Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Coffee Ban

I’ve been banned from using the coffee machine in my office. Honest to god. Banned. Clearly there’s a story here — not a very good story mind you, but the other option is me telling you about the conference I went to on RNA interference, so I think you’ll probably agree that the "banned from the coffee machine" story was the better choice.

The beautiful Southwark Cathedral next to Borough Market

This morning, as I was sitting in front of Southwark Cathedral sipping my small Sumatran coffee from Monmouth Coffee (after happily spending 20 minutes in line and £2.00 on a simple cup of filter coffee), I had a surprising realization: I’ve become a coffee snob. How did this happen? I suppose it’s natural since I somehow made it through grad school in biology (thanks caffeine, I owe you), I'm a botanist ("Is that 100% Coffea arabica?"), plus I’m an everything-else snob to boot. Actually, much as my barber described the rogue grey hairs that have started forming rebel encampments on my head as looking “distinguished”, I prefer to think of myself as a coffee “aficionado”. The difference, to my mind, is that I will gladly drink a cup of brownish swill at a greasy spoon and appreciate in context, while a snob would simply refuse to drink it in the first place.

The Market Coffee House at Spitalfields, a coffee oasis in London

London, despite being an amazingly worldly city with a flourishing culinary scene, has mostly crappy coffee and relatively little appreciation for good coffee. There are a few really high quality places around, but it certainly isn't commonplace to find good coffee. If you're looking for good coffee in London, definitely don't come to my office. My company provides a few options for coffee: (1) a standard electric coffee maker in the kitchen that no one has used in years and smells funny; (2) a massive multi-drink vending machine with a reassuring picture of Seattle on the front, which dispenses tea, coffee, hot chocolate, chicken soup, and orange soda; and (3) a Flavia Beverage System in the reception area. One could potentially walk outside and buy a coffee from one of the many decent cafes in the surrounding neighborhood, but the concept of “the break” has yet to hit my office. Maybe it’s an American thing, I don’t know. Here’s a photo of the scary multi-drink vending machine:

Anyone for chocolate orange chicken coffee soda?

I call it "The Nutrimatic" after the drink dispenser from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that invariably "delivers a cupful of liquid that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea". After I saw the inner workings of the multi-drink vending machine, with a convoluted network of tubes and containers with frightening labels like "Whitening Agent 23", I vowed never to drink from it again. It also occurred to me that at some point right before the drink hits the cup, there is a single tube through which chicken soup, orange soda, chocolate and coffee all must pass. Yuck.

So this creates a dilemma: either I use the funny-smelling coffee machine, or I walk down to the reception area two floors away and use the Flavia Beverage System. If you know anything about Flavia Beverage Systems, walking down two flights of stairs to get to one is really a questionable choice to say the least, but I need to invent a reason for a break now and then and the coffee, while still instant, is mildly better than the one produced by the Nutrimatic. The Flavia is somewhat clever in that it makes a variety of types of hot drinks based on a selection of individually packaged servings (various coffee roasts, teas, hot chocolate, etc.), avoiding the sketchy chicken soup mixed with coffee situation in The Nutrimatic.

The latest and greatest Flavia Beverage System

Recently, it has become a daily routine for my work mates and myself to trudge downstairs and grab a drink from the Flavia Beverage System for a mid-morning coffee break. Clearly this routine was upsetting someone (no idea why), and we were approached by one of the reception staff who informed us that we were no longer allowed to use the Flavia Beverage System because it is supposed to be reserved for company directors and guests. That was that; banned from the Flavia. "I'm sorry sir, the Twinkies are reserved for the first class passengers." I bet those directors have a secret stash of Hot Pockets and Amstel Light too. This was probably a blessing in disguise: on Monday I'm going to wash out the old funny-smelling coffee machine and start making real coffee myself.


Anonymous said...

I still can't believe Flavia exists in London! We had it back at work in Oakland and I figured it was an entirely American product. Our Cincinnati office had the deluxe electronic Flavia machine that made the whole office smell like artifical vanilla flavoring.

The other funny thing about Flavia is that when Andy and I first arrived in London, we were in the audience at a comedy show and the American guys behind us in the audience stood up and proudly announced they worked for Flavia Beverage Systems in St. Louis. So the rest of the night the comedians made endless jokes about 'Flavored Beverage Systems'...

Krista said...

I love Monmouth coffee. I was drinking a lot of it. Too much, really. (Combined with sh*t coffee from my employer's scary coffee machine.) Truth be told, I started getting weird rashes. While I definitely blame myself more than the Monmouth, be careful. That's some potent brew.

Thanks for the tips on San Pellegrino.

cabernet said...

Try a brew cycle with only white vinegar to clean and remove foul smell from the 2nd class citizen coffee machine.

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