60 Beans of Genius

It is Anton Schindler who attributed Beethoven’s counting of 60 beans to an “Oriental” fastidiousness (meaning Turkish or Arabic). But what if the instructions for the newfangled brewing device said “use 60 beans.” Then it’s nothing to do with Beethoven at all, not a quirk, not a mark of personality. And Schindler says nothing about the amount of water used, or how the coffee was actually brewed, or how many cups Beethoven drank. Moreover, we know that Beethoven worried perpetually over money. Maybe he was trying to be frugal.

Fortunately, there is another source that states “glass bowl,” which is just enough information to tell us that Beethoven probably used a vacuum pot. Although worried about money, he was not poor, and this is another example, along with metronomes and the latest pianos, of his openness to new things, or at least to improvements in things. Dr. Karl von Bursy visited Beethoven in 1816, at 7 a.m., and reported, “I found Beethoven at this writing-desk with a piece of music paper in front of him and, beyond it, a glass bowl in which he was making his coffee.” (Beethoven, Letters, Journals, and Conversations, ed. Michael Hamburger).

Fastidiousness is not a quality that appears in most of first-hand accounts of Beethoven, and Schindler’s reputation as a memoirist has long been a poor one. But other sources indicate a variety of rules that Beethoven had in regard to food and household affairs, including the one that no dish of food be brought out to the table once a meal with guests had begun. Beethoven’s tendency not to trust others to do things right also supports the notion that he would count the beans out himself.

We have made coffee with 60 fastidiously counted beans, and it’s not a lot of coffee at all, nowhere near a Starbucks venti. For an excellent and detailed account of the history of coffee making, we direct the reader to Kathryn McGowan’s blog, Comestibles, and to the posts on Coffee Preparation Through the Ages.

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