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Coffee and the Coffee Maker

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Freelance Traveller.

Ah, coffee. That one drink that nearly everybody knows of. There are as many words for it as there are languages, and discussions of the merits of various cultivars, roasts, and blends can often take on the tone and intensity of religious disputations.

Although not unknown even in the Ziru Sirka, coffee didn’t really become popular until the Rule of Man, when the Solomani spread throughout the Ziru Sirka and beyond. The biggest consumers of coffee, according to the Imperial Bureau of Statistics, are the Imperial Navy, the Scouts, the Marines, Engineers, Programmers, Spacers of any kind, and Pretentious Artists. In fact, the Imperial Navy is renowned across Known Space for having the best coffee, with an entire section of the Logistics Department dedicated towards sourcing, growing, and distributing it. The Army, for some strange reason, prefers Tea.

Where there is agriculture, there is at least one coffee cultivar. Even orbital cities routinely have coffee in their hydroponic gardens, and the typical colonization package includes a hydroponics garden module specifically for it. Not every cultivar is noteworthy, however; most are only seen outside their home worlds if someone brings a personal supply of ready-to-brew ground coffee with them as they leave the planet. The higher the quality of the cultivar, the more widely known it is likely to be, and the higher the demand (and the price!) will be. Certain legendary cultivars from Terra are said to be unavailable at any price (with the entire output reserved to the Imperial Family); cultivars prized by various high nobles or entertainment mega-stars may command per-kilo prices of hundreds of credits; and the Navy’s controlled-conditions ‘standard’ cultivar commands Cr1000 per kg on the black market (the Navy prohibits its distribution or use outside of its own facilities). Many factors go into determining the quality and desirability of a particular cultivar; no two cultivars are ever quite alike, even if one is descended from the other. Gravity, temperature, sunlight spectrum, atmospheric composition, compatibility with the local biosphere, area of the planet they were grown on, growing techniques, and a host of other factors all affect the quality. Most people will find acceptable cultivars from worlds where the atmosphere doesn’t have any smelly gasses prevalent. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of coffee roasts, but they can all be divided into four categories: Light, Medium, Dark, and Double Roast, with various sub-varieties in each category. There are also a few space stations dedicated to growing coffee in tailored conditions, but the vast majority of them are attached to Imperial Naval Bases with access being strictly limited. No one knows why, but conspiracies abound…

On rare occasions, total coffee crop failure has been encountered, due to a plant disease running wild, natural disaster, or sabotage. In such cases, there is generally a good emergency response, with nearby worlds providing emergency bulk shipments of green beans, ground coffee, and hydroponic starter groves of preferred cultivars. In at least one case, it was rumored that the cause of the crop failure was a deliberate attempt by a neighboring world’s primary coffee cultivator to get a foothold on the world; it was never proven, however, and an attempt to have coffee crop sabotage declared outside the Imperial Rules of War ultimately failed, but not without extensive debate.

Coffee in Trade

Coffee provides many opportunities for trade, as both the product itself and the tools needed for it are in high demand. The prices below are the retail prices; see the “Cargo Lots” section below for handling it as a trade good.

Coffee Beans: Depending upon roast, quality, and fame of the brand, can be anywhere from Cr20 per kilo up, with the majority of widely-available cultivars in the Cr35-Cr50 per kilo range. Most brands of beans will have instructions on the optimum low-berth settings for the storage of up to 100kg.

Ground Coffee: A half-kilo of pre-ground coffee in a can, sealed in with an inert gas to prevent degradation of the product. Costs Cr15 and up per can, with prices of Cr20-Cr35 being common.

Creamer: Some people prefer to temper the flavor of the coffee, with high-fat milk products being preferred. Others consider such people to be heathens or worse. Creamers come in solid (powder) or liquid form. Cost Cr5 per 250g of solid creamer, or per 500ml in liquid form.

Coffee Grinder (TL9): Various grinding tools occupy this tube with a wide opening on top and a removable cup on the bottom. One side, you put in the coffee beans and set a dial for your preferred grind. Push a button and the beans are ground, ending up in the removable cup. Can process up to 20 grams of beans every six seconds, with the cup holding up to 300g of ground coffee. Costs Cr50, mass .7kg. Has a pair of batteries lasting up to 20 minutes, or it can be plugged into a power supply for longer run times.

Coffee Maker: There are three basic methods that are used to go from dry ground coffee to the liquid ambrosia so widely enjoyed: Press, Perk, and Drip.

In a Press, the ground coffee is permitted to steep in near-boiling water for a few minutes, then the water/ground coffee combination is compressed through a filter to yield the final product. Press coffee tends to be stronger for the same amount of ground coffee, but also more bitter, and usually leaves a bit of sediment in the cup. It is nevertheless considered to be a proper method of preparation for certain styles of serving.

Perked coffee, made in a “percolator”, places the grounds in a filtered basket at the top of the serving pot, and fills the bottom with water. There is a one-way separation between the two, so that when the water boils, it is forced up a tube in the center of the device until it is above the ground coffee, which it is then allowed to fall through, and back into the bottom. The water is thus passed through the ground coffee multiple times. The filter basket and used ground coffee is then removed from the device, and the coffee served. Perked coffee tends to be hotter when first served than either Press or Drip coffee, but also slightly more bitter. This style does have its adherents, but in general, perked coffee is considered inferior in flavor to drip coffee.

Drip coffee is generally considered the best method of preparation. Water is heated to near-boiling—but definitely not boiling—and then is allowed to drip through the ground coffee and filter into the pot. Few of the heavier compounds that cause bitterness are present in the final product, and there is no sediment in the pot when the correct filter is used.

There are several sizes of coffee maker, described below. The drip method is available in all sizes below; the largest commonly available percolator is equivalent to the “Half-Pint”, and the largest commonly available press is equivalent to the “Standard”. Generally, the term ‘coffee maker’ will be understood to refer to a drip system. The amount of ground coffee needed as stated below is based on 15g of ground coffee per 250ml of brewed coffee; a higher ratio of ground coffee to water yields a stronger brew, which some people may prefer.

Note: the size of a “cup”, or a single serving, is somewhat culturally dependent, and most commonly ranges from 150ml to 300ml (though certain subcultures and the Navy have been known to consider a “cup” to be as much as 500ml, and serving sizes up to 1000ml—or more—aren’t unknown). For the purposes of defining the size of coffee makers, “one cup” will be assumed to be 250ml.

The “Standard”: The “standard” coffee maker is the most commonly seen size; it reaches its technological perfection essentially at TL8. It can produce up to 16 cups (4000ml) of coffee, requiring 4.75l of water and 240g of ground coffee. Costs Cr75, mass 2kg. Replacement coffee pots Cr20.

The “Half-Pint”: an 8-cup model, called by an old term for something small. Uses 120g of ground coffee and 2.4l of water. Costs Cr50, mass 1.25kg. Replacement pot Cr15. Most commonly seen in small offices.

The “Bachelor”: Makes 4 cups. Seen primarily in Army offices, as a concession to the Army’s relatively few coffee drinkers, and the occasional guest who prefers coffee to the Army standard beverage of tea. The next most common use is as a personal coffeemaker (e.g., in college dormitory rooms) where the user prefers fresh-brewed. Uses 1.2l of water and 60g of ground coffee. Costs Cr30, mass 0.75kg. Replacement pot Cr13.

The “Singleton”: Makes 2 cups. While few people thought this size would be of any use, it turned out to have a surprisingly strong niche among people who use the process of preparing coffee as a meditative exercise, and among those who absolutely couldn’t bear to have coffee that had been sitting in the pot for any length of time. Uses 0.6l of water and 30g of ground coffee. Cr45. Mass 0.5 kg. Replacement pots are often unavailable, but can occasionally be found for Cr25.

The “Full Deck”: The Imperial Navy uses a custom design of approximately the same size, but many large offices use this commercial equivalent, brewing 32 cups at a time. Uses 480g of ground coffee and 10l of water. Costs Cr120, mass 5kg. This unit comes with the Single Cup Server, rather than a removable pot.

Coffee Mug (TL Varies): By definition, the coffee cup or coffee mug holds one serving, regardless of the size of the serving. The smallest cups, used in certain cultures for ceremonial purposes, hold 150ml; the Navy’s “Watchstander” mug holds a full 2000ml. (Purists do not consider the “Watchstander” to be a mug, as it is generally acknowledged to be ‘about four cups’, where ‘cup’ means ‘serving’, rather than the formal 250ml measurement.) There is wide variation in shape, color, material, quality, and various other bells and whistles; personalization and customized designs abound. They typically come in two types, the open topped common mug, and the sealable travel mug. Extremely experienced spacers are able to use an open topped mug in any conditions, even zero-g (Task: Formidable, DEX, Zero-G Env), and the middle of combat (Hope that no one shoots at you!). There are persistent rumors that such actions are the main test to become a Bosun in the Imperial Navy… Cost: Cr5 and up—very up. Mass depends on size and material; a typical 250ml ceramic mug will mass about 100g.


Brew Timer (TL 8): When a coffee maker equipped with a timer is preloaded with water and ground coffee, the timer can be set to start the brewing at a specified time. Usually set for the start of the next watch. Typically adds Cr5 to the price of the coffee maker, mass negligible.

Presser (TL 10): A small gravitic presser is included in the unit, allowing for greater flavor and less water usage. Essentially converts a drip coffee maker into a press, with all the benefits and disadvantages. Adds Cr150 and 750g of mass to the price and mass of the coffee maker.

Sealed (TL 8): By incorporating valves into the coffee pot, the contents are prevented from spilling during rough maneuvers. Combined with a Brewing Presser, it becomes possible to brew coffee in zero-g. Adds Cr25 and 250g.

Bulkhead mounting (TL 11): Using specialized mounting brackets, it becomes possible to stick a coffee maker just about anywhere on ship. Prevents it from being knocked around by rough maneuvers and battle damage. Does nothing for the coffee pot itself, just the brewing unit. Cr. 150, weight 1kg.

Pot Lock (TL 11): The common nickname for the method used to prevent the coffee pot from being knocked out of the brewing unit. It uses similar technology to the Bulkhead mountings. When combined with Bulkhead mounting, a presser, and the sealed option, allows the crew to stick the coffee maker literally anywhere on the ship and still have it work. Cr100, mass 900g.

Single Cup Server: Replaces the coffee pot with a holding tank of equivalent capacity. The tank has a spigot, allowing dispensing any desired amount (up to the capacity of the tank) without having to lift a full pot. Cr50, mass 250g. Standard for “Full Deck” coffee makers; common option for “Standards”, not available for “Bachelor” or “Singleton”.

Cargo Lots

The prices above represent retail purchase. Typically, the consignee will pay half that amount for the bulk shipment (i.e., if the retail price is Cr100 per unit, the bulk shipment will be paid for assuming Cr50 per unit in the lot). The merchant who is doing speculative trade in coffee and coffee tools should expect to pay about 80% of what the consignee will pay (i.e., if the consignee pays Cr50 per unit, the merchant should expect to pay Cr40 per unit). Take the above retail figures and multiply by 40%, then multiply by the number of units per dton, in the table below, to calculate the base price per dton (before applying the trade rules).


Coffee-Related Quantities Per Displacement Ton
Good Quantity per Displacement Ton
Coffee Beans 6000kg (green); 5000kg (roasted) Shipped in specialized containers
Ground Coffee Not shipped except as a pre-consigned emergency supply (freight, not cargo)
Creamer 7000kg (solid); 28000kg (14kl) for liquid
Coffee Grinder 3000 units
Coffee Makers
Full Deck (32-cup) 560 units
Standard (16-cup) 1400 units
Half-Pint (8-cup) 3200 units
Bachelor (4-cup) 3500 units
Singleton (2-cup) 7000 units

Coffee and Other Races

With all the various races that humans have come in contact with, it’s almost impossible to list all the reactions to coffee. Here’s the major races though.

Hivers: The universal reaction—as far as humans know—is an intense dislike. There are unconfirmed reports that coffee shipped into the Hive Federation's territory is confiscated and destroyed, and traders have claimed to have witnessed Hive government operations targetted at eradicating coffee growing on Hive Federation-controlled worlds.

K’Kree: K’kree consider the odor distasteful, but those who can get past it report the flavor as acceptable. As a knock-out brew, it has no real competition.

Droyne: They vary between ignoring it and spending hundreds of thousands of credits to import it. No Droyne has actually been witnessed drinking it, though.

Aslan: Most Aslan will avoid coffee as a recreational beverage, as it appears to have a pacifying (i.e., anti-aggression personality change, rather than merely being a sedative) effect on them. There are indications that it may have an enhancing effect on mental processes, so controlled medical use is not unknown as part of the treatment for injuries resulting in brain damage.

Vargr: The caffeine in coffee is considered a mild neurotoxin, and thus most Vargr will refuse to drink it. There is some demand among Imperial and Julian Vargr for coffee where the beans have been processed before roasting in a way that removes most of the caffeine.

Adventure Hooks

One day into jump, the coffee maker has malfunctioned, and the engineer isn't sure he can fix it!

Surprisingly, an otherwise rather liberal theocracy bans coffee. A community of nonbelievers want some smuggled in.

The party makes contact with someone who claims to have some Navy coffee for sale.

Something in the local environment has made the coffee from the local cultivar extremely vile. They are desperate for a new cultivar.

The papers all looked right, and the mass and container type was correct, for a shipment of green beans. When the purchaser opened the containers, however, it turned out to be toxic chemical waste. Naturally, judgement went against the party, even though the court agreed that evidence unambiguously showed that the party themselves had been defrauded, and they now have to refund the purchaser’s money. This leaves them with the toxic waste to dispose of—legally and safely, at their own expense—and with insufficient funds to pay their port fees. They’ve got to come up with some money, quickly—but who on the planet will trust them? And, if they do manage to get back off-world, can they recover from the seller?

The players have a lucrative contract to bring some coffee from Terra to a non-aligned world in Spica Sector. Unfortunately, their route brought them to a world recently taken over by the Hiver megacorp Star Patterns Trading, and the Hivers want to confiscate and destroy the coffee, even though it’s not destined for Hiver space.