Apr 112009

Beer is a social drink. Bottled water is a drink for loners.

That’s my summary of Susan McWilliams’ article at Front Porch Republic, “Beer and Civic Life.” Here is a sample of the way she puts it herself:

Drinking beer emanates, albeit clumsily and with all the familiar risks, from essentially social impulses. Most people drink beer to lower social inhibitions, to make it easier to have conversations with other people, to assuage loneliness, to grease the wheels for engaging in what my students euphemistically call “relationships” – in other words, to give a form and excuse for social life. You don’t drink beer to improve your private, individual health.

By contrast, you don’t drink bottled water if you want to have an excuse to hang out with your friends. Drinking bottled water emanates from essentially private or individual concerns. It’s pretty straightforward, actually: you drink bottled water precisely because you do not want to drink common water; you literally do not want to sip from the public trough. The ascendance of bottled water in America is yet another signal of the ascendance of a culture that is individually oriented, almost pathologically obsessive about bodily health, and suspicious of the public sphere.

I think everyone would agree that wine, too, is a social drink. I might have a small glass in the evening by myself, but I’ll at least offer a glass to anyone else within hearing distance. To really enjoy it, though, you need to be with other people.

Coffee is different from all of the above in that it is an all-purpose drink. It’s good to enjoy together with others as an after dinner drink. Coffee is even worth talking about if you and your drinking companions are so inclined. Water, on the other hand — especially bottled water — provides nothing to talk about.

But coffee is also a good loner drink, e.g. when I’m alone with a newspaper or a book.

I just had a cup of Ethiopia Sidamo coffee all by myself, and like so many African coffees it was excellent — very smooth.

The package says “Gerbichu Lela – Sun Dried Ethiopia Sidamo — USDA Organic — Full City.” It has been a long time since I drank an Ethiopia coffee on a regular basis. I used to get Ethipian Sidamo beans from Upson Wine and Coffee in Kalamazoo. But Upson quit carrying it many years ago. I was one of only two customers who had been buying it, I was told. (Maybe it’s not a drink for crowds.) Upson is still my favorite place to get Sumatra and Costa Rica Terrazu beans, but it doesn’t have all the others I like.

A couple of weeks ago I wanted to order some more Tanzania Peaberry beans from Great Northern Roasting Company in Traverse City. That one has a wonderful minty flavor.

“Minty” is not in the official description. I’m not enough of a coffee snob to be able to detect all those flavors listed in the descriptions. But there is something in that Tanzania Peaberry that I don’t taste in any other coffee. But unfortunately, Jack called to tell me that he was all out, and it would be a few weeks before he had more.

He talked me into getting some of his Ethiopia Sidamo beans instead. I ordered two pounds, in addition to a couple of types of Mexico coffee that I’ve liked. It will take several weeks to drink that much coffee, and older coffee is not as good as fresh roasted. If money was no object I’d buy smaller amounts of coffee every week. But I try to save money on shipping and/or driving. And even after several weeks these coffees are still far better than any beans I can buy in the grocery stores, which are not all bad themselves.

After the first couple of cups I started to regret that I had bought so much of that Ethopia coffee. But then I realized it’s really good. Maybe I just had bad luck brewing the first two cups, or wasn’t paying careful enough attention. Now when I know I have time to sit back and enjoy it, either alone or with my wife, I go for the Ethiopia.

There is one factor that encourages at least a small level of sociability. I like making two cups, one for me and one for my wife or anyone else who cares for one. It tastes better when I make two at a time. It’s probably because the double amount of water holds the heat better in the French press.

So in summary, if you’re a sociable type, drink beer or wine. If you’re unsociable, drink bottled water. If you have multiple personality disorder, drink coffee — the drink for any level of sociability.