Thursday, December 23, 2010


By the time I went to "sixth grade camp" - a week away at camp during the school year - I had cultivated enough of a coffee addiction that I brought with me a canister of contraband instant coffee that I ate by the dry spoonful to get my fix. Attempts at adding the right amount of sugar and cream at afterchurch fellowships had failed me, so I had eventually succeeded in being hooked on coffee by that Four Loko of coffee, that mango-bubblegum-flavored cigarette of caffeine: General Foods International Coffee.

This stuff is ridiculous.

If you're over 15 and still drinking it, you should shamefully walk to the kitchen right now and toss that miserable shit out.

As sweet as Swiss Miss hot cocoa, with none of the earthiness or acidity of coffee, General Foods International Coffee and its Rand-McNally flavor assortment was coffee for people who don't know how to like coffee even before Starbucks set up shop - coffee with so much sugar added, so much Other Flavor, that you'd never know you were drinking coffee. It's perfect for a 12 year old trying to like coffee.

Real coffee drinking eventually followed. My first year of college I joined Gevalia Kaffe to get the free coffee maker. The coffee's not great but was probably better than what I could have gotten in supermarkets at the time - remember, twentysomethings reading my blog, I am older than you, I come from an age before Starbucks, which I never even encountered until several years into college, and continued to ignore until they eventually made their way into malls and Targets.

The Pioneer Valley, where I started college, had its own coffee culture long before Starbucks displaced much of it - that was where I first encountered espresso, lattes, soup bowls of cappuccino. (Trips to coffee shops in Denver and Boulder the previous summer had mostly been milkshake-focused. This one place had multiple varieties of coffee milkshakes. Awesome.) Sure, a lot of the coffee drinks were overly sweetened - I was a big fan at 18 of the Milky Way latte at Pioneer Valley Coffee, which if I remember right had a shot of Torani Caramel and a shot of Torani Hazelnut.

Hazelnut coffee was huge in the Pioneer Valley. Seriously, if you had a choice of two kinds of coffee, they were hazelnut and decaf. Unflavored regular was the third option, you know? And this came up a lot, because it was the kind of place where even the bookstores sold coffee - no, not like the big bookstore chains' in-house coffee shops now, I mean that a lot of the bookstores just had thermal carafes set up. Why wouldn't you buy a coffee and a Free Peltier button while flipping through Girl Interrupted, after all? Why wouldn't you?

Hazelnut coffee and tiramisu. Those were the staples of the Pioneer Valley. Maybe they still are, but last time I visited, Pioneer Valley Coffee had become a Starbucks, and so had damn near everything else.

When I moved to New Orleans, naturally there was a strong coffee culture there too. One reason I dodged Starbucks so long is because it opened in Amherst my last year there, and then when I moved from Amherst to New Orleans, it was like setting the Starbucks clock back again - the place hadn't quite caught on there, because while the Pioneer Valley had a local coffee culture, it was - like Starbucks' - a latte-driven coffee culture. New Orleans' was not, and instead of piggybacking on existing popularity, Starbucks had to compete with a different, and cheaper, style of coffee. I don't think Starbucks really caught on down there until it had become a truly national phenomenon - and national phenomena take a few years to trickle down the Mississippi to the Delta anyway.

What you get in New Orleans more often than not is coffee and chicory. This wasn't my first introduction to it: the friends I visited in Colorado that aforementioned visit drank coffee and chicory, and Vietnamese restaurants commonly use it, so I'd been exposed to it in a variety of contexts even before I sat down at Cafe du Monde for cafe au lait and beignets.

Though there's really no beating that.

Chicory is an extender. You replace some of the coffee grounds with chicory, and your coffee lasts longer. That was the idea originally, anyway - these days you can get coffee cheaper than chicory, and a canister of premixed coffee and chicory will cost you near as much in New Hampshire as a bag of higher quality whole bean coffee. But the original idea, the whole reason there is such a thing, is that chicory can substitute for part of the coffee so you can stretch your supply out.

Chicory is much harder to grind than coffee beans, so all coffee and chicory blends come pre-ground, which means they lose flavor and freshness much faster. A better option is to buy chicory separately - New Orleans supermarkets will have it sometimes, and it's easy to find online - and mix it with the beans once you've ground them.

These days I buy most of my coffee from New Hampshire micro-roastery Black Bear, where my cost including shipping is a little more than $8 per pound - considerably cheaper than buying coffee of comparable quality in the store. I get the coffee a couple days after roasting, and bag it in valve bags. I grind it in a burr grinder and steep it in a French press, Bialetti Moka, or Vietnamese coffee filter.

(I've liked every coffee I've had from Black Bear, though I wish they had a lighter roast option. I especially like the Peaberry - I've always liked Peaberry coffee - and the Kenya AA.)

So I've basically got my coffee routines figured out now. The French press is my everyday go-to coffee method. The Moka makes something that isn't espresso but is closer than anything else you'll get at home without spending hundreds of dollars on a decent espresso maker. The Vietnamese coffee filter, which I don't use often because it makes such small amounts, is for Vietnamese style coffee - it drips directly into the cup.

But there's still a lot I'm discovering.

For instance, cascara, which I bought from Sweet Maria's but which they're currently out of (they do have the similar but subtler qishr from Yemen):


Like coffee beans, cascara comes from the fruit of the coffee plant - the coffee cherry. The bean is the seed; cascara is the dried husk of the fruit. Like coffee-leaf tea, it's only commonly drunk in coffee-growing parts of the world where it's more practical to export coffee beans instead of consuming them, and so other parts of the plant are used for cheap domestic consumption. Unlike coffee-leaf tea - which is caffeinated but has little flavor other than "tastes like leaves" - it has a unique flavor of its own, somewhat fruity and hibiscus-like (with less acidity). Add a little sugar, some hibiscus, maybe a little cinnamon, and it makes a good caffeinated fruit punch.

And of course I'm sure it has a crapload of antioxidants and glucowhosawhats and magic fucking pixie dust and what the hell ever, so by all means, let it be the next superfruit, I'd love to be able to pick up some coffee juice in the store.

I'm not done yet - there's more to say about coffee!

For instance, there's aged coffee. This is coffee that, while still green, is aged for 2 or more years, lowering the acidity and boosting the body. Aging coffee - like adding chicory - wrecks a lot of what cuppers look for in "a good cup of coffee," but you know ... so what? I mean, the Japanese hate the toasted crust of rice that can form at the bottom of a pot, while Persian cuisine builds entire meals around it.

There is never a single right way to prepare an ingredient.

I'm drinking a cup of aged coffee at the moment, and it's kind of amazing. I like acidity in coffee, but I still like this low-acid, funky, deep-flavored ... thing. I actually don't know how to describe it: sure, it's still coffee, and if you just down whatever the Denny's waitress has put in front of you, I don't know if you'd notice the difference. But there's definitely something crazy going on in this mug.

Also from Muddy Dog, the Monsooned Malabar I had last night. This is coffee that's really had the shit kicked out of it -

Arabica coffee is spread on the floor of the special monsooning warehouse in Mangalore, raked and turned around by hand to enable them to soak in moisture of the humid winds. The monsooning process takes around 12 to 16 months of duration, where in the beans swell to twice their original size and turn into pale golden color.

The Muddy Dog blog has a whole entry on the monsooning process, which is pretty cool. The coffee's very earthy, pungent, kind-of-like-dirt-in-a-good-way, but it's the aged peaberry I'll be buying again - this stuff is addictive.


  1. dude, this is a few more mentions of Starbucks away from being a 'damn new coffee kids, get off my lawn' rant :)

  2. I know - the criticism against Starbucks is actually overstated, in that they introduced espresso drinks to a lot of places. But they also displaced a lot of existing coffee shops, and I miss the ones that used to be there.

    At the same time the defense of Starbucks can be hard to take seriously when so many of the customers are walking out with drinks so sugared up the espresso is barely noticeable. It's like hiding the peas in the mashed potatoes.