Saturday, January 24, 2009

Information Means They Care

I've been buying from Gimme! Coffee for a while now and following the gang through their blog and their Twitter updates. I recently bought a pound of their Brazil Sao Joao Estate which was like a cup of peanut buttery goodness. I went on their site to see if there was more information on this coffee and of course, their site posts not only a desription of the coffee but full details on its origin. By details, I mean full details, including the estate's location and sustainability practices.

Just last week I posted on "From Soil to Cup: What's in Your Coffee?" This is exactly what I was talking about. Thank you Gimme! You're spot on.

If the place you buy your coffee doesn't have this type of information available (either online or in their store) they probably don't know much (or appreciate much) about where their beans really comes from. You might want to consider finding someone who does.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

My Coffee Family Tree

I've blogged before about the importance of coffee in family (See: "My One Year Old Can't Say "Coffee." Should I Be Worried?"). Coffee has always been part of my family. A pot of tea in the morning followed by a pot of coffee was always the standard when I grew up. (I've forgone the tea and go straight for the hard stuff myself.)

My mom has been sharing coffee memories with me over email and she's generously agreed to share her memories here on my blog. (Turns out Mom is a devoted follower of Coffee Llama.)

My family is from Holland and most of the post below regards an old stone coffee pot that my grandmother (Oma) brought over from Holland. I have never seen these types of pots outside of my Oma's house. I've included Mom's description on how to brew with these pots.

Take it away, Mom:

"Coffee is a very important part of everyday life in Holland and has been for many generations. Therefore, it is no surprise that I have vivid memories of your Omas, as well as my Omas, making lots of coffee. In the 1950’s, I remember coffee being made manually in a stone coffee pot like the one pictured here using the method below.

This coffee pot had a ceramic filter. The bottom of the filter consisted of two ceramic layers. Each layer had a series of evenly spaced, slender, slightly oblong slits. The layers were assembled in such a way that the slits crossed over one another resulting in narrow openings which allowed the water to drip through very slowly.

Brewing Coffee: Separate ceramic filter and coffee pot. Remove the lid from the filter and put in desired amount of coffee. Use the flat disk to stamp down the coffee, remove disk. Place disk with holes on top of filter (fits just underneath ridge for the lid). Rinse coffee pot with boiling water and place filter on top of pot. Slowly pour boiling water over the disk until water bubbles back up, letting coffee drip into pot. When dripping has slowed to a trickle and coffee grounds are completely saturated, add more boiling water if needed, make sure water does not overflow top of filter. To serve, pour coffee cups 3/4 full, add boiling milk, add sugar to taste.

When electric percolators and drip coffee makers came out, Oma Mol was quick to put manual coffee making behind her. Oma Venema, on the other hand, continued with her old faithful method until she moved into an assisted living home at the age of 84. When Oma Venema lived in California, her ceramic filter broke but by then those filters were no longer being made. Oma Mol came to the rescue as she gladly passed on a ceramic filter she had kept. Now Oma Venema had a pot and filter from two different manufacturer, resulting in a coffee pot that did not fit together properly. That didn’t matter to Oma, the important thing was that she could continue making her coffee the way she was most comfortable with – the manual way. I can still picture Oma’s brown coffee pot standing on top of her stove. When we lived in California, we gave Oma Venema an electric coffee maker to use when she had company - that way she wouldn't have to spend so much time in the kitchen away from her guests. That coffee maker stood on her kitchen counter for at least 15 years......she never used it.

Childhood “Coffee-Making” Memories

• I remember my Oma’s kitchen as being a happy place where the women congregated, a room full of laughter and chatter. The kitchen itself was tiny but that didn’t stop the women from gathering, lending a helping hand where they could, and enjoying each other’s company. This was especially true when dishes were being done, or better yet, coffee was being made.

• My Oma ground her coffee using a manual coffee grinder. The manual grinders were held between the knees with the drawer, which caught the grounds, up against one knee to keep it from flying open and spilling the contents. As a little girl, my Oma would let me grind her coffee. Inevitably I would forget about the drawer and have it facing forward, resulting in the drawer flying open and spilling the grounds. My Oma would have to clean up and start over. I remember my Oma as a very understanding and patient women – a real sweetheart. I feel sorry I didn’t get to know her better.

• Boiling milk for the coffee was a problem for my Oma. I always remember her having to clean her stove top because the milk boiled over. She got so involved in conversation that she would forget to keep an eye on the milk until it was too late, even if she was standing right next to the stove top. Your Oma confirmed this fact but did not mention that she found herself in that same situation more times than she would care to admit."

Thanks Mom for sharing the coffee memories!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

From Soil to Cup, What's In Your Coffee?

The Coffee Can Confessions in my last post makes me think of one of the best books I read last year, In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. If you care at all about where your food comes from, you need to read this book. If you don't care where your food comes from, you should definitely read this book.

Pollan begins the book with: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." He decries the evolution of “food science” and makes the argument a that we need to get back to appreciating whole foods, not food products. For me, the biggest message in this book is: learn and appreciate the true source of all your food. In other words, don’t by the processed pork product. Buy the pork fresh from a butcher who deals directly with farmers – or better yet from the farmers directly. And then get to know that farmer and their methods for raising their hogs. How do they feed them? Where do they get the food for their hogs. Where and how is that food grown?

But following your food isn't always an easy task. Even in NYC where the locally-grown food movement has taken hold through numerous farmers markets, finding and getting to know the source of all your food, especially meats isn't always simple or possible. You have to do your research and you have to ask questions. And with coffee, it's much tricker. After all, in the US (except for Hawaii) and most of the western world, there is no such thing as locally grown coffee. Unlike wine, where you can visit a vineyard to see how the grapes are grown and the wine is made, at best in the US you can visit a craft roaster to see how the beans are roasted and shipped. Most consumers, even those who take the time to know their coffee's origins have never seen a green bean, much less the plant it came from or the farm on which it was grown. (Conversely, many coffee farmers have never tasted a cup of coffee made from the beans on their own farm.)

In the nineteenth century, green coffee was a home staple in the pantry of most coffee drinkers. Coffee was roasted at home on the stove or in small roasters over fires. In urban areas, small town roasters supplied the coffee.

But this fact can be a bit deceiving. Just because green coffee was more prevalent in the home doesn't mean everyone was drinking superior coffee. The handling of green beans, from their original processing on the farm through shipment, was often questionable. Green bean consumers probably knew nothing of their origins or quality of handling. And given the crude equipment used in the home to roast the beans, the quality of the final roast may not have been anything to get excited about. Like searing a steak in a skillet over a state-of-the art gas-top range vs. searing a steak on a wooden stick over an open flame in your back yard -- if you really know what you are doing you might get the same results, but chances are the gas-top stove will produce the better steak. I'd guess that home coffee roasters in the nineteenth century were probably drinking some pretty bad stuff.

Then, in 1865, along comes Arbuckle's Coffee. Not only do they promise high quality beans and a fine roast, but they promise fresh taste through their patented process of coating the roasted beans with sugar and eggs to "seal" the "flavor and aroma." Easy for us to scoff at today, but in 1865, this process probably resulted in a very impressive taste much preferred to mess that might have been called coffee in many homes.

So the modern concept of mass-produced, processed coffee was born, bringing consumers not only convenience but better quality to their cup. And while the technology for preserving the coffee improved beyond patented seals of sugar and egg, so did the technology for roasting coffee in large batches, eventually bringing the pre-ground, canned coffee to the world's grocery shelves -- the stuff I grew up on and still the stuff most people call coffee today.

It wasn't until the 1960's and 70's when small roasters like Alfred H. Peet and Starbucks began to bring back the concept of fresh roasted beans to consumers. And it wasn't until the 90s's when Starbucks became global that most consumers were introduced to the concept. (Incidentally, Alfred Peete was the inspiration for the original Starbuck's chain before it Linkwas sold to Howard Schultz who make Starbucks into the current industry giant it is today. The original Starbucks founders Jerry Balwin, Zev Siegel and Gordon Bowker kept the Peet's Coffee & Tea chain when they sold the Starbuck's franchise to Schultz. See Starbucks entry in Wikipedia for full details.)

But the mass production of large chain coffee roasters still makes it difficult for consumers to know the exact source of the beans in their cup. True, it's possible to know the country of origin and possibly see that there is an organic or fair trade label, but what about the farm, the farmers? Companies like Starbucks do hold a high level of quality standards in sourcing their beans but it doesn't get to the level of Pollan's vision of knowing the source of your food.

It's the post-Starbucks wave of small coffee roasters that most excites me and allows consumers to get as close to possible to the source of their beans. And the internet empowers consumers with a wealth of information and resources at the click of a button. If I had been a home roaster just ten years ago, I couldn't even dream of logging into Sweet Maria's and ordering a pound of Cup of Excellence award winning coffee to butcher in my kitchen. With the internet and modern coffee technology, this could arguably be the best time in the history of coffee to be a consumer. The beans and all the information you could ever want are right at your fingertips. You just need to login and find them.

So what's my point? Look again at the drawing that started this post. Here, you don't even have to scroll. I'll show it again:

The next time you sit down with a cup of coffee, think of everything that went into making that cup -- from the soil all the way through the finished coffee. There are probably few foods you consume on a daily basis that rely on so many people from such disparate portions the globe to get it in your hands.

Start with that appreciation. Then, if your can of coffee doesn't tell you anything about its origins other than that it's 100% Arabica, search out a product with more information available. Go online. Find a local roaster who prides themselves on sourcing fair trade (or better yet direct trade coffee). None in your area? Order online.

There has never been a better time to discover exactly what goes into your cup of coffee. The more you know about it, the more you will appreciate it, and the better the world will be for all the people involved in creating it (and drinking it). Spread the word.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Coffee Can Confessions

I cannot tell a lie. I have drunk coffee from a can. And I liked it! (At the time.)

Before you stone me, let me explain.

Until college I didn't know that mashed potatoes could be made out of whole potatoes (don't they come as flakes in a box?) Or gravy could be made from scratch (doesn't it come in a jar?). And I certainly did not know why anyone would bother buying coffee outside of a can.

Occasionally, someone would give my parents a special gift of whole bean coffee and my mom would grind it in a little bur grinder she kept above the refrigerator. But that was fancy stuff and I didn't quite get why anyone would bother with all that fuss. After all, the enchanting hiss that the can of Maxwell House made when I pierced the lid proved to me that it was fresh as can be. It’s the sound that said it was morning! And, according to the can, it was 100% Arabica beans. What more could you want?!?

Even then, though, I didn’t really drink coffee until my senior year in high school when class got stuck in Philadelphia airport during a massive snow storm on our way to Florida for our class trip. After a great night of sleep on the airport floor, I headed down to the hotdog stand to get a nice black cup of airport, hotdog coffee.

And there was no heading back! I was hooked! To me, the only thing better than airport, hotdog coffee was a nice fresh can of Chock Full o’Nuts.

So what turned me and started me down the road of becoming a home-roasting coffee geek? What made me chuck my coffee cans and never look back? Starbucks.

Yes, Starbucks. During college, in the middle of my 2 pots-of-Chock-Full-o'-Nuts-a-day habit, I got a job as a barista in a little Boston based coffee company called The Coffee Connection, which had just been acquired by Starbucks. It was The Coffee Connection/Starbucks that taught me all about the dangerous life of coffee can coffee. And for that, I will always be greatful to the big green mermaid for saving me.

There. I've said it. It's off my shoulders and I'm feeling so much better.

How about you? Ever had that craving that can only be cured by the hiss of the ol' coffee can? Get it out in the open and share with Coffee Llama! We won't judge. Promise.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Coffee Causes Children to Run Away from Home; Demise of Coffee Substitue Leaves Superhero without a Job

A coworker recently brought to my attention the demise of a product that I thankfully never experienced while it was still on the market: Postum, a "powdered roasted grain beverage" that was sold as a coffee substitute.

According to Wikipedia:

"The caffeine-free beverage mix was created by [Kraft] company founder C.W. Post in 1895 and produced and marketed by Postum Cereal Company as a healthy alternative to coffee. Post was a student of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg who believed caffeine to be unhealthy. Postum was made from wheat bran, wheat molasses and maltodextrin from corn."

It's that ingredient list that almost makes me sad that I missed it. Unfortunately, I have had more than one horrible experience staying with friends or family and waking up in the morning to discover that I was in a house of non-coffee drinkers. In the worst cases, I was not even near a Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts. Inevitably, someone would dig out a dusty jar of Nescafe from the cupboard and in desperation I accepted the cup and tried to convince myself that it is at least better than Maxwell House. Maybe I would have been better off if I carried a jar of Postum with me.

But the best part of Postum by far was it's one-time advertising featuring "Mr. Coffee Nerves," a superhero who helps save the world from the horrors of caffeine. In one series of strips, he helps a mother track down her boy who has run away from home because she has become a "caffeine susceptible" and is "nervous" and "irritable."

Now that Postum is gone, I'm wondering if Mr. Coffee Nerves needs a job. Maybe instead of caffeine, he can help save humanity from the horrors of pre-ground canned coffee. More thoughts on that horror of the food industry in my next post.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

My one year old can't say "coffee." Should I be worried?

In the competitive sport that is childrearing, I'm learning that the first twelve months is a time to brag about the significant milestones, especially with other parents you don't know. The bragging rights are awarded to the parent in the room who can prove that their child hit the milestone first. For example, my daughter started walking at nine months, which is relatively early. This turned out to be the best time to parade her in public, or better at the local Gymboree, where she could toddle around in front of the children her age who were still drooling on themselves while struggling to get their feet under themselves.

My favorite reaction was one woman who came up to me at the local market while I was encouraging my daughter to walk in my direction. "She's too young to be walking," she scolded me as my daughter confidently made her way toward me with steady steps -- implying that I was in some way forcing my child to walk before she was ready. (If only this woman had seen me discouraging my daughter to walk knowing very well what tortures were coming our way as soon as she became mobile in our small apartment.)

The woman in the market exemplifies an attitude that appears to be very common in New York City: unsolicited advice from absolute strangers. I first experienced this when I got my dog. It's worse with parents. I've also been told that my daughter will burn on a sunny day even though I have her slathered in sunscreen and I've been told that she will freeze in the cold when I've given up on putting her hat back on her head after she repeatedly unties it and throws it under the wheels of the stroller.

But my absolute favorite advice has been the people who have suggested that I am teaching my daughter bad habits because I drink coffee in front of her. Really??

Let's stop for a second to think about all the behaviors that my daughter experiences through my coffee habits. First, let's examine the caffeine. I'm cranky and sluggish without it. My wife often refuses to talk to me until I've had my first cup in the morning. So maybe they have a point.

Aside from the caffeine though, what else does my daughter experience? Almost every day that I am home, I make a point of taking her with me to one of our many local coffee shops. I have been doing this since she was two weeks old. In these places, she meets and interacts with new people and experiences new sights and new sounds. Often we will site for a few minutes while I drink coffee and she drinks her bottle. Now that she's older we often split a muffin or part of a bagel together. And most of the time, she ingores me because she's too busy looking at all the people or staring in wonder as the baristas fix drinks for the customers.

At home, of course, I roast my own beans and brew my coffee by hand in a press pot. Since she was born, she has been around the sights, smells and sounds of coffee being roasted and brewed in our apartment. And she has experienced all the rituals that go along with this process starting at day one. As she has grown, I've seen her get more and more engaged in my activities. I often bring her into the kitchen to watch the beans come out of the roaster or smell the fresh grounds coming out of the grinder or watch me press the coffee and pour my cup. No mirowaves, no easy food out of packages, no instant gratification. Instead, she sees the whole process from green bean to cup.

Maybe I'm crazy, but I am proud that coffee plays such a prominent place in my home life. Over time, I hope my daughter looks back at all of these experiences and appreciates the enjoyment of the ritual and the satisfaction of all the work that goes into one small cup of coffee. And let's not forget the fact that I try to control as much as I can about the processes that occur before I get my beans by buying as much organic, fair-trade/direct-trade coffees from local businesses as possible.

I wonder if all these things are good enough to outshine the inarticulate grumpy dad she sees before the caffeine hits my veins in the morning.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Home Roasting from Imbibe Magazine

Just picked up the latest issue of Imbibe Magazine and they have a one page review of home coffee roasters. At the top of the list is the Behmor 1600. I haven't roasted with this machine myself but I did catch a glimpse of it in action at the SCAA conference back in 2006. Roasts a much bigger batch than the i-Roast that I use and really cuts down on the smoke (which is important for those of us roasting in small apartments!). The only complaint I've heard, which Imbibe mentions in their article is that it can be hard to see the beans as they roast. I would imagine though, that over time you'd be able to get enough information through the small window combined with the smell and the sounds of the roast.

Imbibe has also been generous enough to post a great list of home roasting tips. Check them out here!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Celebrating the holidays with a new blend

I roasted a lot throughout the holidays to make sure I had fresh coffee on hand when visiting family or welcoming visitors to our place. I got a lot of compliments on the coffee from friends and family, even a couple who have been polite but visibly unimpressed by the home roasts that I've presented in the past.

I don't do blends very often but I wanted something with chocolate and spice and I wanted to make sure that the final coffee had some depth. Lack of depth was a criticism I got from some of my roasts in the past. Personally, I had also been disappointed in how flat many of my roasts on the iRoast tend to be.

I decided to go with a Guatemala Antigua from the Roasting Plant (see previous post) because it would serve as a mellow and smooth base for the blend and also had some chocolate undertones. Then I blended in some Sulawesi from the Roasting Plant to add the spice and the stronger tones of chocolate. I blended them at a ratio of 3 to 1, Guatemala to Sulawesi.

I tried two different approaches for the roasting. In one batch, I brought beans both to full city (just before second crack). In a second batch, I pushed the Sulawesi a little farther into second crack bringing some of the oils to the surface of the bean. I got tons of raves on both approaches although I personally liked the blend with the lighter roasts the best (but I tend to prefer the lighter roasts).

The picture at the top of this post is the last of my holiday blend. It's the blend with the darker Sulawesi roast. The resolution on the pic isn't great since it was taken on my phone but you can see the shine on the darker beans blended into the batch. I'll be sure to post better resolutions for future roasts.