27 December 2021

High leverage everyday things

A journey into speciality coffee, tasting magic and appreciating contrast

Over the past few years, I have been getting myself more and more involved into the world of specialty coffee.

What I have come to learn is that making great coffee at home is a high leverage, everyday thing.

Here’s what I mean:

  • High leverage — a high experiential-quality-to-price ratio
  • Everyday thing — something that could form into a sustainable routine, become repeatable

These two elements are mutually inclusive, conditions of “high leverage and rare” or “low leverage and everyday” are not appealing to me. Once I find something that can be considered as high leverage, I want to be able to make it a part of my life — to become repeatable. I believe that a happy life consists of a continuous accumulation of small, happy moments — not the transient blips of joy that come from big purchases, public achievements or one-off celebrations.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear writes about the incredible potential of small actions in leading to massive impact over time and how “habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.”

Where did it start?

When I first got into coffee, I had no idea what I was doing. My first dips into the ocean were through the supermarket aisle, the places where I would do the usual grocery shopping for the week.

This was where I started seeing coffee that was beyond the instant variety — you know, the stuff that live in metal or glass canisters, the almost-universal symbol for coffee. I discovered that coffee was more than just ubiquitous labels like ‘Nescafe’ or ‘Moccona’ and had more unique identities as determined by country of origin or roast profile.

This got me curious, and I started buying pre-grounded coffee that came in bags — I had chosen pre-grounded because at the time I had no idea what I would even do with roasted beans once I brought them home (I would later learn that supermarket pre-grounded coffee often sits for too long, losing their intensity).

The brew method I got initiated with was an Ikea French Press, super cheap and no complicated moving parts. Then the recipe was just a matter of opening up the bag, putting some grounds into the French press, seeping it with water, waiting, pressing and then sitting down to drink the coffee. Man, was it good! It was rich and earthy, more characteristic and in-line to ‘coffee’ as I had visualised than the instant coffee that I had been drinking all the way up to that point. I also noticed that I stopped desiring to add milk into the coffee I was drinking — as I had found the dilution distracting, as opposed to compounding, to the taste of the grounds.

Over time, I progressed onto manual, hand driven bean grinders which opened up an even wider spectrum of beans and flavours. Then onto different brew methods, first it was the Aeropress and now the Kono pour-over dripper. With the pour-over method, came along a bunch of necessary paraphernalia like a digital weighing scale and a temperature controlled gooseneck kettle, which increased the complication but allowed for greater degrees of freedom. This was fun.

As the spectrum continued to expand, I also started to buy roasted beans directly from local Australian roasters who’s stories and offerings I had found compelling:




Breaking the paradigm

One thing that has not failed to surprise me about coffee is how an expense of $15 — $30 can bring to my doorstop some of the best tasting coffee in the world and persist to be a source of magic in my mornings for the following 2 weeks after the bag is opened.

To show how high leverage this is, this is what I mean:

  • Coffee typically grows around the Equator, in regions of Central America, South America, West Africa, East Africa and Asia
  • The coffee plant has to be planted, cultivated and then harvested (mostly) by hand
  • Coffee beans actually reside within a fruit and skin, which has to be processed in preparation for drying, then storage and transport. Processing methods include natural, washed, anaerobic, carbonic maceration and more — each of which influence the final flavour profile of the coffee and each with their own resource demands.
  • Once the raw, green coffee beans arrive at roasteries, they are further prepared to make suitable for grinding and then ultimately, brewing.

As an end user / consumer, I can go into a café and pay ~$7 for a great cup of pour-over coffee at a $7/15g coffee beans ratio or buy a bag of beans directly from a roaster at $15/250g coffee beans ratio. At first glance, the second option seems to be the no-brainer from a price perspective, but note the additional paraphernalia, time and energy that is required to match the same brew quality at home.

You, my dear reader, might be thinking to yourself, “$7 for a cup of coffee??” and I can completely understand where you are coming from. What I have figured out for myself is that the $7 is worth paying for, when in return, I get a cup of magic. I think magic is the right word, because I have experienced cups of coffee that have smelt like honey, chocolate and mangoes, tasted like red wine, white chocolate and kiwi fruit.

“No way!!” you might think to yourself, and so have I. If magic is considered to be those moments when something you previously thought of as impossible becomes possible, then for me great coffee have been the destroyers of existing paradigms and creators of moments of such magic.

An Everyday Thing

Now, imagine being able to start every single day with a little moment of magic. Wouldn’t that be pretty damn good?

At a $15 / 250g coffee beans ratio, that is equivalent to around 16 cups of coffee to be drank. This is crazy.

Of course, one could choose to drink free water instead of coffee, and if this is what you prefer, go right ahead. That is fine, but don’t expect magic if you are not paying anything for it.

At such a high leverage entry point, it becomes highly practicable to make the possibility of drinking great coffee an everyday thing.

However, there is something about greatness that is inaccessible and elusive, which introduces some uncertainty into the mix. You might want to drink great coffee everyday and set up all the conditions for it, but yet miss the mark, as you would realise as soon as your lips touch the dark liquor in the cup.

Great coffee, like great conversations and great works of art, are all seemingly accessible but perhaps are rare to actually experience.

And I think that is okay.

To be able to genuinely appreciate greatness there has to be contrast — a way to tell the difference in quality between one superlative thing and the next. Perhaps, to live everyday surrounded by greatness is to denigrate what is great.

This calls to mind an image of a wealthy homeowner, who lives on a great estate, surrounded by beautiful people and works of art. That, could very well be a path to misery. Expectations and desires can be molded easily, but physical constraints can not.

My sense is that the human mind will incessantly chase for ‘more’, ever ratcheting up the desire for greater and greater things by default, even when the things that surround it might already be at the pinnacle of greatness and right up against the boundaries of physical constraints.

What is important, then, is to not fall into the impossible task of chasing the magic.

When brewing a cup of coffee in the morning, I try to focus on the process, which in itself is a deeply satisfying routine and continues to be a persistent part of my days. Then I sit and I sip, just watching for anything that comes up. After, the day continues.

“Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will evade you, but if you notice the other things around you, it will gently come and sit on your shoulder.”

- Henry David Thoreau
Source: Julian Goh (2021)