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Friday, June 24, 2011

Cup of Colombia Cauca Inza, Half & Half

Posted By on Fri, Jun 24, 2011 at 10:00 AM

If you show up at Half & Half (8135 Maryland Avenue, Clayton; 314-973-0446), Clayton's bustling new breakfast-and-lunch spot, at 11 a.m., smack in the middle of the Sunday brunch rush and sans reservation, expect to wait. If the host informs you that it will be about a half an hour before a table opens, don't panic. It is undignified to declare that the air-trap holding pen set aside for waiting is claustrophobic and that the sunny patio is too bright and too hot.

Surrounded by families with young children who were holding themselves together admirably, Drink of the Week was on the verge of a meltdown. Because we really, really wanted a cup of coffee.

Fortunately, this is a desire the folks at Half & Half are well equipped to meet. They don't merely have coffee, they have a coffee program, complete with a coffee menu. Here's how it works: They offer two types of coffee beans (which will change seasonally) from which all coffee drinks are made. Pick which one you want, then decide how you want it prepared.

You can get your basic cup o' joe, brewed with an automatic drip machine and kept hot in a thermal pot. You can have an espresso and all of its variants (cappuccino, Americano, latte, etc.). Also available are options that are less commonly seen: hand-brewed drip coffee, iced "toddy" coffee and AeroPress coffee. All of this (and more) the menu clearly aims to elucidate, complete with footnotes and definitions, but it's all a little much to decipher for someone who hasn't actually had any coffee yet.

With the gentle guidance of Mike Marquard, head coffee guru at Half & Half, we settled on a single brewed-to-order cup of Colombia Cauca Inza. Here's where we tell you whether it was a superior cup of coffee (it was) and why. As to why, well, that's incredibly complicated and boring.

We went down that rabbit hole for you, dear reader, and after hours of research we can tell you it has to do with extraction rates, bloom, agitation, water temperature, pouring technique, grinder type, steep time and the relative merits of unbleached organic paper filters. If you care to know more, there are some very intent, highly caffeinated people on YouTube armed with refractometers, thermometers and digital scales for whom no smidgen of minutia is too minute to cover.

After crossing our interest threshold pretty early on, our gaze kept drifting out the window to the gorgeous June day. We were reminded of a statistics class we took in college once. OK, twice. The second time was during the summer, and we can remember ruefully staring out the window at perfect blue skies then, too, as our professor prattled on about standard deviation.

The best (only?) thing we got out of that class is this: Things in nature, when taken in a large enough sample, tend to fall into a normal distribution. If you graph the heights of trees or the depths of lakes, it will make a bell curve. On its face, this seems like common sense, but our teacher pointed out that there is no reason this should be so. Why not more tall trees than short ones?

Having finally piqued our interest, he brushed past the topic with a wave of his hand. The greatest mathematical minds in the world (none of whom, he seemed reasonably certain, were in the summer session of Introduction to Statistics) have never been able to answer this. It's not a mathematical question, he said, it's a philosophical one.

Which brings us back to that cup of coffee. As any statistician will tell you, you can know something is true without necessarily knowing why. We could have used this space to tell you about Mike Marquard's extensive qualifications, about the Chemex coffee maker, BeeHouse dripper and the single-origin coffee he uses. But you don't care, do you? You don't need to know what makes your car go, your computer run or your toilet flush, and you don't need to know why this coffee is so good.

A bell-shaped graph contains all possible outcomes, with the extreme left and right tails becoming so unlikely that they approach impossibility. The tails are where the truly remarkable happens. That's where Usain Bolt lives. If there were a graph titled "Skill at Coffee-Making (Among Coffee Drinkers)", most of us would be inside the bell, and Mike Marquard would be at the far end of one tail. He doesn't have much company there. Go visit him, drink his coffee and contemplate life's mysteries.

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