Feelings about coffee run strong

September 15, 2004|By ROB KASPER

IRISH COFFEE IS a simple beverage. There are only four ingredients -sugar, coffee, whiskey and cream. Yet there is a spirited discussion ranging from San Francisco to Baltimore to Ireland over how it should be made. I found that out last week, when I made a few calls and sipped a few Irish coffees.

The players in this gustatory row include Michael Carden, the general manager of the Buena Vista Cafe, the San Francisco waterfront establishment that claims to have served the first Irish coffee in America in 1952 and has been turning it out in record numbers ever since. I had an Irish coffee at Buena Vista back in 1968 and, as I recall, it was very good. Last week I had to be content to talk about the Buena Vista recipe by telephone with Carden.

In Baltimore, I met with and sampled the work of Colin Murphy and Bernard O'Higgins. These Irishmen were born in Cork City and Dublin, and are plying their Irish coffee-making skills at James Joyce restaurant in the city's Inner Harbor.

For the word from Ireland, I prowled Web sites full of lore and recipes. These traced the origin of the drink back to the port of Foynes in County Limerick, the spot in Ireland where the drink was created in the early 1940s as a boon to cold seaplane travelers.

Nowadays, a plaque honoring the drink stands in Ireland's Shannon Airport, and the airport's Sheridan bar, named after the man who invented the beverage, still serves it.

While I found a divergence of opinion on the sugar, the coffee and the cream in the Irish coffee, there was unanimity on the whiskey. All sources agreed that a shot of Irish whiskey had to be in the concoction.

Moreover, there was a consensus that if the cream doesn't float atop your cup of Irish coffee like a regal crown, then you're probably using a lesser cream, probably a commercial product squirted out of a can. If the cream in your Irish coffee sinks, I gather, you are not a true son of Erin.

Finally, most agreed that Irish coffee tastes best in chilly weather, which Ireland and San Francisco have plenty of. In Baltimore, the serious Irish coffee season seems to follow on the heels of the Irish Festival, which will be held this weekend at the 5th Regiment Armory.

On sugar there was a parting of ways. Carden, in San Francisco, stood up for three cubes of white sugar. "We didn't invent the Irish coffee," Carden told me. "We just perfected it."

Murphy and O'Higgins in Baltimore advocated using a heaping teaspoon of lightly processed brown sugar. The other day when Murphy was demonstrating his Irish coffee prowess, he used a sugar called Turbinado. This, according to the Sugar Association Web site, is a raw brown sugar that has been partially processed to remove some of the surface molasses. O'Higgins said he also likes to use Demerara, another brown sugar with large, golden crystals.

The Shannon Airport recipe did not specify what kind of sugar it favored but, according to O'Higgins, who describes himself as a recent "blow-in from Ireland," Demerara is the preferred sweetener on the Emerald Isle.

Higgins contended that in addition to adding sweetness to the drink, when these brown sugars are thoroughly dissolved in the liquid, they help provide the essential "surface tension" necessary to hold the cream in its regal perch atop the drink.

As for the coffee, Carden in San Francisco said he uses brewed coffee, "mostly Columbian beans and a lighter blend." The brewed coffee, he said, produces smooth flavor notes. "You don't want the coffee to overpower the whiskey," he said. The Shannon Airport recipe calls for black, brewed coffee.

When told that the Baltimore contingent was using instant coffee granules mixed with boiling water in its drinks, Carden exclaimed, "Oh, God! That will never work. It will be too bitter."

Back in Baltimore, however, the team of O'Higgins and Murphy said that the tartness of the coffee granules delivered the exact counterpoint needed to balance the sugar and whiskey.

A cup of brewed coffee is fine for breakfast, the Baltimore bunch said, but if you put it in an Irish coffee, it gets overwhelmed. To illustrate the point, the two made a cup of what they called "American Irish coffee," using brewed coffee, a brown sugar used for baking and conventional whipping cream. I tasted it. It wasn't very good, and worst of all, it couldn't hold its cream. The cream head quickly sank.

By contrast, the Irish coffee made using coffee granules and Turbinado sugar was grand. It was rich, full-bodied, and the flavors sang in harmony. It also featured a remarkable cream head, which Murphy applied with a great deal of showmanship and an inverted spoon.

Holding the spoon over the top of the swirling mixture, he slowly poured heavy cream onto the back of the spoon. The thick white cream rolled off the back of the spoon, cascading into the drink where the whirlpool action of the liquid carried it around the rim of the glass, building a magnificent, 1-inch thick, white crown.

Maybe they can top that in San Francisco, but I doubt it.

The Real McCoy of Irish Coffee

Serves 1

1 teaspoon coarse brown sugar (Turbinado or Demerara)

1 1/2 teaspoons instant coffee granules

1 1/2 ounces Irish whiskey

7 to 8 ounces boiling water

2 tablespoons heavy cream

sprinkles of coffee for top

Place a spoon in the bottom of a 10-ounce glass mug, then rinse mug with boiling water.

First place the sugar, then the coffee crystals, then the whiskey in the mug and stir vigorously.

Pour water to within an inch or two of mug top.

Swirl the mixture with a spoon, creating a mild whirlpool effect on top .

Invert the spoon, place it over the center of the mug and slowly pour the cream over the back of the spoon and into the whirlpool.

Once the cream "head" has formed, top with sprinkles of ground coffee. Sip slowly and think of Ireland.

Per serving: 221 calories; 1 gram protein; 11 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 6 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 41 milligrams cholesterol; 14 milligrams sodium

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