The Craft of Coffee
by Jon Schrock
This article was first featured in the March/April 2015 print edition of Daughters of Promise.
I can’t hide the fact that I love coffee. Whenever someone says that I can’t give up coffee for a month because I’m addicted to it, I just look at them, grin, and agree.
I suppose I’m not very unusual. Lots of people like coffee, and I’m pretty sure that it would be difficult to find someone who hasn’t at least tasted the stuff. After all, many of us pretty much live on it. If I had to guess, I would say that drinking coffee is a more common daily activity than eating breakfast.
It is strange of course that so many people love coffee since very few people start out liking it, me included. That’s why coffee haters are so vocal; they know they may be the next one to stumble and fall into the ranks of coffee drinkers. Even my brother seems to enjoy saying how he can’t stand coffee; yet today, I found him brewing a pot. He quickly mumbled something about not really liking it, feeling sleepy, and just wanting caffeine, but I know the truth. He’s slipping into our club.
Coffee is great. There are lots of small pleasures associated with it. I’ll bet you’ve sat on your front porch and watched the rain fall while you sipped a cup of your favorite blend.
You may be drinking some right now while you read this magazine. Something about coffee slows the world down and helps you absorb your surroundings and enjoy the moment. It gives you the chance to put the world on pause so you can take a minute to enjoy something unnecessary - which is a tremendous luxury - at an affordable price. The truth is, you don’t need coffee, but it does seem to make life just a little bit richer.
When I have lots of work to do, I like to pause for a minute and drink a cup of coffee, purposely making the work wait. Making things wait for a minute helps me realize that not everything is as important as it seems. There is something called the Eisenhower Decision Principle which is based off an adage used by President Eisenhower. The quote went something like this: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” Pausing work and drinking a cup of joe helps me step back and realize that he was right. Most of the things I stress over aren’t going to make or break me. Trust me; sometimes it’s worth focusing on something else for a minute because it can completely change your outlook on the day.
Something I’ve noticed about coffee is that it lends itself to sociality. This was obvious to me a few weeks ago when I treated my World Religions class to Turkish coffee. Nearly everyone drank some, and I was just one Styrofoam cup away from running out. Interestingly enough, the atmosphere in the room changed. Most class breaks are characterized by the use of cell phones, but not this time. People were looking at each other and talking far more than usual. I have no idea why, but coffee has a way of breaking down barriers between people. Perhaps that’s because coffee may be the only thing two people have in common (now is the part where I avoid saying common grounds) and it brings people to the same level. Maybe that’s why coffee shops are popular hangouts and meeting places.
To truly appreciate this drink, I think it’s helpful to understand what comprises it. First, though, I want to dispel the notion that all coffee tastes the same. No, it does not taste the same. In fact, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between the high and poor quality stuff. If you want to experience the difference first hand, you will need to go outside, get in your car, and drive to the nearest truck stop. When you get there, go in and buy a cup of coffee. You’ll usually find it under a sign that says “gourmet blend” or something like that. Take a sip and really taste it for a little while before swallowing. Ok, that’s bad coffee. Now drive to your nearest coffee shop that roasts its own beans and have some coffee made in a French press. Boom! You can taste all the difference in the world because that, my friend, is the real deal.
The good coffee is good because of many different factors, the first of which is quality, clean water. Water isn’t what most people think of when it comes to making coffee, but it is critically important in my opinion. Bad quality water can alter the taste of an otherwise good coffee. Filtered or distilled water is the best. The coffee beans hold the rest of the power over the final product.
The variety of coffee bean makes a difference in taste and is simple to keep track of since there are only two main varieties, Arabica and Robusta. Arabica makes up most of the coffee we drink here in the States and is generally the better of the two because it has a smooth, balanced flavor. Robusta is much cheaper and is used as a filler in budget coffees. Robusta has a bitter flavor. I’ve even had some that tasted remarkably like I imagine burnt rubber would taste. Truly it did. Robusta also has more caffeine than Aribica, which can be a good thing if you need some extra kick in your step. While Robusta is generally not as good, there are some good Robusta roasts out there. The next key to good flavor is where the coffee originated and how it was grown. Not all places are equal and not all farming practices carry the same results. For example, some farmers will harvest coffee early in order to get a better price. The obvious result is a coffee that isn’t as good. Many other things are out of the control of the farmer, such as weather and soil conditions. That’s why some places produce consistently good coffee and others are hit and miss depending on drought and changing temperatures.
Depending on your taste, you may like coffee from one place while someone else really likes coffee from another place. It’s subjective, so it’s best to try a few different origins and find out what you like for yourself.
To keep coffee from tasting too stale, or to avoid the flavor that goes along with poor quality beans, large roasting companies often over-roast the beans. Overroasting gives a uniform flavor, but it also burns out many of the oils, which keeps the coffee from being really good. Now that I know this I can’t help spying out the coffee beans in coffee shops to see if they are over-roasted. When the beans look oily, it’s a dead giveaway that the coffee sat in the roaster a little too long.
Most of us enjoy coffee but can be baffled by coffee culture. Yes, there is such a thing as coffee culture. My first experience with this was at a Starbucks on a cold winter day. I wanted a hot cup of coffee and had heard that Starbucks was practically heaven for anything of the sort. I gave it a try. Pretty much everything went wrong. I had no idea what the menu said. Every word seemed to end in an “e” or an “o”. All the talls were really just smalls and there was enough sweetener to make dessert feel bland. The greatest cause for wonder was that Americans in America were ordering a drink called Caffé Americano. I was greatly humored when I found out it was just the Italian way of saying American coffee.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, coffee plays a major role in Italy and so it tends to define coffee culture all over the place; this stands to reason since we owe our espressos to the Italians. After all, they did invent the espresso maker. Many of the names Starbucks uses that caused me so much confusion really stem from Italian coffee culture. Maybe this is out of respect for the coffee gurus in Italy or maybe it’s to make people feel sophisticated and cool when they order their Caffé Misto, or that double ristretto Carmel Latte. I think it’s the latter since our coffee doesn’t really share a whole lot of similarity to Italian coffee. Ours comes in huge sizes with far too much syrup and sugar, and in ridiculous flavors like gingerbread and smore’s. Despite all this coffee hypocrisy, I still like Starbucks and will continue to go there whenever I feel like ingesting my dessert and coffee simultaneously.
One day I bought an Italian made manual espresso maker. It’s a pretty cool machine that takes everything back to the basics and basically has the same design that espresso machines had a hundred years ago. It’s kind of tricky to use but it has taught me something. It’s taught me that there is a lot of value in the process of things. Life would be gray and boring if we simply lived for the ending and couldn’t take pleasure in the process. This is part of the meaning of art. An artist appreciates all the nuances that go into a piece of art and when another artist looks at a painting, he can see the process, even the mind and eye of the other artist and fully appreciate the finished piece.
Taking time to perfect something makes it much more enjoyable so try it out with coffee! Figure out the best water temperatures, the best quantities, and the best process. You’ll enjoy it. I promise.
To get you started, here are two different drinks to try:
Make a great tasting drink by brewing freshly roasted Kenyan coffee in a French press. A French Press gives you lots of control over the water temperature and how long you steep the grounds. It’s also better because lots of flavor containing oils won’t be getting snagged in the coffee filter; so with the French Press you get all the flavor.
Next up is Café Sua Da, a Vietnamese Iced coffee. This drink was developed in Vietnam but the French are partly responsible since they brought coffee and French drip coffee makers to Vietnam during the late 1800s. This is by far the strongest, sweetest coffee I have ever had in my life. I absolutely love it. You will need a metal drip coffee maker. You can buy one for just a few dollars on the internet or at an Asian grocery store. If you can use Trung Nguyen brand coffee, your results will be very authentic. It’s about the only Robusta blend I like. Fill your drip coffee maker about half full of coffee grounds and pour just enough hot water over the top to make the coffee bloom. Once it has sat for a little while like this, fill the dripper to the top with water. If you have enough coffee grounds, it will drip slowly. Add enough sweetened condensed milk to make the coffee a brown/ tan color. Pour the coffee over ice, stir, and drink. Oh, and try very hard not to think about your health. I asked a Vietnamese man to teach me how to make it and he told me it was simple; equal parts coffee to water and then equal parts sweetened condensed milk to coffee. Yeah, it’s awesome.