What I don’t know about coffee could apparently fill a small encyclopedia. That is not particularly surprising. Like most people, I did realize there are many types of coffee beans from all over the tropical world and each has its own unique and subtle qualities. But I couldn’t have told you which kind had which qualities. For me, coffee came from 7-Eleven or Starbucks. And I don’t like either of those. I mainly brew my own coffee at home in my french press. But that doesn’t resolve the fact that I hardly know one bean from the other. I take that back . . .there’s decaf and regular, conventional and organic.
For decades coffee has been described like fine wine. It has “hints,” “tones,” “notes” and “characteristics.” This is where I get lost. I see coffee from Ethiopia (where it is said coffee was first discovered), Guatemala, Vietnam and of course–as the coffee ads from my childhood taught me–Columbia. I still have no idea what I like or dislike about these. I just want my coffee to taste smooth and have a good flavor.
Then I went with my family to have coffee and decided to write this post about it and the door to coffee cuisine finally cracked open for me. For instance, I’m often drawn to a description of coffee that says it has notes of chocolate. I like chocolate! Mocha Java sounds good to me! But I never quite seem to detect the note of chocolate in the coffee as I sip it.
Hmmm. I started searching for descriptions of coffee flavors and found out that coffee has two main categories of descriptors–flavor and aroma. So far so good. Then I saw the Coffee Flavor Wheel published by coffeeandhealth.org and what do you know?. Chocolate is an aroma, not a flavor! I should have been sniffing while sipping!
I kept looking around and found that many coffee “experts” have this thing about chocolate mixed up. In fact, this coffee wheel explains a lot and has many coffee flavor descriptions I’ve seen. I felt much more at ease with this when I saw the flavors were based on the basic flavors salt, bitter, sweet and sour that I’ve known for years and have used as a guide to the qualities and benefits of foods in teaching cooking .
There is truly an entire universe of coffee connoisseurs, coffee associations, coffee research and coffee roasting and coffee brewing methods. Online there is everything from Consumer Reports explaining the most basic information about coffee including a handy glossary, to Coffee and Health (the flavor wheel people) who are devoted to scientific research about coffee and health. You can even earn a certificate from the Specialty Coffee Association, a non-profit boasting a global membership devoted to every aspect of expanding a sustainable, equitable specialty coffee industry.
Coffee has it all! It’s gourmet, it’s art, it’s got global social influence and it’s a science.
Brewing coffee isn’t a matter of choosing percolated, electric drip or french press. It isn’t only a high-tech machine to make your lattes. Some brewing looks like a chemistry experiment!
Case in point, Michael Thomas Coffee Roasters in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I visited there with my family from out of town recently. Have a look at this coffee maker!
The Michael Thomas barristas take their coffee very seriously. Their slow bar selection is outstanding and the results are the best tasting and smoothest coffee I’ve ever had. What is a slow bar? It is slow. The barristas take their time weighing and measuring beans for your cup, grinding your beans, brewing your individual cup of coffee and educating you about the coffee if you desire it. Slow bar has been a trend for several years.
And that brings me to something else I’ve learned about the coffee industry called “the third wave,” an American term coined in 1999. The third wave refers to a movement that started in the ’90’s to produce very high quality coffee with attention to every aspect from growing, harvesting, importing, roasting and brewing. The third wave made coffee an artisanal creation rather than just a commodity. Coffee made it into the ranks of wine, beer and chocolate. And like microbrewing which is a huge trend, there is microroasting where places like Michael Thomas import their own beans and roast them on the premises and deliver not only freshly brewed, but freshly roasted coffee one cup at a time.
And what of waves one and two? The first wave was probably the chain of events starting in the late 19th century that eventually brought canned, ground coffee into the grocery store branded Maxwell House or Folgers. The second wave developed in the ’60’s with Peet’s and then that first coffee shop in Seattle where you could order something called a latte. You could go to a coffee cafe and get Italian coffee instead of making your regular brand at home in your percolator. Soon your coffee stopped being served by the cup and now you had a choice of tall, grande and venti.
Today a fourth wave in the coffee industry is emerging. The focus is on production and the people involved. It encompasses concern for the economic and environmental stabilization of coffee producing countries and the people who farm coffee there and understanding the social responsibilities of developing the industry.
An example is the term “Fair Trade Certified” coffee that I see in stores and coffee shops. Consumer Reports tells us Fair Trade Certified means that the product was given a thumbs up by “a non-profit international organization that advocates sustainable production and fair prices for farmers. TransFair USA, the certifying organization, also works for safe working conditions (and no forced child labor), limits the use of harmful pesticides, and supports credit plans and training for farm workers.”
As American as a Cup of Joe is, the big business of specialty coffee certainly relies on a global community of coffee growers and how we continue to develop our relationship with them in a sustainable and meaningful way.
That makes your next cup of specialty coffee even more special.