds in all the optimal ways (temperature, time, technique, and so forth) for whatever type of brewer or coffeemaker you’re using so that the best flavor can be extracted. Personally, for me a perfect cup of coffee is also one where no one was exploited horribly in the production of it — all the workers from picking to roasting (but especially at the picking end) were adequately compensated, and the environment also wasn’t horribly devastated in its creation. But I’m a bleeding heart like that.

What is the worst way to prepare coffee?

I guess the opposite of above? Shitty beans that were picked by child slaves, prepared incompetently. Or maybe “single serve coffee makers.” I’m not going to use brand names, but you know: those pod things. They’re super wasteful and they are made to use old, pre-ground coffee.

What’s your best advice for coffee drinkers?

Find a top local roastery or café, and get to know the roaster or baristas there, then ask them loads of questions. People who are passionate about coffee — professionally passionate about coffee — are usually more than happy to chat to you about it. Like it is literally their job. If you want advice on brewing or buying or anything else coffee-related, they can help. There is a reason I failed science in high school, and that is because I do not understand the point of experimenting when somebody has already figured out the answer (okay, that and laziness and I also do not like mice). It is crazy to me to fumble around in the dark trying to figure out how to make your coffee better when there are highly accessible people who can just tell you how to do it.

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Coffee Nerd, $11.99 at amazon.com.