Beans about Coffee

Muttering “Coffee, Coffee, Coffee, Coffee!” John, a disheveled graduate school house-mate of mine, started his day or extended it. He was consuming the ideas of Locke, Descartes, Montesquieu, Hume, Kant, J.S. Mill and those of a few dozen other luminaries. It somehow seems appropriate that one would drink strong coffee - and lots of it - when one is reading the words of men who changed the course of history. Their ideas were revolutionary then and as many as three centuries later, living in a world revolutionized by them, those same ideas can sometimes seem as fresh as a morning cup of coffee.

My house-mate had his own French Press and his own stove-top percolator. He gravitated toward the dark roasts. Presumably the jolt of bitterness served with the caffeine to sharpen his senses as he read and comprehended the work of these masters. Sometimes wisdom is a bitter pill.

We sometimes think of coffee as being just a beverage, but it is a food. And it is a drug. Caffeine is part of a number of over-the counter painkiller medications because it tends to dilate the capillaries. And in some cases, especially the case of headaches, this dilation increases the effect of the analgesic. Presumably this dilation improves blood-flow to the brain and helps us think more clearly. Perhaps it is the caffeine or perhaps it is some other chemical, but people who drink coffee live in a slightly different space from people who do not. Or we might have the causal relation backwards. It may be that people who live in a slightly different space tend to have a special relationship with coffee.

When coffee was first introduced to Europe in the dark ages, it was served in coffee houses. Before long the church banned coffee because they believed it turned people into rebelious malcontents. Quite possibly it has this effect. Or, it could be that something in coffee or coffeehouses appeals to the malcontents.

But it is more than the occasional malcontent who enjoys coffee. There is no question that coffee is consumed not just for its flavor, but also for its ‘buzz.’ Those well along on their addiction to the stuff may no longer experience the buzz, but anyone who gets through three or four days of withdrawal and resumes drinking coffee will likely be reminded what it is.like. It is a kind of profound feeling of well being that makes the external world feel slightly less important. Sometimes it allows one to focus or concentrate more clearly. Sometimes it might make one just want to sit. staring at the wall and enjoy feeling good. And somettmes it creates a nervous-system overload, causing a person to metaphorically ‘bounce off the walls.’

The feeling can pass rather quickly, almost always lingering for less than an hour. The most profound sensation may not last two minutes. And when it does fade , one begins to pay the price. One feels just a litte more tired, just a little more irritable, just a little bit less focussed, just a little less patient, just a little less tolerant than one did before the first cup. The usual practice is to have another cup. This restores some of what is lost, but after some time, perhaps an hour or two thngs are a little worse still. Five or six stiff cups of coffee before lunch can turn a slightly grumpy person into a full-blown curmudgeon come afternoon. And perhaps if one drinks coffee like Balzac - who was reputed to go through fifty cups a day - one will become either a frenetic writer or a veritable revolutionary.

Everybody responds to coffee in a slightly different way. And in fact, different coffees from differrent geographical locations and from different suppliers will produce different effects. Each person must judge for herself whether the net effect is good or bad. Coffee is a good source of some useful minerals. And there is no doubt that the coffee industry will come to claim some profound health benefits for the material.

I drink it because I am a coffee addict. Coffee makes me feel good. And I like its flavor. Five or six days after quitting it I am still getting over it. Two weeks after quitting it I am starting to recover. But just the smell of freshly brewed coffee, just the odor of the ground beans, and I am back at six cups in the morning. Nothing helps. Not throwing away all the coffee and all the paraphanelia. I have not tried hypnotism or electroshock therapy but some addictions are not regarded as having serious enough consequences to warrant such exotic or painful measures. So I am still drinking coffee. And loving it.

Smell the Coffee

The official word on coffee is that it can be evaluated by four standard qualities : Aroma, Acidity, Body, and Flavor. Coffees in which the particular attributes of these qualities go together well are said to be 'balanced.'

The language of coffee tasting has adopted the same sensibility as that of wine tasting. Flavors can resemble chocolate or berries or nuts or smoke. If one has already had a cup of coffee with a particular description, a good description will sometimes evoke that coffee - like a caricature evokes a person. But it is frequently difficult to tell from a caricature what a person will look like; and it is often difficult to imagine from a description what a coffee will taste like.

Characterizing Coffee

In my own mind, It is a bit easier to imagine what a coffee will taste like on the basis of :

Coffee is grown as two species; cafe arabica, and cafe robusta. The former grows best at high altitudes and is regarded as being superior in flavor because it can be more complex and subtle in flavor. The latter is easier to grow and cheaper to produce. When coffee is reduced to bitterness and buzz robusta is fine. Those who drink arabica owe it a great debt for keeping down the cost of good tasting coffee. The arabica variety will sometimes produce what is known as a 'peaberry' bean which tends to be a little more spicy in flavor. The arabica tree will produce what amounts to a pound of coffee a year, so good coffee really is a thing to be treasured.

Roasting is quite important to coffee. Roasting is like malting of barley in the process of beermaking. In both cases the raw grain or bean is heated until the cellulose and long starch molecules break down into long chain sugars. As this this happens the principal components turn from white to tan to brown. As the process continues these molecules dehydrogenate and they gradually change to carbon - like the stuff of charcoal briquettes and end up black. The process unlocks the flavors in the bean so that it can be extracted. And it drives out certain harsh and undesirable flavors. But it also drives off and destroys vital flavor and fragrance compounds. In general there is no perfect roast, all roasting is a compromise. Each level of roast accentuates different qualities in beans.

There are a number of levels of roasting between the lightest and the darkest roasts. Light roasts tend to be full of aroma, zing, and flavor high notes. But they can be lacking in body and the big, round, malty flavor that is probably the primary flavor attraction of coffee. Dark roasts tend to look slightly oily on the outside and may have a rich toasty flavor. Roasting past a certain point begins to develop notes of smoke and bitterness. And it tends to drive off all the more subtle flavors in coffee. Espresso and French roasts are the darkest roasts. They produce the most intensely bitter coffee. Sometimes this is just what is required; but many coffee drinkers may come to view the darkest roasts as being 'over the top.'

There are a number of coffee growing regions and each has some range of flavors. Ethiopia in east Africa is the home of coffee; this is where it was discovered. The land produces coffees with big, bold, dark, earthy flavors unequalled in coffeedom. I am thinking here of Sidamo and Harrar, but there are others. These coffees can be overwhelming for breakfast, but if one has had a big, spicy meal and is having a dessert and one wants a big coffee to stand up to it all, Ethiopian or Arabian beans can be a really good choice. Most of the east African beans echo the earthy flavor of Ethiopian beans. As one moves down the continent through Kenya and Tanzania the flavor and body gets lighter and more complex. There are a lot of good values to be had among African beans. Try Tanzanian peaberry for a change of pace.

New World coffees tend to be a little more zingy than African ones. There is frequently more acid and less body. But there can be more floral notes. For this reason, it is sometimes a good idea to buy them not too darkly roasted, for dark roasts while intensifying body, will tend to diminish the floral qualities and diminish the crispness. Of course, if they are too lightly roasted they will seem unbalanced, too zingy, all high notes and no low ones. Columbian coffees are the sort of prototypical "good breakfast coffee" having an adequate amount of acidity, some floral notes, plenty of flavor, and good balance. Kona beans command high prices, but their charms are too subtle for my own pallate. They lack a characteristic acidity and subtle bitterness that I miss when it is absent coffee. There are great varietal coffees to be found from Peru, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Mexico.

Coffees of Indonesia - Sumatra, Sulawesi, and Java - can be big and bold or mellow and earthy. Whereas American coffees deliver crisp high notes, these deliver earthy low notes. Those who like big round flavors might find these become favorites. If roasted darkly enough, they can also serve well as dinner coffees or mid-day coffee break coffees.

Getting Coffee

I will occasionally buy whole bean coffee at a supermarket. And I am frequently surprised at how drinkable it is. I imagine myself a bit of a coffee snob, but there are some very good beans to be had at the grocery store, especially if one buys a popular blend that turns over quickly.

I will occasionally buy whole bean coffee from Starbucks online store. Starbucks is remarkable for the breadth of variety in their coffees. I love the flavor of their coffees. It may be difficult to find a suppler that can consistently deliver such a broad range of high quality flavors. I have a strange relationship with coffee; some coffees give me headaches, and I find this happens less often when I buy from most other sources. I have also purchased Starbucks coffees at a local store. In the first place, the delightful odd eclectic varities I found online - Ethiopian Sidomo, or Kimodo Dragon were not available. I was not convinced that the bags of coffee I got from the store were not simply expired store beans being dumped on unsuspecting customers. They did not strike me as being as fresh as the online fare. And the buying process was not pleasant, the sales clerk snarled with contempt when I declined his offer to grind the beans in the store. It suggested to me almost a kind of contempt for those who would attempt to make better coffee at home than the store might make. Not what we expect at the Starbucks Counter.

I have also been a member of Gevalia's coffee service. The service is exemplary. And I find the special varietal coffees they ship seasonally to be among the best tasting coffee I've had. They display strong regional variations and are roasted to a level that accentuates their regional qualities. This week I pulled a box of Popayan out of the freezer where it had been for two years and made one of the best pots of coffee I have had in a long time. The coffees of the normal shipments are good. They are packaged in a manner that is second to none. They are fresh and without flaws, but sometimes they fail to wow. Those wanting something with an edge may not always find 'just the thing' in the regular shipment catalogue. The coffee here is a bit pricey, but it rarely gives me headaches, it is always fresh, and it is completely dependable. The customer service people are easy to deal with, also.

We have found several suppliers online with different styles:

I have also purchased coffee at a local wholesale chain. I have tried Green Mountain Roasters. The first bag impressed me as being a good value, though nothing special. The second fell flat. I am now in the middle of a Costa Rican blend whose brand I do not recognize - Jungle Plantation or something like that - it strikes me as being quite a value.

Brewing Coffee

There exist a number of methods for brewing coffee: Open Pot, Percolator, Coffee Machine, French Press, and so on. Each method has its advantages. Before we discuss these we need to talk in general about things that affect brewed coffee flavor.

The first thing to worry about with brewed coffee flavor is interaction with air. Oxygen interacts with a number of components of coffee, diminishing its favorable qualities and introducing unfavorable ones. There are three things one can do to diminish this effect. The first is to always buy whole beans. This retards the oxidation process by a huge amount, perhaps ten-fold or even a hundred fold. Unless you consume a whole package of ground coffee in a week, it is very important to grind your own beans. This has the further advantage that you can learn to grind your beans to match the method of making coffee.

The second thing to worry about is extraction process. Brew too quickly and the coffee will seem too flat and one dimensional. Brew too slowly and the coffee will be overly strong and bitter. Use too much water at once and ironically both problems can crop up at the same time! To complicate matters, there is an interaction between grind fineness and extraction time, coarse grinds are used with longer extraction times.

The third thing to think about is the water. Use cold water. Cold water has air dissolved in it; and for reasons we do not understand it makes cold water taste better - hence the aerators on kitchen and bathroom faucet fixtures. Curiously, air dissolved in waters is also said by coffee experts to make coffee taste better. Cold water has more air. Furthermore, hot water has frequently been 'softened.' and this makes water less well suited for coffee.

Making Coffee

Purests will brew using a French Press or an Open Pot, but the easiest thing to do is to buy a good coffee machine and a spice grinder. Grind one tablespoon of coffee per cup of coffee( a cup of coffee is defined in the industry as some perversely small amount like 4 or six ounces - my 10 cup coffeemaker makes three mugs of coffee. ) What happens next depends on what you have.

Coffee Machine

Place the ground coffee in the filter, add water to the machine, locate the caraffe corectly beneath the filter mechanism, and brew the coffee.

Here is what to look for in a coffee machine:
1) It must be high wattage. This means that it can complete the brewing cycle before the grounds have become over-extracted. This may be the biggest difference between a good machine and a bad one.
2) It must have a thermal caraffe. This means that the coffee is essentially sealed in a container where air does not interact with the coffee. The coffee does not cool very fast, and it stays fresh for up to half a day. And because it is out of contact with air, it will retain most of its fresh qualities. Coffee in a thermal caraffe keeps fresh remarkably well. If it cools too much, it can be reheated in the cup when serving. Most of the freshness is preserved. It is eye-opening to see how big a difference this makes. Wow.
3) It is nice if it starts automatically, especially if one is in a great hurry in the morning.
4) It is good if it offers the option of a mesh filter or a paper filter. If one starts with good, fresh, correctly roasted beans, and one grinds them just before brewing a mesh filter will produce a coffee with more richeness of flavor and more body. But if there is any problem with the coffee, it will be the oils that go bad first, and a paper filter can make a big difference in rescuing slightly aged coffees.
5) The idea that a coffee machine will grind the beans just before brewing seems attractive to me. Coffee machines tend to use burr grinders which are said to be superior to spice grinders for their uniformity of grind. But my own experience with burr vs rotary spice grinders is that I generally prefer the flavor of coffee ground with a spice grinder. Still, for those who are in a hurry in the morning this would be a great idea. It also helps to keep th counter clean.

My own coffee is made by a Capresso MT500 model with water filter and stainless steel thermal caraffe. It makes better coffee than I am able to do using the open pot method, or it does so more reliably and more conveniently. And the third cup always tastes as good as the first, something never true for open pot brewing.

Open Pot

Ideally,when the water is just off the boil, pour enough into the cone filter so that the grounds are wet through, perhaps 4-8 oz. Then wait 20 seconds. This will start the extraction process in a way that incorporates the least amount of air into the process. It somehow increases body and flavor and decreases bitterness. Then slowly pour the water into the filter, so that the level of the water rises about halfway up the coffee filter. Stop adding water when you have enough brewed coffee. This is a painstaking method, because it requires a minute or more of patient pouring. But it can result in very good coffee. Those less patient, will just fill up the coffee filter after having waited that initial twenty seconds, and much of the benefit of going slow will be realized - at least in the first cup of coffee.

Other Methods

The French Press is a popular method among coffee lovers. It cleverly moves the grounds through the water, forcing the water through the grounds. This minimizes contact with the air and it can help prevent over-extraction. The equipment is inexpensive. Some practice might be required to master matching the speed of the process with the fineness of grind. It may be that this is the best method for certain kinds of beans. It is a method that is popular among purists .

The percolator was popular in the 50's but it went out of style with instant coffee. Of course there are two kinds of percolators. There are the single chamber percolators that gave percolation a bad name. In single chamber percolators, the brewed coffee falls down into the part of the pot that is being heated. Here it contacts the hot surfaces that are in contact with the flame, and it burns. The material produced can be indestinguisable from asphalt except that it is unfit for paving.

There are two-chamber percolators that do pretty much what a coffee maker does, except they use heat from the burner of a stove. Two chamber percolators, if well managed, might make coffee that is better than cheap coffee makers. Possibly, in the hands of an expert they could outstrip a good coffee maker. And the reason is that they might brew more quickly. And they brew at a higher temperature. But it is probable that one gets better process control with a well-made high powered coffee maker.

Eat well and prosper.


Revolutionizing Trade - The Role of Coffee

It is interesting to note that coffee has - for most of its European life and much of its earlier Arab life - been emblematic of 'best practices' in trade. Soon after it became a beverage in the thirteenth century it was cultivated in Yemen - a place that still grows some of the world's best coffee beans. Coffee was shipped by boat to other ports of the mideast in Egypt and the Levant, and the beans were jealously guarded. So too were the plants. It was illegal to remove live plants from Yemen for centuries, but eventually it happened, and coffee cultivation began in India.

Meanwhile, Venician traders were bringing coffee to Europe along with spices and carpets and other goods from the mideast. Coffee grew in popularity. And by the eighteenth century Dutch colonies were producing coffee in Indonesia and Spanish colonies were doing the same in America. Thus coffee's story resembles the story of spices. Except that it seems to be both more adaptable to new climates and it has a greater potential demand.

During the mid twentieth century coffee was produced on sprawling Brazilian plantations, was traded as a commodity like copper or iron or cement or oats, and was distributed by large consumer marketing companies as 'one size fits all' brands. This was the way pretty much everything was sold during the mid twentieth century and there was a great economy in arranging the world so. But it led to a level of homogeneity in things that ignited a kind of counter-revolution.

The counter-revolution in manufacturing circles is sometimes called 'massive customization. The idea there is that every customer has unique needs. One can, using flexible manufacturing processes, customize products to meet those unique needs. In marketing perhaps the term is niche marketing - identifying the particular needs of individual customers.

In any case, companies such as Starbucks realized that by cutting out the commodities brokers they could do a number of things. They could buy specialty coffees for less, they could establish links with individual growers, and they could develop a brand built on meeting unique needs of their individual customers. It might be called mass-specialization. A business model such as this results in coffee that is more costly. But some of that increase in cost goes to support small niche farmers who tend to be the ones who cultivate the best beans. And some of it is passed along to consumers who will gladly pay an extra dollar or two per pound for premium coffees.

A number of the ideas of Starbucks have been emulated by other suppliers. Responsible and sustainable agricultural models, support of farmers in a more explicit way. And so on. It is a trend of mass specialization.

For foodies this idea bodes well because one of the laments that French chefs have in America is that the mass commoditization of food has led to a uniformly low level of freshness, vitality, and flavor. Produce has sunk to the 'lowest common denominator.' Specialty marketing or mass specialization in coffee bodes well for a more upscale specialty food marketing operation involving other foods, hopefully a full line of produce. Only one or two companies have taken on the challenge. Both Whole Foods and HEB in Austin had premium produce aisles in the mid 1990s. The former is the fastest growing food retailer in the US today. And Starbucks is doing well too. So there is much hope for this model.



Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.