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Nov. 10, 2015
I'm enjoying some coffee from Burundi. I brewed in an Aeropress here at home. I've been hitting up the cup for occasional sips for the last 40 minutes or so. It's cool now. I get different flavors from the coffee all along the way. It doesn't do a complete 180 or anything, but each time I go back and take another rude slurp (...rude because I need to suck in a lot of air to get the flavor at the same time), I get something new, the emphasis shifts. I like this, and good coffees with a clean flavor profile and sweet finish can show new highlights from hot to cool. In fact, I don't drink coffee too hot. When coffee is hot you get a pain response, and that blocks flavor. When coffee is too strong it overwhelms the palate and blocks certain sensations. And when it's too cold I can't fully discern flavors, a numbness that happens in the mouth much sooner than cold hands in the fall. Anything below mouth temperature becomes less accessible, although 70 f or so still works for me. Sometimes I will ice some coffee that has cooled down from my inattention. But I don't do that often anymore. It usually becomes a sorry reminder of what the coffee was when I first brewed it. It's like wilted flowers on the kitchen table.
I would like to count myself among the people who "get" this whole coffee thing, although you don't have to work with coffee every day like I do to get it. You don't have to follow all the cool cafes and roasters on Instagram. (In fact, the chatter might be quite detrimental to your coffee understanding). You don't need to know all the details; all you need is to have genuine taste experiences with coffee.
And you need to have your own taste experiences, not what a barista tells you about what you are about to taste (annoying!) And not the 3 comma-separated descriptors on the coffee bag, often in the format [(a, b, c) = impossible taste experience]. An example might be: a. unusual fruit almost never available in my area, b. a favorite candy from someone else's childhood, c. a very uncommon word for something very common.
If these flavors were to describe a person, it would be shorthand for "I'm super special". This kind of guidance may communicate the effort behind presenting a coffee for sale, or it may just be a way to entice you to part with $18 and feel privileged to do so. But it brings you no closer to having a taste experience with the contents of the bag.
Finding enjoyment in the process of preparing coffee (which may extend to roasting, but for many is just grinding and brewing it), goes a long way toward developing a real feeling for it. One of the aspects that opened me up to the coffee experience was aromatics.
And it wasn't just the smell of brewing it. For me, aroma has meant the smells of coffee from green to yellow to tan to brown in the roasting process. Aroma has meant opening the sealed jar the day after roasting, and experiencing this amazing explosion (sometimes with a loud pop!) of beautiful roast smells driven by the natural CO-2 gases coming from the beans. And of course there are the grinding and brewing smells, where the freshness of the coffee and the specifics of its origin and process come into play.
But (and I am a little embarrassed to admit) it is in the fresh brewed cup that the impact of aroma was hidden to me. Yes I knew that smell is a huge part of taste. Yes I pinched my nose and bit into an onion when I was a kid. Yum! But understanding how much of the coffee experience is in smelling it continually surprises me, and how poorly I understand the distinct mechanism of that smell. Because I always think of smell as closing your mouth and drawing air through the nose. I don't realize, still, that it is happening all the time, and that cartoonish image of someone smelling, of putting a flower in front of their nose and breathing in deeply, is not the locus of this sense.
Smell is just a part of being in a place and breathing. Smell is part of breathing while eating. Smell happens when I am somewhere (which I usually am) and drawing in air (which I tend to do) then expelling that air (check), and my olfactory pathways aren't hopelessly blocked due to some illness (it happens). Less intuitive is to bring that smell into the mind, and even more awkward is to try to apply language to it. These things are more highly learned, even trained.
When we equivocate suggestive descriptors with a real sense of coffee, the experience becomes alienating to me. The risk of stating specific flavor experiences is to alienate the audience, and it's a potential loss of credibility with oneself as well. Take this: "This coffee has lemon, Meyer lemon, with a hint of pith, well-ripened." So the coffee has fruit? The fruit is a citrus, and that citrus is a lemon. Think of this as climbing a tree, the trunk is coffee, the main branch is fruit. You stepped out on that branch, and took another 2 steps with citrus and lemon. You're out there. Can the branch support your weight any more than this? Can someone step out and join you to corroborate these sensations? Can you take yet another step or will the branch buckle under your combined weight and the determination of specificity you want to achieve. And why are you out on that branch so far anyway, damn showoff!
For me, a really amazing coffee aroma experience is probably common to many folks: just smelling coffee at all. I'm thinking of traveling, when I have packed a little roasted coffee in my bag and I smell it amidst the hubbub of the airport. Maybe I moved a little and it squeezed the bag. It's a surprise. Or, at a rental house this summer, the smell of coffee brewing at 6 am, two stories above my room. So many walls and doors, yet there it was. It's part of a game when I travel called "where am I"? Or "Smell your place." It's amazing to wake up not really knowing where you are, and try to locate by smell. It works! Except at the end of the trip when my clothes are too ripe. Gross. Of course coffee smells when it's old and rancid, it smells when it's brewed, even if it's roasted 8 months prior (aka Starbucks).
Roasted and ground coffee in cans has pleasure too, even with all the processing it has undergone. This kind of coffee must have the CO-2 bled out of it before canning, meaning it is quite literally de-aromatized. The amount of this aroma-rich carbon-dioxide is so intense at large commercial roasters that it becomes a safety concern. A worker could become overwhelmed, pass out from oxygen deprivation, fall into a storage container and suffocate in ground coffee. Maybe it's just my macabre fantasy of "death by coffee aroma" but safety systems have been built to prevent it.
But really nice coffee that was roasted a day or two before is really something else, so dynamic in the quality of the smell. It demands aromatically that you pay it attention. I don't have to play a game to figure it out, it locates me. And unlike that nasty stuff, it promises an imminent and sapid pleasure.
There is even a shocking aromatic presence from a coffee cup where the final un-sippable amount dries out. Particularly in a narrow, tall cup, the quality of the dried out drink glass is really remarkable, specifically the base vanilla and toffee notes from a really nice wet-processed coffee.
Given all this, that even poor quality brewed coffee releases strong aromatics, that fresh-roasted coffee transforms that experience into something accessible and intensely pleasurable, that grinding and brewing are aromatic preludes to tasting, which is in so many ways connected to the involuntary act of breathing, and thus living, I fail to understand why we would want to descend from the elevation of this experience into something sensorially deadened. And why would we accept this in the guise of all the fancified language of a coffee that announces "I'm super special" to us so assuredly?
I'm think of the aromatic wasteland of canned and bottled coffee beverages, and I'm thinking of cold brew. This retrograde trend has been embraced by small local roasters who must feel compelled to offer coffee to people who might otherwise drink a lemonade on a hot day. It's come into play by cafes who want to draw coffee from taps just like a pub. I get it: Sell more coffee. Make coffee into something you drink instead of that or that or that, bring people into the store on a slow hot afternoon. Get your product into coolers all over town. I guess it's not frapuccino all over again, aka coffee for people who don't actually like coffee. Or not? I dunno, can't people just have a morning coffee then drink something else later? Can't people just not like coffee? Do we have to dress it up in other outfits to make it cute and likable to all?
More significantly, the can/bottle thing has been given a $$$ thumbs-up by investors who have sniffed it out as the most valuable product to extend a brand image. A company that built its name roasting good green coffee locally, preparing it carefully to serve one customer at a time (all of which amounts to limitations and bottlenecks to grow a brand) now have something they can scale up infinitely. You know who. A name built on an aromatically rich experience, that singular cup of coffee from a roaster-retailer, can be applied to one as distant as can be imagined, something akin in terms of smell to a can of Coke, and both the shop and the can might read ____________________(fill in the blank).
Apparently, in an open marketplace where people can express themselves and their democratic beliefs with the choice of spend or not-spend, this matters little. This retrograde direction back to the can doesn't measure even a meager response, especially at a cultural moment when it is uncool to have a problem with anything. It was quite different a decade ago where bigger chains where well aware that they were the lame version of "specialty coffee" and didn't care, because they were going to bring it to the 'burbs with a drive-thru, and laugh all the way to the bank. Why would Gloria Jeans give a crap about a small urban coffee roaster?
Now, the value (read as credibility) of that small roaster is a different kind of commodity, pure brand, where the instance of an actual physical shop matters entirely to anchor the meaning of the name, but only insomuch as it can be used to confer value (read as higher price, higher sales) on a something substantially different.
And the difference is polar. What is in a can or bottle on convenience store shelf versus what is brewed under the same brand banner at a store can both hardly be called coffee except for the bittering aspects that unite these brown liquids at the base. I leave it to you to do side-by-side tasting and find the relative qualities of each.
We are called on to make exceptions and excuses for the bad coffee served as cold brew. The first excuse is that these are not meant to be like brewed coffee, it's in a different category completely, and given what has been called coffee and sold in cans before, perhaps the best expressions being from Japan, these newer products are quite good.
But we have always had many highly variable beverages called coffee, from a coin machine at a truck stop, from a diner, from a whole bean bin at a supermarket, from a cafe. I have experienced (and sometimes enjoyed) the difference in all of these, often just to marvel that they can even share the same name; "coffee." But I wouldn't drink coffee daily (or maybe ever) if it was that thing from the coin machine, that stuff they served at Gloria Jeans, the 8 month old roast from Starbucks, or if it came in a can.
I remember the Vanilla-flavored crap I brewed in foil portion pouches at my office temp job. The thought of drinking it makes me shudder, and the memory of what a dismal time and place that was for me. And when I was so poor I bought Bustelo at the corner market, was that really better? Would I still drink coffee if it was Bustelo? Each level represents a small increment up or down the scale of quality and enjoyment. And as I gained an appreciation for upward steps on that quality ladder, and really started to enjoy coffee I found delicious, it led me to want to experience roasting at home, the biggest quality step I can remember experiencing.
The nadir of coffee quality in the '60s was reached by those incremental steps, toward the bottom of what might be called "coffee." Taste panels brought in to test a series of coffees, each just slightly lower in quality and dosage than the last, could find no difference between the cups. So manufacturers of portion packs dosed a little lighter, ground up a little more chaff to add back into the coffee, and bought slightly lower grade green beans. Yet, make a jump from coffee quality in 1935 (which could be quite good) to 1975 (hitting bottom) and you have a difference any schmuck would know.
So it's entirely possible to lose quality incrementally, on a broad scale or a personal scale, and still have an okay coffee experience. I'm not so fragile that it fazes me. But, as with other things in life, I want to get back to what I know is good, sooner rather than later.
The unfussy nature of the can has been wagered as fashion here too, because the power of the trendy is to make anything hip, aka PBR. From this account, it's nothing short of blatant elitism to pour hot water over ground coffee, or have an espresso made one at a time, just for you. Guzzling brand-name cold brew from a can broadcasts your cultural currency. Well, it does if a film crew is staging the moment for you...
PS: It seems you read the whole thing so therefore I would like to apologize for writing another occasionally bitter and somewhat snarky article. Well, I don't know about you, but I feel better getting all this out ...
... not ...
PPS: Since writing this Intelligentisa and Green Mountain sold to JAB Holding investor groups. And Stumptown released their Coconut Cold Brew. Meh.
I am comforted by the fact this is in the SM Library and so in 2015 it's something akin to writing with india ink on parchment scrolls.
Ja ja ja -T.O.