Posted on November 24th, 2012
Coffee is not just a drink. Those who are content with their one morning cup of Dunkin’ Donuts stuff, or whatever the corner coffee cart man is selling – nuked beyond recognition with milk and sugar – are missing the point. Sure, caffeine is a drug, and some will take one hit on the way to work so as not to fall asleep over a spreadsheet. But drinking coffee just to stay awake is like having sex only to procreate: it does the job, but where’s the fun?
Coffee is a lifestyle. It is the anticipation of a hot, delicious mug on a Saturday morning, brewing on the counter as you button your old flannel shirt and unroll your newspaper (or turn on your tablet, why not). It is the feeling of a small victory as you get away from the office for fifteen minutes, turn the corner, buy a cup to go at your local coffeehouse, and stand outside leaning on an iron gate and enjoying the sort of afternoon you almost forgot existed. It is the joy of sitting down at a small table of a European-style café, across from an old friend, two steaming cups set down before you, a wonderful conversation about to take place. Coffee fuels and enables all of this. If you love coffee, it becomes an integral part of your life.
Think that’s an overstatement? One only needs to turn to the movies to see how true that is. Think about Coffee and Cigarettes, a film by Jim Jarmusch. It consisted of a series of mostly improvised skits, each one featuring various celebrities like Bill Murray and Tom Waits, with the enjoyment of java and a smoke as the only real unifying theme. The guys in Swingers frequently ended up at a diner, where they discussed women and wild nights out while guzzling coffee. Sitcoms are also a good place to observe coffee addiction: classics like Seinfeld, Frasier and Friends all have either a diner or coffeehouse as the characters’ home base, and each one features either rampant consumption of coffee refills or the high-strung stirring of lattes.
Even the biggest coffee aficionado has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is usually humble. It may be Taster’s Choice Instant that the folks pick up at the supermarket every Tuesday night, or those k-cups that go into a Keurig machine, or a to-go cup of Tim Horton’s. While at the mall, or walking down a busy city street, one may get lured into a Starbucks by a green mermaid. This is all fine, but the truly curious will eventually follow their muse beyond the obvious sources and into more exciting – and more complex – territory.
Coffee is a complicated, sensitive crop. Think wine grapes or the cacao bean, but much more so, when it comes to the sheer variety of flavor notes it can contain. Many regions around the world, including Africa, India, and South and Central America have numerous coffee bean farms, and these vary in size. The crop is so sensitive that a large farm, where one side of the field may get more sunlight and have slightly different soil, will yield a different tasting bean, for better or worse.
A huge economy has developed around coffee, with the bigger purveyors buying in bulk (and therefore ultimately being unable to control the quality of every batch that goes into the final product – all the beans are shipped to huge roasting plants and dumped in together). The smaller coffee companies will receive small shipments, and since the roasting is often done in-house, will also have more control over providing you with the best cup.
We live in ethically-minded times: studies have shown that businesses trying to improve conditions for the poor, both domestically and abroad, are becoming increasingly attractive to young professionals and draw in prime talent. Similarly, entrepreneurs are now more likely to care about the ethical side of business. For the coffee industry, this means ensuring that the farmers stand to earn enough to rise above the poverty line. As a result, both the major coffee companies like Starbucks and the small coffee purveyors are looking to fair trade importing practices. Some of the purveyors will go so far as to eliminate, to the extent possible, the middlemen between the farmer and the roaster, resulting in bigger paychecks for the farmer and better prices for the importer. (It’s not just the java purveyors, either; chocolate artisans such as Brooklyn’s Raaka Chocolate try to do the same for cacao farmers.)
One such roaster is Toby’s Estate in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Even in a neighborhood filled with trendy cafes, Toby’s stands out. Its coffeehouse space is beautifully designed, with attractive wall displays of books, coffee accessories, and various vintage knick-knacks. There is plenty of communal seating, with both high and low tables available to its laptop-happy, bearded, floppy beanie-clad clientele. Strains of lo-fi folk and dream pop can be heard above the murmur of patrons and the roar of espresso machines. In the back, behind the barista counter, are offices, the roasting room, and the cupping room.
That last one I got to know pretty well: Toby’s holds free “public cuppings” – events whose name never ceases to elicit chuckles from my friends – which provide a chance for the public to see and partake in the painstaking steps professionals take to ensure that each cup of coffee they make is near perfect.
Toby’s Estate rotates its available varieties of coffee, as these depend on the amount of beans that were purchased at a given time from that season’s choice of farms. So this winter’s Guatemalan and Honduran coffee may be replaced in the summer by beans from Kenya and Ethiopia. Whatever the kind of bean, they are shipped to New York and roasted in-house; each batch is then “cupped.”
Using the pour-over method (more on that later), coffee from each roasted batch is poured into three cups. The number of cups is necessary for quality control, in case faulty beans end up making it into one of the cups. Using a spoon, the coffee is then slurped (air intake is an important part of the tasting process) from all three, at three different stages of cooling. The tasters usually spit out the coffee after they try it; over-caffeinating is an easy occupational hazard.
The taster is also provided with a grading sheet, where each coffee is judged on factors like acidity, and flavor notes are jotted down. These notes can be anything, from the edible (fruit, nuts) to sensory associations with things like flowers, leather and tobacco. At the end, everyone compares notes and tries to decide which coffee is better, and for what occasion. Usually, opinions at the table differ greatly.
The public cuppings, as well as all the other classes at Toby’s, are taught by Dan, one of the in-house coffee experts. Lanky and bespectacled, he is a treasure trove of information about the subject (much of the more technical stuff in this article comes from his lectures) and goes through all the procedures that he teaches when he works. When I found out he was heading the Pour Over Technique class, I signed up immediately.
The pour over method of brewing coffee is becoming increasingly popular with many of the finer independent coffee purveyors. Using Chemex (which is to pour over what Bodum is to French press) coffeemakers, the barista is able to get the most out of every ground bean in the filter by soaking them evenly and thoroughly. The class focused not just on the technique itself, however; Dan displayed just how much difference in taste even a half gram of coffee makes. Think it doesn’t matter if you’ve measured out 24 or 25 grams? Wrong – and chances are, 24.5 grams is the ideal amount anyway.
Not every palate is refined, and that is okay. If you can’t taste the difference between Krispy Kreme coffee and one of Toby’s Estate’s varieties, there’s no point spending twice as much on a cup. (If you’re taking it to stay, however, the latter will still make for a much better experience.) Should you find yourself drawn to the finer varieties of beans, though, there’s a lot to explore: Stumptown, Blue Bottle, and Irving Farms all have great varieties too, and sometimes a small café somewhere will have amazing goods. (My favorite beans are sold at Verb Café in Williamsburg, $11 for a sizable bag, and they give you a free cup of coffee with purchase.) Regardless of whether you use a French press, prefer the pour over, or have another method of preparing your perfect cup, keep trying different varieties to find the ones that match your coffee lifestyle.