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How to learn coffee's subtleties?


Lonnie
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Experimenting lately with a couple old vacuum pots, I've learned something about myself. And that is that I'm pretty limited in my appreciation of coffee. My first truly great experience with coffee was 30 years ago in the Canary Islands, where I was first exposed to the variety and intensity of espresso drinks to be had in Spain. The taste of this coffee became my "mother" and I've been seeking her out ever since (to no avail, by the way). I suspect, however, that over time I have been looking more for the nose-punching thrill and have missed the subtleties to be enjoyed in the world's wonderful varieties of coffees.

As it turns out, vac pots are great for those lighter roasts and flavors, while I have been seeking out smoky, French-roast experiences. Now that I have these two old pots, I want to not only enjoy the great show watching the coffee go "north" and "south," I want to enjoy the results.

So my question is two-fold:

1) What gentle steps might I take away from the nose-punching in order to teach my palate the finer things in coffee?

2) What beans and roasts, specifically, should I try, in what order, to wean myself from my current addiction?

Thank you!

Lonnie

"It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all of the answers." --James Thurber

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So my question is two-fold:

1)  What gentle steps might I take away from the nose-punching in order to teach my palate the finer things in coffee?

2)  What beans and roasts, specifically, should I try, in what order, to wean myself from my current addiction?

First thing's first: congrats on taking a significant step in your coffee-appreciation life! It's really refreshing when you see someone who's asking the right questions.

When you have a chance, go check out Gimme Coffee in Ithaca. Second, read-up: coffeegeek.com is a good spot. Better yet, read the blog from the queen of coffee-consumers, HERE.

You'll see her refer to the SCAA Flavor Wheel. It's similar to wine-tasting flavor wheels, in that it helps lend a vocabulary to the sensory experiences.

Then, go back to Gimme Coffee, with the flavor wheel in-hand (you can print one out). See if they have cuppings or tastings that you can get in on.

When you're ready for a real treat, pick up some whole-bean of a Cup of Excellence coffee. Intelligentsia in Chicago and Stumptown in Portland have CoE's available right now for mail order.

Wait... isn't Phaelon56 in Syracuse? What's your take, bro?

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This is a great subject and I look forward to hearing from the experts. I have always loved coffee, and probably am a happy over consumer of this fine beverage.

Recently, I started a new job and one of the fringe benefits is that we have, everyday, samples of great food coming through the door from people who would like to do business with my company. One of the things that we see alot of is fine coffee from all over the world. Our everyday drinks include great coffee from Kona, Brazil, Ethiopia, Mexico, Costa Rica, etc. It's really, really fun having all of this stuff around and it is also interesting to see how different it tastes and smells. Coffee is an interesting and widely varying drink and I am glad to see this discussion. Hopefully I can add something to it. An online tasting course would be interesting. Owen?

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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An online tasting course might be fun... the possibility of an eGullet Culinary Institute class on coffee basics was proposed awhile back but hasn't yet been revisited. I have good appreciation for coffee subtleties (much better than I usually let on here or elsewhere) but I haven't yet developed the vocabulary needed to express myself properly.

I am in Syracuse too - Lonnie and I have actually exchanged some vac pot and coffee related emails recently. I think the Gimme Coffee suggestion of Nick's is a good one. Freedom of Espresso, where I work part time, has been serving only blends until recently. I finally convinced them to rotate a different organic varietal on a weekly basis but one varietal vs some blends hardly makes for a constructive cupping experience (not to mention that we don't do real cupping).

Peter, the sample roaster for Terroir Coffee, extended an offer to me awhile back to visit them in the Boston area to see their facilites and do a cupping. I'll have to check with him on bringing additional people but I suspect it would be okay. Perhaps a road trip might be arranged with a few people from the area. That can be discussed offline with PM's or emails.

I'm always up to trying new varietals. Two days ago I happened to be passing through a relatively remote part of central Pennsyvania and stumbled across Greencastle Coffee Roasters. They have a staggering array of coffees and it's a quirky but appealing operation. I remembered from a previous online search for exotic coffees that they stocked beans from Laos. I've long been in search of a really good Vietnamese arabica in order to make the ultimate Viet iced coffee at home and thought the Laos beans might be a good substitute. I can't say that they'd be ideal in an iced coffee but they possess a very light body with fragrant floral notes - almost too subtle for me but as an espresso shot it was a bit more interesting.

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This is a great subject and I look forward to hearing from the experts. I have always loved coffee, and probably am a happy over consumer of this fine beverage.

Recently, I started a new job and one of the fringe benefits is that we have, everyday, samples of great food coming through the door from people who would like to do business with my company. One of the things that we see alot of is fine coffee from all over the world. Our everyday drinks include great coffee from Kona, Brazil, Ethiopia, Mexico, Costa Rica, etc. It's really, really fun having all of this stuff around and it is also interesting to see how different it tastes and smells. Coffee is an interesting and widely varying drink and I am glad to see this discussion. Hopefully I can add something to it. An online tasting course would be interesting. Owen?

Brooks, I'm jealous of your job already! I went to Gourmet Foodmall.com and there on the front page was a picture of something my son used to make when he worked at the now-defunct (for good reasons) Tsunami restaurant in Hanover Square, Syracuse: a chocolate volcano, aka lava cake. He kindly swiped the recipe for me before he left and the restaurant became yet another Italian restaurant.

But this all brings up another subject: coffee pairings.

My questions:

1) Is there such a thing?

2) Why does my friend like to have peanut butter with coffee? This is diner peanut butter on diner toast with diner coffee, mind you.

3) Is one coffee going to be better than another when eating a chocolate volcano?

More: Yes, Owen inspired me to buy a vac pot. Good thing I bought two because I just broke the top part of the newer one - never saw it coming (wrestling with a very tight gasket). One day I'll go down to Federal Espresso early enough to meet Owen in person. I'm very interested in the online class on coffee basics. That would probably be exactly what I'm looking for - a step-by-step guide. Also, I love having an actual reason for going to Ithaca and will do so eagerly soon! Thanks to all of you for your ideas.

Lonnie

"It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all of the answers." --James Thurber

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My questions:

1)  Is there such a thing?

2) Why does my friend like to have peanut butter with coffee?  This is diner peanut butter on diner toast with diner coffee, mind you.

3) Is one coffee going to be better than another when eating a chocolate volcano?

1) Mos def!

2) To each his own. Peanut butter? Why not?

3) A coffee-with-sweet-dessert pairing, particularly with chocolate, tends to point toward a low-acid coffee... like a Sumatra or Sulawesi.

However, I hesitate to generalize when it comes to coffee origins. Many of the Sumatras are a bit more acidic and brighter this year than in the past.

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First - learn how to cup coffee. Cupping is the way that professionals evaluate coffees (both in making purchasing decisions when it comes to green beans, and when doing quality assurance on roasted beans). There is a good article on the basics of cupping at Coffee Geek written by Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia. There are also a couple books on cupping available.

Second - once you learn how to cup coffee you should try to cup regularly with other people who share your passion. It's worthwhile to check out the SCAA cupping wheel to give some structure to the discussion, but the structure should remain pretty flexible. I've cupped with folks who talk about coffee flavours as colours. If it works for you, it works.

Third - you'll want to cup actual origin coffees and you'll preferably cup them roasted to an optimal roast for the bean. In other words, you will (initially) learn less from blends and should steer away from the dark roasts (at least for a while). I'd suggest reading up on Coffee Review to help you select beans to cup. As a starting point, you might want to consider coffees from Terroir, Counter Culture, Intelligentsia and Stumptown.

You can, of course, accelerate the above by signing up for an SCAA C-Membership and making the trip out to Seattle this April for the SCAA conference. At least one of the C-Member events is, if I remember correctly, a cupping session with Ken Davids (of Coffee Review fame).

It's great to read posts like yours.

The more people who can be convinced to move away from burnt coffee - that burnt coffee is not good coffee - and that coffee should actually taste good the better.

Thanks.

fanatic...

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2)  What beans and roasts, specifically, should I try, in what order, to wean myself from my current addiction?

Hi Lonnie!

I've lately been a little tired of our local coffee options and a friend suggested Ancora Coffee in Madison, Wisconsin.

http://www.ancora-coffee.com/

They have a wide variety of Coffees with an emphasis on those available as Fair Trade and Organic varieties.

I am particularly smitten with a coffee they are currently featuring from Peru, (Organic/Fair Trade Peru 'Cochepampa' Cocla Co-op). Man is it a fantastic cup. We recently turned some friends on to it who usually buy French Roast or darker, and they were also amazed.

Erik

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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You might also consider getting in touch with Fortune Elkins in NYC.

Contact her through the Bread Coffee Chocolate Yoga Blog

She's very active in the new consumer branch of SCAA and has arranged a few coffee focused get-togethers in the NYC area for interested parties. If I recall correctly she actually arranged a Coffee Exchange visit and cupping session last fall. I believe there's some event coming up reasonably soon but not sure what it involves.

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although i am drinking mostly tea now i was a coffee drinker for many years.

i never cupped coffee but i did appreciate a vast variety of coffee from many coffee growing regions-

i usually brewed coffee with melitta filter- and ground my beans-

in the late '60's and '70's this was avante guard-

one of the best books on the subject is ukers "all about coffee"(this is a volume classic)

this is the same writer as "all about tea"(2 volumes)

Edited by jpr54_ (log)
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All the ideas and information here will keep me busy for months! It's going to take some time to just wade gleefully through it.

Interestingly enough, the Syracuse New Times made an attempt at answering my question (okay, they had no idea I'd asked it) - see this article in this week's issue:

Bean Curd

Owen, any idea who wrote this? Are the ideas solid?

Lonnie

"It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all of the answers." --James Thurber

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Bean Curd

Owen, any idea who wrote this?  Are the ideas solid?

Lonnie

I haven't a clue who wrote it and found it peculiar that they didn't assign credit to an author. It looks suspiciously like it was sort of pasted together to some respect using mostly Starbucks-centric sources. There is some good general information in there about a few coffee types and characteristics.

As for the concept of pairing coffee with various cheeses - I find it intriguing and worth exploring but certainly there are far more coffees than aged Indonesians that would be suitable for such an experience.

There's at least one glaring error in hte article. They correctly state that the recommended ratio of coffee to water is two level tablespoons to six ounces of water. But this is the SCAA standard coffee measure (Specialty Coffee Association of America) andn ont some sort of special "Starbucks method". They go on to recommend 8 standard coffee measures for a 12 cup pot. Huh? If the coffe/water ratio is adhered to, 8 measures of coffee woul be used to brew 48 ounces of water - not 72 ounces!

I also believe that in their stores, Starbucks actually uses MORE coffee than the standard recommended ratio, this being partly responsbile for the muddy overly strong character of their drip coffee (the dark roasitng style is also a factor).

My assessment of how much coffee they use to brew in their stores is based simply on observation of the coffee's characteristics but there was a Consumer reports coffee article a couple years ago that confirmed this as fact.

I think there are huge areas to be explored int erms of coffee and dessert pairings. I have seen one restaurant menu for a place in Big Sur CA that had a very nice selection of varietals paired up on the menu with suggested desserts. But they were charging $7 per serving for the coffe and couldn't even spell Yirgacheffe correctly!

But I still think the idea has promise as would an espresso/chocolate pairing.

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I finally nailed it!!! What a joy! Here are the ingredients that worked for this newbie:

- $4 narrow-neck Silex vac pot with a good gasket (found at a nearby flea market)

- glass filter rod (eBay, from another Silex whose gasket melted on use)

- a house blend roasted by Owen, ground at the café because my grinder is terrible

- filtered water

- a pretty low flame, as suggested by instructions I found in google images, keyword Vaculator (could read only upon printing)

- stirring it once it had a lot of water in the top

- successful removal of upper bowl, that is, without breaking protruding tube by following above-mentioned instructions (push against upper bowl with thumb while holding handle on lower bowl, thus breaking seal)

It was a beautiful moment, that first slurp, truly a revelation. Since the grind was right, the filter didn't clog this time. Gone was the nose-smashing smokiness, replaced by what reminded me of the first instant when you taste a really fabulous chocolate - similar complexity and subtlety of flavors.

It was a wee bit muddy, as can be expected I guess from the glass filter, but that didn't bother me, given my propensity for drinking mud anyway.

There was some left over. Believe it or not, I tried gently rewarming it hours later with a little cream in it and it was still really good. So good that I actually enjoyed drinking a cup of coffee without sugar for the first time ever.

The light has gone on. Thank you, teachers.

Heh heh... just as I was finishing this, the doorbell rang. A pound of coffee from Sweet Maria's has arrived with a set of cloths for my ceramic filter, instructions in Japanese. I'll get it figured out...

Cheers,

Lonnie

"It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all of the answers." --James Thurber

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Lonnie - it's so good to hear that it finally worked for you! I was lucky enough to get good results on my second try with a vac pot and was blown away by the results - it really is a superior brewing method when you get it right.

I think you'll really enjoy the coffee from Sweet Maria's. Tom Owens picks out excellent beans and also does a good job roasting.

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Just got back from a few days in Boston just eating all over town, plus drinking coffee and eating pastries on the North End... for hours and hours. Our idea of a good time. Plus a lot of walking.

Question #1: For the next time we go to Boston, where's the best coffee + pastry combination in the city?

Question #2: When you make vac pot coffee and you want warm coffee to sip on for, say, half an hour to an hour, how to you keep it warm? So far I've tried wrapping it in a towel, which works for about 15 minutes. I imagine I have to put it into some kind of thermos. And now I think Owen's already told me the answer, but I can't remember it. :hmmm:

Lonnie

"It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all of the answers." --James Thurber

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Question #1:  For the next time we go to Boston, where's the best coffee + pastry combination in the city?

Question #2:  When you make vac pot coffee and you want warm coffee to sip on for, say, half an hour to an hour, how to you keep it warm?  Lonnie

I'll defer to those with better knowledge of Boston for Question #1 although I did have a very tasty cappuccino at Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street when I last visited Beantown. I don't recall having pastries - I think we just picked a good looking bakery at random and ate one while walking on the street.

As for keeping the coffee warm... get a thermal carafe (1 liter size if plenty), and preheat it with very hot tap water while the vac pot is brewing. Dump the preheat water and immediately pour your extra brewed coffee into it as soon as brewing is done. It'll stay good and hot for at least an hour (but subtleties of flavor decline a bti after 20 minutes or so).

The local discount mega-stores such as Walmart and Target no longer stock thermal carafes (at least not in the Syracuse area) - they only have the larger airpot carafes for serving a group. In Syracuse go to Ra-Lin Discount on Burnet Ave. They have at least one style possibly two. I got a killer deal on a close-out of the Zoriushi carafe - about $12 for a $25 carafe. Not sure if they have any of that one left but they should have others that are in the $12 - $20 range.

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Today's lesson: a vac pot will not improve the flavor of bad beans. :hmmm:

Today's vac pot question: I have two identical narrow-neck Silex pots, one with its original gasket which works great and one with a new gasket from Casco Bay Molding because its original gasket melted upon use. (The picture of a vac pot on the Casco Bay site is not a narrow-neck pot, I believe, despite the fact that the gaskets are for narrow necks).

I have successfully used the pot with the new gasket a few times. Today I let the water in the pot heat quite a bit before I put the top part onto it. It didn't seem to want to fit as well, wouldn't really go in, and although I thought I'd gotten it set in okay, it ended up tipping and breaking the seal. Nothing I could do while it was brewing would get that sucker to stay put. I held it in place and it did in fact go north and south, but every time I tried to let go it would tip again.

Any ideas as to how I can avoid this happening in the future?

Lonnie

"It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all of the answers." --James Thurber

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As several people have mentioned where to buy coffee online from people who actually know something about coffee, I would like to put in a mention for Java Club.

They have a huge variety, a cool website (disclosure, I work for the company that runs their site, but other than that I have nothing to do with them-so this is NOT shameless promotion-it's just that I would not otherwise know about them-BUT it is a cool site :wink: ), and they roast their coffee in little tiny amounts, pretty much to order. They also get into coffee speak that is so far over my head that they might as well be talking nuclear physics. But it does make a fine cup and the reason that I mention them is that you can buy in small amounts (sample bags, basically) and try a number of different things for tasting purposes instead of dripping big bucks for a pound or two of something you find out that you do not like.

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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Any ideas as to how I can avoid this happening in the future?

I think putting the upper part of the pot into the lower portion before allowing the lower pot to get hot will most likely resolve this. I did read somewhere that it's recommended to wet the gasket before inserting the upper pot. I've tried this but the water appears to just roll off the gasket (as it should). I suspect the wetting technique is more helpful for older gaskets that have dried out a bit over time.

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I tried sliding the gasket about a quarter inch down the tube which therefore brought the lower part of the gasket over the slightly narrower part of the tube, and that did the trick. So now I have to gently set the thing into the lower pot, but it works fine that way. If I push it in hard, it forces the gasket back up over the wider part of the tube and then it's too big for the lower pot neck. I think the problem is that the upper part is missing its handle, which probably used to keep the gasket lower on the tube. More fun. It's like learning the quirks of a new pet, except that, so far, it hasn't peed on the living room floor. :biggrin:

I found four white Cory 1/2 oz. coffee measures in an antiques store on US Route 20. It was fun knowing what they were! You can see their cousin in this photo.

Lonnie

"It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all of the answers." --James Thurber

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