By Jennifer Aicher
How many times have you awakened, desperate for that first sip of coffee to make it from your mouth to your brain, for the caffeine to begin its daily animation of the senses, for it to initiate the morning ritual of stimulating and coaching your brain receptors into clearer thinking channels? On the other hand, how many times have you ended a day with a glass of wine – white, red, blush, whatever the day’s meal warranted – in order to bring to rest all of that day’s frenetic activity? If you are an avid coffee drinker, probably more days have begun with coffee than have ended with wine. Yet, how much do you know about your coffee as compared to your wine?
Until just a few years ago, coffee, that ubiquitous drink of the masses, could be found in only two varieties in most American coffee-serving venues: decaf and leaded. Perhaps this is why the art and science of coffee production is such a mystery in our country. Indeed, our educational deficit in the realm of coffee stands in stark contrast to the overload of information we consider in regard to our wine. We revel in a panoply of wine choices: full-bodied, balanced, clean, flowery, earthy, peppery, insipid, brilliant, woody, long, sweet. There is an endless list of magazines and books dedicated to wine, and tours of various regions of the country famous for wine making have become the focus of many vacations. For the serious oenophile, wineries offer courses ranging from the basics of viniculture to the finer points of appreciating the province of Bacchus. Yet, where do we turn to learn about coffee? There appears to be a coffee information gap.
Nevertheless, with so many more coffee choices now available, many coffee aficionados have begun to develop their own particular set of preferences. Coffee variations are no longer limited to cream and sugar versus black. A recent coffee revolution has brought us a host of variations on the singular coffee theme. Coffee drinkers can now choose from a long list of coffee options, such as latte, mocha, macchiato, espresso, cappuccino – to mention a few – that barely resemble the old familiar “cup o’ joe.” Regardless of what in particular we drink, though, America is drinking coffee like never before. Coffee brands are numerous, and the market just keeps on expanding. So, with all the choices available to us today, what are we choosing when we select a particular brand of coffee? Do they really differ? Or, are we simply looking at minor distinctions without any clear differences? After all, coffee is just coffee, right?
Of course, it is not that simple. The journey to a great cup of coffee starts with the coffee bush and the familiar coffee “bean.” Slightly taller than the blueberry bush, the coffee bush produces a fruit called the “cherry,” and the coffee bean is actually the pit of the cherry. Grown in specific regions, with due consideration for the elements of rainfall, soil, altitude, sunlight, and wind strength, coffee requires an approach to horticulture similar to that of the grape. The cherry is removed from the bush, either stripped by machine or plucked by hand. The outside of the cherry is then detached, and the remaining bean is cleaned and dried. It is then bagged in a 150-pound burlap bag. At this point, the bean is actually green and has no taste, as it lies dormant and awaits the development of its particular and flavorful identity through the roasting process. To be sure, variations in the growing, roasting, and preparation processes produce an array of coffee products that challenge wine in terms of diversity of taste and appeal.
Once the coffee beans reach the roaster, the magic begins. Light roasting is done at a lower temperature than dark roasting. French roasting is performed at one of the highest temperatures. Flavors may be added to the beans as a liquid, absorbed into the outside of the bean, or sprayed on during the roasting process. Time and temperature of roasting are trade secrets within the industry. Certain beans lend themselves better to certain roasts. Beans may carry the particular acidity of a region, and roasters choose specific beans for their consistency or quality. Oftentimes, different types of coffee beans are blended to produce signature coffees. In the commercial world, making it reproducible is key to a successful business. One shipment of bad coffee could severely impact a restaurant’s repeat clientele.
One roaster familiar with all of these complexities is Gerry Leary, of the Unseen Bean, in Boulder, Colorado. Along with all of the challenges that face other small roasters, Gerry is presented with the additional challenge of not being able to see the beans he roasts. Whether Gerry’s distinction is a hindrance or a blessing in disguise is perhaps best decided only after one has tasted his coffee. Although lack of sight made Gerry’s coffee roaster apprenticeship especially difficult, and makes paperwork a continuing burden, it has heightened his other senses and given him a tremendous set of tools with which to approach the art of coffee roasting. Using his nose to detect the proper aroma of the cooked beans, his ears to detect the right “pitch” of beans in the tumbler, and his specially adapted, “talking” thermometer and stopwatch to monitor the process, Gerry pursues his unwavering goal of making the finest coffee possible with unsurpassed dedication. Like a fine vintner and his wine, Gerry loves the process of producing coffee from beginning to end. Gerry enjoys cooking the beans, tasting their resulting brew, and listening to the reactions of those lucky enough to sample the fruits of his labors. Fortunately for his customers, and unlike larger distributors, Gerry does not vacuum pack his beans, as this practice only invites staleness, a process that begins as soon as the beans are roasted. Always the perfectionist, Gerry believes in selling his coffee immediately, roasting only so much as can be sold at optimal quality levels.
Like so many of his colleagues, Gerry Leary knows well that the US is fueled by good coffee, not by fine wine. Somehow, wine seems to get most of the attention. Perhaps the US would do well to elevate its coffee I.Q. Most of us treat our wine with more respect than we accord to our coffee. We search endlessly for our new “favorite” wine and spend hours trying to determine the perfect wine for a particular setting. We do not hesitate to pay more for high quality wines, and we discuss at length the intricacies of region, vintage, blend, etc. Perhaps those of us who take our coffee seriously should be no less educated about our passion. Rather than just relying upon a label and a price tag to guide our coffee choices, perhaps we should inform ourselves about our morning (or whenever) godsend and embark upon our own search for perfection. Who knows, maybe your coffee habit could use a wake-up call!