Third Course: It’s National Coffee Day!
I’m feeling particularly thankful this week. Last weekend I got to celebrate with my brother-in-law and his new fiancée as they got engaged. Tuesday I turned 31 and got sweet notes, calls and texts from so many family members and friends. Wednesday I had dinner with my best friend, tomorrow we have tickets to the Red Sox game, and Saturday we are both seeing family that lives abroad and celebrating the marriage of two very dear friends. That, my friends, is a wonderful week.
31 makes me feel like I should be a full-fledged adult, which I categorically do not think I am. But I do feel like I’m growing up a bit and getting to enjoy the benefits of being able to confidently identify what’s not important in this life: social status, being on someone’s 40-under-40 list, weight, junk food; and what is: family, good friends, good wine, good food, good sleep, and good coffee.
And, speaking of coffee, today is… drumroll please… National Coffee Day. Yes, National Coffee Day is a real day, and it is beautiful.
I’ve been drinking coffee pretty much every day since I was a teenager. (Yes, I know I’m addicted. No, it did not stunt my growth.) I have five (yes, five) methods of brewing coffee (drip, pour over, percolator, French press and an espresso maker) and I can count on my fingers the number of days I’ve gone without it in the last decade. I am not ashamed of that fact for several reasons. First, as far as vices go, this is not a bad one. Second, coffee is delicious. And third, there is nothing better than my morning coffee ritual. It’s the few minutes I take for myself every day to wake up, get mentally prepared for whatever I have coming my way, and catch up on the news.
And I know I’m not the only person who feels like that. According to a Gallup poll from 2015, about 2/3 of American adults drinks coffee every day. That makes it pretty much the most popular beverage in the US other than water. So, in honor of National Coffee Day and my brand new home roaster (Thanks Greg!) I’m diving into all things coffee.
[Just for fun, here’s my new coffee roaster!]
Coffee (a derivative of the Yemeni word “qahwah “) wasn’t always as popular as it is now. In fact, back when we still citizens of the fine British Empire, coffee was but a blip on our caffeinated brains. Tea was the drug and drink of choice for the American colonists, right up until we dumped it into Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. It’s also, notably, not originally a New World drink. Fermented (alcoholic) drinks using coffee beans date back as far as 1000 AD in Ethiopia. (Humans are so ingenious when it comes to developing ways to get drunk.)
The modern cup of coffee first showed up in Arabian records during the 13th century, where it was used to keep people awake during long prayer sessions. It is thought that coffee was known only in Africa and the Middle East until it was brought to Europe in the 1600s, either by traders or slaves, depending on what source you read.
Once it hit Europe, coffee houses started to pop up all over and became centers of public discourse. But they were not ubiquitous and tea was still more common thanks in large part to the marketing and import efforts of the British East India Company (which specialized in Indian tea – obviously.)
Across the Atlantic, the first American coffee plants were cultivated in in the West Indies by either the French or the Dutch, but the most popular story indicates that credit can be given to a Frenchman in the colony of Martinique. On the backs of slave labor M. de Clieu supposedly grew a collection of small seedlings from the French Royal garden into a farm of some 19 million coffee trees. Hold on to that fact for a just a minute – it becomes critical to the spread of coffee consumption in the US.
By the early 1770s, the East India Company was having financial struggles. Very importantly, many British merchants and aristocrats held significant financial stakes in the Company and took this potential financial hit badly. As a result, the British Parliament granted the Company a full monopoly on tea sales in the American colonies on May 10, 1773, thus driving the cost of tea up both by owning the supply chain, and also by applying a sales tax that fell under the much-maligned Townsend Acts.
American colonists, already unhappy with the taxation they faced without representation in the British Parliament, took this poorly and on December 16, 1773 a small group of white Bostonians dressed as people belonging to the Mohawk tribe (known as the Sons of Liberty) raided the docks and dumped 340 chests – more than 92,000 pounds – of Company tea into Boston Harbor. This act of dissidence is now known as the Boston Tea Party. At the very least, you probably read about it in your eighth grade social studies textbook.
To drive their point home to King George and the Parliament, the colonists took things one step further and boycotted all tea imports and began the permanent switch to coffee as the hot beverage of choice which was – circling back here – made possible by the proliferation of coffee plants by the French, our allies, in the Caribbean.
From there, coffee drinking exploded around the United States. It became a staple during the Revolution, was commercialized and scaled by James Folger during the Gold Rush, was used to keep troops energized during the Civil War, and was included in the ration kits of American soldiers during World War II.
By the time the baby boom was underway, coffee had become an omnipresent part of the American culinary identity.
There isn’t much in the way of policy related to coffee (other than the aforementioned Tea Act), but I will briefly touch on Fair Trade, a phrase often thrown around in connection with coffee imports.
Fair Trade is defined as, “Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers.”
Coffee marked as Fair Trade has been certified by one of several international organizations indicating that it has met the following standards:
- That the producer provides opportunities for disadvantaged producers;
- That the producer meets transparency and accountability standards;
- That the producer meets fair trade practice standards;
- That workers are getting paid a fair wage;
- That no forced or child labor is used in production;
- That producers do not participate in discrimination of any kind;
- That workers are given good working conditions;
- That the company can build capacity;
- That the producer promotes fair trade practices; and
- That the producer respects the environment.
There are, of course, plenty of criticisms of the Fair Trade certification, chiefly that the extra money that consumers pay for Fair Trade items does not necessarily reach farmers and producers in poor communities. There is some validity to that argument and several different studies show mixed results.
Fair Trade certifications, though not a catchall, are but one marker that consumers can look for to ensure that they are getting ethically raised food. (A very long discussion that I will save for another time.)
Like many things, coffee probably means something different to each of us and so to try and define it as a singularity would be darn near impossible. It’s also had many different moments over the last two millennia. But I want to focus on the somewhat recent shift towards good, high quality coffee roasting and brewing.
Before I start, a quick note. This part of the blog is entirely unsponsored. I’m writing in reference to my personal favorite coffee but I think that much of the content could apply to any number of high quality coffee bean companies.
To learn more about what makes coffee “good” I spoke with Marty Souza, the Customer Support Rep at Counter Culture Coffee’s Boston Training Center. I first learned about Counter Culture when we went down to North Carolina to visit after Greg was accepted to Duke. We were dragging in between events and stopped at this sweet little coffee shop/kitchen goods store where I had the best cup of coffee I’d ever had. It was tremendously “coffee-y” and did not taste at all like the burnt, over-processed stuff you get out most places. I was hooked and for good reason: Counter Culture is routinely ranked as one of the best coffee roasters in the US.
I bought Counter Culture exclusively down in Durham, where they are headquartered, because it’s always fresh and accessible. Sadly, it’s not all that readily available here in Boston and where we can find it, it’s cost prohibitive as a regular purchase. But, the quest continues and I’m hoping that changes soon.
Selecting Beans: One of the things I was most interested in learning from Marty was about the difference between good beans and not-so-good beans and the criteria that Counter Culture uses for selecting what beans they’re going to buy. Not surprisingly, their buyers look for several things, particularly focusing on these three criteria:
First, they are obviously looking for taste. Much like sommeliers, coffee buyers have tasted thousands of coffees and know what is best representative of the terroir: The environment, soil, and climate in which the beans are grown. They are also familiar with the correct balance of acidity and sweetness that a bean has, and the depth of flavor.
Next, they are looking at how the beans are cultivated and processed (removed from the berries of the coffee plants) and whether that process is scalable.
Finally, they are looking for producers that they can have direct, personal and mutually beneficial relationships with in the hopes that having those relationships with producers and farmers will ultimately produce better coffee from unique flavors and regions around the world. (Other roasters buy beans that have been selected and purchased through large importers.)
Roasting Beans: Marty emphasized that the Counter Culture roasters really work to balance out the flavors of the coffee during the roasting process and that each type of bean required it’s own roasting process with different variations of heating and cooling. There are also three different types of heat that get adjusted based on the beans on hand: convection (heat from air circulation), contact (heat from contact with the drum or other beans), and radiant (heat radiating off of other beans and the drum). Each type of bean is roasted according to its terroir, acidity and sweetness. Some beans require longer roast times, other will be lighter. Once that process is perfected, the beans are quickly laid out on giant trays to cool.
Interestingly (and contrary to what I had assumed) the caffeine cooks off the longer the beans are cooked. In other words, lighter coffee roasts have more caffeine!
Storing Beans: Beans should be stored in an air-tight, sealed container in a cool, dry place and should be consumed within two weeks of roasting for the best flavor. Most whole bean coffee bags come equipped with a one-way air valve to let CO2, which is produced as a byproduct of the roasting process, escape. If the gas is trapped, or if other things can get into the beans, their shelf life decreases significantly. Coffee should not be stored in the refrigerator or freezer.
Grinding Beans: The grinding process is an important one and is a key factor in the flavor of your cup of joe. Beans shouldn’t be ground until just before they are brewed, as the grinding process releases an explosion of additional CO2. The hot water hitting the grounds triggers a final release of CO2 that contributes to the aromas of the fresh coffee and to its flavor profile. Grinds should be fine for regular drip coffee pots and much courser for pour overs and French presses.
Brewing Coffee: Pour overs like Chemex are having their moment right now, and it’s generally thought by many coffee culture-ites that it is the best expression of the beans themselves. But it does require a little bit of learning and skill to perfect and there are other excellent ways of brewing that also highlight the delicate flavors of the beans. French presses, for example, are also good, inexpensive, and easy to use. Much more important, as Marty pointed out to me, is the quality and freshness of the beans you’re using.
Drinking Coffee: Nothing gets at my heart strings quite like Folgers commercials and that is how I picture myself drinking coffee every morning despite the fact that I am usually brain dead when I wake up.
I’m going to keep it simple with the recipes this time since my goal is to highlight the essence of the coffee itself. I hope these recipes and techniques help you make the very best cup of coffee you’ve ever had now that the weather is finally cooling off!
Grady Smith’s Cold Brew Coffee*:
I first got a taste for cold brew when I saw Grady’s a few years ago. (No relationship, but a great name. 😉 )I’ve been brewing it at home ever since and I can’t say I’ve been disappointed. You do need to think about it ahead of time, and it works best with a French press, but it’s delicious and incredibly strong!
- 1 cup ground coffee (medium grind)
- 4 cups cold water
- Add one cup of ground coffee to your French press.
- Add four cups of cold water to your French Press.
- Stir to incorporate and let sit for at least 12 hours.
- When the coffee is ready, gently push down plunger. (Don’t go too fast or you’ll get grounds in your brew.)
- Drink the brew! Note that it is very concentrated and is typically diluted with milk, water and a little bit of sweetener (even if you like it black like I do. My personal favorite is real maple syrup!)
*Please don’t sue me Grady’s!
Homemade Almond Milk:
I love almond milk because it’s easier to digest than regular cow’s milk and tastier with your cold brew, in my opinion. There are lots of recipes on the interwebs for homemade almond milk and most suggest soaking the almonds overnight. I didn’t have time, so I just soaked them in hot water for an hour instead. That worked just fine.
- 1 cup whole, unsalted almonds
- 4 cups filtered water (or a little more or less, depending on preference)
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- Pinch of salt
- Soak your almonds for at least an hour in hot water (or overnight in room temperature water)
- Drain and add to the blender with the filtered water, vanilla and salt.
- Blend for 1-2 minutes.
- Using a thin dishtowel or (my preference) a thick coffee filter over a mixing bowl, strain the almond mixture. You can save the pulp and use for baking.
- Shake the almond milk to integrate it before you use (no Carrageenan in this stuff!)
The weather is still hot, but you’re craving pumpkin spice everything. What to do? Make an iced pumpkin spice latte, of course. You can also heat this up on the stove when the weather starts cooling off and it’s just as delicious.
- 1 cup cold brew coffee
- ½ cup almond milk
- 1 tsp. real maple syrup
- Pinch of pumpkin pie spice
- Mix and enjoy over ice!
Weekend Pour Over Coffee:
Makes an 8 cup pot.
This is my absolute favorite method of brewing coffee and really highlights the essence of essence of the beans. Plus it’s just delicious. It does take some time though, so we usually make this coffee on the weekend. You don’t absolutely need a pour over pot or a thermometer, but it will make things a lot easier.
- 10 tablespoons ground coffee
- Teapot of 200 degree water (either take it off right before it boils or let it cool for a minute.)
- Heat the water in a teapot.
- While the water is coming up to temperature, grind the beans and rinse your paper filter in tap water. (This gets rid of any residual paper flavor.)
- Put the filter and the grounds in your pot. When the water is 200 degrees, gently pour a small amount onto the grounds, covering all of the surface area but not pouring enough that it starts to drip down. This will cause the coffee to “bloom” – a reaction that, as you will recall, causes CO2 to leave the coffee and accentuates the aromas. (It will only really bloom well when it’s freshly roasted.)
- Let the bloomed coffee sit for 30 seconds, then gently begin to pour more water over the grounds, causing as little movement in the grounds as possible. You want to evenly distribute the water and pour gently so the grounds start to float to the top.
- Try and keep the water level in the pot fairly consistent. It should always be up at the top.
- Pour the water until the pot is almost full, then let the remaining water filter through the coffee for a minute.
- When the filter is dry, you can remove it.
- Pour the coffee into mugs and enjoy!
Happy National Coffee Day! May you be caffeinated and cozy all day long.