THERE ARE A MILLION ways to brew a cup of coffee. K-Cups and French presses are just the beginning; once you get into the weeds of the specialty coffee world, you’ll find a constant, caffeine-fueled debate smoldering over which method actually creates the best cup of coffee.
There are those who swear by the Japanese drip method and others who favor espresso (though from a moka pot or a hydraulic machine, they often cannot agree), and some even resort to the alchemical theatricality of a complicated siphon arrangement that looks more like it belongs in a mad scientist’s lab than a cafe. There are those who swear it’s not the coffee but the water, or not the water but the milk, or no, wait, not the milk but the filter, and whether it is better to stir or to jiggle or to press.
But tinkering around to produce the best cup of joe is not an activity limited to be-hipstered cafes in coastal cities. Perhaps the last place you would expect to find a silky-smooth cup is in the humble basement of a community church. But this brew, typically served out of the kind of industrial carafes you associate with sad office events, is said by enthusiasts to rival all those fancier brewing methods, without any of the faff or expensive equipment.
The concept originated among the Lutheran churches of Scandinavian immigrants in the Midwest, where it is called “Swedish Egg Coffee” or “Church Basement Coffee,” and while some theorize it was brought over from Mother Scandinavia, no one seems to have hard evidence that it is anything other than a local creation. The result is a super-mild form of campfire coffee meant to be brewed in large batches to feed a crowd, and because the method supposedly also extracts more caffeine than other brewing methods, it’s meant to keep that crowd awake for whatever activities go on in the average Lutheran church basement.
Family recipes abound, with various proportions of coffee and water. I tried three different versions, and the one I like best is as follows: To make about 3 cups of this brew, first grind your coffee (you end up using roughly 1.5 tablespoons of ground coffee per cup, so about 4 tablespoons coffee). I found a few suggestions on the grind, but I suggest medium to coarse, because you’ll want to strain it later.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, beat an egg. You can add the shell too, adherents insist, if you like. Beat the egg, and then add the coffee grounds and smoosh everything around with a spoon or a whisk, smashing the eggshell into bits (if using). At this point, you might feel like a child playing with food, or a DIY beauty making an all-natural face mask from Pinterest. It’s gross and weird. Just keep going.
Boil 5 cups of water in a small saucepan. When it boils, add the coffee-egg mixture, give it a stir and let it boil for 3-5 minutes. At this point you will be thinking, “Tantri, why the *&*% did you just make me waste a perfectly good egg?” The slurry looks vile, like something you’d find in a clogged drain, and smells a smidge like sulfur — not very Ikea. Still, even the most beautiful of us emerged from primordial ooze, so don’t be judgy. Yet.
At this point, prepare a cup of cold water (ice-cold, if you can). Have it ready. Once your 3-5 minutes are up, stop the boil, and pour in that cup of cold water. All those lumps of vileness should sink to the bottom of the pan. At this point, you can simply pour the coffee off the top or, if you really don’t want any of those chunks (you don’t), pour into a carafe through a fine-mesh strainer. The coffee will look weak and watered-down, and far clearer than your average cup.
The theory behind this method is that the albumin in the egg extracts the bitter tannins in the coffee, resulting in a smooth, velvety brew no matter how frugal the quality of the beans, as community churches are hardly likely to spend $20 a pound on third-wave bird-safe Panamanian arabica beans for their giant vats of free coffee. I did use fancy-ish coffee (because I had it already) but, full disclosure, despite repeatedly monkeying with the proportions and method, I could not produce a cup of coffee I liked.
I will admit it was perfectly smooth, without a trace of the acrid bitterness of burned coffee or any hint of acidity. But it also, to me, did not really taste like coffee anymore. It was more like a cross between coffee and tea, lacking body and robustness. It was like the ghost of coffees past. Your mileage may vary, however — a poke around the internet will tell you that people swear by this stuff, and it certainly doesn’t require milk. But then, Midwesterners are also fans of cross-country skiing and something called “hot dish,” so maybe Church Basement Coffee is something you have to grow up with to appreciate. If you like it, it’s the perfect thing to brew for a holiday get-together of any size, whether you’re in the basement or not.