April 21, 2010

The skinny on fat

You're the cream in my coffee, 
You're the salt in my stew 
You will always be my necessity, 
I'd be lost without you.

So croons Nat King Cole in his version of the 1928 broadway hit. Although the words are meant for an anonymous lover--or would be lover, as the case may be--the emphasis on cream in coffee being necessary is clear. Quite simply, the speaker would be lost without it. 

A past inclination of mine has been to say, then, that a person should simply get lost if they think coffee needs cream.  Which, frankly, was a little unfair of me. While cream does neuter a coffee's bite and flavor, there are situations in which that might not be the worst thing--say you've got an exceptionally bitter french roast, for example.

And believe it or not, a tiny dollop of cream can, in fact, enhance certain flavors in certain coffee. The blueberry notes in an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe or the honey nut strains in a quality Columbian can be accentuated by cream to the point where the coffee takes on a dessert-like quality. 

Notice I did say a dollop here--a full on pour will hide any coffee flavor behind a veil of dairy. If that's what you want, that's your prerogative. Just don't say you like coffee--that's all I ask. Say, instead, that you like coffee flavored dairy. Which is not necessarily the worst thing. A breve latte--that is, a latte prepared with half and half instead of milk--can be a rich treat for the hearty palate. 

So from a taste standpoint, cream in coffee is of course a matter of personal preference (but do try and use it in moderation). But what about all those calories? Wouldn't you be better off going for the skim milk or--even better!--the non dairy creamers? You could even find some that are non-fat!

This is where the matter shifts away from taste preference, and moves to nutritional value. If that's not of any interest to you, stop reading.

Still here? Ok then.

Cream is better for you than any of the would-be-foods you could substitute. Seriously.  I won't go overboard in explaining to you why saturated fat is not the enemy--and may in fact even be your ally. Rather, I will simply direct you to this website. But suffice it to say, if you like cream, don't deprive yourself of it in favor of skim milk (relatively benign) or non-dairy creamers (corn syrup solids and sugar--both metabolic poison).

Finally, there is the matter of those who, like me, do not tolerate dairy particularly well. In my case, casein (the protein in milk) triggers an ever-so-slight immunological response which causes a sore throat and mild fatigue. Cream is superior to milk for such persons as myself, because fat cannot trigger an adverse reaction--only the proteins and sugars can do that. And given that cream is more fat than anything else, there are less things to react poorly to.

But even still, some would be well advised to avoid dairy altogether. And given that I've deemed non-dairy creamers metabolic poison, I can't very well advocate their use now. For such persons, there is coconut milk. It, like cream, is rich and decadent. Even better, it's also real food, with plenty of good saturated fat--again, I'm serious. You can find it in the thai or asian section of any supermarket--and it even comes in a "lite" version, if you find the texture of the heavy duty version a bit too rich.


April 20, 2010

I'm better than Mike Phillips

Before I get on with anything else, I'd like to direct your attention to a University Daily Kansan article by a talented young man.

Done? Ok then, let's move on.

To hell with Mike Phillips. I have never met him, and do not know him, but screw him anyway. He has my title, and that's not cool. Phillips won, for the second year in a row, the United States Barista Championships. 

Which is bull, because I wasn't even invited. 

Don't think this is just the ranting of one hubris-drenched madman, however. I've had customers tell me I'm the best. In fact, double-tall-latte-130 just said so. Tall-skinny-vanilla-180-no-foam, venti-peppermint-mocha and two-grande-red-eyes would almost certainly agree.

And they're right. I'm the best barista in the America. 

Ok, this is the part where I turn the sarcasm off. Mike Phillips has forgotten more about coffee than I will ever know. He is an absolute genius with espresso, and of course, his milk steaming is sublime. It would not be hyperbole to say that he is approximately one bajillion times better than I am as a barista. 

And yet, those customers are not wrong. How can that be? How can such a contradiction exist?

It's simple, really -- and it's all a matter of perspective. Sure, the ability to describe and coax ever nuance from a bean is an important part of a barista's job. So too is it vital that they can steam milk properly, and create elegant drinks with it. But really, at its core, that is not what being a barista is about -- that isn't the job.

Making the customers happy is. And that's pretty much the whole job, frankly. As a barista, you do not provide coffee -- not really. Rather, you're selling an experience, a feeling. The customers come to you for their usual dose of comfort, or for an extravagant treat. When you fulfill those expectations, rosetta on the latte or not, you have done your job perfectly. 

That's why I'm the best barista in America -- to those customers. Because I'm their barista. Because I'm the guy who has inserted himself as a pleasant addition to their daily routine. Mike Phillips hasn't done that. Not for these people in Lawrence, KS.

If that all sounds a bit cheesy, oh well. I genuinely believe every word of it. The best barista is the one who makes his current customer's day. It's that simple. 

April 19, 2010

This is why I'm hot

That venerable little plastic coffee maker sitting on your counter sucks. I'm sorry, but its true. It's not because its automatic, or its lack of aesthetic appeal. It isn't even the fact that it uses a flat bottom tray for the grounds, as opposed to a cone.

Well maybe it is because of those things, at least in part. But the biggest reason Mr. Coffee can't produce a truly great cup is heat.

For coffee to brew properly, the water must reach the grounds at a temperature above 190 degrees. Less than that, and you'll get a dark beverage that kind of smells like coffee and maybe even tastes a little like it. But don't be fooled. It's not the same thing.

Sadly, Mr. Coffee just can't get it up... the temperature, that is. Many cheap automatic drips run water through coffee grounds at only 180 degrees. Which is fine -- if you're making tea.

Water for coffee brewing must be at least 190 degrees, as I said; but ideally, the temperature would fall somewhere between 195 and 205. As usual, there doesn't appear to be any magic number. But shoot for somewhere in that neighborhood, and you'll extract all the good stuff you want from your grounds.

April 18, 2010

Quick hitter

Espresso is all about speed. That's why it was invented by an Italian factory owner -- to reduce the time his employees spent on coffee break by producing a shot that was both quick-to-brew and drink. It's also the key to a shot's quality. To little time, and the result is a watery and under-extracted brew -- caused by a too-course grind. Too long, and the opposite problems occur -- of course, the cause is opposite too. The experts disagree on an exact sweet spot, but generally speaking, it should take ~25 seconds to pull an optimal shot, complete with a rich caramely crema. Just about as long as it takes you to read this post. 

April 17, 2010

Do sweat the technique

I love my little Melitta. Sure, she's made of plastic, and her price point doesn't inspire jealousy. But you know, appearances can be deceiving. I challenge any of the new one-cup coffee makers to produce a more consistently great cup of coffee. 

Any takers? There shouldn't be, frankly, unless they'd also like to be losers. 

That's because, if you're making one cup of coffee, the cone is the best means of production.

Even better than the french press. Blasphemy? Perhaps, but also true. If you want the more syrupy body of coffee produced in a press, simply use a metal filter in your cone. Or don't. I'm not here to inspire a coffee making holy war -- just to celebrate what, in my humble opinion, is the best means of making a cup of coffee. 

If you know how to use it; which, unfortunately, many don't seem to. 

With that in mind, I present a reasonably concise list of steps that, if followed, should yield a great cup each and every time.

1. Place your cone on your mug, and insert filter (paper or metal) in to cone. I've found that it helps to pre-wet the filter. It helps it stick to the cone, thus optimizing the flow of water once the brewing process begins.

2. Bring water to a boil.

3. While that gets going, grind your coffee, and make it fine. Not quite espresso fine, but fairly close. The amount of coffee you use is up to you, but I think the standard 2 tbs coffee/6 0z water ratio works fine. 

4. When the water comes to a boil, pull it. As soon as it stops bubbling, pour it over the grounds. Go too fast, and some water will subvert the grounds or simply go out the side. But there's no need to go at a tortoise's pace either. Your pour should be steady, and the cone should fill.

5. Stir the slurry. This ensures optimal distribution of the grounds, and thus a fuller cup.

6. Finally, stir the finished cup. This is another important step that's often omitted, but is necessary to ensure even taste.

7. Enjoy.

If that sounds a little more involved than pushing a button, that's because it is. But the added effort is most certainly worth it.  

April 16, 2010

Bare bones

It's that strange time that's neither early nor late. The sun hasn't yet begun to crest the horizon and no bird song fills the air. Yet you could not accurately call it night. 

So I'll skip the superfluous descriptors, and just call it 4 am.

I'm awake, and not the kind of fog-brained eye-crusted awake typically associated with such an hour. No, I'm awake, and jumping out of bed. This is christmas morning in April; only it's better, because I know what I'm in for.

Good coffee. Check that -- great coffee. Good coffee can be prepared using pre-ground beans and an electric drip machine. But great coffee? That takes a personal touch. In my case, it takes 19th century technology.

I've got my melitta one cup cone filter, a stove top and a pot. I have fresh beans. But all of that, while great, is not new. It is not cause for excitement. 

My exuberance is instead due to the fact that my Hario Skerton arrived in the mail yesterday. It is a miniature ceramic burr mill that one operates manually. It produces the best grounds I've had the pleasure of smelling, and of tasting. 

And so, visions of a full bodied roast dancing in my head, I throw on just enough clothes to keep this story pg-13 and bound up the stairs. I measure out two scoops of beans -- Starbucks Cafe Estima -- and deposit them in the grinder. 

With the Skerton set at the appropriate level of "clicks" -- three in my case -- I begin to turn the crank. The crunch is too satisfying, both to hear and feel. Which is good, because this is an involved process, as mornings go. It takes about two minutes of steady cranking to grind the beans in to a fine mass -- which is more time than many are willing to spend cooking breakfast, let along preparing coffee. 

But even before I brew, it's worth it. This is coffee on an intimate level. Anyone can push a button and produce a decent grind. But to produce the perfect grind, and to do it by hand? There is a satisfaction in that. 

So too is there pleasure to be had slowly poring just-off-the-boil water over the grounds and stirring the blooming mass. The black brew streams in to my mug -- its smiling visage mirroring my own. 

I taste.

Nutty. Round. Slightly sweet. Immensely satisfying.  

I drink.

4 am. The sun doesn't know what it's missing.

April 15, 2010

Uncommon Grounds, my thoughts

Considered required reading for coffee enthusiasts since it was published, Uncommon Grounds, by Mark Pendergrast, fulfills its sub title nicely -- maybe a bit too nicely. That is, it details, in often less-than-glamorous terms, the geopolitical history of coffee. 

The story begins with a recounting of the popular legend regarding coffee's discovery. The rest of the opening chapter deals with coffee's formative years, complete with a myriad of interesting anecdotes. Unfortunately, this is easily the most entertaining part of the book.

The bulk of Uncommon Grounds deals with the politics of coffee, specifically Latin America. The reader is inundated with a litany of tragedies, beginning with coffee's introduction to the region and preceding to the end of the 20th century. I do not mean to say that these events are unimportant, or that they ought to be glossed over. 

Rather, my contention is simply this: Uncommon Grounds focuses too much for my liking on "how coffee transformed our world" and not enough on coffee.  It is more a book for geopolitical history buffs than java geeks. 

No such thing as a free lunch

While that may be true, there is in fact such a thing as free coffee. At least, today there is. Provided you bring in your own tumbler, Starbucks will fill it with brewed coffee at zero charge.

Now this is the part where people will find a way to deride what is A) An eco-friendly initiative and B) Free damn coffee because it's Starbucks. I can hear it now: "They just want to save money by not using paper cups. And besides, it's shameless pimping for their own tumblers". 

Fine. Even if we grant that Starbucks, the big evil corporate monolith that it is, hasn't any moral fiber, it's still free coffee. Free. Coffee. The why of it needn't be benevolent. That, in this case, it is, only serves to make an already sweet deal even tastier. 

April 14, 2010

Instant gratification

My generation is famous for it. If the yuppies of the eighties needed cocaine to fuel their buzz, we're too busy to stop and snort it. Maybe if there were some easier, more convenient way to get our fix... maybe if coffee only took a couple minutes to prepare...

Enter VIA, Starbucks' foray in to the instant coffee market. Ahem. Check that. According to Starbucks, VIA is not instant coffee, but rather "microground". The idea is that 100% arabica coffee is ground so infinitesimally small that it can be dissolved in water straight away. I don't pretend to grasp the science, nor do I care to. My only concern is whether VIA holds up under taste scrutiny. 

I was inspired to try this by a comment on my previous post, which mentioned Folgers' coffee/tea bag pouch things. I picked up a box of Kroger brand bags and a three pack of Starbucks Columbia VIA.  

Both were served using 8 oz of near boiling water, as per the directions.

The comparison:
Price:  Kroger - About $3.50 for 19 bags. Starbucks - $3 for three packs.
Method:  Kroger - The bag is steeped for just over one minute, a la tea. Starbucks - The contents of one pack is stirred in to near boiling water.
Aroma:  Kroger - Slightly pungent and syrupy. Starbucks - Rich and full, eerily similar to Starbucks regular Columbia roast.
Taste:  Kroger - While the smell is a bit too strong, if not overly pleasant, the taste is weak. The coffee tastes thin and whispy, and lacks any body or strong flavor. Starbucks - The taste picks up where the smell left off. The coffee is hearty, dense and smooth. While there isn't anything interesting going on in the flavor department, the result is still satisfying. 
Verdict: Kroger - Cheap as can be, but still not quite worth the investment. The quality of the product just isn't there. Which shouldn't be surprising, given that it includes "coffee oils" as an ingredient. Starbucks - At about one dollar a cup, VIA is hardly the sort of thing you want to start every morning with. It also lacks the nuance of properly brewed coffee. Even still, in a pinch, VIA offers salvation for those who need real coffee flavor, but don't have access to real brewing methods. 

The best part of waking up

Now whether Folgers could, in fact, be the best part of anyone's morning is debatable. First of all, it's pre ground robusta. Second of all, if one makes their cup using the suggested ratio -- one tablespoon of grounds per six ounces of water -- the result will be half strength. Now given the flavor, maybe that's a good thing.   

But then, maybe I'm being harsh. Is there really a discernible difference between, say a bright, crisp cup of fresh roasted Kenyan coffee and good ol' Folgers? Well, of course there is. But does that imply that Folgers is without merit? To those who view coffee as nothing more than a means to an end, certainly not. Folgers supplies caffeine enough to make waking up, at the very least, tolerable. 

But for those among us who fancy our palates more educated? I set out to answer that very question this morning.

The ingredients: My Melitta one cup manual drip cone, using Melitta paper filters
Four tablespoons Folgers Classic Roast
12 ounces of water, just off the boil
One chopstick, to stir the slurry while it brews
My smiley face mug

The result: A decidedly weak cup, which didn't taste like much of anything. Certainly neither offensive or bitter, as I expected it might be. Still, I won't bother trying to pick apart flavor profiles, note aromas, or wax on the body. There simply isn't much to say in regards to that sort of thing. 

The why is actually fairly obvious, and not the fault of the coffee itself. A manual drip cone requires a grind somewhere between automatic drip and espresso, what one would call "fine". Folgers is, of course, pre ground for an automatic drip. Given that, it's too course to provide much in the way of extraction via a manual drip cone. Basically, the water runs through the grounds too fast to brew properly.

Of course, I saw this coming. An improper grind will always yield a sub optimal cup, regardless of the quality of beans used.

April 13, 2010

The green apron wearing elephant in the room

Starbucks. I do not need to tell you that few words invite such disdain from many embedded in coffee culture. But it's also my current place of employment. I won't try and defend that fact; rather, I'll just leave it as is. It's where I work. As it is, I get to taste an inordinate amount of Starbucks coffee. And so, it should come as no surprise then that a reasonable amount of my posts regarding coffee will deal with Starbucks. I will, however, make every effort to diversify. 

This also gives me a platform to announce Starbucks initiatives, which may otherwise be missed -- although that isn't terribly likely. 

For example, on April 15, Starbucks will give you a free cup of brewed coffee, provided you bring your own tumbler. Call it an early Earth Day celebration, or whatever you like. I'll simply call it free coffee. Or, in other words, a miracle. 

Starting somewhere

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, we're told. So too does a journey which has no easily quantifiable physical movements begin with a relatively small incident. 

Here's the thing about first steps. Owing in large part to their apparently trivial nature at the time, they are easily forgotten. 

And so I can't tell you the first time I sipped a cup of coffee, and fell in love. Such specifics are sadly missing. But I can tell you the where and the what of the occasion. 

It happened at The Underground, an aptly named food court under Wescoe Hall. More accurately, at The Pulse coffee bar housed therein. I worked at The Underground, and thus was obligated to work at Pulse as well. Only I didn't want to. Not in the slightest. The machinery was loud and scary. But most of all, the substances were entirely foreign and unappealing to me. Coffee was a dark, bitter sludge. It was not the best part of waking up, or of anything else. It was a stimulant to be imbibed only for its practical benefits. And even then, I'd prefer a sugary energy drink.

In any case, staff shortages being what they are, I ended up working at The Pulse. 

This is where I'd love to tell you about my "coming to Jesus" moment, the time at which I saw the proverbial light and had some sort of revelation. Unfortunately,  if such a moment ever existed, I don't recall it. 

I know that my first fascination was with milk steaming, rather than the consumption of any one beverage. Something about the skill needed to craft that velvety sheen that comes from perfectly stretched milk appealed to the snob in me, the person who finds anything so inherently artsy something worth being good at.

And I know what my first love was, even if I don't know the details of the encounter. The Pulse serves coffee from The Roasterie, a fantastic Kansas City... roasterie. Every day, there was the Pulse Blend, The Kansas City Decaf, a dark roast and an organic coffee. The dark and organic roasts were served on a rotating basis. It was one of the three organics -- the Sumatra -- which first entranced my palate. 

All the characteristics I've come to know and appreciate in a good Sumatran coffee were of course present here.  The coffee had a dense, earthy mouth feel, complimented by a floral and spicey flavor. But at that time, I only knew that it tasted good. 

Which is still, primarily, my concern when it comes to coffee. It may cost three dollars or thirty, be brewed with a press, a cone, or a Mr. Coffee. There are an infinite number of variables, from grind size, to water temperature, to extraction time. 

All of these things are of the utmost importance, and totally irrelevant. What matters, ultimately, is whether the coffee tastes good or not. 

Which brings me, in a rather roundabout way, to something of a mission statement for this blog. I am not a coffee critic, nor am I a snob. Rather, I am a coffee enthusiast; or to put it more simply, a coffee fan. And so that's what this story leads me to, and what this blog will detail. I'll chronicle my experiences with everything related to coffee, celebrating all of it.