Saturday, October 25, 2008

Reading Coffee

Nick, our private roaster, has sent home a new blend. It's like the floor sweepings at the end of the shift at the spice factory; a little bit of whatever happened to be around that day. Everything Nick roasts is wonderful, simply because he buys high-quality beans and does roast more than a pound at a time, it's very fresh.

I've become somewhat coffee obsessed, not nearly so much as Nick, but knowing Nick only makes my obsession worse. For instance, we like to talk about the coffee he makes, which makes us sound like wine snobs. For instance, I'm sipping an extraction from the beans that have just arrived home. There's a flavor in this coffee that is reminiscent of something Nick roasted a while back. I'm going to assume that it's not a Central or South American bean flavor, perhaps one of those oddly assertive Harrar beans mixed in. It definitely affects the balance, but balance, per se, isn't necessarily an important quality for me.

It does not taste fruity, at all. It's a bit on the sharp side, like a sharp cheddar, if it's fair to say this about coffee. I'm really stretching my limits of credulity on this one. I probably prefer something less assertive, but this is definitely good; better than the mocha java I brought home from Willoughby's, which was okay. I think they specialize in french roasts. Most of the beans in the store are quite dark, but with a beautiful oily sheen. I also recently had some french roast beans from Starbucks that were blackened to a dull lifelessness, just burnt-looking.

People leave the room when Nick and I get started. The problem is, it's all nonsense. We're trying to adapt standard vocabulary to describe flavors and sensations that are complex and esoteric. They're really just very personal impressions that don't help much when buying coffee. Today, my mother asked me what kind of coffee she should buy in Baltimore? I can make suggestions, but there are standards in the industry that will help her the way there is for wine.

Essentially, the labelling of roasted coffee beans, is pretty much unregulated. It helps that there are a lot of single origin beans on the market, but they're most labeled only by country of origin and there's plenty of variation within countries. It also makes a difference that there are organics, shade grown, and bird friendly beans, but this says nothing about the quality of the bean. Of course, things get more complicated when you start mixing beans for balance.

Nonetheless, I want to know where the beans are from, country and region, or even finca or plantation name, like wines, which I know nothing about. I want to know some designation of bean, including size, wet or dry process, and harvest year. I suspect Sweet Maria (Nick's mail order, green bean supplier in Oakland) must list all of these things, so I'm sure the information is available.

Then I want to categorize the roast from light to dark and I wish there were a way to quantify darkness. French Roast, Viennese Roast, Italian Roast are only relative terms, not good enough unless someone can establish an industry standard. And I don't like the term espresso roast. We need a completely different vocabulary for beans meant for steam extraction.

When I first became familiar with Starbucks we were visiting our friend Joy in Portland. It seemed like a revelation at the time, but I realize now that we were wowed by the brilliant marketing. I didn't drink coffee at the time, so the whole thing was a brand experience for me. I was especially taken with the rolls of nicely-designed color stickers they had to put on the bags of coffee. I remember the fishing boat logo for the Yukon Blend. On the other hand, what the hell is Yukon blend? It's all image and connotation. For us manly types, this should be a positive association that makes us feel manly about drinking a manly brew before reeling in the day's catch from the roiling and frigid Arctic seas. Blood and Guts Blend wouldn't sell as well.

On the other hand, tea packagers have been doing this for at least a century. What is Orange Pekoe? It's not a tea leaf, but a grade of black tea. It's quite generic. And what about English Breakfast, which is a rather non-specific blend of various black teas that are meant to be hearty enough to stand up to dilution with milk? It's not even necessarily all Indian tea. And then there's Irish Breakfast which is usually all Assam tea. So why not call it Assam? Because marketing trumps full disclosure. Shall we go on to discuss John McCain's difficulties with truth in campaign advertising? Perhaps another time.

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