“I don’t know where my ideas come from. I will admit, however, that one key ingredient is caffeine. I get a couple cups of coffee into me and weird things just start to happen.”
― Gary Larson
Isn’t that the case with most of us? Coffee, and the presence of caffeine has become one of those necessities in life. It is, oftentimes, the first thing we consume in the morning and the last thing before sleep. In a restaurants kitchen, coffee is the lifeblood of production. The juice that keeps use motivated to blast through that impossible list of mise en place before service and the fuel that keeps everyone’s senses dialed up to “10” on the volume scale as the printer spits out orders from the dining room.
Cooks, like many others in various professions (pick one, any one, we all use coffee in the same way) have viewed coffee as a commodity. Like gasoline for your car, we frequently neglect any discrimination by brand, source or bean; it keeps the car moving, or it keeps us moving. As long as it has a high enough octane level, we will consume it. Whether your fix is black, with cream and sugar, scalding hot, cold and packed with ice, espresso or cappuccino, the intent is to USE coffee to bring about a result – maintaining your energy level.
I would equate what is happening with coffee in recent years with the typical transition people go through when first being introduced to wine. There is the initial reaction of a turned up nose and a grimace on your face as the bitter attack of coffee or wine tells your senses to resist. After a few more tries, we become accustomed to the product and, like with any other consumable, we drink without emotion, only to reap some type of benefit (an alcohol or caffeine buzz). When people ask, “Do you enjoy coffee or wine?” The response is usually plain vanilla, “Not really.”
Over time, the consumption of wine or coffee becomes a habit, a part of our routine. “I’ll have a glass of red or white, or, I’ll have a black coffee or coffee with cream.” You drink a product you are accustomed to, but rarely emotional about. Will you drink wine from a box? “Sure, why not?” Do you want Folgers, Chock Full of Nuts, Green Mountain, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks? “Whatever, as long as it is black and hot.”
“Our culture runs on coffee and gasoline, the first often tasting like the second.”
― Edward Abbey, Down the River
Those who take the leap to learn about wine or coffee, can, over time, build a discriminating palate for the beverage. This can be an enjoyable process, elevating wine or coffee from commodity status to something that is treasured, respected, and even relished. The interesting thing is building a coffee palate and understanding why products are different is very similar to building a wine palate. When this happens, great coffee, like great wine, becomes something to seek out; an experience that can take center stage.
“Coffee is a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself. It gives you time, but not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself, and have a second cup”
― Gertrude Stein, Selected Writings
Coffee has an incredibly interesting history. The integration of the product into the politics, economics, religion and philosophical discussions throughout time is certainly worth a study. Coffee is a part of mankind’s buffet of culture. This fantastic beverage is a universal language that serves the Middle East, Africa, Europe, South America, parts of Asia, and certainly the United States.
There are numerous stories regarding the discovery of coffee; whether it was a shepherd following the lead of his flock who were seen chewing the red coffee cherries and falling over from a caffeine stupor or something more scientific, we may never know. All would agree, however, the origins of the product are Ethiopia and Yemen. The first coffee houses sprung up in Mecca and quickly spread throughout the Arabian trade routes. The Dutch, apparently brought the beans through Indonesian and then with Venetian traders to Europe.
The first known coffee houses in Europe, began in Italy, and in 1720 the Caffe’ Florian opened in the Piazza San Marco. This plush coffee house is still operating.
Around the same time, coffee gatherings were happening in the centers of New York and Boston. I hadn’t realized, until I did some research, that The New York Stock Exchange began in a coffee house on what would become, Wall Street. Of course, we all know the Boston Tea Party, presented as a protest to the tea tax, was organized in a Boston coffee house.
What is most important about coffee houses is they were the portal for intellectual and political (note that I separated the two) discussions both in Europe and America. In all likelihood, the plans for the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution were designed with a cup of coffee in hand. This opportunity to converse on important topics is the hallmark of coffee houses, something that, in recent years, has been re-created from coast to coast. One could almost feel the creative energy in modern American coffee houses, the place where many business start-ups, brilliant theories and creative relationships are nurtured. Starbucks greatest contribution to America may very well be as an incubator for the greatest business ideas of the 21st century; an incubator fueled by coffee.
Whether or not coffee is healthy or harmful is constantly debated. A world without it, however, would seem very hard to swallow. There is just as much debate over the benefits and harm from wine consumption as well. The goal should always be quality over quantity.
For many years in restaurants, I was guilty of leaving ½ cups of consumed coffee from one end of the kitchen to the next. There was always a cup close by, rarely an empty one. As time passed, I began to build an appreciation for coffee made from exceptional beans, ground close to the time of brewing, served at the right temperature with the appropriate balance of water to grounds, brewed using the right method, and served (a very important piece to the formula) in the right cup or mug. Early on in my coffee drinking days I would have thought that much of this was nonsense, especially, the “right cup.” I can assure you, all of this is important to those who respect making the perfect cup.
Just as there is a protocol for selecting, serving and drinking the right wine, so too does this apply to coffee. The beans (from my perspective) should be Arabica and not Robusta, preferably from South America. Terroir is just as important to coffee as it is to grapes for great wine. The roast is complete after the second or in some cases, third crack and the beans are rich in color. The process of roasting brings out the oil in the beans where most of the flavor resides.
Store the beans in an airtight container to preserve the freshness and grind within an hour of brewing. Much of the flavor and aroma is lost shortly after grinding. Just as an important part of the wine experience is aroma (bouquet), so too is the bouquet of coffee important.
Brew with quality water (filtered) at a temperature of around 200 degrees (not boiling). Use the brewing device that reflects your taste. I prefer a French Press because I enjoy bold coffee; some prefer a simple pour-over brewer for a lighter and fruitier flavor profile. No, you don’t need to give up your Keurig or Mr. Coffee; they still have their place.
Concerning the right cup, I make the comparative case with wine. For the longest time I could never understand why someone would spend $20 or more for a Riedl glass, and a specific glass at that, to host their wine. Really, does it make a difference? The answer is, absolutely! I had the pleasure of attending a Riedl glassware tasting and to my surprise the difference in flavor was undeniable. I believe the same is true with coffee. Depending on the environment, bean, roast and method of brewing, I would prefer a thin china cup for exceptional coffee and a big old, heavy mug when drawing from my Keurig. It is a matter of taste, but believe me, it does make a difference.
Finally, from a chef’s perspective there are a few things to keep in mind. First, coffee is important to your staff, but it can add significant dollars to your food cost if you don’t keep it in check. I have worked in many kitchens where the staff drinks more coffee than the customers. Providing a good, moderate coffee for staff consumption is fine, they will drink a lot. The role of the beverage is to aid in productivity and keep the staff upright through service. Those line cooks who need their espresso lined up before and during service might be willing to pay a few dollars for that privilege. Whatever you choose, just be sure to track the cost – you might be surprised.
For the paying guest, the coffee should match the perception of the restaurant and the value statement you are trying to create. A good guide would be to look at your wine list. If the average cost of a bottle is $25, then buy beans that match that price point. If you emphasize $100+ bottles on your list then spend as much effort on the selection, storage, brewing and service of the coffee as you do that bottle of Opus One.
In all cases, “Life is too short to drink bad coffee.”
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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