t's eight in the morning and you can barely keep your eyes open, much less engage in the activities that constitute productive participation in the glorious neoliberal machinery of our economy. Maybe it's because of the sleep you gave up to spend hours gazing through a rectangular portal into a glowing, bottomless pit you were lured into by the entrails of your own teased apart tastes and beliefs, or because you slept on your friend's waveform of a sofa while your slightly cooler-than-you-can-afford apartment played host to European Airbnb users.
It's not like the particulars matter all that much, anyway, since you can't recall all of them through the haze of drowsiness. At this point you could, as more than half of all American adults do on a daily basis, drink a cup of coffee to stave off the fog of imminent unconsciousness. After all, you love coffee. And not just because of the caffeine. But have you really thought it all through?
Sure, just the other day, you bought some incredible single-origin coffee beans day, and that half-pound bag cost as much as two, maybe three avocado toasts. In fact, you bought enough to keep some at home and at work. It's a legit varietal, like Gesha or Bourbon, from a remarkable local roaster who operates quasi-legally out of a sick loft and specializes in light—but not too light!—roasts, a respectful homage to modern Scandanavian coffee that lets you really get a sense of the bean's terroir, and the barista said that the acidity from this coffee is "really wonderful and fruit-forward, like Hawaiian Punch micro-dosed with LSD."
When you bought it, you checked the roast date printed in the too-small font carefully—because after two weeks you might as well dump it all down the garbage disposable—and how it was processed, because you don't want any of those weird or off flavors you get sometimes with natural coffees, which would ruin everything. Anyway, the point is, the coffee beans are totally great. Right? Sure.
You still have to make the coffee, though. You're so tired you'd love it if a machine made it for you, but cheap automatics aren't good enough for your great coffee beans, and the good automatics aren't cheap enough for your budget. The Chemex's filter is so thick all you can taste is paper; the Aeropress doesn't make enough coffee to get you through the morning, though it'll do whenever you're on the road or at a friend's; the French press is for Europeans and charlatans who love sludge; and you're reasonable enough to never try to make espresso at home. Obviously, you're just going to have to make a pourover, which is fine and totally worth it anyway, you guess, because there's nothing quite like the feeling of crafting, with your personal human hands, a perfect cup of coffee. One. Cup. At. A. Time.
Of course, you might mess it all up, and if you do — as you totally know — you'll have at minimum rendered meaningless the life of a plant, the time and labor of a farmer, the care of a processor, the energy of an importer, the discernment of a coffee buyer, and the skill of a roaster. And there are so, so many ways to screw it up. If you grind the coffee too finely, or make the water too hot, or let it take too long to brew, it will be bitter, because you will have committed the sin of overextraction according to the gospel of the Brewing Control Chart, having dissolved more than twenty-two percent of the grounds' solubles into your cup. Disgraceful.
On the other hand, if your grind setting is too coarse, the water too tepid, or the brew time too short, it will taste sour and vegetal because you underextracted it, and didn't get even eighteen percent of the coffee solubles into your brew. What an idiot, either way. Still, don't be so hard on yourself: As long as the grind is perfectly dialed in, the water correctly heated to the precise temperature, and your drip technique as graceful and measured as the lines of the gooseneck kettle you're pouring water from, everything will turn out just fine.
Anyway, the point is, the coffee beans are totally great. Right? Sure.
But if you're not up to doing it yourself — and who could blame you, you're so exhausted — you could totally get coffee at that fancy shop near your office. You know, the one with the white brick walls, marble counters, and wood accents reclaimed from the wreck of a ship that had carried the very first coffee cargo from Indonesia to Europe after the Dutch colonization.
Sure, the barista who you see every time scowls at you, and he always asks if you want milk and sugar in your coffee, and it's not because he's trying to be chill and accommodating to regular people who just want some coffee the way they've been drinking it their entire lives, but because one time a friend of yours gently asked if she could have some of the shop's flavored syrup in her iced coffee, thereby obligating the barista to explain that a cup of coffee is the singular and miraculous end product of a process that involved the labor of dozens of people stretched across an extraordinarily long supply chain that reaches halfway around the world, and it shouldn't really be covered up with sugar syrup, which is only on the menu for the rubes, anyway.
Then there was that time you tried to order the "seasonal guest espresso" prominently listed on the hand-written menu, just to prove that you're on the barista's level and that you deserve respect as a knowledgeable customer who tips well if not as a human being, but he just mumbled that it wasn't dialed in and so he wouldn't serve it, and you've been beaten down ever since. Facing down that disdain is worth it though, knowing that your coffee is going to be absolutely perfect, because that barista has never made a bad cup of coffee in his entire life.
But the lines are so long, and you're right, you don't have thirty minutes to waste looking at Instagram while you wait for that guy to dourly make your coffee. You need to be driving your Uber or cranking out #content or putting together pitch decks or writing code for a social network for shaved cat owners that will change the world. Maybe you could just buy one of those new ready-to-drink cold brews that come in little bottles or cans, like craft beer, or in little cartons, like craft … milk? They're super convenient and they're made by the companies that made coffee good in the first place, so they're definitely filled with great coffee, even if they don't tell you exactly where it's from on the packaging and, like you read in that one article, all cold brew tastes the same because it doesn't really like taste like much of anything at all — cool water is a poor solvent, so it doesn't extract all those finicky flavors from the beans that let you really know where they came from, right?
On the bright side, that means you could get one of the cartons with the milk and sugar mixed right in, because there's no reason to feel guilty about covering up the coffee when you don't know where it comes from or exactly what it tastes like, and besides, it's finally starting to be cool to admit that milk and sugar taste really good in coffee. But you forgot: carbs. Also, you're not so sure why you're expected to pay just as much for one of those bottles or cartons filled with weeks-old coffee as you would for freshly brewed coffee in a fancy shop, or how you can afford to pay five dollars a cup for coffee twice a day, every day of the week.
Starbucks, then? Never. Even if it's getting nitro cold brew and the white mocha, which you've definitely never taken a sip of, you often admit in a performatively sheepish way, is "pretty good."
Well, you haven't considered this in a long time, but maybe it would make sense to just get a cheap cup of coffee somewhere. At Dunkin Donuts, or Tim Horton's, or a deli. Or even the office pot. Not every cup of coffee needs to be life-changing, after all, and you just need to stay alert enough to seem engaged.
But then you start to think about what's in the paper cup, and your mind moves backward in flashback sequence with lots of fast cuts: the carafe of coffee growing rancid as it's kept warm by a hot plate hours for after being brewed, the grounds dumped indiscriminately into the brewer from a vacuum-sealed foil bag weeks or even months after being roasted at faraway production facility, and finally, on the undistinguished green coffee beans being picked by anonymous farmers paid well below subsistence-level wages for their labor and their crops, or at least way less than they would be paid for growing good coffee, because all that cheap coffee is definitely not fair trade, much less direct trade — there's not a single black-and-white photo of a coffee farmer on Dunkin's website, you've pointed out before — and in the end, you just can't allow yourself to engage in such rampantly unethical consumption.
You know what? All you really need is the caffeine. A Diet Coke sounds great.
Matt Buchanan is Eater's features editor.
Kit Mills is an illustrator, designer, and graveyard enthusiast based in NYC.