I remember watching my grandmother make us egg coffee when we’d visit her summertime cabin home on the orange-tinged shores of Lake Esquagama, Minnesota. She’d crack an egg into a small bowl and beat it until thoroughly blended, then mix the egg into dry coffee grounds (we were a Hills Bros. family, but Folger’s sometimes stood in at the cabin). The mixture was then put into a large stove-top coffee pot and brought to a boil. Once it was good and roiling, she’d turn the heat off and allow the grounds to steep for 10 minutes. A little wad of tinfoil poked into the spout of the coffee pot. (That tinfoil was like a family heirloom, and lord help the person who inadvertently threw it away.)
She would then dump a coffee cup’s worth of cold water into the pot, allow it to settle for 10 minutes and then gently pour several cups of coffee. The mixture was a translucent burnt sienna color, and completely devoid of bitterness. Despite its light color, the texture in the mouth was luscious, giving the coffee a round richness. Cups were drank in quick succession.
Like so many great ideas, egg coffee was a technique born out of necessity. Lousy water, weak coffee, and long day of work meant the Scandinavian immigrants of Northern Minnesota had to get creative. According to U.S. Census data, Minnesota is home to the largest population of Scandinavian-Americans in the country, with immigrants arriving to the region in the mid-1800s; their culinary influences can now be found all over the Twin Cities and beyond. For those early immigrant farmers, the solution to bad coffee was near-at-hand and came, as one Minneapolis chef’s grandfather put it, “from the ass-end of a chicken.”
Egg coffee is known and beloved by many in the Midwest, but not commonly made outside of this part of the country. Eventually, times changed, and as the drip coffee pot took over valuable kitchen space, this time-consuming way of brewing was nearly lost. However, like all great old things of sturdy quality, egg coffee might just be ready for a comeback.
To understand what’s happening inside the cup is to study the process happening inside that roiling pot. Egg whites, or albumen, are a powerful clarifying agent utilized in both making consommé and pulling sediments out of red wine. When egg whites are subjected to high temperatures — as in boiling — their proteins break apart. Those newly separated proteins then bind to other macromolecules that might be present in the liquid — like tannins (in wine), cellular material (in consommé), or other impurities that can cause bitterness.
As the coffee boils inside that pot, a frothy mess of grounds and egg begins to congeal together at the top, forming a mass shaped like a raft. (In scientific terms, this is caused by the hydrophobic effect, which separates water from the solids.) While visually unappealing, this important byproduct is the key to the mild flavor and powerful caffeine kick that comes a cup of egg coffee. The egg white pulls the acridness of a lesser-quality coffee and diminishes all traces of bitter flavor while enhancing the caffeine. The rush of cold water then sinks the raft, acting as mother nature’s plunger — much the way a French press does.
Now, even the most common of grocery store coffees has risen considerably in quality since those old tin can days. So why would egg coffee need to be brought back? Haven’t we roasted out the bad flavors that coffee used to carry? Don’t our fancy water filtration systems render the labored over cup obsolete?
Not at all. According to Pip Hanson, the former beverage director at Minneapolis’s acclaimed Nordic restaurant the Bachelor Farmer and Marvel Bar, “We decided to try egg coffee [at the Bachelor Farmer Cafe] because everything else has been done,” he said. “Third Wave has done it all, from the grind to the pour to the equipment. How do we take the next step in coffee?” But he noted that after experimenting with the process, Bachelor Farmer Cafe ultimately abandoned the idea of serving egg coffee to customers because of its time-consuming process.
However, Erick Harcey of Minneapolis’s nouveaux-Scandinavian restaurant Upton 43 scoffs at the intellectualized approach to egg coffee. “It’s totally worth it and really delicious,” he said. Harcey’s mastered a stove-top method that is almost exactly the same as the way my grandmother made it, but he uses the whole shells. “You’ve got to wash them first,” he instructed, before sharing his grandfather’s favorite “chicken-ass” line.
On a recent Wednesday morning inside the kitchen of his Linden Hills restaurant, Harcey carefully measured freshly ground coffee by weight. “If my grandfather was here, he’d be bitching, ‘While you’re still playing around, we could have already been drinking coffee. Why do you have to complicate everything?’” The chef smiled — his Scandinavian grandfather's influence inspired his restaurant's heritage-meets-modern approach, one that's been drawing national attention.
The first cup of coffee Harcey made was exactly as I’d remembered from my grandmother’s kitchen, pale and almost orange, like the iron ore–colored lake of my childhood. The result drank like water — warm, coffee-kissed water, but walloped a peppy kick.
For a second cup, Harcey increased the amount of coffee grounds, crushed two eggs into the mix, added a minuscule pinch of salt, and mixed it all together before pouring the black sludge into a pot of water. When it came to a boil, Harcey set the timer and we watched with increasing intensity as the viscous mixture expanded and then contracted as the bubbles roiled around it. The sludge tightened; flecked with eggshells, it oozed like a creature capable of climbing out of the pan. Harcey again cut the heat and splashed it all with a cup of cold water, and the creature reverted to its subterranean realm.
Harcey then poured us each a cup of coffee the color of sunlit velvet, and we drank. It was revelatory, rich and smooth with the succulent perfume of perfectly roasted beans and not even a whisper of bitter. The steam curled up from the cup like a lazy cat tail, and suddenly I felt like pouring out old stories of farmers in the field, ladies who made afternoon cakes and went calling. The tether between me and my ancestors pulled me back. “And that,” Harcey said, “is why we do this.”