May 2010

Chasing the Dragon

Has the pursuit of the perfect cup of joe dripped into the realm of the absurd?

On my way home the other afternoon, I stopped by Intelligentsia, a coffee bar in Silver Lake, for a macchiato to go. The barista, in an icy tone, said they prefer not to serve their macchiatos in paper cups because the flavor and integrity of the drink would be compromised. I was caught totally off guard. Somewhat embarrassed, I accepted the coffee in a ceramic cup, served with a side of water.

I settled in at the side of the bar, ready to taste the holy grail of macchiatos. Alas, be careful of expectations. The drink—composed of perfect, meticulously sourced coffee beans prepared in a state-of-the-art espresso machine, with a gorgeous crafted heart etched into the foam—was bitter and tasted like burned citrus peel. In fact, I was actually happy to have the water to wash it down. It made me think, Am I missing something here? When did coffee stop tasting like, well, coffee?

Back when specialty purveyors such as Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Peet’s and the very first Starbucks started popping up selling beans they roasted themselves, it was almost impossible to find a quality cup of coffee outside of an Italian neighborhood. Then along came the nationalization of Starbucks, and all of a sudden you were able to get the good stuff on nearly every corner in every city. Coffee had become democratized.

Now, however, premium chains have been upstaged by micro-boutiques whose mission seems to transcend serving the best possible cup, becoming instead a fetishization of the commodity. Are coffee emporiums selling artificial esoterica just to improve their image? Has specialization gone too far? Does anyone need the nuance of grapefruit, raspberries, hibiscus, melon, huckleberry, strawberry lip gloss and gingerbread in their coffee? Is this part of the new definition for good coffee? And was the old one that bad?

As I see it, there are three basic elements at the core of this burgeoning arena: beans, roasting style and methodology. Are single-sourced beans better than blends? Does roasting make a difference, and what is the best bean for the various preparations—cone filter, single cup, vacuum, press, moka pot or espresso maker?

Like grapes in wine, coffee is a fruit, and its terroir—the region in which the beans are harvested—characterizes it. Sourcing beans has become an art form in this new industry. Most come from Central and South America, Indonesia and Africa, and even in those areas, there are micropockets that some argue have the best. There is seasonality at play as well, which adds to the mystique. Coffee roasters sell single varietals as well as their own blends. pursuit of the perfect bean is worthy, of course, but the sourcing has increased the price of coffee upwards of $18 a pound. Still, cost per serving and quality are worthy considerations, especially if you like yours brewed at home.

Then there’s roasting: Ask a coffee expert the difference between dark and light roasted beans and what that difference means to the final product, and you’ll learn that with all experts, theirs is the right method for bringing out the perfection of the beans.

Really? Roasting is a manipulation of the beans, and all roasters, depending on the flavors they’re after, will do what they think best to get the result they want. Maybe in the old days, coffee was divided simply into dark and light roasts, but the new breed of roaster seems to be trying to extract the nuances of each bean.

One thing people do agree on is the sooner coffee is consumed after it has been roasted, the better. So, ask at the counter—most boutique coffees are roasted daily or biweekly. And don’t store your beans in a freezer. Keep them in an airtight container at room temperature, out of direct light.

There are great qualities to enjoy from various beans, but it’s a personal thing. I’ve learned that because I like a balance of elements, I prefer blends for my daily cup. To use wine as a metaphor, some vintages are improved by combining a variety of grapes. For example, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a wine from southeastern France—one of my favorite regions in the world—can use up to 18 grape varietals. On the other hand, single-sourced beans can be compared to another wine from that region, Château Rayas, which uses only 100 percent grenache. For my espresso, I prefer a single-origin bean, so I need to find one akin to that grenache grape—elegant, sweet, with a hint of incense and no bitterness.

In the end, I didn’t really discover the secret—the perfect roasting method or bean varietal, because ultimately it comes down to individual style, whether roasting large or small batches. As for the pretension I encountered at an L.A. coffee bar, I love that the passion is real...but there’s really no call for a snobby attitude.

If I had to choose my favorite roaster or company, I’d have to say the consistency of Blue Bottle has been impressive, though I love many others, including Four Barrel, Stumptown, Groundwork and Santa Cruz Roasting Company. When I asked Blue Bottle owner James Freeman about his roasting technique, he said simply, “Until it’s just dark enough.”

I think that says it all.

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