IT was bound to happen sooner or later; I suppose the only wonder is that it took so long. After dinner a couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me for a cup of coffee. And that's when I realized I had no earthly idea how to make one.
I'm 51 years old and I've been cooking seriously for more than 25 years. I've written two cookbooks. I can make fresh pasta fine as a silk scarf and a consomme that sparkles like a mountain stream. Yet I didn't know how to make a really good cup of coffee. (And judging from what I'm usually served in restaurants, I wasn't alone -- not that that's any excuse.)
It's not that I don't like the stuff. In fact, I'm something of a minor-league coffee geek, complete with a really good home espresso machine (Rancilio Silvia), top-quality grinder (Gaggia MDF) and a standing order at a local roaster (the Caffe d'Abruzzo blend from Supreme Bean in North Hollywood). I can talk tamp pressures and extraction times with most anyone.
But there's a difference between espresso and coffee, both in technique and aesthetic. Espresso is highly extracted and intensely flavored, intended to be consumed in two or three good slurps. Coffee is brewed more gently and meant for quaffing, the kind of drink you sit around with and sip over conversation.
And more and more of us are taking that sipping seriously. Though American coffee consumption overall has been in steady decline for the last 30 years, we're certainly drinking better coffee. The number of so-called gourmet coffeehouses increased from 500 in 1996 to 8,500 in 2001.
So, I figured, how hard can it be to make a great pot of coffee? Rooting around in my pantry, I found an old French press machine, and I thought I could improvise. And that's when the depth of my ignorance really hit me: What kind of beans should I use? Will the same ones I use for espresso be OK? Where do the best beans come from? And what about the "roast" anyway? How much coffee for the pot? How finely ground? How much water? How long do I let it steep before pressing?
So many questions, and judging from the amount of coffee left in my guest's cup, I got the answers to all of them wrong. After more than 20 years of espressos, whatever coffee-making skills I'd once had were long gone, vanished from my memory like the lyrics to a George Michael song.
But while forgetting "Careless Whisper" may be a blessing, I realized there was no way I could go any longer without being able to make a really good cup of coffee.
When stripped to its barest essentials, brewing a good cup of coffee is pretty simple. There are really only three variables -- the beans, how they're ground and how the liquid coffee is extracted from them. But as with all simple things, every step must be done correctly. Any misstep is immediately obvious.
Begin with the beans
MY first stop was my local coffee roaster, where they have a pretty good selection of beans roasted on the premises.
The beans are at once the most complex part of the equation and the easiest to solve. At first glance, the choice seems bewildering. Walk into any moderately stocked coffee bean purveyor these days and you'll find more than a dozen choices spanning two or three continents and a range of roasts.
Coffee beans, like wine grapes, reflect the climate and farming culture of the places they are grown. And because coffee is grown in almost every tropical area -- Africa, Indonesia, South and Central America, the Caribbean and even Hawaii -- there is a seemingly endless list of place names.
Indeed, much of the romance of coffee is in the parade of exotic locales and comes with exploring their diverse products. Sumatran coffee is complex and medium-bodied; Ethiopian Harrar is wild and fruity; Brazil's Bourbon Santos is light and bright.
Unlike wine, though, where a handful of place names have become hallowed ground, recognized as producing the very best of the best, there really is no such sure distinction in coffee. Indeed, the quality and freshness of the roast will almost always trump provenance. A well-handled Colombian may be short on mystique, but it will probably make a better cup than the most hallowed estate-grown Jamaica Blue Mountain that was sloppily roasted or has been sitting around for several weeks.
And then there are the blends. Many names you'll find on coffee beans won't reflect a place at all -- or at least not one that grows coffee (my Caffe d'Abruzzo beans are a prime example). These are combinations put together using beans from various areas that when ground together emphasize the strong points of each and minimize the weaknesses. To extend the wine analogy, these are like Bordeaux blended from a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, rather than a California Cabernet Sauvignon made from the pure essence of one grape variety.
When constructed by a good roaster, these blends can be among the best coffees you'll ever taste. But choosing one can be confusing, since each shop is free to name its blends whatever it feels like. One place's "Caffe Roma" can be made from the same beans as another's "Morning Sonata." On the other hand, it's a pretty sure bet that no two "Breakfast Blends" will be exactly alike.
There are different degrees of roasting as well. The darker the roast, the more earthy and chocolate flavors will be in the coffee -- up to a point. Particularly when you're talking about the very dark roasts that are popular these days, the overpowering flavor is charcoal. Whether these roasts are popular because people prefer milky drinks such as cappuccino, or whether people prefer milky drinks because the roasts are so dark is hard to say. One thing's for sure -- extremely dark roasts are not intended to be drunk straight.
Stay away from those very dark roasts called Italian or French. Because this heavy roasting brings the coffee's oils to the surface, avoid beans that are very shiny or appear to be covered with oil. Choosing a lighter-colored roast -- even if it's called "dark roast" or "espresso roast" -- will reveal the nuances of flavor in a good bean.
If all of this sounds impossible to master, relax. The good news is: You don't have to.
Choosing a coffee bean can be remarkably easy. Find a local specialty coffee bean purveyor -- preferably one that roasts on site. Word of mouth is probably the best way, though generally most any place that roasts its own coffee will be better than any place that doesn't.
Chat up the salesperson and tell them what you're looking for in flavor and body. They'll probably have one or two varieties already brewed that you can sample. Buy a quarter pound each of the three or four top candidates they recommend. In less than 10 minutes and for less than $20, you will be well on your way to having chosen your house coffee.
In my case, since I wasn't sure what I was looking for, I picked up samples of two coffees from opposite ends of the flavor spectrum: a winey Kenya "AA" and a full-bodied, earthy Java, both medium roasts.
When you're tasting a coffee to decide whether it's worth committing to, sample it straight -- no sugar or milk. Look for a coffee that is aromatic, balanced and smooth in body, with a pleasant finish. It may well be a bit sour, but it should be a fruity sour, like lemons, rather than bitter, like charcoal.
It may take a few samplings to find the one bean that is perfect for you, but you'll know it when you taste it.
Don't buy too much. Coffee goes stale when left to sit around. What I do is buy several half-pound bags and then store them in the freezer. That way, I limit the amount of time the coffee is left at room temperature. Freezing beans is the subject of heated debate among coffee geeks, but my experience of more than a decade is that it works well as long as they're not left more than a month or so.
The all-important grinder
ONCE you've bought the beans, you're going to need to grind them. Don't let the store do it, unless you live right next door and don't mind running over whenever you want a cup. Coffee beans lose their flavor very quickly once they are ground. Within even just a couple of hours, you'll notice a difference in taste, to say nothing of the several days it will take you to go through a whole bag of pre-ground coffee.
That's why the most vital piece of equipment any coffee lover can have is not the coffee maker itself, but the coffee grinder. A good grinder will crush the beans evenly so the pieces are of a fairly uniform size. It will also offer some flexibility as to the size of the grind.
That eliminates those little $15 blade grinders you see at the grocery store. Not only are they impossible to control, they grind unevenly -- you'll wind up with everything from gravel to dust in the same batch. And they heat up the beans while they're grinding them, which alters the flavor.
You can spend several hundred dollars for a great coffee grinder, and that might be worthwhile if you're thinking about getting into espresso (which, because it must be very finely ground is even more particular). But for brewed coffee, you can do just as well with a decent burr grinder (one that grinds the beans by crushing them between metal plates) for around $50.
That may sound expensive, but the grinder should be your biggest investment. The coffee maker itself can be pretty cheap. Though you can get them with all kinds of automatic bells and whistles, essentially almost all coffee makers work the same: Hot water is poured over ground beans and left to steep. Then the resulting liquid is filtered clear.
Strip the process to its essentials and you wind up with something like a Melitta or Chemex coffee maker -- nothing more than a carafe and a cone. Line the cone with a filter (paper, cloth and metal all have their proponents). Fill the cone with coffee. Pour hot water over the coffee and let it dribble into the pot. The coffee infuses and is strained at the same time. Most automatic coffee makers work exactly the same way -- they just heat the water for you (and maybe grind the beans and sing you a little wake-up song as well).
The other popular style of coffee maker is the French press. These work a little differently than drip, but only in that rather than letting the coffee strain itself through a filter, you push the filter down through the coffee.
This gives French press makers a slight advantage over drip in that you have more control over how long the coffee steeps. With drip makers, if you grind the beans too coarsely, the coffee will flow through too quickly and there's nothing you can do to avoid watery coffee.
Drip or press? You decide
SINCE I had a French press, I picked up a drip coffee maker to experiment with. I'm not ashamed to say I chose the Chemex because of the way it looked -- like it was designed by a chemist who dabbled in Danish Modern furniture. It's essentially an Erlenmeyer flask with a blond wood collar. No wonder it's in New York City's Museum of Modern Art.
To see if there was a difference in the way the two systems brewed coffee, I ground some of each type of bean to the appropriate fineness.
The French press uses a coarser filter and so requires a coarser grind to avoid sludge in the bottom of your cup. The way my grinder is set up, espresso is a "3" (moving to "2" after the beans have been out a couple of days). Filter coffee is a "6" and French roast an "8."
For either system, it takes a little less than three tablespoons of whole beans to make a little more than two tablespoons of ground, which is enough for 8 ounces of hot water.
The water should be very hot, but not boiling -- coffee brews best between 190 and 200 degrees. If you bring the water to boil, then remove it from the heat while you grind the beans, the temperature should be about right. This is one place where automatic coffee makers often fall down -- they either fail to get the water hot enough or scorch it on the hot warmer.
For the drip system, simply put the filter in the holder on top of the carafe, add the ground coffee and pour the hot water over the top. The coffee is done when it has finished trickling through.
For the French press, put the coffee in the bottom of the carafe, then pour the boiling water over the top. Let it steep 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 minutes. (I find you get fuller flavor at the higher end of that range.) Then press down on the plunger to strain the grounds to the bottom.
With either system, give the grounds a stir after 20 to 30 seconds to make sure they are all evenly moistened; a chopstick works perfectly.
There were definite differences between the beans. The Kenya "AA" was fruity and light-bodied; the Java had a distinct flavor of chocolate and cherries and a creamier texture.
And there were definite differences between the two methods. The drip coffees emphasized "top notes": They were lighter in body, fruitier and more aromatic. (Connoisseurs debate the finer points of paper, metal or cloth filters -- metal is supposed to give a fuller body, paper is supposed to give a cleaner flavor -- I have to confess I've never been able to tell a difference.) The press coffees were fuller and rounder with flavors that tended more toward earth and dark chocolate.
All were delicious. Which method -- and which bean -- you prefer will depend on what you want out of a great cup of coffee.
As for myself, I'm just glad I finally figured out how to make one.
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Superb brews from gorgeous beans
UNTIL you sit down and taste them side by side, it's hard to believe how wide a range of flavors it is possible to find in coffee. The Times Tasting Panel met last week to taste some highly regarded coffees, including single-origin beans and blends, from local and national roasters. Joining me on the panel were restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, staff writer Amy Scattergood, food editor Leslie Brenner, test kitchen director Donna Deane and Heidi Rasmussen, quality assurance manager for Illy Caffe North America. Coffees are listed in alphabetical order.
Amante "Amalfi Dark Roast." Intense, inviting chocolate and licorice aromas; light body with sweet nutty flavors, slightly earthy; short lemony finish. Available from www.amantecoffee.com; $12.95 per pound.
Antigua Coffee House "Guatemala Antigua Medium Roast." Deep aromas of dried sour cherries and chocolate; medium body with chocolate and earth flavors; spicy, slightly grassy finish. 4836 Huntington Drive S., Los Angeles; (323) 539-2233 or www.antiguacoffeehouse.com; $11 per pound.
Coffee Klatch "Ethiopian Hache." Sweet and fruity aroma with some blueberry notes; medium body with bright citrus flavor and hint of caramel; bright lemony finish. Very nice, well-balanced coffee. Available at various Coffee Klatch locations and www.klatchroasting.com; $12.95 per pound.
Groundwork "Panama Esmerelda Especial." Intensely attractive aroma of pure blueberry essence with a touch of mango; light body with sweet blueberry flavor, very little traditional coffee flavor. Unconventional, expensive coffee from a special auction selection. Available at various Groundwork locations or lacoffee.com; $150 per pound.
Intelligentsia Coffee "Berkeley's Blend." Deep aromas of hazelnuts and caramel; medium body with tart, lively flavors and a slight earthiness; a little balancing bitterness in the finish. Available at www.intelligentsiacoffee.com; $11.95 per pound.
Jones Coffee Roasters "Ethiopian Yrga Cheffe." Very pretty floral, citrusy nose; medium body with lively acidity and caramel flavors; slight balancing bitterness in the finish. An assertive, well-balanced coffee. 537 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena; (626) 564-9291 or www.thebestcoffee.com; $12 per pound.
Kean Coffee "Guatemalan Maya Ixill Co-op." Citrus and cinnamon aromas; light body with an almost overwhelmingly lemony flavor; short lemony finish. 2043 Westcliff Drive, Suite 100, Newport Beach; (949) 642-5326 or www.keancoffee.com; $13.25 per pound.
-- Russ Parsons