Friday, January 25, 2008

On Coffee

Did I do this one already? 450+ posts and you start to lose track...

I'm sitting here enjoying a Caramel Corretto from Second Cup. Granted, it's not a REAL corretto, because they use caramel as a substitute for booze. It's also not a real coffee. Sure, there's a shot of esperesso in there, but it's mostly steamed milk and flavour. It is, however, tasty.

Before I go any further. It is ESPRESSO. If you've been calling it EXPRESSO to this point, I give you but ONE chance to change your ways now and stop sounding like a sheltered, ignorant, xenophobic moron. Do it. There is NO FREAKING "X". If you refuse, then please, by all means, drop a cyanide tablet or 3 in your next doppio.

Here's my coffee history. I first had coffee with my grandparents when I was but knee-high to a grasshopper. Actually, let's call it a Latte Americano. A VERY small amount of Burger King coffee poured into a mostly full creamer. As a kid, this was awesome. Coffee was a grown-up drink, like beer (which I also enjoyed by this point), or wine. Therefore, it was a treat.

I got older. I remember the odd coffee at home, or occasionally having one at a restaurant or on a plane (even then I knew that was crap). My folks used a percolator when I was young, and when it broke they switcehd to instant for a while. This meant there wasn't a lot of coffee in my house. In my later high school years I would make the odd cup of instant to keep me up whilst studying. Actually, I was a pretty regular coffee drinker by the time I graduated high school. I remember knowing the difference between Starbucks and good coffee by then. Needless to say, the instant was gathering dust by this point.

Then I discovered cappuccino. Some italian restaurant or cafe somewhere. I was in love. Then I went to Italy. The stuff you can buy at a roadside diner there is better than what you can find in the fanciest places here. I was spoiled. It just didn't measure up here anymore. I slowly switched to regular coffee to avoid the disappointment found in weak cappuccinos and flavourless lattes on this side of the Atlantic.

Then came University. This meant late nights, early mornings, and lots of work. Even a lazy-ass procrastinator like me was kept busy. It got to the point where I didn't go to class until I swung by the cafeteria with my giant plastic mug and filled it with whatever mix of coffees they had. Exams involved brewing 2, sometimes 3 pots of Tim Horton's coffee, black as midnight, sweet as sin, and downing them all while studying until the sun came up.

The worst was 3 pots right up until I went to bed at 6am for a 9:30am exam. I was completely wired but managed to "sleep" for 2 hours. Up at 8, still jittery and raring to go, I got to the exam and shook my way through the whole thing. During it all, my stomach was not happy. In fact, my whole digestive system was rebelling against me for the influx of caffeine. I recovered, and thankfully, it was my last exam of the year.

Then the bottom fell out. One day at my summer job, I went downstairs as I always did to get some joe. I came back to my desk, enjoyed my coffee, and a little while later lurched in my chair. My stomach cramped up and started roiling. I hurried off to the washroom. I felt not well. It was odd. The next day, same thing. I switched to tea and it was fine. Obviously, the coffee downstairs didn't agree with me anymore.

When I got back to school, my trusty "Gourmet Bean", or "burn" as we called it, had the same effect. This was not good. I swore off coffee for the sake of my health.

Years passed, and outside of the occasional restaurant coffee, or those days where it was absolutely necessary to function at 2pm, I was a tea drinker... or energy drinks once those became available. I just couldn't shake the reaction to coffee. It was at the point (and often still is, but to a lesser degree) that I only drank bought coffee if I knew I didn't have anything to do later. Dates meant coffee was off the menu for me. Strangely enough, I started back into the cappuccinos, as the copious amount of milk seemed to lessen the blow.

Then one day I started pondering how shitty Starbucks really is. That Second Cup and Timothy's were better, but a bit watery at times. Tim Horton's is crack for some people, but it's not good coffee. I wondered what it would take to make my own, from scratch.

I discovered The Merchants of Green Coffee here in Toronto while riding my bike down the Don Valley Parkway during the Ride for Heart. I had been wondering where to get green beans in the city, and there was my answer. I wandered in and had a cup of fresh-roasted, fresh-ground, hand-brewed coffee, without anything added to it. It was strong, delicious, and completely different than any other coffee I'd had. Plus, I was fine all day afterwards. One could call it a revelation.

Not too long after, a friend of mine FINALLY discovered the black brew. It took a few incarnations before it clicked, but she became a coffee drinker. To the point where a friend of hers bought her a grinder. I provided green beans, and started roasting them in a popcorn popper. There was no turning back.

Memberships at Merchants, pounds of fair trade green coffee beans, dedicated roasters, hemp filters, proper water temperatures... these are all things I now know. I roast, grind, and brew my own coffee. If it can be helped, roasted beans don't go beyond 3-5 days and are ground just before being used. I am a WEE bit of a coffee snob. But see above, I still enjoy my caramel correttos.

That's a lot to get to this point: Coffee today sucks.

Let's start with the biggest offender: Starbucks. Pure and absolute SHIT in a cup. Overroasted to the point of being burnt. Vile blends. Stale. Overpriced. It's marketing that has worked to turn millions of people onto some of the absolute shitiest coffee imaginable. Don't try and defend it. If it's coffee and from Starbucks, don't offer it to me. I've thrown out free full cups before. Their tea is fine, as are their cold drinks, but the coffee? The French call it "Eau de Chausettes" - sock water.

Go to your local small cafe and give them your money. Try an Italian or French place (run by Italian or French owners). If you need to do a chain, look for fresh beans that are roasted daily, and fresh grinding. If a pot's been sitting out for an hour, it's terrible. Flavours are used to hide bad coffee. Try and be good to your soul and buy fair trade as well. Those smiling workers in the Maxwell House commercials are actors. Most coffee growers and workers are paid a pittance for back-breaking labour in third world countries, yet you're willing to pay $5 for a cup.

Next comes what prompted this post - those damned pod brewers. You know them. They cost a fortune and only take the particular brand of coffee "pod" that is made for them. Anyone who buys this earns my pity. From a consumer standpoint, it's moronic. You're paying for a machine that instantly becomes useless if the company ever ceases to exist or changes their refill format. Plus you're paying a premium for a product you have no control over. The claim is that the pods are quality controlled and the coffee maintains it freshness because it's vacuum sealed and only exposed when you use it. Ground coffee has a shelf life of 3 hours. Refrigerated, frozen, vacuum sealed, it doesn't matter. It's not like it becomes deadly after this time, but it's past its prime. After a week, I find it bitter and requiring much "aid" in the form of sugar or cream to be drinkable. I can probably guarantee any pre-ground coffee is already weeks old by the time you get it, in any form. The coffee from pod brewers I've tried? Swill.

Your usual home brewers: All over the place.

I think just about any coffee fan will tell you that percolation is a terrible crime against coffee. These things keep running the coffee over the grounds again and again while keeping the water boiling (which is too hot). This makes for flat, "dead" coffee with a bitter flavour. It overextracts the beans and kills off any flavour that does come through the initial brew.

Your standard Mr. Coffee-style autodrip? It's fine. Seriously. It's not ideal, but it lets the water filter through the grounds at a slow pace and produces a decent brew. The problem lies with improper temperatures, lack of control over contact between water and grounds, and that paper filters filter TOO much in terms of oils and flavours, as well as transferring their own "paper" flavour to the drink. Some research could point you to which machines have the right temperature, and a reusable gold filter is flavour-neutral and lets more of the good stuff through.

French press? Better. Grounds and water are in direct contact before the grounds are separated from the drink. You control the extraction time and the water temperature. If the coffee is too weak or too strong, it's because of something you did. Bear in mind that a coarser grind is required, and therefore a longer brew time.

But anything, anywhere, is only as good as its ingredients. I cannot stress enough how different truly fresh coffee is from the stuff Nestle and company try to pass off as "fresh". Fresh roasted, fresh ground beans give you a whole new experience. The coffee has a slight foam on it, and is completely smooth. There is no bitterness. Drinking it black and unsweetened is easy. Nobody believes this until they try it. I have around 5 bags of green beans sitting around the moment (shelf life = 2-5 years), from different parts of the world. I blend them myself, or stick with each one solo if I want. All fair trade, which generally means a higher quality of bean on top of that warm fuzzy feeling you get from doing something right.

So how do *I* make coffee?

I pick out which green beans I want to use. I put them in my roaster and let it go for 6-8 minutes, as the deep aroma of fresh-roasted coffee fills my home. When they're ready, the shiny dark beans come out cool for a few minutes. I measure them into my grinder and let it go to work for the few seconds it takes to pulverize them. The grounds are put in a pitcher and topped with not-quite-boiling water. This is stirred as the bubbles and foam rise to the top. I let the oils and flavour and colour be extracted from the grounds for around 6 minutes, and then run it all through a hemp filter into a glass carafe. If it's too strong, it can be weakened with more hot water. I pour my mug o' joe and enjoy it, black, unsweetened, and delicious. 20 minutes from green bean to caffeinated bliss. 10 if I already have roasted beans around.

If I'm at work, I make fresh grounds before I leave the house and use my Aeropress. Total brew time for this baby? 1 minute. It's great.

The other plus? 1 cup is enough to keep me wired for hours. The "caffeine crash" is lessened tremendously, and my stomach doesn't complain a whit.

Coffee is meant to be enjoyed. A truly great cup of coffee is layered with the natural flavours of the beans. Earthy, fruity, or spicy, there's a whole gamut to be run. I inhale the scent of a good cup before relishing its depths. Finally, coffee joints are once again realizing this. The Clover is starting to appear in cafés across the US (even lowly Starbucks has bought two). But to be honest, it sounds like I can get the same result from my Aeropress, and that doesn't cost me $11k. I'm personally intrigued by Blue Bottle Café's $20k purchase from Japan. It sounds fascinating to me.

Obviously, there will be coffee on the menu for Eh-Vegas. The only question is - Sulawesi, Kenyan, Guatamalan, Tanzanian, or Harar?


Buddy Dank said...

Got some spare time today? Jeez.

I love my coffee. LOVE! But I can't say I take it to this extreme.
I wonder if coffee is affected by the low gravity? Maybe?

Alyce said...

Ah, my dear, long-winded friend.

How many times do I have to tell you -- Indian Monsoon!!!

Mike Maloney said...

I'm not a coffee drinker, but that is quite the impressive process you have got going there.

Alan aka RecessRampage said...

One thing to keep in mind on why starbucks is so popular in the US (not in Europe, as I understand)... it's because coffee here is like piss water. So, anything is a step up.

Btw, love your coffee post... that makes it really tempting to go up there for eh vegas.

katitude said...

Those are all good, but I'm a big fan of the Mexican Organic, and the Cuban is VERY tasty when Merchants can actually get some that hasn't been snapped up by the Japanese. Oh and if you need, we have several French presses I can bring.

Fuel55 said...

Busy day huh?

AJ "The Triple Threat" Martino said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alan aka RecessRampage said...

Can you tell me which hotel is like closest to your place/where all the action is? Also, do I need to get a rental car or can I just take cabs? Shoot me an email at atachikawa AT gmail dot com.

lightning36 said...

Wow - a lot care goes into your coffee process. I'll bet there is not a speck of dust in your bedroom either, right?

Just give me some good, fresh Columbian anytime and I am fine ...

Astin said...

Actually, I wrote this up a while ago, but kept tweaking it until I finally put it up.

Lightning - ha! I barely know what "dusting" is. My place is constantly cluttered. I put effort into the unimportant things in life :).

lj said...

lol at buddy dank's comment. my thought exactly as i read (um, skimmed) the other day.

i am still trying to figure out a way that i could come up for eh-vegas on saturday, mostly b/c i do not want to miss a home cooked astin dinner.

am also intrigued by all the private/"in" references on your blog lately

<---- so lost!