The Quest for the Perfect Cup of Coffee

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It
seems that there's good news and bad news about coffee. And then
good news. And then some more bad news. People who read health
newsletters
, as I do, don't know which message to believe: "Lots
of anti-oxidants." "Caffeine raises cortisol levels."
"May prevent cancer." "May cause cancer." "May
prevent Type II diabetes." "One of the most-sprayed plants
on earth."

I've tried
quitting a time or two. I like tea…especially when I haven't made
the coffee myself. It seems that it's far easier to ruin coffee
than tea, and even cheap Lipton's in a bag is better than coffee
from a machine that gets cleaned once a decade.

And I've also
tried Teeccino, a non-coffee
coffee-replacement made from roasted grains, nuts, herbs and fruits.
Although it doesn't really taste like coffee, it has many of the
qualities of coffee, and is a good drink in itself.

But there's
still something missing. The caffeine seems to give something
— a taste or a mouth feel — that is just missing in Teeccino. I
can't really describe it. (At this point my brother snidely remarks:
"There's a word for it: addiction.")

Nothing seems
to replace coffee. Bad coffee may be worse than tea, but good coffee
can be much better than tea. It's a much more subtle, layered flavor,
fully comparable in complexity to a good wine or liqueur.

Back to the
health issue. I finally decided on a compromise. I wasn't going
to give it up, but I would hold myself to one cup of coffee per
day. (And seek out unsprayed organic coffee.) But if I was going
to limit myself in this way, I decided, I was going to make that
one cup per day the best cup of coffee it could possibly
be.

To make great
coffee, I've found, you need four things:

  1. Quality
    coffee
  2. Fresh coffee
  3. Immaculately
    clean coffee-brewing utensils
  4. Pure water

I
had found good coffee at Starbucks, and better coffee at CoffeeFool.com.
But even though CoffeeFool.com talks about freshness, and indeed,
is fresher than anything you'll find in the stores, anything
that involves shipping and then storing more than a few days worth
of coffee beans or grounds can't be truly fresh.

The quest for
the perfect cup of coffee has led me to home
roasting
, a process that isn't nearly as complex or difficult
as I thought it might be. In fact, the thing that hooked me was
learning that I could produce extremely good results with a $15
tool — a hot-air popcorn popper. You can get more bells and whistles
if you want to shell out $300+, but it's really not necessary. A
$15 popcorn popper – $2 at a garage sale — can produce excellent,
consistent results. (Note: Not all hot-air poppers are appropriate.
The wrong kind will ignite the coffee bean chaff. See this
link
for the difference. The one I had on my shelf for years
was not appropriate, but the first one I found at Target was.)

The
two major benefits to home roasting are cost and freshness. Green
coffee beans are marginally less expensive than pre-roasted beans.
However, the real savings comes from the fact that you only roast
enough for a few days at a time. Since green coffee beans don't
go stale — indeed, many varieties are aged to improve their flavor
— you will never have waste. The "staleness clock" doesn't
begin until four hours after the roasting is done, when it achieves
its peak. It can then be kept for up to a week before it's no longer
fresh. Store it in an airtight glass jar, although you shouldn't
seal it up tight for 12 hours after roasting, to allow it to finish
venting CO2. Store it out of direct light, not in the fridge
or freezer.

After
the roasting comes the grinding. Since I was consciously becoming
a coffee fetishist, I decided I needed a good grinder, so I went
on eBay and found two that I liked, both hand-powered. I like the
retro feel of grinding my own coffee by hand, just enough for one
cup. The real connoisseurs say the burr type is superior to the
chopper kind, but it's unlikely you'll be able to tell any difference.
The Bodum C-Mill, a cheap and reliable chopper, comes highly recommended
by Sweet Maria's, my source
for green coffee beans.

Last but not
least, there's the brewing. There are more methods and devices for
brewing coffee than you can imagine. I've come to really dislike
the automatic machines, mainly for how difficult they are to clean.
It seems every one has a sharp edge or a crevice where burnt coffee
oils can hide, polluting the next pot of coffee. For years now I've
used the simplest method imaginable: boil water in a pan, bring
it off the boil, stir in coffee, pour through a filter into my cup.
There's nowhere for burnt oils to hide.

I
figure, though, that since I'm trying to find the perfect cup of
coffee, I should branch out. I've already tried French presses before,
and while they produce good results, I found them annoying to clean.
Instead, I land on two that are new and slightly outlandish. The
first is the AeroPress.
It shares some characteristics with a French press, but instead
of a built-in screen, it uses a small disk of filter paper. Solid
and well-built, it may be the easiest system to clean ever. The
only thing I don't like about it is that it's all plastic. Had I
been building it, I'd have made it out of thick-walled Pyrex.

The second
is a vintage vacuum siphon coffee pot made by Silex that I found
on eBay. I just had to get it for the "cool" factor. It
is two glass pots which sit on top of each other. The water goes
in the bottom, the grounds in the top. The bottom is heated to boiling,
and the water is siphoned up into the top pot, where it brews. Take
it off the heat, and the water is drawn back down to the bottom
pot, from where it is then served. Besides being a neat show, it's
supposed to produce superior coffee. I also like the fact that everything,
including the "filter," is glass. I suspect it's going
to be a pain to clean, though.

5:40pm,
Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

UPS delivered
my first shipment of green coffee beans from Sweet Maria's a couple
of hours ago. "Brazil Organic Camocim — Pure Bourbon"
the label says. "City+ to Full City." Roasting terms which
I will eventually learn. "Lively cup with sage and jasmine
floral notes, malty sweetness, graham cracker, orange hint."
Fer crying out loud…these guys are as bad as the wine snobs!

I take a whiff.
Very earthy, and nothing like coffee. They are a light yellow-green
color, with hints of a brownish husk which I expect is going to
come off. A taste reveals almost nothing…the green beans are nearly
flavorless.

I
grab the beans, my brand-new popper, and a couple of bowls, and
carry it all out to the woodshop. Smoke shouldn't be a problem here.
I measure the beans out with the popcorn scoop, just as if I was
making popcorn, and plug it in. Almost immediately the chaff starts
to come out. At first, the beans are moving but not jumping much.
As time goes on, they are jumping higher and higher, some of them
jumping right out of the popper. Getting lighter, maybe, with the
moisture leaving?

Less than a
minute into the roast, and I can see the beans darkening. They continue
to darken for about five more minutes. Cracks are sounding constantly,
and the beans are jumping almost like popcorn. Finally, I chicken
out and stop the process…don't want to overdo it, and there's definitely
smoke.

Pouring the
beans from bowl to bowl in front of a fan both cools the beans and
winnows the remainder of the chaff. I carry them back into the house,
and spread them out on a plate to finish cooling. The plate just
happens to be beneath a fan which is blowing on me at my desk. Now
that smells like coffee! I can't wait for morning.

7:55am,
Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

I expected
the roasting process to smell great, but it was really just smoky.
However, as the evening progressed, the smell rising from my plate
of roasted beans got better and better. This morning, the aroma
filled the whole house with a wonderful tang.

My grinders
haven't arrived yet, so I grind the coffee in my granite mortar
and pestle. It doesn't create the finest ground imaginable, but
it should be fine for the first time. I pour a scoop into the top
of my Aeropress, having already added a filter disk and tightened
the bottom. I pour 2/3 of a cup of water just off the boil into
the press, and wait 10 seconds, then stir the grounds for an additional
10 seconds. The plunger goes in next, pressing the coffee out through
the filter disk into my mug.

I've been gently
heating some raw milk on the back burner in my Tiamo milk frother.
Twenty quick cycles of the plunger creates thick foamy milk which
is poured over the coffee in my mug. The moment is finally at hand.
I lift the frothy cup to my mouth, and take a sip…

The perfect
cup of coffee.

June
14, 2007

Joel Gehman
[send him mail] works in
the HR software industry from his living room…or the nearest Starbucks.

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