Sunday, November 16, 2008

Grind it and they will come

Coffee. Java. Mud. The Daily Grind. Go Go Juice. Morning Mojo. The Wake Up.

Every day, millions and millions of Americans start their day with a hot cup of bean-squeezins. Coffee berries, which contain the coffee bean, are produced by several species of small evergreen bush of the genus Coffea. The two most commonly grown species are Coffea canephora (also known as Coffea robusta) and Coffea arabica. In 2004, coffee was the top agricultural export for 12 countries, and in 2005 it was the world's seventh largest legal agricultural export by value.

Coffee use can be traced at least to as early as the 9th century, when it appeared in the highlands of Ethiopia. According to legend, Ethiopian shepherds were the first to observe the influence of the caffeine in coffee beans when the goats appeared to "dance" and to have an increased level of energy after consuming wild coffee berries.

The jolt from C8H10N4O2, the chemical formula for caffeine, is probably the chief reason that most people like to start the day with it. I know that it’s the reason I started drinking it. Well, that and it was nice to start a cold morning with a hot cup of anything. I was raised on hot tea at all hours of the day and night in a very English household so I didn’t really start in on coffee regularly till I joined the Army. What passes for coffee in the Army is roughly akin to battery acid, so my love of the stuff came about as a result of what we had available in my office in Germany. Instead of Folger’s or Maxwell House, we opted for the local German brand, Jacobs KrÓ§nung. It was a rich, strong brew, made even more powerful by the fact that instead of 8 scoops, we made it with 10. Jacobs is a major brand in Europe, as popular as Folger’s is here and tracing it’s beginnings to 1895, but it tasted a lot richer in my opinion.

I’ve seen people drink cheap coffee by the pot all day, stuff so vile that it looked somewhere between sludgy motor oil and runny mud. I’ve seen people eat raw, dry coffee in hopes of achieving nirvana. I, however, have become a tad jaded and I look at coffee now as more of a ritual and a treat rather than just a simple beverage or a means to an end. Today was a dreary, rainy day, perfect for writing over a steamy cup of Joe.

I buy decent coffee, and I buy it whole bean. I own a coffee grinder, so when I decide it’s time for some Java I reach into the freezer for the beans; they stay in the freezer to keep them at their freshest for a longer time. Right now I’m just about done with a bag of Sumatran and then I’ll start in on some Espresso Roast. I like a deep, rich roast to my beans. Into the grinder they go, and a few spins later I have a good coarse ground going on. I use a French press, so a coarse grind is needed instead of a medium (the industry standard) or a fine grind (like for actual espresso or Turkish brew).

What’s a French press, you say? It’s a glass carafe with a handle, into which you pour boiling water on top of your coffee grounds. The aroma of coffee wafts up to embrace you immediately. You give the coffee a healthy stir and then leave it alone to steep for a few minutes, after which you affix the lid to the carafe. The lid has a plunger on top affixed to a filter screen. Depressing the plunger pushes the screen down, forcing the grounds to the bottom. Because the coffee grounds remain in direct contact with the brewing water and the grounds are filtered from the water via the mesh instead of a paper filter, coffee brewed with the French press captures more of the coffee's flavor and essential oils, which would become trapped in a traditional drip brew machine's paper filters.

I’ve got two French presses. One is a small one-cupper and the other is larger, about four cups in size. What I use depends on how much I wanna make.

I don’t drink it black, actually. I’m a cream & sugar guy, despite my persnickity brewing methods. I like to use raw turbinado sugar when I have it, and I usually opt for some foofy flavored creamer. My current choice is English Almond Toffee. Standard milk will simply not do, nor will powdered creamer. I have to at least have half-n-half; I’ve even been known to toss in heavy cream from time to time to maximize the richness.

I like to linger over the piping hot mug, breathing in the aroma and letting it burn the fog away from my brain. I seldom do more than two cups, preferring to enjoy it in moderation. Besides, too much of brew that hi-test will leave me just a tad acidic and in need of a Rolaid so I just have a couple cups and exercise some restraint.

If you’ve never tried a French press and are interested, you can pick one up at Wal-Mart or Target, averaging $20 to $25, or go all out and get one at Starbucks or from the cafes at Barnes & Noble, Borders, or Books a Million. They’ll be a tad more expensive at those places though for the exact same products. Of course, there’s Bed, Bath, & Beyond too, if you want to drop anywhere from $30 to $140 for an artsy fartsy press, or you could do the smart thing and cruise what’s left of the local Linens & Things; deep discounts abound with the place going out of business.

I encourage you to explore a bit with your beans, too. Please, I beg of you, venture past the same old Hazelnut scene. Look past the tired-ass French Vanilla. Try some Costa Rican Peaberry, or some Kenya AA, or a Sumatra Mandheling. Locally here in the Charleston area, you can get beans from all over the globe from such sources as Kudu Coffee House downtown on Vanderhorst (specializing in African beans), Muddy Waters Coffee House in West Ashley and on James Island (featuring Counter Culture’s coffees from around the world), Rutledge Coffee and Cream (offering Larry’s Beans from around the world), and Park Circle Coffee in North Charleston (featuring the local products of Charleston Coffee Roasters).

Happy drinking!


Anonymous said...

i'm also a fan of the magical black water, as i'm sure you know well... when i've been really good and want to treat myself, i splurge on kona. it is, without a doubt, the best coffee i have ever tasted in my life. it's one of the few i CAN drink black, it's that good.

for normal day-to-day stuff i switch between sumatran and kenya double-a. i used to work with a friend who had a "connection", and could get just about anything, so i was spoiled- there is a coffee estate in panama called "lerida" which grows some incredible beans, but they're hard to find.

and of course, when money is tight, i fall back on "the F word". don't judge me, i'm man enough to admit it.

i also use the fufu flavoured creamer stuff (french vanilla), especially when it's "folger time". however, when i have good coffee available, i use half & half and just a little bit of regular sugar.

MojoSteve the Lightningman said...

Ah, yes, John...I remember having some of your freshly-ground Kona after the Erasure concert. To be honest, that was what prompted me to get more serious about my coffee and to get my own grinder. It's all YOUR fault!

Randy said...

I like my morning cup-o-joe. I'm not too picky, but I dislike the strong stuff that most places are pushing. It seems that they just brew it strong and think it's great. I don't want to stand a spoon in it, but I don't want to see through it either.

Recently, my daughter brought me some authentic Colombian coffee back with her from her overseas trip. It took me a while to determine the right amount to use, once I did, I decided it was the best I'd ever tasted.

Cream & sugar is a must. No fru-fru cream. Preferably milk, but I will use the powdered stuff if milk isn't available.