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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