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Coffee reconquers the West.

It's easy to laugh at Martin's spoof of the Los Angeles coffee scene, but in fact the array of options facing coffee drinkers today is no joke. Never has there been as wide a choice of beans, roasts, grinds, and brewing methods. And never has the process of making and drinking coffee promised such rewards.

A good cup depends on what goes into it. In recent years, the availability of specialty coffees--high-quality, locally roasted beans-has increased rapidly. To match general consumer demand for better-quality foods and beverages, coffee purveyors have sought to privde finer beans and more skillful roasts.

A burgeoning crop of coffeehouses is introducing more people to the joys of great coffee, and engendering a desire to get equally flavorful results at home.

On these pages, we'll tell you how to figure out what you like, and to reproduce it cup after cup.



Good coffee in the West goes back to 1850, when The Pioneer Steam Coffee and Spice Mills set up shop in San francisco. It had three assets.

One was fresh beans, shipped directly from the Pacific coasts of Central and South America. The second was coffee roasted and ground on the premises--a real convenience to the gold-hungry, mostly male population that until then could buy only whole green beans.

The third asset was an ambitious teenager named J.A. Folger. He took Pioneer's coffee directly to the goldfields, made a tidy profit, and went on to own the company.

Hills Bros. was another member of the San Francisco vanguard. Around the turn of the century, it popularized vacuum-packing and paved the way for mass-marketed coffee. Until that process was used, beans didn't keep long once roasted, so roasters were almost as much a part of the local commercial scene as the corner druggist.

These days, the local coffee roaster is making a comeback. Some trace its revival to Berkeley in 1966, when Peet's Coffee & Tea started selling whole beans, dark-roasted on the premises. It was a welcome change from the standardized taste of most canned coffee.

Coffee connoisseurs all over the West developed a taste for the dark-roasted Bay Area style. New purveyors, passionate about their product, set up their own stores. They are still eager to educate consumers in how to get the most out of the finest coffee available.

Seattle now claims the title of coffee-craziest city, sporting a multitude of coffee bars, espresso stands, coffee drive-throughs--even a dental office serving espresso.

Coffee in catching on rapidly in Southern California, too. Hip cafes are popping up, vying for high counts of celebrity sightings. In fact, most Western cities from Dallas to Anchorage can offer up their own tales of coffee popularity.



A great cup of coffee starts on the land. Like wine graphes, coffee beans from different soils and climates have varying characteristics. So, depending on what flavors you like, you can choose beans from one part of the world or another.

Coffee is divided into three basic clans.

From the Americas. These coffees are generally light bodied and smooth--although flavors range from light (Mexico) to full bodied (Colombia)--with clean, straightforward tastes. They share a lively crispness, or acidity. (In coffee terms, acidity means a sparkling flavor, not sourness; see the box below to learn coffee taster's lingo.)

These coffees carry the names of their origins, such as Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama.

This clan includes Kona, the only coffee grown in the United States.

It also includes Jamaica Blue Mountain--sweet, aromatic, and fuller bodied than others in the clan. The real thing is expensive and in short supply; Japan gets most of the crop. Watch out for impostors (often other beans of the Americas) labeled Blue Mountain-style.

From East Africa, Arabia. Coffees from this vast region have medium body with distinctive flavors and aromas of berries, citrus, flowers, spices, or red wine. Common names you'll see are Tanzania and Zimbabwe. The rarest and costliest is Yemen Mocha, a complex coffee with a chocolate-like aftertaste.

Kenya has snappy acidity. Ethiopia's lowland-grown Harrar has full body and winy flavor, and is known as poor man's Yemen Mocha. Highland-grown Ethiopian Yergecheffe is mellower. Both Ethiopian coffees may be tough to find.

From the Indonesian region. Coffees are full bodied, earthy, nutty, and lower in acidity than coffees of the Americas. Some, such as Sumatra and Java, are popular for their syrupy body. Other regional names to look for include Indonesia, Sulawesi (Celebes), and Papua New Guinea.



Until coffees rush out of the roaster in a smoking mountain of motion, they have none of the qualities we know and love. Green, unroasted beans are actually khaki- to straw-colored, and smell a lot like green grass.

Roasting is a variable process. The same beans in the hands of five roasters may yield five very different results. A roastmaster roasts beans just long enough to achieve maximum flavor according to customers' preferences.

In a large drum, up to 500 pounds of beans are exposed to air approaching 450[degrees]. In the course of 15 minutes or so, beans crackle and swell, lose moisture, then suddenly begin to darken. Oils rise to the bean surface. As sugars and starches caramelize, beans develop toasted flavors.

Coffees labeled dark roasted look dark and taste very rich, toasted, and bittersweet, with fewer of the subtle nuances of lighter roasts.

D rk coffee is tagged with names like French roast, Italian, Viennese, and Continental (none suggests georgraphical origin). Sometimes espresso also indicates this roasting style.

Remember, what is pleasantly inky to one taster may seem carbonized to another. You'll need to try different companies' selectins to find what suits you.

Green beans will last up to a year. Once roasted, beans stay fresh at room temperature only about one week, because the oils that carry the coffee flavors are perishable. For best home-brewing results, buy from a company that roasts frequently and has a high turnover. (See tips on home bean storage, explained at right.)



Amid often-conflicting advice, just how do you make a great cup at home every time you brew?

To test conventional coffee do's and don'ts, we conducted a series of taste tests with a panel of coffee aficionados. Starting with batches of whole beans, we tested two types of grinder three grinds of different coarseness, three brewing methods, three types of filter, and three ranges of water temperature.

We rated aroma, flavor, and appearance (consistency, sediment). overall responses varied wildly; each taster had favorites. Factors that most affect flavor are coarseness of grind, brewing method, and water temperature.

There is not one absolutely correct way to make coffee, but the following guidelines, compiled from our tests, can help you in your quest to produce the perfect cup.

Buy top-quality beans. Once you have found the variety or blend of beans that you like, buy only from stores that sell freshly roasted beans. If a store does not do its own roasting, or if you are unsure of the beans' freshness, ask how often the coffee is delivered. Beans should not be more than a few days out of the roaster.

Store beans properly. Always store them in an airtight, moistureproof container. If you plan to use them within a week, you can keep them in the refrigerator or in a dark place at a cool room temperature (around 60[degrees]) without significant flavor loss. For longer storage, freeze beans, then use them directly from the freezer (do not thaw) as you need them. Otherwise, they get stale and develop rancid flavors.

Grind just before brewing. Since flavor and aroma components begin to dissipate as soon as beans are ground, grind coffee just before you plan to brew it, and only grind as much as you need.

Match the grind to your brewing method. The coarseness of the grounds can affect flavor. With a very coarse grind, water flows through the coffee quickly and does not have time to extract much flavor. This produces a light, weaker-bodied brew.

A very fine grind will clog the filter somewhat, keeping water in contact with coffee longer. The longer the coffee steeps, the richer tasting and fuller bodied the brew--up to a point; extended extraction brings out bitter or sharp flavors, unpleasant to most.

Read the following section to find out which grinds our tasters preferred for various brewing methods.

Use fresh-tasting water. Any off-flavors in your water will come through in coffee. If yoy dislike your tap water, you may want to use bottled water for brewing.

Use a ratio of coffee to water that suits you. No single ratio is correct, because desired strength is a matter of preference. The ratio also depends on variety and roast of beans.

A general guideline for medium-strength coffee is 2 level tablespoons of grounds for 6 ounces of water. For a stronger brew, use more grounds; for weaker coffee, use less. You will need to experiment to find pleasing proportions.

Pay attention to water temperature. The hotter the water, the more flavor components that are extracted. For optimum flavor and acid balance, use water between 195[degrees] and 205[degrees] (just below boiling).

Our taste panel found that this range produced the best, most well-rounded flavor. Coffee brewed with water below 190[degrees] was weaker and less flavorful, whereas coffee brewed with boiling water was strong and had a bitter, harsh taste.

With an electric drip coffee maker, of course, you have no control over water temperature. If yours is not brewing coffee to your taste, check the water temperature; you may need to buy a new coffee maker.

Drink right away. If you are not serving all your coffee immediately, do not keep it over heat. Prolonged exposure to heat can produce bitter or burnt flavors. If you need to hold it more than a few minutes, transfer it to a thermos.



There are two types of coffee grinder (see drawings at right), and three home brewing methods.

Burr-type mills contain small ring-shaped mechanisms, or burrs, that crush beans. Mills are either manual or electric.

Blade-type grinders are electric and have a rotating blade, which cuts beans.

Purists usually prefer burr-type mills because they make it easier to get a completely even grind. However, burr mills cost significantly more.

We tested grind coarseness with the commonest home brewing methods: electric drip, filter-cone drip, and plunger pot (French press). Here are our taste panel's top-rated combinations of grind coarseness and brewing method.

Coarse. Grounds resemble a coarse meal, such as polenta or cracked pepper. Best for plunger pot method.

Medium. Grounds have a consistency similar to regular cornmeal's. Best for electric drip and plunger pot methods.

Fine. Grounds have the consistency of a smooth powder, like cocoa. Best for the filter-cone drip method.



Our taste panel tested the three types of filter commonly used for filter-cone drip brewing: chlorine-bleached (white) paper filters, unbleached (brown) paper filters, and gold-plated filter cones. The first two are disposable, while the third never wears out.

We found significant flavor differences. While we noticed no off-flavors from the bleached filters, the unbleached filters gave the coffee a distinct papery, musty taste. The gold filter produced the best flavor, although it did allwo more of the grounds to end up in the brew. that, since the solvent evaporates at 103[degrees] and coffee is roasted at nearly 450[degrees], there's little chance of residue remaining in the final product.

The second most common chemical decaffeination process uses ethyl acetate. This is sometimes called a natural process because minute quantities of ethyl acetate occur naturally in some fruits.

The procedures are almost identical to those for methylene chloride. Ethyl acetate decaffeination is used mainly by large commercial producers, although some specialty coffee brokers are beginning to offer beans decaffeinated this way.

Chemical-free decaffeination. Of nonchemical methods, best-known is the Swiss Water process, patented by Nabob Foods Limited of Vancouver, British Columbia. Steps are like those of the indirect methylene chloride method.

Caffeine is removed from the beans' soaking water by granular activated charcoal that has been treated to absorb only caffeine and not water-soluble flavor compounds.

The technique, developed in Nabob's Vancouver plant, has greatly improved flavor. (The company's Swiss plant uses an older process, which returns the flavor-bearing water to each batch of beans for reabsorption of flavor compounds. This technique is less successful in retaining flavor.)

A second nonchemical decaffeination agent in common use is supercritical carbon dioxide (carbon dioxide that has been pressurized until it liquifies). Carbon dioxide, added to beans, removes caffeine, then evaporates as beans dry. This method was developed for mass-produced coffee, but beans decaffeinated this way are increasingly seen in specialty stores.

A third, relatively new nonchemical method is the coffee-oil decaffeination process. It uses coffee oil, refined from ground caffeinated coffee, to remove caffeine in steps similar to those of the indirect methylene chloride process. Coffee decaffeinated this way is not yet widely available.

(And what happens to all the caffeine removed from coffee? Much of it is sold to pharmaceutical manufacturers and soft drink companies.)
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Johnson, Elaine; Weber, Christine B.
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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