Read an Excerpt
A Guide to Buying, Brewing, and Enjoying
By Kenneth Davids
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Kenneth Davids
All rights reserved.
More than a wake-up pill
Filling the knowledge gap
Specialty vs. commercial coffees
When the first edition of this book appeared in the mid-1970s, finding a good cappuccino or a bag of freshly roasted specialty coffee was an act of esoteric consumerism often requiring miles of freeway travel and penetration into select corners of large American cities. Today there seems to be a specialty coffee store on every gentrified street corner (half of them Starbucks) and an espresso machine in every restaurant.
When I sold my caffè in Berkeley, California, in 1975, it was one of about five or six such establishments in the entire town and one of three putting out a decent cappuccino. Toward the end of the 1990s, there were over forty caffès on one side of the University of California campus alone, brewing close to 40,000 cups of Italian coffee a day, or 1.2 cups per student, per day, a figure that includes tea drinkers and various beverage puritans.
It would seem that the implicit theme of this book is on its way to prevailing: Coffee is a sensual experience as well as a wake-up pill, and if it is drunk at all, it should be drunk well and deliberately, rather than swilled half cold out of Styrofoam® plastic cups while we work. Enjoying good coffee may not save the world, but it certainly won't hurt.
The Knowledge Gap
Nevertheless, aspiration is not always fulfillment. Every Christmas large numbers of people purchase home espresso machines and, after several rounds of thin, overextracted espresso, sell their machines at a garage sale the following summer and go back to spending too much for too little at the corner caffè. And at the corner caffè itself, mediocrity may reign, unchallenged by customers who lack sufficient knowledge and confidence to send back thin, bitter espressos, botched caffè lattes, and dead brewed coffee.
When we turn from espresso to single-origin coffees and fancy blends, the realm of Kenya AAs and Ethiopia Yirgacheffes, the gap between what most coffee-loving palates value and what their owners are able to turn up at their local coffee stores and supermarkets looms even deeper and broader. The media connoisseurship and consumer sophistication that has disciplined and given form to the fine wine industry is largely lacking for fine coffee. Charming small roasting companies spring up with wonderfully enthusiastic owners who proceed to destroy splendid green coffees by burning them. Supermarket chains replace the coffees of reputable, dependable specialty roasters with their own lines of specialty coffees that often prove to be, at best, mediocre.
Coffee lovers lack the language to impose their desires on the world, and even when they do, coffee sellers may not hear them. Recently I overheard a customer declare to a clerk in a coffee store that she did not care for acidy coffees. She then asked the clerk to recommend a less acidy coffee. These words are exactly the right words formed into the right question to get this coffee drinker exactly what she wanted. Nevertheless, the clerk could not come up with an adequate response, even though he had at least one superb low-acid coffee — a Brazil Santos — available in the bins behind him.
This book is addressed to those coffee drinkers who are interested in achieving their coffee aspirations, as well as to casual, unconverted readers who may doubt that coffee offers a world of pleasure and connoisseurship as rich and interesting as wine, although considerably more accessible. It is not another gift cookbook filled with recipes that you try once, during the week between Christmas and the New Year. It is a practical book about a small but real pleasure, with advice about how to buy better coffee, make better coffee, enjoy coffee in more ways, avoid harming yourself with too much caffeine, and, if you care to, talk about coffee with authority. Throughout, I have tried to blend the practical and experimental with the historical and descriptive, and to produce a book simultaneously useful in the kitchen and entertaining in the armchair.
A Bargain Luxury
A note on coffee cost: In the years since this book first appeared, coffee prices have fluctuated, often dramatically. But even at its most expensive, fine coffee has remained a bargain, perhaps too much of a bargain from the point of view of the growing countries. A cup of one of the world's premier coffees today costs less than the same amount of Pepsi-Cola, and is fifteen or twenty times cheaper than a wine of the same distinction.
I sometimes think that coffee has remained inexpensive because Americans want to keep it that way. They are willing to pay for quality in coffee, but not snobbery in coffee. Whereas wine carries with it an aristocratic culture of nostalgia, Americans have insisted on keeping coffee the people's drink, with the search for the "perfect cup" a quest for a holy grail that is accessible to everyone, no knighthood necessary. It often has been noted how consistently coffee has been associated with democracy in America's cultural history. From the defiant American embrace of coffee after the Boston Tea Party to the "good cup of Java" refrain on the cult television series Twin Peaks, coffee has represented an arena where plain folks can pursue and recognize quality without needing to put on airs or drop a lot of cash. Coffee offers connoisseurship at a good price, without pretension.
A Perfect Cup
I used to stay at a little run-down hotel in Ensenada, Mexico, overlooking the harbor. The guests gathered every morning in a big room filled with threadbare carpets and travel posters of the Swiss Alps, to sit on broken-down couches, sip the hotel coffee, and look out at the harbor through sagging French doors.
Nachita, the old woman who ran the hotel, made the coffee from very cheap, black-roasted, sugar-glazed beans. I assume the beans were carelessly picked and primitively processed because the coffee had the hard bitterness associated with such beans, a taste that, once experienced, is never forgotten. Nachita's tendency to lightly boil the coffee did not help much either. By the time the coffee got to us, it was dark, muddy, and sourly bitter, with a persistence no amount of sugar could overcome nor canned milk obscure.
By anyone's standards it was bad coffee. But — you can guess the rest — the morning, the sun on the sea, the chickens in the backyard, the mildewed smell of Nachita's carpets and the damp smell of old stone walls, the clumsy bilingual conversations, the poems about mornings and Mexico I never put on paper, got mixed up with that sour bitterness and turned it into something perfect. I loved it; I even loved the tinny sweetness of the condensed milk. After all, there was no other cup of coffee, and I was happy.
A cup of coffee is as much a moment caught in the matrix of time and space as it is a beverage: the "perfect" cup of coffee to whom and when?
The Perfect Cup
Of course, there are certain universals in good coffee making, which run through this book like comforting refrains: good water, good beans properly roasted and freshly ground, careful brewing, and so on. All of these fortunately do not depend on sleazily exotic mornings in Ensenada, and they work even at five o'clock on rainy Sundays in Cleveland.
There is plentiful indication, for instance, that the steady decline in coffee drinking in the United States (the near three cups a day the average American drank twenty years ago has shrunk to fewer than two cups today) results from the widespread use of instant coffees that lack both flavor and aroma. Why else would the consumption of quality coffees be increasing spectacularly, while the consumption of commercial coffees continues to decrease?
Nevertheless, those consumers of the average tasteless, thin-bodied instant who still have not tasted their first cup of one of the world's great, rich, full-bodied coffees may be in for a bit of a surprise when they do. If you are used to living in a studio apartment, a mansion may feel a little uncomfortable, at least for the first week.
Specialty vs. Commercial Coffees
All of the coffees recommended in this book are known as specialty coffees. The opposite of specialty is commercial coffee. From the consumer's viewpoint, the most immediately noticeable difference between commercial and specialty coffees is packaging: Commercial coffee usually comes in little jars of instant or is already ground and packed in a tin or a collapsed, plastic-encased brick. Specialty coffee is stored or delivered as whole beans, either in one-pound bags or in bulk, and needs to be ground before it is brewed.
Commercial coffee is usually roasted and packed in large plants, under nationally advertised brand names. Specialty coffee is usually roasted in small stores or factories, using traditional methods and technology, and is often sold where it has been roasted.
Specialty coffees offer considerably more choice than commercial coffees. You can buy coffee by the place where the bean originated (Kenya, Colombia), by roast (French roast, Italian roast), or by blend designed for the time of day, price, or flavor. Commercial coffees offer only a very limited selection of blend and roast, and little possibility of buying single-origin, unblended coffees.
Specialty coffees offer more opportunity for consumers to participate in the creation of their pleasure; commercial coffees are faits accomplis in tins or bags.
A Distinction Blurred
Admittedly, these once-clear distinctions have become a bit fuzzy. Because more and more consumers are buying specialty coffees and fewer and fewer are buying commercial coffees, commercial coffee companies have been attempting to co-opt the specialty market with a variety of compromise products, ranging from listless canned "French roasts" to decent whole-bean coffees sold under the private label of the supermarket chain.
Meanwhile, some large specialty roasters have invaded the commercial market with cans and two-ounce, single-serving bags of preground coffee. These products are usually superior to the corresponding commercial products because of the specialty roasters' tradition of quality and smaller scale of operation, but they still are a compromise product and do not represent the absolute best in specialty coffee roasting. The same can be said for Starbucks's foray onto the supermarket shelves: better than cans, but inferior even to the whole-bean coffees sold in Starbucks's own retail outlets.
In the larger picture, however, the essential distinction between commercial and specialty coffees remains. The best commercial, blended coffees are decent. The worst are atrocious. The best specialty coffees, bought fresh and brewed correctly, are more than good; they are superb, and superb in a variety of ways.
The Good, the Bad, and the Bland
Coffee buyers divide the world's coffee production into three very broad categories: high-grown milds, the misleadingly named category called Brazils, and robustas.
Both high-grown milds and Brazils come from trees that belong to the botanical species Coffea arabica. Arabica is the species that sold the world on coffee. It still grows wild in Ethiopia and was first cultivated in commercial quantities in Yemen at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. Coffea arabica was then carried around the world by coffee-hooked devotees, much as European wine grapes spread to form the basis of the world's wine industry.
The differences between the arabica coffees that make up the high-grown milds and the Brazils categories are twofold: growing altitude and how much care is taken in picking and preparation. The arabica tree will not tolerate frost, nor will it flourish in extremely high temperatures. This means it grows best in certain well-watered, mountainous regions of the tropics. High-grown mild arabica coffees are cultivated at altitudes over 2,000 feet above sea level, usually between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. They are produced from fruit that is picked only when ripe and are prepared with care. The responsible specialty-coffee roaster uses only the finest high-grown mild coffees.
Use of the term Brazils to describe the next most preferred group of coffees is misleading, since Brazil also produces excellent mild coffees. As a trade term, however, Brazils refers to lower-grade coffees that are grown at relatively low altitudes and are mass harvested and carelessly dried. Most of these mass-produced arabica coffees are grown in Brazil, but some are produced in East Africa and the Pacific. These coffees, at worse, taste harsh, sour, or fermented, at best they display a middle-of-the-road, neutral flavor with a flat aroma. Most decent supermarket canned blends contain large proportions of Brazils or similar coffees, with smaller additions of high-grown milds.
Many other species of coffee tree grow wild in Africa, and one, Coffea canephora var. robusta, has advanced to major importance in world markets. The main advantages of robusta, as it is generally called by coffee professionals, are that it resists disease and that it grows successfully at lower altitudes than Coffea arabica. The bean, however, does not have the fragrance or flavor of the best arabica, or even of a decent coffee from the Brazils category, and, in general, demands the lowest prices in the world market.
Tasting a good quality, pure robusta is an eerie experience for a coffee lover. It looks brown like coffee and hefts like coffee on the tongue, but it has no flavor whatsoever beyond a vague sweetness. It also packs 30 to 40 percent more caffeine than Coffea arabica. Robusta is used as a component in the cheapest American commercial coffees, especially instant coffees.
Coffee Processing and Coffee Quality
Coffee beans are not beans at all in a botanical sense. They are the twin seeds of a red (sometimes yellow) fruit that grows to about the size of the tip of your little finger. Growers call this fruit coffee "cherries." Before the coffee can be shipped and roasted, the bean or seed must be separated from the fruit. Nature has been lavish in its packaging of the coffee seed, and removing the three sets of skin and one layer of pulp from around the seed is a complex process. If done properly, the coffee looks better, tastes better, and demands a higher price.
The worst preparation or processing would be as follows: The coffee cherries, or berries, are stripped — leaves, unripe berries, and all — onto the ground. This mixture is then scooped up, sifted, and dried in the sun (and sometimes in the rain, which is one of the problems with such coffees). Later the dried, shriveled fruit is stripped of the bean. Some beans may be small and deformed, shriveled, or discolored. In very poorly prepared coffee all the beans, good and bad, plus a few twigs, a little dirt, and some stones, are shipped together. The various flavor taints associated with cheap coffee — sourness, mustiness, harshness, composty taste — all derive from careless picking, fruit removal, and drying.
The best preparation would run like this: The coffee cherries are selectively picked as they ripen. The same day they are picked, the outer skin is removed, exposing the pulp. The pulp-covered beans are then subject to controlled fermentation in tanks. The ferment-loosened, flabby pulp is then gently washed off the beans and they are dried, after which the last layers of skin, now dry and crumbly, are stripped from the bean by machine.
Between these two extremes — carelessly picked coffees simply put out into the sun to dry and selectively picked, wet-processed coffees — are coffees that have been dried in the old-fashioned way, with the fruit still clinging to the bean, but have been picked selectively and dried with care. These high-quality dry-processed or "natural" coffees can be superb, alive with fruity nuance.
Coffee is graded according to three basic criteria: quality of bean (altitude and species), size of bean, and quality of preparation. An additional criterion is simply how good the coffee tastes and smells, what coffee people call "cup quality."
Again, the responsible specialty coffee seller buys only the best grades of coffee, which means high-grown mild beans, carefully prepared, with high cup quality. When you buy from a responsible specialty coffee seller, you should be buying top quality, no matter what country of origin or roast you choose.CHAPTER 2
HOW IT STARTED
Dancing (and nondancing) goats
Coffee's economic paradox
Coffee snobs to the rescue
The favorite story about the origin of coffee goes like this: Once upon a time in the land of Arabia Felix (or in Ethiopia, if an Ethiopian is telling the story) lived a goatherd named Kaldi. Kaldi was a sober, responsible goatherd whose goats were also sober, if not responsible. One night, Kaldi's goats failed to come home, and in the morning he found them dancing with abandoned glee near a shiny, dark-leafed shrub with red berries. Kaldi soon determined that it was the red berries on this shrub that caused the goats' eccentric behavior, and soon he was dancing too.
Finally, a learned imam from a local monastery came by, sleepily, no doubt, on his way to prayer. He saw the goats dancing, Kaldi dancing, and the shiny, dark-leafed shrub with the red berries. Being of a more systematic turn of mind than the goats or Kaldi, the learned imam subjected the red berries to various experimental examinations, one of which involved parching and boiling. Soon, neither the imam nor his fellows fell asleep at prayers, and the use of coffee spread from monastery to monastery throughout Arabia Felix (or Ethiopia) and from there to the rest of the world.
Excerpted from Coffee by Kenneth Davids. Copyright © 2001 Kenneth Davids. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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