The Snarky Secretary Makes Coffee

There are a great many people in the world who do not need to know how to make coffee. Executives spring to mind, they have people for that. Buddhist monks, probably. Also: small children, surgeons, those with anxiety disorders and/or weak hearts, the exceedingly British, and the majority of the population of China.

However, if you are any flavor of secretary whatsoever, it will become necessary at some point. If you are ever the first secretarial type in the building and you don’t make coffee, even if you never drink it, people will consider you a less competent form of assistant. If you are the person whose job it is to make coffee, then you must know how to make it, again whether or not you drink it. I don’t particularly care if you’ve never let a drop of it past your lips, or hold coffee beans sacred to the worship of dancing goats; you need to know how to make coffee as a basic job survival skill. Trust me, when it comes down to you and that other employee with roughly equal skills and seniority, making good coffee will come up in the ‘which one do we fire’ conversation at some point. It may come up in jest, but secretly, every coffee drinker involved in making the decision will consider it the deciding factor, akin to religious belief in its immunity to any further logic and reason.

So, without further ado, your relatively brief lesson in making coffee:

Prep Work

1) Learn where it’s kept. This will take some advance reconnaissance, but there’s nothing worse for your image than a coffee-starved paycheck provider watching you needlessly prolong their caffeine-deprived state. Know where it is, where the extra is kept, and who to tell if you’re about to run out. Also know where the filters are kept, if your coffeemaker needs them. Which brings us to…

2) Know your coffee maker. A lot of places have hardline automatic drip coffee makers, these days, where you don’t actually have to add water. Smaller or older offices may have traditional automatic drip coffee makers. (For ease and relative brevity, I will assume you are using some sort of auto-drip model.)  If you have a particularly picky executive, you might need to know how to use a French press. Some offices have sprung for single-cup machines. Wikipedia can tell you more than you ever wanted to know about most of them.   Specifically, you’ll want to know:

  1. a. Does it use a filter? Not all auto-drip coffee makers do, anymore. Many have a permanent reusable filter. These get pretty gross, so if your machine uses them, wash it out before every use, preferably with a brush-type scrubber.
  2. b. Does it need the water added, or does it do it itself?
  3. c. If it’s a single cup machine, what is the minimum cup size, how big of a mug is too big to fit in the machine, and how many pods/discs/kcups will it take to fill your target’s cup?

Actual Brewing

3) Clean up the old mess first. Dump out the pot and rinse it well.  If you have the time, go over it with a soapy sponge and rinse very well.  If you have access to the supplies, don’t use soap, instead put water, a teaspoon of salt, lemon juice (optional) and ice cubes in and swirl it around until the pot is clean, then rinse once more. Dump out the old grounds, and rinse the basket well.

4) Put the RIGHT SIZE filter in, PROPERLY. Do you know what happens if the filter goes in, and doesn’t sit the way it’s meant? The filter folds over during brewing and grounds get into the pot. THIS IS DISGUSTING. You wouldn’t drink water with sand in it; no coffee drinker wants coffee with grounds in it. Don’t let it happen, if you can help it.

4.5) Before adding coffee, wet the filter down.  This is an optional step.  Connoisseurs say that this eliminates the “papery taste” added by the filter.  Sounds like annoying wedgie-in-their-superiority-pants fault-finding to me, since if you’re THAT much of a connoisseur, you should probably bring your own damn coffee instead of drinking the crappy free work stuff, but saying this haughtily to someone else might give you some added job satisfaction, so there you go.

5) Put coffee in the filter. ENOUGH COFFEE. Coffee pots are typically measured in 6 ounce “cups.” This means that a ten-pot coffee maker (the standard for most offices) makes 60 ounces of coffee, not 80. Arcane and a little confusing, yes, but now you know.

For each 6-oz cup, you need 2 level tablespoons of grounds. Yes, this seems like rather a lot. Make peace with it, please. If all you have for a measuring device is a teaspoon of some sort, you can fudge it to be 1 really heaping spoonful per 6 oz cup.

(Note: If you’re office is hoity enough to use whole bean coffee, you will need to grind it.  Before putting it in the filter, if you please.  Same measurements, just put it in the grinder and grind it to a rough sand consistency for French press, fine salt consistency for most others.)

Brewing coffee is, essentially, a balancing act between flavor (first extracted) and caffeine (last extracted.).  Now, let’s take a moment to consider high school chemistry and mathematics. You know all those annoying “You have a 50% solution and a 30% solution and want a 33.57432% solution…” problems? Do you know what you could NEVER make with a mixture of a 50% solution and a 30% solution? A 75% solution. You cannot make coffee stronger once it’s made without making it taste like the ass-end of engine sludge acquired in the La Brea tar pits. You CAN make it weaker with relatively minimal negative flavor impact.  Therefore, when making coffee, it is better to err on the side of maximal flavor/caffeine balance. If anyone who has no direct effect on your paycheck complains, politely suggest they add hot water. If your paycheck provider still complains, make weaker coffee. Principles only go so far, really.

5.5) Add a SMALL pinch of salt (no more than an 1/8th teaspoon for 10 cups.) This, again, is an optional step to make you look way cooler than you may actually be and give you a chance to assert superiority over those people who annoy you most.  Theoretically, this reduces bitter compounds in the final product.   Depending on your coffee consumers, you could additionally-or-instead add cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, cardamom, or vanilla extract to the grounds.  Just don’t do this if your paycheck provider is a coffee purist.  They get grumpy if the first pot of the day is something other than coffee-flavored coffee.

6) Put the filter and basket into the machine.  If your machine doesn’t do the water thing itself, fill the coffee pot to its neck-band with COLD water, and add it to the machine.  Adding warm or hot water doesn’t make it brew faster, since the drip rate is usually throttled and constant.  Cold water will brew optimally.  If you have access to filtered water, use that.  Most coffee makers call for it anyway.  Realistically, anything you can do to make crappy free office coffee taste even remotely better is probably a welcome improvement.

7) Make sure the pot is properly seated below the drip spout, then turn the machine on.  Wait for a moment to make sure that things are proceeding as they should.  There’s really nothing worse than walking away patting yourself on the back, only to find out later than you have to clean up a giant mess.  (It generally takes a minute or two for coffee to start making it into the pot, so don’t panic right away.)

Congratulations!  You have made coffee that doesn’t suck!

A few last notes:

  • If you do drink coffee, don’t be the person who drinks the last full cup and doesn’t make more coffee.  At the very least, tell the person in charge of making coffee that you took the last full cup, and let them decide whether time left in the day and local consumption levels call for another pot.  Also, turn the machine/burner OFF if you do this.  Cemented coffee tar at the bottom of the carafe makes you less likely to be invited for alcoholic drinks after work, because NO ONE will like you if they think you do this.
  • Whenever possible, avoid making partial pots of coffee.  (Hardline machines generally won’t even have a setting for this.)  This is because auto-drip machines have a very specific temperature cycle that is optimized for the amount of coffee they are built to make.  If, for whatever reason, you do need to make a partial pot, don’t make less than half the pot’s designated amount, and make sure that whoever will be drinking it either knows your normal standard of coffee quality well, or is deeply enamored of your other skills.  Partial pots never taste right.
  • If you are someone’s assistant, one of your first tasks should be learning how to make their coffee / tea / hot beverage of choice *for* them.  Cream, fake creamer, sugar, fake sugar, whatever; learn how they like it, even if you almost never have to do this.  It may involve a certain deployment of stalking skills at first, or they may tell you outright.  Either way, make it your business to know.  If you are not someone’s assistant, but WISH to be, this is even more important.  Knowing how to do this will make you instantaneously a more valuable employee in their eyes.  Ass-kissing? Yes.  Self-preservation?  Absolutely.
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One thought on “The Snarky Secretary Makes Coffee

  1. This post is dedicated to the receptionist at my current assignment, who makes incredibly weak coffee, and didn’t know what half-and-half *was*, let alone that it needed to be refrigerated.

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