August 29, 2007

Coffee Flame

Most of you know that I'm a fanaticsnob about a lot of things, but especially about coffee. On a mailing list I'm on I've been participating in a small discussion about coffee in India, with particular emphasis on a comparison of the relative poorness of coffee chain baristas in the US versus India. Mostly low key harmless fun, until one of the list members forwarded part of the discussion to an off list friend of his who considers himself a coffee aficionado. He forwarded his friend's reply back to the list, and what follows is my response with comments added for this blog in italics.
A few thoughts, from an off-list friend, on the coffee discussion thus far.

He's quite sold on the coffee (and the pizza) in Napoli. Something to do with the water and the volcanos and some such.
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Yes, a few.

1) I don't put a lot of emphasis on the beans. Of course you do need the right kind of bean and the right kind of roasting for the kind of coffee you're making, but I believe the point of diminishing returns to effort and refinement in this area is reached pretty quickly.
This says volumes to me. It tells me that your friend either doesn't have much experience with premium varietals or proper roasting. It's easy to lose varietal character by over roasting, and even whole beans once roasted will lose quality after a week, but to say you don't put emphasis on the beans is just ignorance.

The differences between typical south or central american beans, african, and island or pacific beans, or even the fincas within a state like tarrazu in costa rica are huge. The difference in processing between wet and dry processed can make an enormous difference in flavor of the coffee. Even variations from year to year mean that an estate producing exceptional coffee one year will produce ordinary beans the next.

This doesn't even begin to touch on my personal obsession, Yemeni varietals. Coffee from Yemen is like no other in the world. It's grown traditionally on small farms, and harvested by families by hand. It's all harvested at the same time so you get a mixture of ripe and unripe cherries, and it's all dry processed which enhances the character of the beans. Each region or village in Yemen's coffee producing area has a different character to it, and from year to year different regions are the "best" (though personal preference plays a huge part as well.)

I'm personally a fan of Yemen Hirazi, but it's nearly impossible to find anymore, as Saudi Arabia consumes almost all of it. The beans are very small and yellow, and produce a lot of smoke and chaff when roasted. I like it roasted a little past full city, deep into second crack, because Yemeni beans respond well to a darker roast. (For reference, starbucks and peets roasts are much darker than even that, and italian espresso roast is typically darker still. When you roast that dark you burn away almost all the varietal character, so for espresso it makes little difference if the bean was originally from brazil, columbia, or ethiopia. [Though the sainted Mr. Illy would disagree, and I have to bow to his superior expertise. The man is a fanatic.])

Yemenis should be rested a little longer than most coffee after roasting, typically 24-48 hours. (Where 8 hours is usual for most other beans.) The resulting brew is winey, chocolatey, with huge body and little acid. I drink it unblended with anything else, much less milk.
2) I'm a little surprised by the cult of connoisseurship around things like cappuccino and macchiato, which are basically kids' drinks,
This comment was in response to some of us complaining that coffee chain baristas in the US would add the coffee to the milk rather than correctly vice versa, while apparently Indian coffee chain baristas are better about doing it right.

When the beans are stale, acrid and acidic, and the pull over extracted I find that a little milk tends to buffer the nastiness. It's hardly "connoiseurship" to expect a barrista to know how to correctly make the basic repertoire, and it's pretty pointless to go on comparing the depth and color of the crema if the barrista can't even make basic drinks correctly.
and the limited attention given to the basic characteristics of coffee (by which I mean espresso). My own three-item checklist for a good cup of coffee: not burnt or bitter; syrupy consistency; layer of coffee foam at least 2mm thick. Achieving these three characteristics on a regular basis is part art and part science, and experience has taught me not to trust anyone outside of napoli (it's theoretically possible for others to achieve the same results, but the percentages don't work for me).
To be fair, what he really is trying to say is that he is unwilling to try random coffee places outside of Naples because the odds of getting good coffee are so low, while in Naples any random place is more likely to have good coffee. He's still full of it, but not as much as I imply in my next paragraph.

Oh please. That's magical thinking. I'm as chauvinistic as the next person, and I love my city of San Francisco. I think there are some great baristas in San Francisco, but the best coffee I've had has been in that cliche of a coffee mecca - Seattle. I've sought out the best coffee places in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, San Diego, Boston, and New York City in the USA, and Paris, Barcelona, London, Milan, Florence, and Rome in Italy. (I have not been to Napoli, but while it's possible they have achieved some kind of transcendence there, I doubt it.)

My point being that I have found that coffee fanatics around the world produce a consistent and ambrosiacal product, that while it certainly differs from place to place, is an order of magnitude better than anything you will find in a place that is not staffed by total coffee fanatics, and that no one of that stratum would say anything as absurd as "I don't put a lot of emphasis on the beans." To them (and me) EVERYTHING matters. The beans, the roast, the grind, the dose, the tamp, and the multitudinous factors of the pull (the tank temperature, the head temperature, the head pressure, the volume of the pull, the timing of the pull).

To believe that somehow simply being in Napoli can trump someone who devotes their entire attention to each of those variables all the time is, well, magical thinking. It's possible that a detail obsessed OCD barista in Napoli produces infinitely better coffee than a similarly detail obsessed OCD barista in Seattle, but even then the appropriate comparison would be so-and-so barista in such-and-such cafe in Napoli is better than so-and-so in such-and-such cafe in Seattle. To generalize to all espresso in a single city is absurd.

For what it's worth, an Italian has never won or even placed in the World Barista Championships, but an Indian has. In 2001.
3) I'm only reciting my prejudices here, but the only marginally valid coffee tradition outside the neapolitan is the south indian.
How many coffee traditions do you know about? French? Portuguese? Spanish? Turkish? Vietnamese or for God's sake ARABIC? You do know the arabs discovered coffee, right? You are aware that there is an entire history and ritual around the preparation and service of cofee in Arab cultures? Yes, coffee came to India early, but it came to India from Arabia, and in particular from Yemen. To discount the Arabic coffee tradition as somehow "invalid" is ignorant and chauvinistic.
And I'm not sure how much longer we'll be able to get good south indian coffee around here given the difficulty of finding fresh milk. (Airlines is two strikes away from falling off my list.)

4) Incidentally, the "napoletana" referred to in the thread was used in neapolitan homes until a few decades ago, but has almost died out. It produces a coffee similar to our decoction (minus the chicory)--high on caffeine, low on texture, making it good base for concoctions with milk but not so good for drinking on its own. Bar coffee in napoli ( i.e. the real thing) has always been made with plain old espresso machines.
5) I'm not sure what "gourmet" means in connection with coffee (or anything else for that matter). It's either good or it isn't,
Besides not-good, and good, there is better, and eventually best. To take this spectrum, draw a line across it and equate all the variety and color on one side as the same is to deliberately turn a blind eye to a rich feast. It was attitudes like that that caused the India coffee board to require all indian growers to mingle their beans and to sell a single kind of "indian" coffee, stunting the indian coffee industry for decades.
and it's important to understand what makes it good or not good, but I'm convinced that the secret lies in better judgement rather than in greater sophistication or refinement.
And what is better judgment except greater sophistication and refinement?

At any rate, in the case of coffee, I think I will trust my own judgment.