On Coffee, FOMO, and Clawing Out of the Abyss
I own several tools for brewing coffee (three grinders, two French presses, an AeroPress, a Chemex, a V60, a Flair espresso maker…) and I’ve been hunting for the best cup of coffee. For most of 2020, I thought I had it: I was making a latte-like drink using an AeroPress, my microwave, and a frothing wand, and I was happy. The drink tasted great, was easy to make, and had minimal cleanup.
But lately, I’ve been glancing at pump espresso machines, better grinders, and yet more coffee gadgets. I have claimed a decent amount of kitchen counterspace, to the chagrin of my husband, who is in the basement building us a kitchen island out of 80/20 and S4S lumber.
So, why am I not happy with coffee that tastes great and is easy for me to make? The easy answer is FOMO.
I often struggle with the Fear of Missing Out. I’m the type of person who can spend considerable time choosing what book to read, rather than actually reading, because I want to have the “most” enjoyment for my time. There are only so many hours in the day, so shouldn’t we optimize our enjoyment? (Of course, I say this while conveniently ignoring the hours I wasted choosing a book instead of reading).
I wasn’t always this way about coffee. I’ve long sought out techniques that give me 95% perfect coffee with the lowest possible effort. I didn’t used to fuss over pour over techniques; I wasn’t religious about pre-wetting filters or warming my brewing vessel. But somehow, one little tweak to make things better became several, which became learning about how to optimize pouring and how to tune grind, and down the path I went.
In all honesty, getting a Flair (my first proper espresso machine) was supposed to be a stopping point for me. The (flawed) idea was, if I could not tell the difference between a latte made with the Flair (which makes real espresso with 9 bars of pressure) and a latte made with the AeroPress (which does not), then I would have reached the point where adding gear and tools didn’t improve what I already liked.
The idea broke down when I ran this experiment. The Flair and AeroPress lattes tasted different, but not necessarily better or worse than each other. And then I thought, well maybe I’m not giving the Flair a fair trial. After all, I’m not grinding with a grinder for espresso (even though my Capresso burr grinder can grind quite fine). And this type of thinking can lead you into the abyss.
FOMO at its core prevents you from ever being content – you constantly worry if the experience you’re having now is “good enough.” With coffee, “good” is subjective – if you enjoy the coffee, then it’s good. Sure, there are things like acidity, dissolved solids, and other chemical properties of the drink that impact the experience (and you can measure those), but what you like is what you like!
This is the same problem that plagues audiophiles, and it’s why they sound ridiculous to other people – you can get very good headphones (the kind that are used by professional broadcasters) for around $100, and can get excellent headphones for $500, and for most people that’s the end of it. But an audiophile will spend their time upgrading and tweaking their setup, in constant search of “perfect” audio. No one knows what perfect is, but there is no limit to how much time or money can be burned by going down this road. (Sennheiser’s Orpheus headphones, designed to be the best you can buy, are $55,000).
At some point, the quest for perfect coffee also shifts from being about the thing it’s nominally about (listening to music, drinking coffee) into a hobby in its own right. And that’s fine – by the time I got a Flair to make espresso at home, I knew I was approaching that line. But it also runs the risk of taking away from why you started down this path. It’s easy to become so focused on the pursuit of perfection, about “the best cup,” that you ignore why you started: To make something that makes you happy.
To not lose sight of that, I’m pausing my coffee journey here. I’ve put the Flair away. I’m not going to buy myself any more gear for a few months, not going to upgrade my grinder that has served me faithfully all these years. I’m going to force myself to go back to just using my AeroPress and my V60, both of which make excellent coffee (though I have switched up my recipe a bit). And perhaps most importantly, I’ll focus on reminding myself to enjoy it.
The coffee image used in this article is by Will Keightley and is used under a Creative Commons License