Finding the Right Grounds for Judging the Coffeehouses : Caffeine craze has hit in a big way. Emphasis is on flavor, ambience.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More than 100 kinds of coffee are imported into the United States from around the world. The buyers, brokers and roasters who import and sell coffee beans taste, or as they call it, "cup," a lot of coffee.

Slurping the coffee through the lips, swirling it around the mouth and spitting it out, they are able to discern and judge the subtle interplay among the sweet, sour, bitter and salt that, coupled with a distinctive aroma, comprise the taste of coffee.

In its travels and mutations from bushy plants grown across the world to the contents of a coffee cup in Ventura County, many factors affect the taste of coffee. From cultivation to roasting, the many-step process--much of it done by hand labor--can be compared to the complexity of winemaking.

Grown only in temperate climates in Africa, Asia and Latin America (and parts of Hawaii), coffee beans are affected by variations in soil, weather and altitude. Beans grown in Antigua, Guatemala, are as different from those grown in Sumatra, Indonesia, as lamb is from beef.

How the beans are processed--separated from the pulp of the cherry-like fruit and dried--also affects the taste. Processing can't make a bad bean better; but it can certainly ruin a fine bean. Because so few beans contain the perfect combination of flavor, acidity and strength, blending various beans together becomes an important part of the art and success of a coffee dealer.

Until they are roasted, coffee beans actually have no flavor at all. Time in the roaster, as well as temperature, also greatly affects the taste. Usually the less time in the roaster, the lighter and more acidic the coffee.

The dark roasts used for espresso are the least acidic coffees of all, having more sweetness to balance the acidity, although acidity is a necessary factor for taste.

Less roasting time also means less moisture is removed, making lightly roasted beans heavier and more profitable--another reason why bulk commercial brand coffees are lighter in color and less tasty.

Most of the coffee drunk in Ventura County comes from generic bulk or canned coffee: undistinguished in flavor and highly acidic, but satisfyingly caffeinated. We've been drinking it for decades.

However, in the last 10 years, as people have become more interested in better foods, specialty coffees have been on the rise, making their way into the cups of the converted in ever greater numbers. They now amount to about 10% of the market in America.

There are dozens of retail coffee outlets in Ventura County that sell a wide variety of beans and coffee paraphernalia. Many even make fine coffee and espresso drinks. What distinguishes many of them is that they tend to be goody outlets rather than coffeehouses in the traditional sense.

But recently, a crop of the real thing seems to have sprouted like dandelions all around the county.

Historically speaking, a cafe or coffeehouse is a place where people of like attitudes congregate. Coffee is the draw, but not the whole event. One goes for the coffee drinks, compelled by addiction as much as taste and attraction, but one comes away nourished by conversations, poetry readings or by time spent reading or writing alone.

This type of place is rare around the county. What is far more common is the idea of coffee as a special treat or indulgence. So along with the coffee comes a vast array of decorated coffee mugs, coffee paraphernalia, candy, jams, teas, biscuits, gifts and even flowers. In some of these businesses you can't even find the coffee counter through the maze of shelves full of gewgaws and tchotchkes.

We traveled around Ventura County and "cupped" a lot of coffee, mostly cappuccino's, which we prefer. Here follows a brief, descriptive and somewhat opinionated look at many--but by no means all--of the places to buy beans and get a decent cup of coffee.

THOUSANDS OAKS

Bent on Coffee

140 W. Hillcrest Blvd.

379-2402

Located in a new shopping mall--a little pinker than most, with more turquoise trim than most--Bent on Coffee makes one of the best cappuccinos ($2) we tasted. They have a very impressive roasting machine, which sits near the front, looking as if it could pull a train. They sell dozens of kinds of beans and blends and a ton of flavored beans, including chocolate orange and decaffeinated butter rum. They offer five coffees of the day to choose from and a big selection of biscotti. They also display their share of gifts and paraphernalia. We liked the little case of antique silver spoons.

Cafe Cappuccino (The Oaks mall)

278 W. Hillcrest Blvd.

379-2759

At first sight this appears to be just a small coffee bar, but around the corner are a dozen small tables. They also have a little kitchen that turns out salads with organic greens and sandwiches like baked goat cheese with walnuts. They sell juices and Italian sodas, but no beans. They make the cappuccino ($1.60) just right.

Gloria Jean's Coffee Bean

222 W. Hillcrest Blvd.

(The Oaks mall)

379-1625

So many cabinets and shelves line the walls here, it looks like an apothecary shop. It has a zillion coffee mugs for sale and a wonderful, enticing aroma of coffee. This is a national chain with 180 outlets and they train the staff to a jocular friendliness and a welcome expertise in how to produce perfect foam on their cappuccinos. With lots of varieties of beans, they offer convenient 4-ounce packages for sale to take home and test. They're heading toward fancy (expensive) iced drinks made from blending ice, flavorings and cream. The prototype for this is their terribly popular iced mocha ($2.75), which tastes like an icy, refreshing, coffee-flavored chocolate milkshake. I had one and it must have had the desired effect: I went berserk at the Bullocks shoe sale. The cappuccino? Adequate.

Mocha Mania

2683 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd.

374-9481

This is a tidy, spare little place with burlap coffee bags papering the walls. They have a couple of small, tile-topped tables and a counter that looks out a window across the strip mall to a truncated view of the remnants of this once rural, Western town. When we ordered a cappuccino ($2), we were asked if we preferred it strong or weak, and with nonfat or low-fat milk. We took it strong, and the result was pretty good. They sell about 30 kinds of beans, along with a few homemade birdhouses. A small sign on the cash register urging the impeachment of Hillary Clinton is as close as this place gets to the ambience of a politically impassioned coffeehouse.

VENTURA

Cafe Voltaire

34 N. Palm St.

(The Livery Arts Center)

641-1743

The just-opened Cafe Voltaire, though still in a state of becoming, is in a beautiful space tucked into the corner of the Livery courtyard. It offers a comprehensive list of coffee drinks as well as canned and bottled juices, teas and sodas. The Old World-style coffeehouse has plenty of chairs and tables both inside and out. For now, the food menu is confined to croissants and scones, but they plan to provide customers with some "decadent desserts" in the near future. The cafe is open 7 days a week, from noon to 10 p.m., which means they might not be open late enough to capture and nourish the Plaza Players theater crowd across the courtyard. That would be a shame. They make a satisfying cappuccino.

Caffe Bella

79 S. California St.

643-2171

Though small, this is a pleasant place to sit and have coffee. They make one of the better cappuccinos, as well as three kinds of coffee served from thermos containers. A shelf of reading materials includes lots of New Yorkers. When the restaurant Nona out back isn't serving breakfast or lunch, you can take your coffee out to one of the loveliest patios in Ventura. The cafe sells a dozen kinds of beans, some teas and arty gifts, also a small but tasty selection of biscotti and baked goodies.

City Bakery

2358-C Main St.

643-0861

For atmosphere and ambience this is our choice for where to go to linger over coffee and treats. Located in a big, plain, industrial, somewhat funky space, it's suggestive of an artist's studio. The bread starts coming out of the oven at 9 a.m., and we've never had a baked item here we weren't crazy about. Fruit cobblers are wonderful, while raspberry oatmeal squares are a great way to ingest your oatmeal. The coffee and espresso drinks are pretty good--and, happily, stronger than they used to be.

The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf

363 S. Mills Road

(Buenaventura Mall)

642-7217

With more than a dozen locations around Southern California, this operation has been in existence for almost 20 years. The location in the Buenaventura Mall is classy and inviting, with ornate wooden trim and dark, cozy interior. Tables and chairs out in the mall area afford good people watching opportunities. They sell dozens of kinds of coffee beans, which they import and roast themselves, a rarity in the county. Also, cups and canisters and my favorite impulse buy--silver earrings in the shapes of coffee beans and coffee pots. They make their espresso drinks and iced blended mochas (very popular here) with nonfat milk unless otherwise requested. They also roast their beans on the lighter side, espresso included.

Edward's Flower and Coffee Market

3737 Telegraph Road

650-0574

This modest little emporium has more flowers--both fresh cut and artificial arrangements--than coffee. They also have a small selection of coffee cups and kitsch. The service here is very friendly. They make a fine cappuccino ($1.50), as well as coffee to order, with a choice of beans, using a drip filter. The place has a lone table and two chairs on the sidewalk.

Lorenzoni's

1575 Spinnaker Drive

(Ventura Harbor)

658-2228

Expanded four months ago, Lorenzoni's is now a pleasant, spacious place with peachy walls and lots of windows. In addition to beans and assorted coffee drinks, they have homemade baked goods and sandwiches. Their "melts" are especially tasty. (Try the Italian special). Cappuccino ($1.50) came in a paper cup and was quite strong, approaching bitter. Fortunately, they have six kinds of sugars, including maple sprinkles and French brown sugar cubes.

Nicholby's Coffeehouse

404 E. Main St.

653-6488

Nicholby's wins hands down in the category of having coffee while browsing for things you never knew you wanted. It's right inside one of the best antique cooperatives on Main Street. For those who like to be seen while they sip, they have tables perched in the windows overlooking the sidewalk. More tables can be found up a short flight of stairs. For all its crammed-into-a-corner feeling, it has the ambience of an authentic coffeehouse. Italian sodas and a small selection of muffins can be had, along with coffee drinks, which come in real cups. A cappuccino ($1.50) we tried was robust and lively, a bit on the light roast side. At night upstairs they have music and pool.

Royal Bakery

4726 Telephone Road

654-9104

If you've moved up to cappuccinos but can't give up your doughnuts, this is the place for you. As the name suggests, it's a fairly traditional-style bakery. Behind the counter, on one side they're set up for making coffee drinks, with cappuccinos starting at $1.60. On the other end, they make delicious fresh vegetable and fruit juices, as well as fruit shakes. The juices, however, are more successful than the coffees. Board games and newspapers are provided for patrons, but the white Formica and wire-back chairs suggest the clean crisp lines of a '50s-style ice cream parlor rather than a coffeehouse.

Toby's

2682 Main St.

643-4577

This really is a wonderful kitchenware shop that sells irresistible and essential gadgets for the kitchen, along with fancy glassware and wedding-type gifts. They have a great selection of demitasse cups, salt and pepper shakers, napkin rings, cookbooks and picnic baskets. They also sell about 20 different kinds of coffee beans. Their good brewed coffee of the day is free to their customers, and cookies too!

Voila!

1067 Thompson Blvd.

643-8703

Where I would go if I needed to buy my way out of a depression. Voila has been selling coffee beans for more than 13 years. If they didn't actually pioneer the concept of coffees and teas with all kinds of small temptations, they've certainly carried it to an impressive extreme. One entire room of this small, cluttered goody emporium is devoted to gourmet condiments and spices. Other rooms are brimming with teapots and chocolate, espresso makers and cookbooks. Baskets hang from the ceilings and tea cozies cover the walls. In fact, it's a little like being inside of a tea cozy. You can buy a cup of coffee--which seems to come out of a back closet. One kind only--straight, unflavored brewed coffee--but it's excellent.

CAMARILLO

The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf

4580 Calle Alto

484-7924

Located next to the corporate headquarters, they serve the same coffee drinks here as at their other outlets. This is a cute little coffee bar with a few tables inside and others outdoors on a plant-covered patio. It must be a welcome little haven for this light industrial area of Camarillo.

Coffee Etc. Unlimited

2277 Pickwick Drive

482-7679

Entering this spacious, well-filled shop, the smell of just-ground hazelnut-flavored coffee envelopes you like a warm welcome. They sell 64 kinds of coffee beans here--65 if you count Jamaican Blue Mountain, which can be specially ordered. They do their own roasting at their facility in Los Angeles and call themselves: "Camarillo's best-kept secret and we don't want to be." They possibly have more varieties of jams, jellies and vinegars than they do coffees, and the array of gifts and kitsch is quite stunning. Cappuccino ($2), served in plastic or Styrofoam, had a good flavor. The daily special--Colombia supremo--lived up to its reputation for sharp, lively acidity.

OXNARD

Mrs. Coffee

2741 S. Victoria Ave.

(Fisherman's Wharf)

985-6989

Located in a cutesy New England-style tourist attraction near the Maritime Museum, this tiny shop has a nice selection of coffee mugs, teas and teapots, charmingly displayed against a backdrop of window panes. They sell several dozen kinds of beans and make five kinds of coffee daily. The house blend was full-bodied and brisk. Cappuccino ($2.25) tasted somewhat like Turkish coffee.

OJAI

Espresso Bolla at the Herb Garden Cafe

109 N. Montgomery St.

646-3733

The caffeinated part of the Herb Garden, Espresso Bolla is reminiscent of a classic Italian-style cafe. In a lovely location behind Ojai's Arcade, you can sit out on a deck under heavenly trees. They make two specialty coffees a day, along with all sorts of espresso drinks, with good cappuccinos starting at $2. They also have croissants and desserts, beer and wine. You may even be tempted to stick around for the next meal; the food is very good.

Java Heaven

11584 Ventura Ave.

646-7433

When it first opened, Java Heaven shared space with a Southwestern art gallery, and it was a little like walking into a stranger's cluttered living room and asking them to make you a cup of coffee. They were always very gracious about it and still are, though the place now feels more spacious and spare. They have two kinds of daily coffee and make espresso drinks too, with just-OK cappuccinos starting at $2.05. Along with 38 kinds of beans they sell an assortment of candies, cards, candles and a small selection of natural cosmetics. A couple of tables and a tiny couch invite lingering. Out in front there's a tempting jigsaw puzzle just waiting for attention.

The Good Stuff

423 E. Ojai Ave.

640-8350

In a brand-new little strip mall that may herald the transformation of Ojai from quaint to chi chi, The Good Stuff has resided for only a few weeks. The merchandise reveals the tastes of an individual. Refrigerator magnets in the shapes of dog's heads, romantic horse statuettes and elaborate shell earrings are a few of the offerings. They have a case of chocolate truffles and a small selection of coffee beans. We ordered a cappuccino ($2.50). Our server pressed a button and lo and behold the whole thing came pouring out of a plastic looking machine. "That machine does it all?" we gasped. "For $2,200, it had better do it all," came the reply. "Here, let me squirt you some whipped cream." The drink tasted like incredibly sweet hot chocolate with hazelnut or "cream" flavoring or both. Such a shock.

Tottenham Court

242 E. Ojai Ave.

646-2339

Tottenham Court belongs to the indulge-your-fancies school of shops. They carry out this theme with a great deal of charm and colorful excess. If you can get through myriad gifts and goodies, you'll find not only coffees and teas here, but salads, sandwiches, pot pies and marvelous desserts. They prepare espresso drinks and their iced mocha ($3.50) is a specialty. We gravitated to the "Queen's own tea" and were not disappointed.

SANTA PAULA

The Whole Bean

320 E. Main St.

525-2912

Open since 1975, this is one of the oldest coffee stores in the county. Ornately framed romantic English landscapes by local artist Marty Bell adorn the walls of its appealingly cluttered space. Here we found the best selection of coffee mugs, as well as the only selection of collector's pins. They also have greeting cards, wine, jewelry, T-shirts and an adorable baby playing in a playpen by the cash register. They sell 72 kinds of coffee, most of them flavored. Help yourself to a complimentary cup of the coffee of the day. We tried vanilla nut cream; it was delicious. Alas, there's no cappuccino or espresso.

SIMI

The Vampyre Lounge Cafe

665 E. Los Angeles St.

526-3264

Just opened in September, this is Simi's first coffeehouse, a big spare space with a friendly, easy atmosphere. It ought to fill a void for people of all ages in the community. They made an outstanding cappuccino ($2) and even asked if we wanted it wet (foam and milk) or dry (foam only). A special of the day, "blood latte," consisted of a latte with equal doses of strawberry, cherry and berry syrups. In addition to live bands on the weekends, they have poetry night on Mondays and open mike on Tuesdays, and they stay open until 2 a.m. or later.

WESTLAKE/WESTLAKE VILLAGE

Gilbert's Coffee and Candies

2875 Agoura Road

374-9443

Like an old-time candy shop, this is a dangerous place. It's full of temptations like homemade fudge, saltwater taffy, jelly bellies and assorted chocolates all enticingly displayed. Halloween theme candy is very much in attendance. The place looks like an antique store, but the real antiques are all on the wall, not for sale. Along with antique reproductions, they have dolls and some jewelry. The one table sports a checker game ready to go. Gilbert's sells a selection of beans, offers three kinds of brewed coffees and makes an all right cappuccino, served in a Styrofoam cup. It came with a little cup of real chocolate chips. Of course, once you've had a few of these, all resistance to the rest of the candy goes out the window.

Starbuck's

2755 Agoura Road

379-2499

With 239 outlets and more opening all the time, Starbuck's is riding the crest of a boom in excellent specialty coffees. Or are they driving it? They market coffee beans, appliances and espresso drinks with dazzle and finesse. They claim they don't keep beans longer than a week, and they have temperature gauges built right into their foam containers. High-tech as the handmaiden of quality. This store has been open for just a few weeks. Their consistently delicious cappuccino is probably the best around.

AGOURA HILLS

Coffee Island

5015 Cornell Road

991-0124

In a spanking new shopping center off Kanan Road, Coffee Island is right next door to a store that sells and rents audio books, of all things. This is a nicely designed, chic and attractive place, with a good number of tables and a nice wicker couch and chairs. It has a long, tiled counter covered with appealing glass containers filled with biscotti, muffins and scones. Behind it sits the largest espresso machine we've ever seen. Cappuccino ($2.25) was excellent. They offer six kinds of daily coffees split among regular, decaf and iced. They also sell the beans and the home tools.

Lose the Blues

28888 Roadside Drive

(Whizzin's Center)

(818) 889-8009

The closest coffeehouse to L.A. and the highest priced cappuccino--$3. The price was surprising, because this is a somewhat funky place. A delicious homemade bowl of vegetable soup was actually cheaper and more satisfying than the cappuccino, which was somewhat disappointing. The decor and art are very '60s. Bookcases are full of books, couches and chairs are comfortable; I liked this place a lot.

DO IT YOURSELF

Start with the right ingredients:

* Coffee beans are quite volatile. Buy them as freshly roasted as possible and don't store them too long. They can be stored in the freezer but, once thawed out, don't refreeze them; keep them in the refrigerator. Store beans in glass or ceramic sealed containers. Remember, air is the enemy of coffee flavor.

* Start with cold water. If water has been chlorinated and tastes like it, use filtered or bottled water.

* Always use glass or ceramic pots when making coffee. Eliminate residuals that build up by soaking pots in a solution of baking soda and water. These residuals can affect the taste.

* Use two rounded tablespoons of ground coffee for every six ounces of water.

* For drip coffee, moisten the ground coffee first with a little hot water to allow the grains to swell and start releasing flavor.

* Heat milk before adding it to coffee.

Brewing Methods:

There are five basic ways to make coffee: boiling, percolating, filtering, steeping and steam extraction:

BOILING conjures up the image of coffee boiling away in a tin pot on an open fire. Neither the boiling nor the metal do much for the taste. Perhaps the memory of this method gave Americans the idea that if the coffee smells good, it doesn't matter how acrid it tastes.

PERCOLATING: The percolator method approaches boiling in its taste and flavor, but it's less gritty because the grounds are isolated in a sieved container above the water. Most big cup electric coffee makers still employ this method. You don't see it much on stove tops anymore.

FILTERING: The drip method is now the most widespread. It's quick and neat and you can make just one cup at a time. Some people prefer using a gold mesh filter, claiming that the paper traps too much of the coffee flavor.

STEEPING is a method that involves placing the coffee directly into just-boiled water in a French press or plunge pot and letting it sit. After the coffee steeps, a plunger in the device is depressed, forcing the coffee into the top of the container and trapping the grounds below. Many claim this is the ideal method for extracting the best flavor from coffee.

STEAM EXTRACTION is the way espresso machines operate, forcing hot water through the beans by pressure rather than gravity. You can buy small machines for the home, although mastering them can be trickier than learning to ride a bike.

TALKING THE TALK / A GLOSSARY

We sidled up to a tall, elegant blond in line at the new Starbucks in Westlake. She placed an order for a "tall skinny doppio." Her short, heavy-set companion asked for a "grande half-cap whip."

What was this? Here we're just getting to know our way around the vowels and consonants of these European coffee drinks, and to recognize the difference between a latte and a mocha, when they come up with this new lingo. It must be Seattle slang (Starbucks fist opened there).

A little investigation revealed that she wanted a medium-sized cappuccino made with a double order of espresso and skim milk. He had asked for a large cappuccino made with half decaffeinated coffee and whipped cream on top. Oddly enough, these two even looked like their coffee drinks.

For those who want to understand the basics, here is a glossary of specialty coffee drinks.

Espresso: The intense, full bodied coffee made by forcing steam through freshly ground beans in an espresso machine.

Cappuccino: Equal portions of espresso, steamed milk and foam. Wet or dry refers to the proportion of steamed milk to foam, with dry meaning just foam alone. A double cappuccino means twice as much of everything.

Latte: Espresso with lots of steamed milk and no more than a wisp of foam.

Americano: Coffee made with half espresso and half hot water.

Espresso macchiato: Espresso with just a dollop of foam.

Espresso con panna: Espresso with whipped cream.

Mocha: Espresso with chocolate syrup, steamed milk, whipped cream and shaved chocolate or cocoa powder on top.

LIFE & TIMES / WENDY MILLER By WENDY MILLER Los Angeles Times Thursday October 21, 1993 Ventura West Edition Ventura County Life Part J Page 2 Zones Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Column; Correction MEA CULPA DEPT: Our apologies to photographer Jerry Mennenga, who shot the giant coffee cup for last week's cover photo illustration. His name was inadvertently omitted from the list of photo credits.
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