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December 22, 2011

Mark Garrison has a rather odd article in Slate arguing that we need expert advice to order beer in restaurants:
It's a busy night at the D.C. restaurant Birch & Barley, as well as its casual upstairs sister joint, ChurchKey. Greg Engert is guiding me through his beverage list with all the knowledge, talent, and grace one would expect from an award-winning sommelier. With a couple crisp queries, he learned enough to make some intriguing recommendations. He didn't flaunt his knowledge about food and drink, but when I had questions, he gave precise answers about the flavor, aroma, producer, pairing potential, and even the history of the available beverages. Fortunately, there was no attempt at upselling, the odious sin far too many sommeliers commit, a big reason why many diners are suspicious of the entire profession.


There may be agreement in the industry that great beer deserves top-notch service, but there's not yet a consensus on what that means. In fact, there's not even agreement on what to call a well-trained beer server. Engert's job title is beer director, but he doesn't mind being called a beer sommelier. (He has put some thought into this.) Some in the beer community find this term problematic, since "sommelier" is tied to the wine world and may imply a professional certification that doesn't exist.


The program's website states the claim that wine sommeliers might have known enough to choose a good beer for you a few decades ago, but now "the world of beer is just as diverse and complicated as wine. As a result, developing true expertise in beer takes years of focused study and requires constant attention to stay on top of new brands and special beers." So Daniels set out to build a testing and certification program to create a standard level of knowledge and titles that would signify superior beer knowledge to consumers, similar to the way a Court of Master Sommeliers credential does for wine.

Look, I love beer, don't like wine, and am well aware of the lousy beer service one typically gets at restaurants, so I'm generally in favor of anything that improves beer quality. But the main the problem isn't that there's nobody at the restaurant who understands beer. It's that the beer selection at restaurants sucks. To take one recent example, I ate at the Los Altos Grill the other night: they had a page of wines and three beers on tap. This isn't uncommon; in fact it's not uncommon for restaurants to have solid wine lists but only bottled beer, and only a few varieties of bottles at that. The question I have for waiters isn't "what beer do you recommend", but rather "is Peroni really the best beer you have?"

In large part, the culprit here is customer demand: people who eat at high-end restaurants tend to prefer wine to beer, so those restaurants naturally have lousy beer selections. But I suspect that the chemistry of beer has a lot to do with it as well. Wine can last years in the bottle—and many wines are better when aged—but bottled beer has a shelf life measured in months, with draft beer going bad in in a few weeks. So, unlike wine, you can't afford to stock any beer that people don't order fairly frequently, since there's too high a chance it will go bad before someone orders it. I suspect that this is why most restaurants keep such a small beer selection. (Anyone with contacts in the restaurant business should feel free to chime in here.)

The major exception here is restaurants that specialize in beer (Garrison's example of Birch & Barley advertises itself as "a completely unique food and beer experience celebrating a full spectrum of styles, traditions, regions and flavors"). If you're that kind of restaurant you probably get enough volume to keep a large inventory without things getting too stale—though I do wonder what the oldest bottle on their shelves tastes like.


December 8, 2011

I've been meaning to write something about espresso and the various technology options for making one, but I never get around to it. Now I have. I'm not an espresso-making expert, but I'm a guy who cares about espresso, has a moderate but not extreme budget, and can pull a fairly solid shot. As such, this might or might not be useful to you. There are many articles like this, but this one is mine.

The discussion below is restricted to what's called "semi-automatic" machines: those where you grind the coffee yourself but the machine has controls designed to regulate temperature and pressure. "Super-automatic" where you put in beans and water and they put out coffee are out of scope here.

The basic principle of espresso is simple: you grind up the coffee, pack it down and then force heated water through under pressure. The difference between swill and pure liquid perfection is in the details. Moreover, if you're going to get the details right, the first thing you need to do is get them consistent; the exact procedures and settings you need differ with each coffee and each machine, but if you can be consistent then you can dial them in over time. [Aside: when I took machining in college, the first thing the instructor told me was that machining wasn't about cutting metal, it was about measurement. If you could measure accurately, you could cut accurately.] The major variables you need to control are:

  1. The coffee itself.
  2. The grind.
  3. The amount of coffee.
  4. The dispersal into the portafilter basket and the tamp.
  5. Water temperature.
  6. Water pressure.

The coffee is something you buy, so you have some control over it but not complete control. With the right grinder, you can completely control the grind and the amount of coffee. Dispersal and tamp is a matter of personal technique and practice. With the right espresso machine, you can control water temperature quite precisely and with any pump machine, pressure control should be quite good. So, as you can tell, this is primarily a matter of getting good equipment.

The grinder thing is pretty simple: get a burr grinder with enough adjustments. Don't get a doser. Get one with a timer. A little elaboration: blade grinders (the cheap canister ones that you can buy for $20-$40) don't do a good job of getting you a consistent grind. The individual grounds aren't the same size and you can't control the overall size except by grinding longer. Don't buy one. You want a burr grinder and you want one that allows you to adjust the grind finely and over a large range. Different beans require different grinder settings, so easy adjustment matters if you change beans much.

The reason you want a timer is to let you control the amount of coffee you grind. This is a parameter people usually specify by mass, but using a scale is a pain in the ass. Grind time is a good proxy here. What I typically do is make some test shots and then set the grind time on my grinder (it has 3 presets). Then when I want to pull a shot I just put the portafilter under the grinder and hit the right preset button. None of this requires much thought once you get it wired.

There are lots of good grinders. What I have is a Baratza Vario. There are two features I like about this. First, it has easy adjustments with two slides up front, one for macro (espresso versus drip) and one for micro (grind fineness once you've selected espresso). Second, it has timer presets, which, as I said earlier, is super-convenient. There's a rest for you to put the portafilter on while you grind, but you need to hold it there or it falls off. I notice that Baratza now makes a weight-based Vario W. This seems like a good idea, but I don't know how well it will work with espresso, since you don't want to grind into a hopper but right into your portafilter, and it's not clear how the scale integrates with that. One caution I would have with the Vario is that the really gross burr adjustments are done with a hex wrench (included). They're easy but kinda scary (keep turning until the motor starts to labor), so if that freaks you out, you might consider another choice.

Espresso Machine
There are a lot of choices in what kind of espresso machine you buy, but let's get something out of the way now: espresso machines have pumps. Yes, you can buy a cheap machine that works off steam pressure, but that's not what you want.

The central problem that dictates the design of an espresso machine is this: The water you use to make espresso needs to be at one temperature (~200 F). The water you use to steam your milk needs to be at steam temperatures (~250 F). If you're going to make milk drinks (I don't, but Mrs. G. does) then you need to somehow address this. There are four basic approaches that I've seen:

  • Have a single boiler and a switch that selects which temperature to maintain at (a single boiler machine).
  • Have two boilers, one at each temperature (a double boiler machine).
  • Have a boiler set to steam temperature and use a heat exchanger to heat your water to espresso temperature.
  • Have a boiler set to water temperature and an electric thermal block heating system to make steam.

Single boiler machines are basically a terrible solution for more than about one or two people if you want to make any kind of steamed milk drink. Here's what the procedure looks like if you want to make a latte: set the thermostat switch to "water"; pull a shot; set the thermostat switch to steam; wait for it to heat up; steam your milk. This is all reasonably fast because the boiler heats up fast. However, say you want to make another latte. Now you have to set the thermostat back to water and wait for it to cool down, which can take minutes. You can accelerate this some by just running water through the group head which pulls cool water out of the reservoir into the system, but basically it's a pain. I've used this kind of machine in an office setting and it sucks.

The obvious (and best) solution to this problem is to have two totally separate boilers, with one set to water and one set to steam. This is of course more expensive, especially since manufacturers seem to have decided to engage in a little market segmentation. To give you an example, Chris Coffee's cheapest double boiler is the Mini Vivaldi II at $1995. They'll sell you a Rancilio Silvia (a very nice single boiler) for $699. This isn't an uncommon pattern: many double boiler machines sell for more than twice what a good single boiler would cost. I don't know anyone who has bought two singles instead, but it's sure occurred to me.

The other two solutions are compromises. In a heat exchanger machine, the boiler is set to steam temperature and then the water for the espresso runs through a tube set inside the boiler, thus heating up on the way (good description here. The idea is that as the water is being pulled out of the reservoir and onto the coffee it heats up. The obvious problem, however, is that when you're not pulling espresso, the water in the heat exchanger tube is heating up eventually to the temperature of the steam, at which point you're back where you started, as is the heavy metal group head which provides a lot of thermal intertia. Standard procedure here is a cooling flush which means that you run some water through the (empty) portafilter/brew group to get it down below the right temperature. Then you quickly pack the portafilter and pull your shot. This all requires some coordination.

About a year ago, QuickMill came out with a new machine (the Silvano), which has a single boiler for the water and a thermoblock for the steam. This has the advantage that you can tightly temperature control the water and the group head and still get decent steam fast. The steam isn't as good as it would be if you had an actual boiler, but it's pretty good, so it's a reasonable compromise. And since the water side is temperature controlled, you get to pull a predictable shot without much messing around, which is what I, at least, am after. It shouldn't be surprising at this point that I have a Silvano, which I'm pretty happy with. Here's what it looks like pulling a shot of Four Barrel Ethiopia Welena Suke Quto (and no, those two little spurts onto the backsplash are not intended. That's evidence of tamping error.)

Oh, one more thing: the water supply for espresso machines can either be plumbed (there is a water tube coming from your pipes) or unplumbed (there is a water reservoir you have to refill). Plumbed typically only comes on higher end machines. I don't know if it's worth stepping up to one of those machines to get plumbed, but I do know that my Silvano is unplumbed and I wish it were plumbed. It's pretty annoying to have the shot already to go and realize you're out of water. Doubly annoying if it's your last shot worth of coffee.


June 23, 2011

Today's XKCD quite correctly points out that if you're unfamiliar with some aesthetic experience (his example is wine), you're willing to tolerate any cheap crap, but once you have some experience, you tend to develop some taste. Inevitably, you find yourself preferring some varieties of that experience more than others.

Arguably, developing taste is a good thing, since, as Munroe has his character suggests, it opens up whole new vistas to you—albeit at the risk of turning you into an annoying snob.

There's another downside too, though: it tends to be expensive. This isn't inevitable, of course: after sampling a whole bunch of whiskeys you might find that you prefer Jack Daniels ($16.99/750) to Macallan 25 ($649.99), but assuming your neural architecture isn't too different from the rest of humanity—and perhaps you take your cues from your peers—it seems likely you're going to find that your tastes line up with others. And as things which are in demand naturally tend to be more expensive, you're suddenly going to be expending a lot more money on the same general class of experience. [I don't think the market's natural response to produce more of a desirable product helps out here, since you can almost always invest more and more input into some product (use the best grapes, age it longer, etc.), in the interest of creating an ever more exclusive and allegedly better version.]

Of course, the mere fact that you're shelling out more money doesn't necessarily mean you're worse off, since the counter-argument would go that you're getting more hedonic value out of the better product. I'm not sure that's true, though, since you habituate so fast. When I first started eating sushi, I was happy to eat the cheap stuff, but now that I've had reasonably good sushi, I'm not prepared to go back. Seems like a good reason to stay away from Masa.


January 17, 2011

I recently concluded that I didn't have enough high-tech gizmos, and since a new car is really expensive, I decided to buy a new espresso machine instead. For the past 5 years or so I'd been uh, limping along with a Gaggia Espresso and a Gaggia MDF grinder, but it seemed like time for something new. (Those of you who are about to say "why can't you just use a Mr. Coffee like everyone else" can stop reading now.) After a bunch of research and a call to Chris Coffee I settled on a Quick Mill Silvano and a Baratza Vario grinder (total cost with accessories, around $1350). Now there's no doubt that this seems like a lot of money for a coffee maker, which it is, but let's actually do the math:

Consider two separate scenarios, both of which I actually have some familiarity with:

  • Home, both Mrs. G and I drink espresso at a rate of something like 2 shots/day each for a total of 4 shots/day.
  • Office, where we have something like 30 people sharing a single espresso machine. They probably drink around like 2 shots/day each for around 60 shots/day.

At home I buy either Four Barrel or Blue Bottle, both of which are just slightly more than $16/lb (454 g). A double espresso requires around 20g of beans, so in the best case with no lossage/sink shots you get 22 shots out of a bag of beans at a cost of around $0.70/shot. So in our home scenario we're spending $2.80/day ($1022/yr). If we figure the machine lasts 10 years, which isn't unreasonable for a good espresso machine, we're looking at another $140/year. In the office scenario we're spending $42/day, but only weekdays so around $8000/yr. You might be able to get a 20-30% discount buying bulk like this, but still we're talking around $5k/year in beans. You'd want a more expensive espresso machine for this use obviously, but even if you went nuts and spent $10K on the machine and grinder, you're still looking at only around $1000/year in capital expense (CAPEX) cost over the life of the machine. In either case you're looking at about 10-20% of your costs being CAPEX and 80-90% being operational expenses (OPEX).

What do these nubers tell us? First, it's a lot cheaper (and more convenient) to make your own espresso than it is to buy it. An espresso shot at Blue Bottle in the city goes for $2.50, so even if you live right next door and so there's no transportation costs, we're looking at a per-espresso price of between 1/4 and 1/2 that of retail. On the other hand we're looking at a relatively expensive caffeine delivery vehicle, comparable to buying every single soda you drink retail. That said, this applies to more or less every form of caffeinated beverage: bulk caffeine goes for more like $0.04/dose, as long as you're willing to deal with people looking at you like you're a meth addict when you tell them you take caffeine pills instead of drinking a 1/2-case of Diet Coke a day.

Second, as the vast majority of the costs are OPEX (and in particular supplies), so you probably shouldn't worry too much about your equipment costs (unless you're buying a Slayer or something). If you want to save some money you would do better to try to buy a cheaper brand of beans, negotiate a bulk discount, etc.


July 22, 2010

As the Sam Adams commercials used to tell us, the only ingredients permitted under the old German reinheitsgebot (beer purity law) are water, barley, and hops. (Note that this doesn't include yeast, which is a pretty key element, but the mechanics of beer production weren't clear in the 15th century.) Hops serves a number of purposes.

First (and as I remember from the books I read when I used to brew beer, the original purpose), it serves as an antiseptic. To see why, you need to understand how beer works. You start with a mixture of water and malted barley, which has a huge amount of sugars and is thus a really fertile growth medium. You boil the mixture, then introduce yeast into the mixture and it ferments, converting the sugars into alcohols. Like any fermentation process brewing, is a race between growth of the microorganims you want (yeast) and microorganisms you don't want (bacteria). You can't completely eliminate bacteria from your culture, but excessive bacterial growth causes a sour taste and you need to discard the beer (brewers say the beer is infected) . Hops (allegedly) acts to suppress bacterial growth, thus favoring growth by yeast and reducing the chance of infection.

Hops also serves two other purposes: bittering and aroma. Even when the fermentation process is finished, there are still residual sugars in the beer which give it an unpleasant sweet flavor. The bitter taste of hops balances out that flavor. Bittering hops are added during the boiling phase, which removes most of the aromatics. Finally, if you add hops at the very end of the process, either during the end of the boiling phase or even once the mixture has cooled and is fermenting (this is called dry hopping), the floral aroma of the hops transfers to the beer. (see here for a long description of the hopping process.)

American craft beers tend to be relatively heavy on both kinds of hops. British beers, by contrast, tend to be very lightly hopped, and many Americans, myself amongst them, find them to be distastefully sweet. Until fairly recently, "India Pale Ales" such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (which is reportedly dry hopped) or Full Sail Pale Ale1 were about the most heavily hopped American beers you would typically see in terms of aroma, though some of the American bitters were more bitter. [Note that there is an absolute chemical scale for bitterness, but in my experience it doesn't track that well with perceived bitterness.] About a year ago, though, someone bought me a Racer 5 India Pale Ale, which blew me away by how hoppy it was; Racer 5 is fairly bitter but has a huge hops aroma.

I've bought Racer 5 a few times since, but it's not really that mainstream a brand. Lately, though, two of the major craft breweries (Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, the people behind Fat Tire), have started rolling out their own super hoppy beers: Sierra Nevada Torpedo Ale and New Belgium Ranger India Pale Ale. Both are excellent: to my taste Torpedo Ale tastes more bitter whereas Ranger IPA has a much stronger hop aroma. My preference is for the heavier hop aromas, so I prefer Ranger IPA and Racer 5, but I'm just glad to see that the majors are starting to cater to hopheads like myself.

Afterword: I'm a huge fan of St. Stans Amber, but I thought St. Stans had gone under. I just recently noticed that they're still in business, but you can't seem to buy it in stores. Any reader who knows where you can pick it up in the Palo Alto area, please let me know.

1.Full Sail also makes an IPA, but for some reason I've always really noticed the hops aroma from the Pale Ale more than the IPA.


June 26, 2010

I'm always on the lookout for good pizza, so when Joe Hall was in town for dinner I rode over to Berkeley to hook up with him and go to this pizza place he'd been raving about, Emilia's Pizzeria. Emilia's is best characterized as minimalist New York Style. It's a tiny shop worked by a single dude (I assume his name is Emilia but I didn't verify). They only serve one size of pizza (18") [NO SLICES!!!] and only have about 5 toppings. He keeps making pizza till closing or he runs out of dough (check his Twitter feed for status updates). If you're serious, you need to call ahead to make sure pizza will be available. Also, there are only two tables, so you may have to wait or eat outside or something.

We ordered a pizza with red onions and peppers. The crust was light, crispy, and a bit flaky. The cheese and sauce were flavorful, and while I was a little suspicious of the concept of roasted red peppers, they turned out to be excellent. Overall, I would rate it around an 8/10. My preference is for Chicago Style Pizza (though IMO Zachary's is overrated), but I would definitely recommend Emilia's if you're looking for New York Style pizza in Berkeley.


April 3, 2010

How's this for cognitive dissonance? Keeper Springs is a brand of bottled water which donates all of its profits to environmental causes:
Welcome to Keeper Springs Fresh Mountain Spring Water-where all our after-tax profits are donated to the environment.

Keeper Springs is fresh mountain spring water bottled right here in the United States from a sustainable spring.

While our company encourages investment in public water supplies and minimizing the use of plastic bottles - and of course, maximizing recycling - we believe that bottled water is a permanent fact of our society and that ours is among the best. Our unique business proposition is, along with proudly selling great spring water, we will donate all of our profits toward providing our children with a clean and safe world to inherit.

Bottled water, of course, is a product which trades off a nontrivial environmental cost for a benefit which is mostly a matter of convenience (bottled water is in general no healthier than tap water). So there's an odd irony in a bottled water company which is devoted to helping clean up the environment. The rationale here seems to be that if you're going to drink bottled water, you might as well drink one made by an environmentally friendly company rather than some faceless megacorp. It's even possible that if the profits are spent properly, they will do more good than the environmental damage that drinking bottled water causes, though of course this is very hard to assess.

That's fine as far as it goes, but consider a counterargument: the guilt you feel over buying bottled water (you do feel some, right?) acts as a weak quasi-Pigouvian tax on bottled water. With that tax removed, you might buy more bottled water, which negates the argument that you were going to buy something anyway. I would also observe that Keeper Springs is spring water, not tap water. The people who make KS claim that their method of bottling is sustainable, but wouldn't it be even more environmentally friendly to just bottle purified tap the way that Dasani does.

UPDATE: Replaced the environmental cost link. The video was catchy, but, uh... tendentious.


November 22, 2009

It is a truth universally acknowledged [at least outside the US] that American chocolate sucks. This observation serves as synechdoche for the general sense that Americans are philistines who are only interested in McDonalds and Budweiser. In the particular case of chocolate, however, the story is rather more interesting. The dominant chocolate in the US is Hersheys and for historical reasons Hersheys has a very distinct flavor:
Hershey process milk chocolate, invented by Milton S. Hershey, founder of The Hershey Company, can be produced more economically since it is less sensitive to the freshness of the milk. Although the process is still a trade secret, experts speculate that the milk is partially lipolyzed, producing butyric acid, which stabilizes the milk from further fermentation. This compound gives the product a particular sour, "tangy" taste, to which the American public has become accustomed, to the point that other manufacturers now simply add butyric acid to their milk chocolates.

As with beer (another oft-maligned American product which I'll get to in a minute), it's not like Americans don't know how to make chocolate that's good by non-US standards (exhibits A-G: Scharffen Berger [now owned by Hersheys, btw.], Guittard, Devries, Askinosie, Amano, Patric, Tcho), it's just a case of path dependence. Americans are used to a particular flavor, and as the passage above suggests, actively reject chocolate without that. Interestingly, I just got back from the UK, where I picked up a few bars of the legendary Cadbury Dairy Milk only to find it not at all as I remembered. Terence Spies suggests that this may be a problem in product handling but the above Wikipedia article suggests that they may have actually screwed with the formula, which, if true, is baffling.

I spent a lot of my time in the UK drinking and came away with a single observation: British beer is astonishingly bad, overly sweet, flat, thin, and almost utterly without hop flavor. I was mostly drinking local beers but I also tried Guinness and Bass, both of which I've had in the US, and while the Guinness was all right, the Bass seemed to differ from the US version in the same way as all the others. I attribute part of the difference here to the temperature (British beers are served far warmer) and lower level of carbonation due to cask conditioning, with the resulting lower level of carbonic acid. But the primary difference seems to be far less hops, both in terms of bittering and aroma; conversely my British companion informed me that they find American beers way too hoppy. (For the record, when I was in Germany and the Czech Republic, I found their beers perfectly fine). I don't have a complete theory for this, but I'm guessing it's another path dependence issue, in this case due to prohibition gutting the American alcohol market and leaving only a small number of breweries focusing on Czech pilsner style beers. This created a population bottleneck, and when the beer market in the US re-expanded with the American craft brew movement in the 1980s and 1990s it drifted in a totally different direction from that found in its ancestral population, one focusing on much higher levels of bitterness and hoppiness.

I don't intend to offer a defense of McDonalds, however.


Acknowledgement: This post produced with assistance from Terence Spies of Cacaolab, who originally told me about the Hershey process.


October 19, 2009

Apparently Coke is introducing a new 7.5 oz Coke "mini-can" and William Saletan thinks it's a bad idea or dishonest, or something:
These messages sound a lot like what tobacco companies said when they introduced light cigarettes. According to a 2001 U.S. government report, internal documents obtained from tobacco companies
reveal the industry's efforts to produce cigarettes that could be marketed as acceptable to health-conscious consumers. Ultimately, these low-tar/low-nicotine cigarettes were part of the industry's plan to maintain and expand its consumer base. ... [T]obacco companies set out to develop cigarette designs that markedly lowered the tar and nicotine yield results as measured by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) testing method. Yet, these cigarettes can be manipulated by the smoker to increase the intake of tar and nicotine. The use of these "decreased risk" cigarettes [has] not significantly decreased the disease risk. In fact, the use of these cigarettes may be partly responsible for the increase in lung cancer for longterm smokers who have switched to the low-tar/low-nicotine brands. Finally, switching to these cigarettes may provide smokers with a false sense of reduced risk, when the actual amount of tar and nicotine consumed may be the same as, or more than, the previously used higher yield brand.

Coca-Cola's promotional video for its mini cans delivers a similar pitch. It features Jan Tilley, a "registered dietitian" and consultant to beverage companies. "The new 90-calorie mini-can is a great way for people to enjoy the taste of Coca-Cola that they love, while still managing their calorie intake," says Tilley, smiling all the way:

The size of the packaging really reinforces moderation. ... Part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle is not feeling deprived. ... The new 90-calorie mini-can is a great way for people who like Coca-Cola to enjoy the taste with built-in portion control. A treat or a favorite food or beverage is a wonderful way to ensure that you're going to be able to practice a healthy lifestyle for life.


So you'll drink Coke mini for the same reason you already drink Coke: to sate your addiction. And if you don't get enough "sparkle" from the smaller can, no problem. The mini containers "will be sold in eight-packs," says the company. Just open a second 7.5-ounce can, and you'll get 20 percent more sparkle than you used to get from a 12-ounce hit.

You'll also get 20 percent more calories. According to the company's nutrition information page, an 8-ounce serving of Coca-Cola classic has 97 calories. That's roughly 145 calories in each 12-ounce can. At 90 calories per shot, the 7.5-ounce Coke mini can keeps pace with the original calorie rate, and the second mini can brings you to a sparkling 180 calories. But you'll feel better about yourself, because now you're practicing "portion control" and "a healthy lifestyle." Just like you felt better about smoking light cigarettes.

Saletan, of course, doesn't offer any actual argument, just snark, but the underlying argument you're supposed to infer presumably goes goes something like this:

  1. Cigarettes are bad for you.
  2. The tobacco companies introduced light cigarettes and suggested they were healthier.
  3. Tobacco companies are really not very nice.
  4. Coke isn't good for you.
  5. Coke is introducing a smaller portion size and suggesting that it's healthier.
  6. Coke is really bad just like the tobacco companies.

Of course, this form of argument is clearly bogus ("you know who else was a vegetarian? Hitler" [note: apparently this is a myth.]), and there are some pretty clear dissimilarities between Coke and cigarettes. First, Coke really isn't anywhere near as bad for you as cigarettes. Then there's the small problem being that light cigarettes were basically a huge scam, for two reasons: (1) the tar/nicotine measurements taken by the test machines didn't accurately reflect what happens when people smoked them (2) there was reason to worry that people would compensate by smoking more cigarettes or inhaling more deeply.

The first of these issues doesn't exist with mini Cokes: they're just Coke in smaller containers, so you're left with the compensation issue. Saletan implies that people will just drink a second coke (15 oz total) and thus be left worse off than before, but that's not at all obvious: there's extensive data suggesting that how much people consume is strongly influenced by the size of the portions in front of them and it's not all crazy to think that if you had a bunch of smaller Coke cans you would drink less Coke overall. It's true that because Coke contains caffeine, that's a potential confounding factor to the portion control effects we see with ordinary food, but most people really aren't that addicted to caffeine (and respond to it in quite small doses) so it's not at all clear that people would over-compensate. It's easy to do the math here: if you replace every 12 oz coke with a 7.5 oz coke you're getting 62.5% of the usual dose. If only half the time you drink a second mini can you come out very slightly ahead (11.25 oz). Obviously, it's an empirical question what people's real behavior is, but it seems plausible to me that they would do so infrequently enough for it to be a net win. I know that personally I tend to drink a whole bottle of whatever beverage I have, so when I buy 20 oz cokes it seems like I drink more coke than if I buy 12 oz cokes; sometimes I'll have an extra 12 ozer, but I don't think enough to compensate for all the times that I drank 20 oz just because it was in front of me.

In any case, the tobacco comparison seems at best premature: the tobacco companies knew that light cigarettes weren't any healthier; as far as I know, Coke doesn't know any such thing, and it may not even be true.


September 3, 2009

On my way to lunch Wednesday, I stopped by Barefoot Coffee to pick up some beans. As I'm checking out, the cashier asked me if I'd like a free coffee or espresso (this is pretty standard with bulk bean purchases). I'd already had way too much caffeine that day, but I'm not one to turn down a free espresso so I said sure and slid down the counter to wait. The place was pretty packed and the baristas were backed up, so I sat there for about 10 minutes getting increasingly antsy but unwilling to just walk away (Daniel Kahneman, call your office).

Eventually my espresso came up, but at that point Brian had been waiting for me in the car for about 15 minutes and I figured he was starting to get antsy, so I asked for my drink in a paper cup, only to be told "We don't do that. It kills it." Now first, I strongly suspect this of being mostly BS: the objection seems to be that you lose the crema, but that mostly stays stuck to the side of the ceramic cup anyway. Even if it were true, I'm the customer, and if I want to ruin my own espresso that seems to be my right. Had I had the presence of mind, I would have told them to pour it in one of the 12 oz paper cups they had for drip coffee, but instead I grumbled something about having to go and they told me I could leave the cup on the table outside (what a huge concession!).

In future, I'll just be ordering from Blue Bottle which is cheaper [if you have it shipped] and arguably better. Also, their Web site won't lecture me on how I should drink my coffee.