“Craig, you better come in here,” my wife, Elizabeth, called from the kitchen. “Something is wrong with the coffee maker.”
These are words no one ever wants to hear. But especially in these days of lockdown life at home, when that first sip of caffeine is the wake-up kiss that syncs my pulse to sanity, the coffee maker cannot fail me. We stood in front of my Technivorm Moccamaster KBT 741, a famously reliable drip machine that’s essential to my morning routine. The brew light was on, but nothing was happening. I tried to appear calm. But inside, yeah, I was beginning to panic wondering why it refused to spring to life ...
I’ve been obsessed with coffee my entire adult life. As a result, I’ve collected a dozen-plus brewing machines, from various sizes of moka pots for stovetop espresso, to a simple French press, a Vietnamese phin, an AeroPress plunge, and a copper ibrik for thick Turkish coffee scented with cardamom. I also have multiple pour-over funnels to do justice to the complexity of fancier beans, including an hourglass-shaped Chemex with a custom black cozy to keep its glass walls warm.
It’s been a fun hobby. But I never expected I’d need to play barista for real, that I’d actually have to rely on my coffee gear so completely during this pandemic to service my habit of four to five cups a day. I’ve always had cafes to satiate and elevate that pursuit — at least, until now.
We’ve been sipping through a golden age of cafes in Philadelphia the past two decades, and I’ve come to appreciate our best for more than their mastery of macchiato. I prize the culture and community these coffee shops provide — those coveted “third spaces" beyond the home and office that marked the pace of my daily rhythms, where I could find an early hour of calm and caffeinated clarity before the workday hustle, connect with friends on a midday break, or chat with talented baristas like April Nett and Elysa DiMauro at Menagerie Coffee as they transform something as seemingly mundane as brewing a cup of roasted beans into high art.
DiMauro and Nett’s business, which is all about the in-cafe experience, has taken a gut punch since the shutdown in mid-March. After laying off all 14 employees at their two locations, it’s just the two of them now, sliding 50 or so prepaid online orders of cappuccino and vivid green matcha lattes a day through the makeshift take-out window in the doorway of their shop in Old City. The beautiful foam designs of rosetta hearts wrapped in intricate rings of delicately steamed milk they were once known for? Oh, they’re still there, richly rendered in lovingly frothed Maplehofe dairy. But the latte art is beside the point in these days of plastic take-out lid survival: “We’re just trying to hang in there,” said Nett, ever upbeat despite the grim situation.
Some neighborhood standbys, like Uncle Bobby’s Coffee and Books in Germantown and Talula’s Daily on Washington Square, are temporarily closed altogether. Cafes that roast their own beans, like Elixr, Rival Bros., Ultimo, ReAnimator, Square One, Ox Coffee, and Backyard Beans, among others, are in a slightly better place, with rapidly growing e-commerce sites and grocery sales adding a breath of extra life. The region’s powerhouse, La Colombe, which has 34 cafes nationwide, has seen a nearly 700% increase in online bean sales and a boost from its canned draft lattes, said cofounder Todd Carmichael.
“This is the worst time to start avoiding those things that actually create a little level of happiness or stimulation,” said Carmichael, confident in coffee’s enduring draw as an essential.
However, 365 baristas from La Colombe’s 1,000-person workforce across the country have been furloughed, albeit with health care for about 182 full-timers. At least 300 other baristas across the region are also out-of-work, according to longtime Philly coffee educator and community organizer Kendra Sledzinski. They’re now depending on unemployment checks and the kindness of donations to the Go Fund Me and Venmo accounts many employers have established.
I’ve contributed to several because, among other things, I miss their craft, as one can tell by the photo gallery of my motley home cappuccinos topped with milk frothed by an Aerolatte, essentially a cross between an electric toothbrush and a whisk. I call the collection #MyPitifulLatteArt, and each ends up being something of a Rorschach test, divining meaning from the milky clouds. One morning I saw the face of an elder in a headdress on my bowl; on Thanksgiving I drew a lucky turkey. Was that Kermit the Frog peeping cheerfully back at me bug-eyed one morning? Elmo? You be the judge. I’m still working on Gritty.
“Not everybody has a La Marzocco GB5 [espresso machine] at their house,” said Nett, deadpanning the understatement.
It could be worse.
Ali Beckmann, 28, who works as a nanny for Todd Carmichael and his wife, Lauren Hart, found herself quarantined and caffeine-deficient at her home in Mount Airy, scrounging through a housemate’s boxes in her basement desperately in search of a brewing device. Like many millennials, Beckmann had never actually made herself a cup of coffee, having grown up with easy access to her parents’ push-button home machine and Philly’s thriving cafes.
“I’m from the K-cup generation,” she said, referring to Keurig’s ubiquitous pod coffee machines. “We’re not the types to sit down and relax at home with a cup of coffee. We’d rather stop by a café on the way to work or grab a draft latte on our way out the door.”
She found an old-school Melitta dripper in her basement, but no filters. So she used paper towels instead, a technique mastered by Carmichael in a video on making quarantine coffee without a machine.
Not surprisingly, there has suddenly been double-digit growth in coffee maker sales over this period last year, according to the NPD Group, a retail industry tracker.
“It’s been a little over a month and people are saying, ‘Yup, I’m going to be in this for a while and I better get my home coffee game squared away,' " says Peter Giuliano, executive director of coffee research for the Specialty Coffee Association. “The buzz in the coffee industry is that this is the week everyone’s buying coffee machines.”
The SCA has its own recommendations for brewers it has independently tested and certified for high performance. And then there are the umpteen online tutorials you can find on how to brew coffee like a pro, from witty international advice on V60 pour-overs and the Aeropress from 3f2 in Dublin, Ireland, to this handy Inquirer story with brewing 101 tips from ReAnimator’s director of coffee, Matt Scottoline. I even managed to make the Instagram-famous whipped coffee drink sensation called Dalgona for my daughter’s 21st birthday — though my arm nearly fell off hand-whisking instant coffee, sugar, and water into a dulce de leche-like coffee paste before spooning it over a glass of iced milk.
As much as I’ve taken this homebound period of isolation to fine-tune my coffee skills, though, there is no replacement for the sense of respite from work that a stroll from the newsroom to the coffee shop for an afternoon Americano used to provide, or the many cafe friends I’d reliably see in early mornings to talk about wine, food, families, and travel (Hi Andrea! Hi Steven! Hi Adam!), or even the people I didn’t know though I saw them every week. They all helped provide a comforting sense of routine that offered daily structure and the promise of a perfect pick-me-up.
Instead, these shelter-in-place days inevitably feel shapeless, no matter how many times I set water to boil for the Chemex or load my tiny Alessi moka pot for a shot of stovetop espresso, which turns out to be startlingly often. And yet, I’d be totally unmoored without coffee. And so, as Elizabeth and I stared at our trusty Technivorm trying to figure out what was wrong, I realized the steel carafe was ever so slightly askew. I pushed it back into its cradle, took a deep breath and waited ...
Its powerful brewer gurgled to life, and we both exhaled.