September 2010

The Perfect Cup

How one purveyor translates the new wave of coffee roasting into a potent potable

Lora
Zarubin

photo by Bartholomew Cooke

After my recent column on coffee was published in our May issue (you can still see it at latimesmagazine.com), I was surprised by the response and the emotions it unleashed—both positive and negative. I was accused of knowing nothing of the burgeoning coffee industry or of coffee roasting in general.

On the other end of the spectrum, many readers shared my lack of appreciation for coffee that tastes bitter or otherwise unpleasant. The piece had simply asked a question: “When did coffee stop tasting like coffee?”

After my experience at Intelligentsia, the folks there immediately reached out, saying the article opened an important dialogue with their baristas. They invited me to their Glassell Park roasting facility. I would get a tour, participate in a “cupping” and take one of their espresso seminars.

Kyle Glanville—the second employee hired by Intelligentsia in California—was my tour guide. He explained with an almost evangelical zeal that the company’s approach to buying, harvesting, shipping and roasting is fueling nothing short of a revolution.

Like all fervent roasters, it starts with unique, seasonally sourced beans from the finest coffee-growing regions. After being picked and dried, the beans are packed in specially designed bags to ensure the intrinsic characteristics are retained and to combat any degradation during shipping.

What Intelligentsia doesn’t buy into is the technique of “naturally” processed coffee—berries that are dried in the sun with the fruit on. He said beans pick up flavors from the fruit, making it impossible to detect any defects. Once the coffee is harvested, the characteristics are intrinsic to the bean, and Intelligentsia’s goal is to derive that flavor in the finished drink.

He walked me through a cupping of several coffees, and we sampled each three or four times. Glanville pointed out that as the coffee cools, you can really start to pick up different characteristics. In one, we tasted stewed tomatoes and tamarind. “Pure” or not, I still wasn’t sure I was getting it.

I asked if he could show me Intelligentsia’s method for making perfect coffee at home using a pour-through method. For one serving, use 7.5 ounces of water, heated to 200 degrees (you should try to drink the coffee at about 140 degrees, when the flavors shine through better), and 12 grams of coffee, which has, of course, just been ground with a burr grinder (for more consistency).

The Japanese company Hario makes Intelligentsia’s equipment, which includes a ceramic filter and a stainless-steel pitcher that pours water perfectly over the coffee. They’ve tested lots of waters and find Crystal Geyser best.

For home processing, first rinse your filter with hot water, then add freshly ground coffee to the warmed filter. Pour just enough water over the grounds to wet them, and let the coffee bloom for 45 seconds. (When fresh, coffee will actually puff up because of the CO2.) Slowly pour the rest of the hot water clockwise on the grounds, trying not to hit the filter.

Okay, by now some of you are surely thinking this is way over the top. I’m with you. But as I was watching, it reminded me of a tea ceremony—making this a coffee ceremony of sorts. The passion behind it is contagious—and therein lies the beauty. This is what is behind the new wave of coffee roasters.

As I had my first sip, it was the first time I actually got what Intelligentsia is all about. The flavor was layered, the finish crazily complex. I followed Glanville’s suggestion to let the coffee cool a bit before drinking it, and I did taste more flavors.

Considering a revolution is taking place, I’m happy to be armed with this additional knowledge. There is much to learn from the next generation of roasters. The microcoffee business is still in its infancy, and I realize now that sampling something unfamiliar isn’t a good reason to dismiss it. Then again, it’s also not a reason to drink something that doesn’t wow me. The taste pendulum swings from one direction to another. Somewhere in the middle is a new kind of coffee—and it’s here to stay.