Monday, April 28, 2008


I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

I’ve recently gotten a new coffee maker, the old one having died. I had two main criteria in the selection process:

  1. It had to have at least a “10 cup” capacity, where “cup”, here, is a flaky term that has no relationship to the 8-ounce “cup” that’s used as a measurement in American cooking.
  2. It had to have an insulated carafe to keep the coffee warm, and not use a hot-pad for the purpose — the latter cooks the coffee after it’s brewed, and gives it an off taste.

My old coffee maker had those characteristics as well, and it died not of failure of the mechanism, but of a mechanical failure in the vacuum-insulated carafe. Specifically, the glass interior exploded, unprovoked, as far as I could tell, by mishandling or other trauma.

So no glass interior this time; I settled on a Cuisinart model, claiming “12 cups” and having an all-metal carafe with a plastic lid and handle. I skipped the models with integrated grinders and other foofaraw; this is a straightforward thing. It makes coffee.

But it does have one other feature: it has a timer (it claims “program”, in some pretense to artificial intelligence, but, really, all you can do is give it a single time at which it should make coffee; it’s a timer).

And I’ve recently heard from a friend who lives elsewhere, a story by email of the demise of a coffee maker that seemed to have executed its “program” incorrectly, and thus executed itself. It fwooshed and it burbled, trying to make the noises it would make when preparing coffee, at a time when it had no water for the purpose and should have been having an afternoon nap in any event. And now it makes coffee no more.

There was no collateral damage from that, and, indeed, these machines are supposed to have safety against causing kitchen fires or worse if they’re turned on sans l’eau. The instruction manual for mine says that when the timer (sorry, program) comes on, it will detect the absence of water (hm...) and will turn itself back off after some seconds, to try again tomorrow.

But why? There’s no benefit that I see in having the timer remain armed day after day... and every safety reason why it should not.

Look: here’s how I prepare for morning coffee...

  1. One time only, I set the clock to the current time.
  2. One time only, I set the “program” time.
  3. I press the “auto” button. A hard-to-read indicator comes on that says it’s armed and ready. But ready for nothing until...
  4. Before bed, I put water in the reservoir.
  5. I put coffee grounds in the filter basket (I got a permanent filter, reducing waste).
  6. I go to bed.
  7. On my way out the door in the morning, I pour coffee into my thermos, dump the grounds, and rinse the filter.
  8. That evening, I clean the carafe and repeat from step 4.

If I forget to prep things in the evening, the machine will fail to make coffee, of course. But if there’s a malfunction, its attempt could be damaging, couldn’t it?

Why not just have the “auto” state reset each morning, and change the loop in the last step to go back to step 3 — make me press the “auto” button each time I put water and coffee in to prepare for the next day? It seems a simple change that adds safety, no? And it can’t really be automatic anyway, since it can’t make coffee without my nightly preparation.

Hm, I wonder if these things have ever set kitchens aflame....


lidija said...

You should make sure to patent that ;-)

lidija said...

During that painful transition from grad school to work (where we had to get up at a reasonable hour) we bought one of those automatic coffee-makers that grinds the beans on schedule too. It lived until the first morning when it started, before the alarm clock, in our (then apartment's) tile-clad kitchen, down a tile-clad hallway, and it sounded like a thousand boulders coming down onto my head. I returned it the same day.

nina said...

For the love of Victrola, get a French press!

Paul said...

I have a relatively new Black and Decker thermal carafe coffee maker that works just as you describe. When I set it to "auto," it makes coffee at the prescribed time...once. If I want it to repeat the performance the next morning, I have to press "auto" again.

Barry Leiba said...

Oh, well... so much for Lidija's idea of patenting it. (Sort of an inside IBM joke anyway, that was.)

Sounds like B&D has it right!

Paul said...

Well, the carafe isn't very big. It bills itself as an eight cupper. So my wife and I can usually get two cups each in the morning.