Coffee fan beams about beans

Seminars: After two days in Coffee College, food writer pours forth with details about aroma, blends, `cupping' and making perfect java.

March 20, 2002|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SUN STAFF

Attention, all baristas! There's a new Coffee College graduate in town, a latte lover armed with just enough knowledge to be dangerous, or at least a nuisance.

Thanks to two days of seminars for food writers at the Starbucks Roasting Plant in York, Pa., I can now stroll into your coffee store and ask for a ristretto - which, as you surely know, is the first half of the espresso pour, said by some connoisseurs to provide a more concentrated rush of caffeine than quaffing the whole shot.

And don't be surprised if I bring my stopwatch and time you as you pull that shot of espresso. Nicole Doering, a coffee-education specialist for Starbucks and professor of barista basics at Coffee College, insists that a proper pour should be no faster than 18 seconds and take no longer than 23. In other words, the espresso shouldn't stream out like water. Neither should it drip like a leaky faucet. Rather, it should flow somewhat like honey from a spoon.

So adjust your grinds, tamp them just so and pull me a perfect pour!

As most everyone has noticed, coffee has escaped those tin cans on the grocery shelves and become a culture unto itself, at least in the urban areas penetrated by all those coffeehouse chains that have sprung up since Starbucks opened its first store in Seattle 31 years ago.

It's still possible at coffee stores to order a plain cup of coffee, but only if you're the kind of person who wouldn't mind ordering just "a plain glass of wine."

Welcome to the new sophistication of caffeine consumption.

It's not as complicated as you think. Well, maybe it is. But once you cross that threshold and learn to spend $3 for a cuppa java, you might as well invest a little time in learning the finer points.

After all, if you like a light taste to your morning coffee, you'll likely find it jarring to encounter the earthy intensity of a cup brewed from aged Sumatra beans. To avoid an unpleasant surprise, you would probably want to steer toward the brighter tastes of most Central American coffees.

But, of course, that's only if you're considering single-origin coffees, brewed entirely of beans from only one location - for instance, that bold and deeply flavorful cup of aged Sumatra.

Plenty of brews come from blends of beans - Starbucks' popular Verona blend consists of 80 percent Yukon coffee (itself a blend of Central American and Indonesian beans) and 20 percent Italian roast, darker than beans used for espresso drinks, but not as dark as a French roast. (We also learned that Verona is a good coffee to serve with chocolate, owing both to the intense flavor from the Italian roast and the boldness of the Indonesian beans.)

That brings us to another key element affecting how a coffee will taste - the roast. Surely you wouldn't settle for a bean browned only to that pale "cinnamon" color common to many commercial (read: "tin can") coffees. As a coffee connoisseur, you no doubt will prefer a bean roasted through the "second pop," which usually occurs around 11 minutes or more into the roast.

In case you wondered, the "second pop" produces a duller ping than the "first pop," which comes at about eight minutes into the roast, when the heat has expanded the bean enough to create a small rift, producing a sound not unlike corn popping.

The timing of the pops can vary, says Sherry Dunbar, our roasting instructor - according to the kind of beans being used, the moisture content, atmospheric pressure and other factors.

As if this weren't enough to complicate your choices, consider what it takes to sort out all these aromas and flavors. And imagine the awe with which yours truly and my fellow Coffee College recruits regard Doug Langworthy, the roasting plant's green-coffee specialist, when he introduces us to the process of "cupping" various samples of coffee and demonstrates his highly evolved slurp- and-spit technique.

The daily cupping sessions are an important part of the roasting plant's quality-control procedures, ensuring that beans received from all over the world meet the company's standards. (Most of those beans arrive through the Port of Baltimore.)

Langworthy tells us that this time of year, a slow time before coffee harvest seasons begin in the spring, a typical cupping session will involve only 100 to 200 samples. That number rises to 300 or 400 a day at busier times of the year. Now we know why he tells us not to swallow, but to slurp a spoonful, savor the aroma, then make use of the handsome spittoons conveniently placed near the "cupping room" tables.

Fortunately, we are faced with only 12 steaming samples of coffee, not hundreds. Even so, we quickly discover that Langworthy's authoritative slurps and neat spits sound deceptively easy.

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