Sunday, October 30, 2011

My husband Avi and I are big coffee snobs. Morning coffee during the week involves the use of a Chemex coffee maker, a special filter, recently roasted beans which we grind ourselves, and water heated to exactly 195 degrees on an induction cooktop. All in all, the process takes about 20 minutes and yields an incredibly complex and smooth cup o' Joe.

The other day, our favorite high end coffee shop, Local, offered a workshop in a new brewing system called the Clever. After the workshop, we got into a discussion with the other attendees about what, in their opinion, constitutes a perfect coffee cup.

First, and most importantly, we agreed many coffee cups are too large to savor well-brewed coffee. We want our coffee to be hot, accessible, and in a mug which allows us to savor rather than gulp. The general consensus was anything over 12 ounces was just too big.

As coffee cools, its flavor changes. One morning, when you have some extra time to really taste your coffee, play with this. Brew it, pour it into your cup, and taste it at different temperatures as it cools. You should note a change, even with cheap coffee. Coffee connoisseurs want a cup that allows them to enjoy their coffee, while keeping it above 134 degrees for the time it takes to sip and savor.

It's also important to consider the ergonomics of your cup -- how does it feel in the hand and against the lips?

For me, this means a hand-pulled handle. After all, what feels better in the hand than something shaped in the hand? Also take into account the particular size of the hand holding the cup. How many fingers will fit in that handle? Will it feel too large for a small hand? Will it be too tight for a large hand? In the art of cups or mugs one size does not fit all, so vary your designs to take this into account.

Don't make handles too thin, since that makes everything else about your cup feel flimsy and unbalanced. Don't put any fancy textures on them, braid three skinny coils, or do anything to detract from simply holding a cup to sip a beverage. A cup is a functional object; function should be integral to design.

As for the rim, too thick and it feels like you're going to lose your liquid, too thin and it will be too sharp against the lips or be liable to chipping with hard use (and coffee cups get hard use). I use the web area between my first and middle fingers over my rim as the just-thrown piece turns on the wheel to "finish" my rims. I've found that technique creates a rim which feels right against my lips.

Shape? I put a "waist" on my mugs. Personally, I like sticking my hand through the handle and holding the mug itself. This particular shape gives me something to hold that feels good in my hand. I also like this shape because it helps keep the coffee warm for a longer period of time. (I also leave the bottom part of my mug a bit thicker, to add some insulation.)

Granted, the mug below is a bit larger than I would like -- but not everything I make is for the coffee snob. The coffee snob is simply the focus of this particular post.

Let's conclude by turning to Daniel Rhodes and his wonderful book Pottery Form:

"The cup is such a simple form . . . . Its functional aspects are few. The cup works best if the height and width are about the same. The emphasis may be either toward the upright or the horizontal, but if the cup is too high it will be unstable. On the other hand, if it is too broad and low, the contained liquid will slosh and splash. In broad cups, hot liquid will cool too fast. If there is no handle, a foot will make the cup easier to pick up and to hold. The rim touching the lips is smooth and may turn outward slightly, but not inward. This edge or rim, if too thick, will feel awkward at the lips. Inside, the cup is smooth, without ridges or sharp corners. The scale is determined by the amount that is comfortable to drink at one time."

Keep on throwing!