eKC feature
February '04


Roasters Jim Oshel (l) and Jon Cates of the Broadway Cafe and Roastery
keep records of time, temperature and aroma throuought the process,
all the while listening for the beans to "crack."

Well, Americans love their coffee. Americans drink more coffee than any country in the world. Oil is the only product of greater dollar value than coffee when it comes to U.S. imports.

The love for coffee keeps growing here and around the world. Last year 14 billion pounds of coffee was exported from over 50 coffee-producing countries. In 1987, Starbucks had only 17 stores. By the end of 2003, the company had surpassed 5,000 locations. Coffee drinking isn't only an American addiction. On Starbucks' Korean website over 50 locations are listed, and that's just in Seoul.

But do we know what a good cup of coffee is? At the office, or even at home, many of us will drink coffee no matter how bad it tastes. We often pour ourselves a cup, take the first sip, frown and stare at the cup, then loudly ask, “Who made this coffee?” Sometimes it's a joke. Other times we're complaining, but we still drink it.

Many of us have accommodated ourselves to bad, bitter or scorched coffee. We get used to it. But do we have to? Think about it. Maybe getting a perfect cup of coffee isn't so complicated.

Drinking coffee is one of the most exotic things to do. Nearly 2,000 years ago coffee was discovered in the Kaffa region of Ethiopia where forests of wild coffee trees still grow. About 1300 A.D., Yemen, directly east across the Gulf of Aden, became the first country to make coffee an item of trade. Coffee became known as “Arabian wine.” Kevin Johnson, owner of Genova Coffee in Overland Park, thinks it's an apt description since coffee has over 800 flavor variables while wine has only about 400.

In the early 1600s, the Dutch began spreading coffee trees to other areas favorable to their growth. Today the majority of coffee is grown in North Africa, Central and South America, India and Indonesia, basically 20 degrees north or south of the equator with Vietnam turning out increasingly large amounts of lower quality coffee.

Danny O'Neill, owner of The Roasterie and self-proclaimed "Bean Baron", developed his fascination with coffee as a high school exchange student in Costa Rica.

Danny O'Neill, owner of Kansas City's The Roasterie Inc., puts it more poetically, “Coffee grows between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.”

In 1687 in Paris, Venetian traders opened the first coffeehouse. The next year Lloyd's of London, the modern world's largest insurance market, began as a coffee shop. Others sprang up in colonial America. In 1773, the Boston Tea Party was planned in The Green Dragon Tavern, a coffeehouse, and drinking coffee became a sign of rebellion against England.

Coffee trees are so appealing with their shiny dark green leaves and fragrant white flowers that some people grow them as houseplants. However, since they can grow 30 feet tall, so unless you have a really spacious house, you'd better prune them back as coffee farmers do to make them easier to pick.

It takes nearly a year for the tree to produce bunches of bright red coffee cherries. Inside the pulp of a coffee cherry grow two seeds, which, after the pulp has been processed away, we call coffee beans. The coffee cherries can be picked selectively as they turn from green to red, the sign of full ripeness. Or they can be stripped mechanically when some but not all the cherries are fully mature.

Traditionally, coffee farming is very labor intensive. Hand picking coffee cherries is still common and processing coffee cherries also can be labor intensive. Processing the coffee is the first phase of bringing coffee to your cup.

The oldest and cheapest method is dry processing. After picking out any unripe, overripe or damaged cherries, and washing the remainder, the cherries are spread on a hard surface such as a tiled patio or, lacking that, a cloth mat. For two to three weeks the cherries are periodically raked to dry. Then they are “hulled” during which the four dried layers of pulp fall away, exposing the coffee beans and leaving only a parchment covering. This method is still used in western Africa, Indonesia and Brazil. In the mid-20th century a mechanized wet coffee process was developed. It improves coffee's flavor and takes only a few days.

When coffee beans dry to a moisture content of 10 to 12 percent, 125 to 150 pounds are poured into coarse burlap bags for export. This is called “green coffee” because the tan beans often acquire a green caste. Green coffee means unroasted. If brewed without being roasted, green coffee has a grassy taste.

Only after roasting does coffee taste like coffee. Proper roasting brings out the coffee bean's most pleasing flavor and aroma. For example, Jon Cates, owner of Broadway Café and Roastery, says the Harar variety of Ethiopian coffee when roasted to perfection smells like blueberries.

Roasted coffee falls into four color categories: light, medium, medium dark and dark. Light roast is often called cinnamon. Dark roast is sometimes named espresso roast, although the coffee drink, espresso, can be made with any roasted coffee. However since most espresso is made with medium dark or dark roasted beans, espresso roast indicates dark roasting. (And by the way, it's es-presso, not ex-presso.)

Roasting coffee is an art that takes years to learn. After eight years roasting coffee, Cates still keeps minute-by-minute records on Mexican, Costa Rican, Indian or whatever variety of coffee he roasts.
Roasting is done two ways: in a revolving drum or with hot air. O'Neill's Roasterie touts its hot air roasting process. Bill Kaner at Kaner Coffee Shop in Topeka says, “Air roasting never allows the beans to sit on hot metal and scorch.”

Cates and Courtney Bates, owner of the City Market Coffee House, argue that their roasters' revolving tumblers force through air continually during roasting.

Local and regional roasters who buy green coffee from coffee farmers around the world, roast it and then sell it call themselves specialty coffee roasters. Most have a preferred degree of roasting, usually somewhere between medium and very dark, but none roast all coffees the same. Each variety of coffee beans has a level of roast at which its most pleasing flavor emerges.

As for home roasting, David Nepstad, owner of Country Club Café in downtown KC, calls it “the equivalent of home-brewed beer – it's kind of a hobby.”

During the mid-1970s, coffee shops began to proliferate. Starbucks opened its first store in 1971 in an attempt to compete with and set themselves apart from the big canned coffee companies who sold only medium-roasted coffee. Many coffee shops sold dark-roasted coffee.

With the coffee beans picked, processed and roasted, which affects how the coffee tastes, they are ready to sell. Still, it's a path to the coffee cup that coffee drinkers do not control. So how does a coffee drinker get that perfect cup of coffee?

There are two sides to answering that question: whether you are ordering that cup of brewed coffee or espresso in a coffee shop, restaurant or convenience store, or brewing it yourself?

Four factors determine a coffee drinker's satisfaction. Is it freshly roasted, freshly ground, freshly brewed and how long did it take to brew it? Johnson, from Genova Coffee, says asking those questions are vital for getting coffee you like.

Three stages of the bean in the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Medkedem Belete of Addis Ababa Ethiopian Restaurant in Westport starts with green beans (upper left) that are roasted to order (upper right) and ground before brewing.

Within a week after coffee is roasted, two at the outside, coffee begins getting stale. The sooner it's brewed after roasting, the better it will taste. Some roasters say coffee roasted in the last 24 hours is noticeably better. Medkedem Belete, owner of Addis Ababa Ethiopian Restaurant in Westport, roasts and grinds coffee only as customers ask him as part of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, an ancient tradition in his homeland.

Johnson says that after determining when the coffee was roasted, you should then ask when was it ground? O'Neill uses the example of bread served when you're eating out – by the end of your meal the bread has begun to dry out. Likewise, as soon as coffee is ground it starts getting stale. Most major coffee shops in Kansas City grind brewed coffee just before making it. Most espresso is ground as each demitasse cup, cappuccino or latte is ordered.

Coffee tastes best as soon as it's brewed. Once brewed, coffee should be kept in closed thermal pots. Left on a hot burner, it becomes scorched and bitter. Unless the water is between 195 degrees and 205 degrees, coffee will not release its fullest flavor. At lower temperatures coffee's natural bitterness will be exaggerated. Boiling water destroys some of coffee's flavor and flushes out caffeine, which adds bitterness.

Another consideration is how long the coffee took to brew and how much time has lapsed since the brewing.

When coffee is brewed longer than necessary to extract its best flavor, it is said to be over extracted. Coffee releases more than its normal bitterness when over extracted. Espresso is best when the heated water is forced through the ground coffee for only 15 to a maximum of 30 seconds. Brewed drip coffee takes from six to eight minutes.

When ordering coffee, find a shop where you can trust the barista, a person trained in brewing coffee, especially espresso. Many roasters and baristas are students of the characteristics of coffee's varieties and take great pride and care in their skill at roasting or preparing coffee. O'Neill's fascination with coffee developed as a high school exchange student in Costa Rica when for weeks he left at 4:30 each morning to trek into the mountains and pick coffee.

When coffee is brewed at home most coffee-making factors can be controlled, but it requires some effort and diligence. For instance, most home coffee makers do not get water hot enough to extract coffee's best flavor. Johnson suggests buying a top-of-the-line coffee maker that heats the water to 195-205 degrees, such as the KitchenAid coffee maker sold through Williams-Sonoma. It lists for $299.99. Their espresso machine is $899.99.

Johnson also suggests a good burr coffee grinder. The KitchenAid model at Williams-Sonoma lists for $199.99, but Nebraska Furniture has it on sale for $129.99.

If the cost is out of reach, Johnson says a second alternative is to use a French Press and an inexpensive burr grinder. A French Press, or plunger pot as they're sometimes called, can be had for less than twenty dollars. The device is simple to use: Drop in coarsely ground coffee, pour in heated water (195-205 degrees) over the coffee, steep three to four minutes, press down the plunger, and the coffee is ready. Johnson despises the little blade grinders that can be bought for $10 to $15. But if used, he suggests shaking the machine as its grinds so all the beans are ground.

Allison Schauker, manager of HiHat Coffee Shop in Westwood, where it's said baseball great George Brett often stops for his morning cup, says a French Press is the best way to brew coffee. Several other Kansas City roasters agreed.

A third alternative is to heat water on the stove, use an electric cooking thermometer to measure when the water becomes hot enough, then pour it into your coffee maker's reservoir and let the coffee maker pump it through and onto the coffee.

Remember though, the first step for making a perfect cup of coffee at home is to buy fresh coffee. Fresh means freshly roasted. Rebecca Zentveld, an Australian coffee roaster of Australian-grown coffee, says, “Buy your coffee as you would your vegetables – fresh and often,” and buy no more than what can be used in a week or two at most.

Also, experiment with different varieties. Only two types of coffee plants produce beans of commercial importance, arabica and robusta. Robusta has a harsh flavor and, therefore, is never used alone but for instant coffee – which tastes bad anyway – for blending with better-tasting coffee or to punch up the flavor in espresso drinks containing lots of milk or cream.

Seventy percent of all coffee sold around the world is arabica. It has a much more varied, smoother, milder taste than robusta, and is used almost exclusively by roasters in the KC area.

Realizing the variety of coffee, as with wine, broadens its appeal. Take, for example, the winy taste of Columbian Supremo, the smoothness of Kona or the earthiness of Mexican Chiapas. Malabar coffee from southern India is a monsooned coffee, meaning that before shipping it's stored in open-sided warehouses exposed to the sea's heavy humidity during the monsoon season. This develops a smooth flavor and spicy aroma that people around the world have come to like.

Testing the taste buds can be a mix and match – dark roast in one variety and light or medium roast in another. Bates, from City Market Coffee House, thinks Guatemalan and Costa Rican coffees are best after light roasting.

Buy whole bean, not ground, coffee. Air, heat and moisture are the enemies of freshness and flavor. Once ground, coffee gets stale quickly. O'Neill says to prolong freshness keep your coffee in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.

After grinding coffee to brew, use good, cool water. Good water means there's not a lot of chlorine or bad tasting minerals in it. Use bottled spring water or filtered water if your water tastes bad.
Grind coffee properly for the brewing method. The finer the grind the faster the brewing should be. Espresso uses the finest grind and the fastest brew, 15 to 30 seconds. The French Press uses a coarse grind and takes three to four minutes to extract the coffee's flavor.

Use enough coffee. Because Americans drink so much stale, scorched and generally bad, bitter coffee, they often try compensating by making coffee weak. Coffee is most flavorful when one to two tablespoons of ground coffee are used per six ounces of water. When someone who had been drinking weak, under-brewed coffee tastes coffee made using enough freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee in adequately heated water, the reaction is often, “Oh, this is too strong!” But it's a good bet that once the full coffee flavor is experienced, weak coffee will be banished for good. If weak coffee remains your choice, but with full coffee flavor and body, add plain hot water after the coffee has brewed.

Drink coffee as soon as it's made. Coffee, even when kept in airtight thermal carafes, begins to taste old and bitter after 45 minutes.

Fair Trade, and economic and social issues surrounding it, is another important coffee issue. In spite of demand, coffee prices are at a 70-year low. A coffee farm averages less than twelve acres, and in Indonesia less than two acres. Many coffee farmers' families live at subsistence levels. Fair Trade on the coffee label means that the coffee farmer belonged to a cooperative that receives a guaranteed price for his coffee crop.

Fair Trade selling and buying agreements also involve religious or moral concerns. A student group at Rockhurst University, Voices for Justice, used religious arguments to convince the administration to buy and serve only Fair Trade coffee at the university. The term “songbird friendly” expresses ecological concerns about farmland for coffee growing. Bates says “songbird friendly” and “shade grown” coffee often mean the same thing.

Two recently released studies indicate drinking coffee has health benefits. One study reported a reduced risk of developing diabetes, the other a reduced risk of colon cancer.

Coffee is an intrinsic part of life for many Americans, and getting that perfect cup of coffee takes some time and effort. But coffee drinkers can't deny that coffee is the ultimate “wake-up” and keeps a lot of us going through the day. It's worth making sure your coffee tastes as good as possible.

Online Sources for Information about Coffee

Coffeegeek.com – A source of brewing tips, reviews of coffee brewing equipment and price checks.
Coffeekids.org – Information about an organization dedicated to the needs of children in coffee-growing areas.
Thehumanbean.com – A commercial enterprise by the Zapatista Coffee Cooperative members in Chiapas, Mexico. Also a source of information by coffee farmers about Fair Trade, shade grown coffee and organic coffee.
Coffeereview.com – Bills itself as the world's leading coffee buying guide. The coffee reference tab contains a huge amount of information from coffee basics to coffee growing to coffee culture.
Espressoguy.com – The Coffee 101 section contains information on espresso machines, sources for repair parts, coffee plants, bean basics, roasting guides, different grinds and environmental issues. The how-to guide gives extensive advice on using a variety of equipment and brewing methods.


Making Sense of Roasting Terms

Various terms are often used in different areas of the country and world, or by different companies (for marketing purposes), to describe similar degrees of roast. Lighter roasts are sourer. Darker beans produce sweeter coffee due to the carmelization of sugar in the beans. Coffee roasters listen for "cracks" as coffee beans roast. The first crack sounds like popcorn popping and beans give off the aroma of bread baking. The second crack is described as the sound of crisped rice cereal after milk is poured in the bowl. One roaster says, "The third crack comes just before the beans burst into flames."

Light Roast (light brown)
New England

Medium Roast
Full City
Medium Dark
French (just after the second crack)
City Roast

Dark Roast
Italian (well past the second crack)
Spanish (the darkest roast, almost burned)

Enemies of Good Coffee

Water below 195 degrees – Water that's too cool fails to extract full flavor from coffee, giving instead weak coffee that lacks body and flavor.
Boiling water – Boiling water destroys flavor and exaggerates coffee's natural bitterness by extracting caffeine that is also bitter.
Air, moisture, heat and sunlight – Prolonged exposure to any of these causes coffee to become stale and lose flavor.
Using a grind that's not appropriate for the brewing method – Coffee that's ground too fine for the brewing method will be bitter; coffee that's too coarse will taste weak and watery.
Underbrewing or overbrewing – When coffee is not left in water long enough, it fails to extract pleasing flavors within the bean. When it's left too long the hot water leeches out acids and oils that proper brewing would leave in the coffee.

Coffeehouse Poetry





If God came to earth
He would go to PT's
4 espresso
and probably ask them 4
an application for work, or
ask the owner to put a
PT's in heaven so He could
be the manager.

–Cory Meyer, KCK (reader submission)



I was halfway through my third triple espresso when she walked in the door.

She had that caffeinated coffee house look. Dressed in black, of course, and her skin had the pallor of someone raised in a closet. Her eyes, red streaked road maps, were sunk inside deep, dark, racoonish circles.

A tiny little bongo player banged triplets on my heart.

–from Coffee by Tom Lang
(Boudelang Press, www.boudelang.com)


From Common Grounds
you see
children gambol on the
courthouse green.
These prairie flowers dance
in the last bucolic scene.

Since a century little time
for thought
or gain
Off to Cindy's I will go to
watch the
children on the plain.

–Dick Nichols, Olathe, KS (reader submission)


Strong Medicine

At the end of the month he sits and counts his pills
His doc, she thinks he's selling them for gain
Or maybe taking them to cop the thrills
he gets from being half relieved of pain.

Morphine, hydrocodone, percodan
All taken since that awful bloody day
The ARVN turned its back
though he – U.S. Marine – was trained to stay

And then one day a burglar took them all
Ran faster than his chair's hand-powered wheels
His doc, she said to tough out the withdrawal
the DEA forbids early refills
Unfortunately, when they taught him not to run
They also taught him how to use a gun.

–Jim Cooley, KCMO (reader submission)

(each poet received a $20 certificate to an area restaurant)

View the 2004 Golden Bean winners


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