A Taxonomy Of Sub-Premium Coffee

Sometimes, when fancy coffee isn’t available, you have to settle for what’s there. And sometimes, it’s not so bad.

Ah, coffee, the hot, bitter liquid that gives us life! How do we function without you? We all have our preferences: the $5 premium latte, the Starbucks caffeinated milkshake (also known as a Frappuccino), the painstakingly weighed and watered pour-over. But sometimes in life, you can't get the coffee you want, only the coffee that's available, usually from an urn or poured from a pot that's been sitting on a burner for just a little too long in order to emphasize the darker notes. (That's the positive way of looking at it. You could also say "burned.") But you make do. You even develop a sort of fondness for it. Here are our favorite types:

Diner coffee

The classic. Usually poured from a glass carafe with a brown collar for regular, orange for decaf, usually by a server or a busser who's passing by in a hurry and has just enough time to say, "Do you want a warm-up?" And of course you do, because those diner cups are awfully small, more appropriate for a dainty afternoon tea than a serious breakfast-time jolt of caffeine to set a person up for the day and override the sleep-inducing properties of greasy diner food.

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Diner coffee is sometimes burned, depending on how busy the restaurant is and how often the staff has to brew more. It is often thin and bitter. That is why a good diner keeps packets of sweetener (white, pink, blue, and yellow) within arm's reach, and also a metal cup of creamer or a bowl of tiny sealed plastic tubs. Sometimes if you're lucky, you'll also get the flavored creamers from International Delight. At a good diner, they never stop filling your cup, which makes this kind of coffee especially comforting.

Hotel lobby coffee

Back in the day, this coffee would always be dispensed from a metal urn. There would also be an identical urn sitting beside it, filled with hot water for tea-drinkers. The cups would always be white styrofoam. A really classy place would have plastic stirrers, a canister of powdered creamer, and packets of Sweet'N Low in addition to standard sugar.

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But times have changed. Some hotels still have urns, it's true, but many have transitioned from the classic spigot model to the pump, and the beans come from Starbucks or some other name-brand roaster, not a generic restaurant supplier. A lot of hotels, however, have switched to machines, specifically instant espresso machines or Keurigs. With a touch of a button, you can have a latte or a cappuccino with a thin blanket of foam or a watery hot chocolate, or a drip coffee from a pod. (Often there will be a choice of roasts and flavors, all hanging from a little metal stand.)

There's still a stack of cups at the hotel lobby coffee bar, but the cups are larger than before and come with plastic lids so you can take them with you, either back up to your room or on an adventure.

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Waiting room coffee

Waiting room coffee is often similar to hotel lobby coffee, except you share the Keurig with the staff and you can't take your coffee to go. Here hospitality is a gesture, not a commitment—especially if you're, say, at an auto repair shop. Therefore, the cups are small and there are no lids. But the coffee serves a purpose: you'll need it for a long day of sitting in an uncomfortable chair watching daytime TV.

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Office coffee

The quality of office coffee depends entirely on the largesse of your employer. Or, if you work in journalism and other industries that are chronically short of funds, whether you can get someone to make a donation. No matter where the beans come from, though, office coffee is always highly acidic and tastes like pain, and everyone hates it except on the days when the office runs out, and then everyone mourns.

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Office coffee usually comes in urns or small glass coffee pots, but sometimes, if you are especially lucky, you'll find yourself working in an office with a special coffee machine (Keurig, cappuccino maker, real espresso machine with an actual porto-filter) that only one person knows how to operate and that frequently breaks down and requires replacement parts are only available through special order from Australia.

You can tell, through people's behavior at the office coffee maker, what kind of coworkers they are. Will they empty the pot without setting up another to brew? Will they leave their used mugs in the sink for someone else to rinse out (even when there is a perfectly good dishwasher right there)? Did they once serve in the Navy? Will they bring in special beans and their own electric kettle/French press desk setup? Will they send out passive-aggressive messages about the state of the office kitchen on the company Slack? Will they take a moment from their busy day to show you where the extra beans are hidden? Everyone is watching. And everyone holds grudges.

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Gas station coffee

The ideal situation for consuming gas station coffee is late at night on a road trip, when you've already driven ten hours and have three or four more to go. The lighting in the gas station is harsh after spending hours in the soft glow of the dashboard. It's a jolt to the system. And that's before you swallow anything.

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The coffee delivery systems at a gas station are similar to those in a hotel lobby—pump urn, cappuccino machine—but at a good gas station, there are so many more options. You can choose between dark roast and light roast, hazelnut drip and hazelnut latte, hot and cold, 16 ounces or 24 ounces. You can even mix it up in a kind of coffee suicide. And there is creamer from a dispenser! (I don't know why this brings me joy, but it does. Maybe because it reminds me of Dunkin', which has the best creamer anywhere?)

Really, the only coffee you can't get at a gas station is the sort of cup you want to linger over. But that's okay. It's fuel, and you've got places to be.

Vending machine coffee

Often these vending machines offer similar options to those at gas stations. The coffee that comes out of them is watery and lukewarm and, if you order it with any sweetener or syrup, the predominant flavor is sugar. The distinguishing factor of the vending machine, beside the fact that you have to feed it money, is the cup that pops down into the filling area before the nozzle begins spewing. Somehow this is still mesmerizing every time.

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Religious service/AA meeting coffee

Many communal religious services or support group meetings begin and/or end with a social hour. Because alcohol is not an option here, the social lubricant is coffee and, depending on the setting, cookies, brownies, cigarettes, or kosher pastries that have been thawed and refrozen at least three times. Because these settings are nonprofit organizations, the coffee has been brewed from the cheapest possible pre-ground beans that can be bought in bulk at Costco. The cups are from the same source, and you need at least two to keep from burning your hand.

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The coffee itself is usually served from a metal urn that some kind person has donated or, if you're really lucky, an ancient percolator. It's thin and bitter. Sometimes there's sugar, powdered creamer, or a carton of milk, but this all depends on if the person in charge of refreshments has managed to get to the store. Nonetheless, this coffee gives you something to do with your hands while making awkward conversation, and the need for a refill is a convenient excuse to duck away. If you grew up in a religious community with a social hour, this may be where you tried coffee for the first time.

Bodega/coffee cart coffee

A staple of New York City, bodega and coffee cart coffee is easily identifiable because it's served a ten-ounce blue-and-white Anthora paper cup: decorated with images of Greek vases, the Greek key pattern, and, in gold letters, the message "WE ARE HAPPY TO SERVE YOU." (They are a common prop on the various Law and Orders.) This cup has become such an NYC icon that the Museum of Modern Art began selling a ceramic version in its gift shop.

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The coffee itself sometimes comes from a glass carafe that you pour yourself, and it sometimes is poured for you by the proprietor. In a classic New York deli, if you ask for "regular," you'll get it preloaded with cream and sugar. You should never have to pay more than $2 for this coffee. It's not great, but homesick New Yorkers speak of it wistfully.

Really, the important part about this is the cup. It's one of the things—along with cats and egg-and-cheese sandwiches—that New Yorkers believe distinguish bodegas from convenience stores in parts of the country that are not New York City. (But if you really want to enrage a New Yorker, try suggesting that a bodega is a regular corner store and see what happens.)

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What else have we missed? Let us know in the comments.

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