Low Tech, High Concept – the Minimalist Coffee Making Solution

By: Kristoffer

There’s no point in sugar coating it. While Emmie’s struggling to rid herself of coffee addiction, I’m a hopeless case. I’m down to one cup in the morning and one in the afternoon, but that seems to be as low as I’m willing to go. Drinking pitch black coffee is part of my identity, and therefore, I have to own and maintain the necessary paraphernalia. The obvious minimalist approach would be freeze dried coffee; requiring nothing but a cup, hot water and something to stir with. Unfortunately, unless I’ve woken up after a night’s camping under the stars, I’m too much of a snob to accept this variety of coffee as drinkable – leaving me with the need to figure out a solution that feeds my addiction in a way as clutter free as possible.

Here, we have the sort of challenge I’ve enjoyed immensely during my, now decade long, career of industrial engineering. There are few occasions when I feel as satisfied as when I can go deep into a problem, understand what will make a solution work, and then simplify it until only the essentials are left. Before we start thinking of solutions, though, we must understand what it is we’re trying to achieve. Otherwise, we’ll probably end up with a cool, complicated gadget and desperately start making up needs that it will satisfy. The failure to stop and think about what it is that really needs to be achieved is likely the root cause of many impulse purchases, and, by extension, cluttered homes.

A short requirement specification is a good place to start understanding the need for a coffee making solution:

  • Must: make coffee that makes me say “Jävlar vad gött!” out loud every time I take the first few sips in the morning.
  • Should: consist of as few parts as possible and have a high modularity index – meaning that most of the included parts have multiple uses and can be combined with other items to satisfy more needs than coffee making.
  • Nice to have: no reliance on disposable, one use only, items that cost money, create hassle and waste resources.

The “should”- and “nice to have” requirements are rather easy to quantify when comparing solutions, but what about the most important requirement of all – what makes a great cup of coffee? After consulting Dr. Google for a short but intense bout of research, I’ve reached the conclusion that coffee greatness – apart from the quality of the coffee powder – is dependent on two things: the temperature of the water and the speed at which it passes through the coffee powder. Before our minimalist deliverance we thought we deserved a Moccamaster filter brewer. This machine excels in both areas and the amazing coffee it produces will be the benchmark for the minimalist solution. No matter how minimalist, the coffee can’t be any less delicious than this.

Why not just keep the Moccamaster, then? Well, like most coffee makers, it takes up space, has a bunch of parts that needs cleaning, requires frequent decalcifying and is only usable for making coffee. To me and my lean manufacturing damaged soul, this seems like too much pomp and circumstance to make hot water pass swiftly through coffee powder and be collected in a vessel that keeps it in place. OK, it does one more thing. The coffee that’s already passed the ground beans is kept warm until all of it is ready.

So, to replicate the awesomeness of the Moccamaster we need to figure out how to do the following:

  • Heat water to at least 92 and no more than 96 degrees Celsius. That’s right below the boiling point, for those of you who are more accustomed to arbitrary and uncivilised ways of measuring things.
  • Pass hot water through ground coffee beans, without getting too much murky sump into the coffee we’re going to drink.
  • Keep the coffee nicely oriented in time and space so that it doesn’t escape all over the kitchen, create a horrible mess, go cold and get difficult to drink in an orderly manner.
  • Keep the coffee warm until it’s all finished.

After some dithering about and brainstorming with Emmie – who, at this point in our long relationship, has a very engineer-ish approach to problem solving – we came up with the following solutions to the challenges stated above:

  • Heating water: the electric kettle! This device does a remarkable job at making the amounts of water needed for coffee making go to precisely the wanted temperature. Just boil the water, wait 30 seconds and you’ll be right there. Sure, a pot on the stove would be even more minimalist, but until we get an induction plate the electric kettle has way better thermal efficiency – saving time and utility bills. Making water go hot is a very usable thing, so this part of the solution gets a good score on the modularity index.
  • Pass hot water through ground coffee beans: the re-usable gold-plated filter. These ones are great! Not only will they last forever and have superior filtering qualities, but they also have their own supporting frame – meaning that, if the collecting vessel has enough space to keep the brewing process under its rim, no other devices are needed to support them. They don’t get an excellent modularity score, but at least they can be used for making tea.
  • Keep the coffee nicely oriented in time and space: a steel jar! This thing is wonderful. It looks nice, is more or less indestructible, can be heated from below and, last but not least, manipulating the whereabouts of liquids is something we do very frequently – giving this part of the system an excellent modularity score.
  • Keep the coffee warm: Now, where could I possibly find a flat, warm surface in the vicinity of my kitchen? Well, I guess the stove top would do. Here the modularity index goes through the roof. The stove can off course be used for many more things than just making coffee!
Making coffee the minimalist way, with a kettle, a steel jar, a stove top and a re-usable filter.

Apart from the stuff we need to cook food and water our plants, I apparently only require one extra gadget to sustain my caffeine addiction. The downside is that I need to pay a little bit more attention when pouring the hot water, compared to just flicking a switch on a machine. But all things considered, this way of making coffee actually takes a bit less time when accounting for the cleaning and decalcifying of the Moccamaster. However, there’s still one question of the utmost importance to be answered. How does the minimalist coffee taste? After having tried a number of times, I can happily conclude that the answer is that it tastes just as great as the benchmark brew from the Moccamaster.

This approach to satisfying our needs relates to a minimalist guideline we call “Low tech, high concept”. “Low tech” means simple and robust solutions, while “high concept” means a deep understanding of the underlying principles. As you can see in this example, profound understanding of the problem to be solved – making good coffee – coupled with a structured and critical approach – questioning whether a traditional coffee maker is the sole solution – can end up with something much simpler and cheaper than what commercial interests are trying to make you spend your money on. Subsequently, peeling away unnecessary details also makes it possible to invest where it really matters. Note that the minimalist coffee making solution includes a GOLD-PLATED filter, but still, the total cost will only be a fraction of what you’d have to pay for a decent coffee machine.

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