Coffee guide brims with information


Tips lead readers to more enjoyment of a popular drink

November 12, 2003|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Plenty of "essential guides" purport to give you all the information you need on a subject. Some actually come close to fulfilling that claim.

One is Corby Kummer's classic, The Joy of Coffee: The Essential Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying, first published in 1995 and recently reissued by the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Co., with revisions and updates. It sells for $16 in paperback.

Although eight years is not that long in the history of a beverage as old as coffee, the span since 1995 has seen huge changes for coffee drinkers in the United States.

As coffee bars have proliferated and Americans almost everywhere have become accustomed to forking out a couple of dollars for coffee-based drinks, coffee fans have learned that there is more to this brew than the color of the roast.

And just as wine fans have discovered, learning more about a beverage pays off in the ability to savor its subtle qualities.

Kummer is full of esoteric knowledge about coffee, such as why shade-grown beans are preferable to those grown where larger trees have been cut down or why professional coffee tasters slurp the coffee at several different temperatures or even why the chemical reactions as roasted coffee cools make it difficult to store coffee in cans without harming its flavor.

But from this wealth of reporting and research, as well as from his own years of mindful sipping, Kummer provides practical and often inexpensive tips that can easily improve the coffee you drink each day.

For example, if you like dripped coffee, a metal filter yields tastier coffee than a paper one. Also, use filtered water and, once it boils, let it cool for a few seconds before pouring it over the grounds.

If you use an automatic brewer, a thorough cleaning every now and then can make a world of difference. (Use one part vinegar to three parts water, Kummer says -- and be sure to run clear water through the brewer three to five times after you clean it.)

As for choosing a brewer, the most important feature is the heater. A desirable rating, Kummer says, is more than 1,000 watts. But a better investment than an electric brewer is a burr mill for grinding beans. And don't even think of opting for a propeller grinder, which "falls closer to brute force of mortar and pestle."

Kummer also explains the difference in robusta and arabica beans. Robusta, the cheaper and more heavily caffeinated version, was prevalent in this country until coffee bars brought better coffee to a wider public.

Arabica beans are grown at higher altitudes under more difficult conditions, but yield much greater flavor. For fans of quality coffee, the plentiful supplies of cheaper robusta coffee are reason to worry about the ability of arabica farms to survive in a competitive market. That's why you hear a lot about "fair-trade" coffee. It's also a good reason, in addition to environmental concerns, to buy shade-grown beans.

Kummer provides memorable descriptions of his visit to La Minita, in the mountains of Costa Rica, which is considered one of the world's best-run coffee plantations. From the stories of his short stint picking coffee beans to his sharp-eyed descriptions of washing, drying, polishing and sorting the beans, his report is full of details that may not be essential to enjoying coffee, but add immensely to the appreciation of a first-rate cup.

The same is true for Kummer's explanations of the other way stations on a bean's journey from the tree to your lips, particularly his account of the "noisy, impolite business" of the cupping process, during which professional tasters judge the quality of various beans.

Despite what could seem to some readers as an overload of information, Kummer never loses sight of the real prize -- the pleasures a good cup of coffee can bring. To that end, he includes recipes for foods that are good to eat with coffee.

Whatever your interest in coffee -- whether you'd like a little help in figuring out the relative merits of all those roasts, blends and brewing methods, or whether you're in search of the perfect cup -- this is a good guide to have.

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