Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Joltless Java

Back in the early 80s, when I was living in Los Angeles, a little coffee and tea shop near my office in Westwood had a going-out-of-business sale. It was filled with porcelain tea sets, electric coffee makers, packages of coffees and teas, and all sorts of refined accessories. But what caught my eye was a large stainless steel stovetop espresso maker. It was sleek and shiny, and reduced from some exorbitant price to $25.

I took that pot home with me and used it almost daily until last year when the handle broke off and I finally had to part with it. It may not have retained its original gloss but we’re talking about 25 years with one pot, and, believe me, I mourned the loss of this morning companion. Since then I’ve been using a Bialetti Moka Express. I don’t love the pot but I’m really a fan of the robust coffee these Italian stovetop coffee makers produce, especially since I have to drink decaf.

A good coffee maker is certainly one of the key components to delicious coffee, but, of course, it all starts with the beans and roast.

Bird Rock Coffee Roasters

Earlier this summer, I spent some time at Bird Rock Coffee Roasters. Owner Chuck Patton gave me a run through of some coffee basics, as well as how he buys and roasts his beans. I also spoke with John Weaver, master roaster and president of Weaver’s Tea & Coffee.

John Weaver

Weaver had been a longtime roaster at Peet’s Coffee until 2007, when he formed his own company. He’s just celebrated 30 years in the coffee industry, and says that his new roasting style for his own business is “juicier, more flavorful with a smooth profile in the flavor.”

But how do you get these flavors? Like any agricultural product, the quality and flavors of coffee beans can vary from season to season, depending on weather, the soil, proper fertilization, pest and disease control, proper pruning, and watering.

Just as important, it turns out, is altitude. The higher the elevation, the slower the beans are to mature, resulting in more flavor. Arabicas, of which there are at least some 20 varietals, are grown at a higher elevation. You’ll find many of these varietals in Mexico or Peru. The trees are fussy about their growing environment, and that, combined with the belief that the beans have more flavorful qualities, make them more expensive than Robusta beans.

“I buy only high-altitude coffee beans,” says Weaver. “They have more flavor and acidity.”

Robusta beans usually are grown at lower elevations. The trees are hardier and produce earlier than Arabica trees, but the beans are not of the same quality. These are your supermarket beans, and, they’re often mixed with Arabica beans to bring down prices. However, they do have twice the caffeine as Arabicas.

Patton points out that every country puts out beans with distinctive characteristics. “Sumatran beans have a thick body, are spicy, herby, and earthy,” he says. “Costa Rican beans are more vibrant and lighter, while Mexican beans are more balanced. Beans from Peru have a nutty flavor while Ethiopian beans have a fruity element to them, like blueberries. Kenyan beans are more like wine; they’re more acidic.”

But, even regions in the same country will produce beans with varied characteristics. Patton considers the Huehuetanango from northwestern Guatemala to be the highest quality varietal within Guatemala, especially compared with coffees from Antigua, which is the classic coffee growing region near Guatemala City.

While there’s been a marketing blitz to promote the Fair Trade program—and Weaver’s Coffee & Tea uses certified organic and Fair Trade-certified beans—Patton is involved in what he calls a “direct trade model.” “We’re a Fair Trade licensee but the money goes to the co-op, and how well run are the co-ops?” he asks. “I’m pulling out of the licensing agreement. I want to work directly with farmers or farming groups and make direct rewards based on the effort and investment they make in their farm.”

Patton is involved in the Las Mingas Project in Columbia, which is establishing long-term relationships between independent coffee farmers and specialty roasters around the world. There are 10 to 15 roasters in the U.S. who participate, says Patton, and two to three main farming groups totaling about 50 farmers. “They’re getting paid more than by Fair Trade,” he says. “I sent $200 to a farmer as a reward for a great crop. He put that into a new burner, tile, and cement in his house. It was something that dramatically improved the quality of life for his family and allowed him to focus more on farming.

“I’d rather take that $1,000 a year for the Fair Trade license and give it to independent farmers,” he says.

The roasting room at Birdrock is filled with burlap bags brimming over with beans, some still green, awaiting their roasting, and others a deep burnished brown and ready for packaging. Patton uses a cast iron drum roaster that can roast up to 25 pounds of beans at a time. It takes about 15 to 18 minutes to roast the beans, with the precise timing dependent on the type of bean, the weather and humidity, and what brings out the best in the varietal.

“The roaster has guidelines, but adjustments can be made,” he explains. “We’re aiming for consistent flavors and the sweet spot. It can happen in less than a minute, and making mistakes can lead to a sour flavor, burning, or underdeveloped flavors.”

Weaver explains that he doesn’t create the flavors during the roasting. “I bring out what potential the coffee has. It’s load, size, time, temperature, and air flow.”

He notes that while there’s been a movement to light roasted coffees, it’s not his style. “The consumer palate has developed a deeper flavor profile in coffee. Not darker—that’s just burnt.”

Patton, though, says he does roast lighter. “The more you roast, the more you lose the varietal flavor,” he explains. “We want a bean’s fully developed flavor to peak in the process.” And, he points out that qualities inherent in the bean will determine roasting times. “Green Sumatra beans are dense and need more roasting than beans from Mexico, for instance.”

Tony Gomez

I met Tony Gomez, Patton’s roaster of five years. He was working with decaf Papua New Guinea beans, giving them 16 to 17 minutes in the drum at 420 degrees. As the roasting time was drawing to an end, he repeatedly checked on the beans to take in their color and make adjustments. Once the roasting ended, the beans spilled into a bin to be cooled for about five minutes. Then Gomez deposited the batch in a big can to continue cooling and then poured 22 pounds of organic Brazilian beans into the roaster.

Gomez showed me the roasted decaf beans, pointing out that these beans have a matted finish to them, compared to the glossiness of regular beans.

Both roasters use water processed decaffeinated beans. “It allows the inherent flavors to remain in the coffee,” Weaver says. “But it’s an expensive process so the coffee is more expensive.”

I found the decaf beans from Weaver’s and Bird Rock to be wonderfully rich and flavorful. The difference between what people like me—who just can’t tolerate caffeine—can enjoy now compared with, say 10 years ago, is dramatic. The options are greater and the quality is so much higher. I’m admittedly not someone who can give you nuanced descriptions of each bean. I haven’t developed that ability—at least not yet. And, it is an art. But, I can give you some suggestions for decaf beans to try that I think you’ll enjoy.

  • Weaver’s Decaf House Blend
  • Joes on the Nose Decaf Peru and Decaf Mexico (David Wasserman, the outgoing young guy in the orange truck at the Little Italy Mercato and Hillcrest Farmers Market, gets his beans from Bird Rock Roasters.)
  • Bird Rock Coffee Roasters Papua New Guinea
  • Caffe Calabria Costa Rica

Bird Rock Roasters is at 5627 La Jolla Blvd.

Weaver’s Coffee can be found at some Whole Foods stores or ordered at

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the very enjoyable coffee "tour". My husband would agree with you about the stovetop espresso makers. When we met that's how he made coffee. He even ground his beans with a manual grinder. He takes along the Bialetti Moka on camping trips.

    Now we have an automatic espresso maker, but that "Italian Princess" needs to go to the repair "spa" for some work about every other year. When she's away for those long weeks, we've greatly enjoyed making espresso and Americanos with Aeropress, a manual espresso maker that costs only about $30 and makes great coffee very quickly (and is far easier to clean than a French Press). Like a French Press, only a source of hot water (about 175°F +/- 5°) is needed. Seriously, this little manual espresso maker makes espresso that is just about as good as our fancy machine.

    We brought the Aeropress along on our CA road trip vacation this summer and made great coffee with water heated in our motel's drip coffee maker or microwave. On the road, I made "bumper" espresso and Americanos with a thermos of hot water provided by a local restaurant.