by Nicholas Thompson
Sound simple? It sure can be. But I'm willing to bet that most of you still need to be shown what bad coffee looks like before you can identify the good stuff.
I've been in the coffee industry for quite some time, and I'm not one of those baristas who holds his hard-earned coffee knowledge close to the chest. A lot of the time, I hear these folks referred to as "snobs," but I generally try to avoid that word. Most of the time, they're just burnt-out baristas, my brothers-in-arms too broken down by years of double-shifts and crazy bosses to spread the gospel of good coffee. I'm sure you've come across some of these poor baristas in your favorite cafe: the dude with sunken eyes and beanie who smirks when you order espresso in a to-go cup. Or the tattooed college grad who snaps back when you ask to modify an order. These guys mean no disrespect. But too often they have looked on in horror as their handcrafted beverages are ravaged at the condiment counter: a delicate cup of Ethiopian coffee one instant, a cream-and-sugar-freighted abomination the next. All they really want is for you to be aware of a few key facts about the stuff they prepare for you. Ironically, these guys are sometimes the least likely to offer them up. That's where I come in, if you don't mind.
Any self-respecting barista should be concerned primarily with quality. It's the cornerstone of the industry. Each shift is a battle against inferior drinks and inferior product. But if there is one notion, one overarching fallacy about coffee that the consumer must come to understand, it is that dark roast coffee is not only bad, but it is disrespectful.
Yep. Dark roast is terrible in more ways than one. Sorry folks. Your oily, burnt French and Italian roasts are the antithesis of what today's coffee should be. It's not your fault that you've been told to enjoy this stuff for so long. The Big Guys, in the early 2000's (and well before, in fact), redefined the cafe scene by utilizing this greasy roasting profile for a couple of reasons. For one, coffee roasted darker and longer is easier to produce consistently on a mass scale. Plus, roasting it for as long as they do reduces its mass. That makes it cheaper to ship all over the world.
Because coffee is a sensitive, fragile plant, a good farm devotes an unspeakable amount of manpower and resources in order to produce a quality lot. Farmers must pay specialized processing facilities to prepare the raw fruit before it even leaves the country of origin. Superior quality Arabica strain only grows at higher altitudes, so often times these hand-picked cherry are hauled down the sides of mountains upon the backs of mules and the heads of laborers. We as baristas, roasters and consumers must honor that. It is the very least we can do. When these valuable beans are roasted into dark, smokey blends, we begin to lose sight of how this product is supposed to taste -- what it is supposed to be in the first place.
By the time the coffee reaches the shores of the United States (or elsewhere, certainly) an importing company has already bought and sold the beans to a roasting company. And at this point, things can go horribly wrong, very quickly. For example, these precious, expensive little beans may be ruined straight away if they are not stored in a dry, climate-controlled facility. Worse, they could end up in a batch of dark roast somewhere. All of that effort spent preserving the integrity of the coffee can be erased in a matter of seconds.
There are dozens of amazing micro-roasters across the United States these days. Many of them offer online ordering, and can deliver coffee to your door within 48 hours of its roast time. Look for an organization with a dedicated "green buyer," a person whose job it is to travel the equator and build relationships with the farmers from whom they buy. These companies generally won't even offer anything like French roast coffee; they know too much about where the product is from and how far it has traveled. In short, they respect it too much to roast it poorly.
Obviously, not all coffee companies decide to spend the necessary effort to ensure quality. Macro-roasting companies, ones even bulkier than the aforementioned Big Guys and who dominate the grocery store aisles, roast millions of pounds per year. They know that their costumers won't (can't?) demand a higher quality bean, so they are more likely to blend the pricy Arabica with lower-quality robusta coffee. They buy just about anything. They grind it up and put a "best if used by" date on the container. Ouch.
Henceforth, dear reader, you shall seek bags of whole-bean coffee upon which the following pieces of information are readily available: where the product was grown, when it was harvested, and most importantly, when it was roasted. Fresh drip coffee, the stuff you may use in your press pot or Cuisanart coffee machine, should be no more than a week "off roast." Once you grind up a coffee bean, its volatile oils and aromas will begin to dissipate immediately. And so after even a few minutes, ground coffee is compromised beyond recognition. That is why, along with your first bag of Good Coffee, you shall invest in a quality burr grinder for your kitchen. Your days of purchasing pre-ground coffee are over.
You're going to want to give that Mr. Coffee a really solid cleaning, while you're at it. A great bag of fresh coffee can come out tasting like mud and sticks if you've used a coffee machine layered in months of cooked-on, French-roasty oils. And I'm confident that after a few bags of Good Coffee, you'll be posting your auto-drip machine in the "free" listings on Cragslist. Soon, you may buy yourself some snazzy manual-brewing equipment in order to fully harness the awesome flavor of your new favorite beans.
You are alive during a time when the demand for superior coffee is at an all-time high, and its supply is at an all time low. Remember, the best coffee in the world grows around the equator, at altitudes of more than 5,000 feet. Climate change has already damaged these ecosystemsbeyond repair; there will never be as much coffee in the world as there is today. While the cafe scene teeters on the brink of mainstream, a veritable gold-rush of information threatens to inundate the consuming populace. Suddenly, everyone wants to be a barista. Suddenly, everyone wants access to coffee know-how. By all means, go out and seek answers to your questions. But first and foremost, you must discover your source for bags of fresh, lightly roasted coffee.
Buy whole beans in a heat-sealed bag. This is your new mantra. This is The Way.
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