Archive for December, 2007

My famous coffee hand

This gruesome close up of my thumb and index finger clutching a demitasse of delicious espresso was a quarter page photo in the Raleigh News and Observer for an article that was published just before my relocation to the Philadelphia area. This is my famous coffee hand, as it is the same hand that makes a brief appearance in the 1996 independent film “The Delicate Art Of The Rifle”. There is quick montage of short clips where the main character remembers some of the events that cause him to go nuts and start shooting people from the top of the university library building. My hand vigorously slams down a cappuccino (sporting a pompadour of mountainous white foam) onto a cafe table while a Grunge Girl scowls at the attached but unseen Barista; me. Any how, this same coffee hand now reappears in this bit about Dan Kehn (HB) and his engineering cronies as they abuse some very expensive equipment.

The coffee geeks started to arrive at around 7 am a the training center that day in Durham to get things set up in anticipation of the news reporter and her photographer. One guy even set up a popcorn popper to demonstrate the home style roasting technique. Once everyone was there they started pulling shots and boasting most egotistically. These guys were worse than shop Baristas when it came to smack down banter.

I came across the newspaper clippings while painting my kitchen this week end. The last couple of weeks before the move were poignantly sweet and sour days for me. I was leaving my adopted home, where my life had been centered since 1979. I was getting ready to embark on this coffee journey that has taken me away from everything familiar. The memory of the newspaper crew and coffee geeks is especially vivid to me now, and the pictures bolster my nostalgia with a particular heft.

Where does flavor come from?

I have often heard the question asked concerning the flavor characteristics of a coffee, “what is more important, the terroir, the variatel, or the process?” The question presupposes the concept that one of the factors is more important. Here we have an experiment by one producer, Aida Battle in El Salvador, that involves coffee all from one farm but processed differently. All Bourbon, grown in the same volcanic soil and in the same climate, these coffees each present a truly unique profile each unto their own. The fourth coffee, Grand Reserve, contains coffees from three of her farms blended together.

four amigos

The Finca Mauritania coffee is typically washed and comes across with stone fruit sweetnes, warm brightness, silk on the palate, and impeccably clean aftertaste. The only washed coffee from F. M. in this group is the Peaberry, and is so savory with a mineral brightness that one professional roaster I cupped it with mistook it for something from Kenya.

The Pulp Natural, (the mucilage is dried on the seed instead of soaking in a fermentation tank) has muted brightness, deep sugar development, and a cocoa flavor. This coffee has single origin espresso written all over it.

The Pasa, or raisin, coffee is left to dry in the cherry. This is a risky undertaking in humid places. Everyone I cupped it with was certain that they had easily identified a Harrar or Yergicheffe natural. The acidity was a little less pronounced, however, and is the only give away. Deep cherry and blueberry and strawberry were all over this coffee on the cupping table.

The Grand Reserve has peaberries from three of Aida’s farms, each from carefully selected micro lots, to produce a sweet and savory, subtly bright, layered complexity of fruitiness with nuance and cleanliness.

Justin and Jesse

Obviously process plays a huge role, but we must not discount the meticulously cultivated and harvested crop. The heirloom coffee pedigree has a place in the final product as does the perfectly suited ecosystem in which it grows. The expertise of the roasters, (Tim, John, and Kiran) brings it to a point of readiness. Of course, the Barista is the last person to touch it, and they can make it or break it.

I guess that answers the question. None of these factors if the most important. They must all be in harmony with each other to achieve a great cup of coffee.