Fulfilling needs

We’re already in that part of the crisis where people are making predictions on how the world is going to change after the crisis. In fact, using my personal example, we’ve been in this part of the crisis for a long time now. So here I come with more predictions.

There’s a mailing list I’m part of where we’re talking about how we’ll live our lives once the crisis is over. A large number of responses there are about how they won’t ever visit restaurants or cafes, or watch a movie in a theatre, or take public transport, or travel for business, for a very very long time.

While it’s easy to say this, the thing with each of these supposedly dispensable activities is that they each serve a particular purpose, or set of purposes. And unless people are able to fulfil these needs that these activities serve with near-equal substitutes, I don’t know if these activities will decline by as much as people are talking about.

Let’s start with restaurants and cafes. One purpose they serve is to serve food, and one easy substitute for that is to take the food away and consume it at home. However, that’s not their only purpose. For example, they also provide a location to consume the food. If you think of restaurants that mostly survive because working people have their midday lunch there, the place they offer for consuming the food is as important as the food itself.

Then, restaurants and cafes also serve as venues to meet people. In fact, more than half my eating (and drinking) out over the last few years has been on account of meeting someone. If you don’t want to go to a restaurant or cafe to meet someone (because you might catch the virus), what’s the alternative?

There’s a certain set of people we might be inclined to meet at home (or office), but there’s a large section of people you’re simply not comfortable enough with to meet at a personal location, and a “third place” surely helps (also now we’ll have a higher bar on people we’ll invite home or to offices). If restaurants and cafes are going to be taboo, what kind of safe “third places” can emerge?

Then there is the issue of the office. For six to eight months before the pandemic hit, I kept thinking about getting myself an office, perhaps a co-working space, so that I could separate out my work and personal lives. NED meant I didn’t execute on that plan. However, the need for an office remains.

Now there’s greater doubt on the kind of office space I’ll get. Coworking spaces (at least shared desks) are out of question. This also means that coffee shops doubling up as “computer classes” aren’t feasible any more. I hate open offices as well. Maybe I have to either stick to home or go for a private office someplace.

As for business travel – they’ve been a great costly signal. For example, there had been some clients who I’d been utterly unable to catch over the phone. One trip to their city, and they enthusiastically gave appointments, and one hour meetings did far more than multiple messages or emails or phone calls could have done. Essentially by indicating that I was willing to take a plane to meet them, I signalled that I was serious about getting things done, and that got things moving.

In the future, business travel will “become more costly”. While that will still serve the purpose of “extremely costly signalling”, we will need a new substitute for “moderately costly signalling”.

And so forth. What we will see in the course of the next few months is that we will discover that a lot of our activities had purposes that we hadn’t thought of. And as we discover these purposes one by one, we are likely to change our behaviours in ways that will surprise us. It is too early to say which sectors or industries will benefit from this.

Degree Coffee

During my experiments to make hot chocolate of various degrees of chocolate-milk combination revealed that the higher the milk-to-water ratio, the more frothy the chocolate became. That was when I realized why restaurants (especially in Bangalore and Madras) try to make their coffee frothy – it’s a sign of  quality, that they’ve used sufficient milk and not diluted it with water. Hence you get “degree coffee”. The “fat concentration” in the milk, that provides the froth, needs to be above a certain limit, which is measured using this instrument with the reading in “degrees”.

The  quality of a good hot cup of “milk coffee” comes from two ingredients – the coffee powder and milk. If there were a way in which coffee beans could lend their flavour to milk directly, that would have been the ideal coffee. Unfortunately, since this is not possible, you need to add water. Water adds nothing to the taste of coffee. It only dilutes it. However, it is critical because it is the passing of hot water or steam that allows the flavour of the coffee beans to be released.

Given this, the ideal coffee is one where the concentration of coffee flavour and milk are maximized for a unit volume of coffee (ok concentration of flavour varies according to taste (I prefer “strong” coffee) but milk is important). This implies that to make good coffee you need to make a very concentrated decoction (one that maximizes flavour per unit volume) and then “dilute” it with an appropriate amount of milk.

Which is why you see that in “darshini” restaurants in Bangalore, they put very little “decoction” in the cup and pour a large quantity of milk. And the coffee in most darshinis is invariably tasty. Similarly in the small restaurants of Madras. Similar algo. And in the cafes of Rome, where they make a concentrated espresso and then add foamed milk to produce absolutely stunning cappuccino.

Working further backwards, the trick is to extract as much flavour as possible using as little water as possible. This is why “decant coffee” and “brewed coffee” (that you get in America) suck. They use way too much water for way too little flavour. Espresso is designed towards extracting a lot of flavour using very little water (or steam). Also, there is an “espresso roast” – coffee beans are roasted more than usual in order to make espresso. Unfortunately the technology is too expensive to keep in the homes.

In India the traditional method is “filter coffee”, where hot water passes through a bed of coffee powder. I prefer, however, to use a percolator, which uses steam rather than hot water, and which works against the direction of gravity (steam moves up while collecting coffee flavour and then condenses in a jar above). Unfortunately the percolator I use (purchased from Coffee Day) is unstable and prone to falling off and ruining the kitchen.

What’s the best coffee you’ve had? How do you prepare coffee to get strong decoction? Do you swear by the filter? Or do you get reasonably priced espresso machines? Let me know.