December 9, 2010
Coffee is old. Hundreds of generations before the advent of pre-ground “flavor crystals”, people were drinking a brew not so very different from your very own morning cup. It is the everyman drink, whether chairman of a multinational or Yemeni villager, coffee plays an important (some would even say vital!) role in your daily schedule. There is, however, a more recent tradition in coffee that is almost exclusively enjoyed in the first world and almost exclusively in a cafe. This tradition has been called “the pinnacle” of coffee perfection and yet very little of it is actually understood by professionals and even less so by the lay person. The tradition I am talking about, as some of you may have already guessed, is espresso. Unadulterated, it can transform your idea of what coffee can be. Add dairy and you create a whole new avenue for artisans to express and challenge themselves. This is the first part of a two (or maybe more) part series of posts on espresso.
Birth of a tradition:
It was in 1901 that Luigi Bazzera, a Milanese entrepreneur, set out to find a way of increasing the productivity of his employees. His main concern was the wasteful coffee breaks that, by law, he had to provide for his employees. So, he put all of his turn-of-the-century ingenuity to work and patented a device which he called the Tipo Gigante. The principle behind his invention was to force water, using steam pressure, through a puck of coffee out a spout and into a cup in a fraction of the time any other machine took. To this extent his machine was a resounding success! The only problem was that the resulting brew was repulsively bitter and burnt tasting and nobody wanted to drink it.
So, frustrated with his own invention, Bazzera sold his patent to the Tipo Gigante in 1905 to Desiderio Pavoni. Pavoni made a few changes to Bezzera’s original design, which helped improve the flavor of the resulting beverage which led to a dramatic rise in espresso’s popularity. La Pavoni would be the first espresso machine manufacturing company, followed shortly thereafter by Victoria Arduino (who’s iconic advertisements are still reprinted as art pieces), La Cimbali, La Marzocco and Rancilio. Desiderio Pavoni’s changes to the original Tipo Gigante helped enormously to popularize espresso and soon La Pavoni became the standard appliance for chic cafes all over Europe. This method of brewing would remain relatively popular in industrialized Western Europe, where coffee break lasted but a few precious minutes, but a new kind of espresso bar was evolving.
Despite the improvements that had been made on Bazzera’s original patent, they were all limited by their reliance on steam pressure for brewing. This means that not only did they almost invariably burn the coffee, but also the barista had virtually no control over the resulting shot. So, in 1938 Achille Gaggia, founder of the Italian espresso machine manufacturing company Gaggia, patented a piston-driven espresso machine. The seemingly simple addition of a piston-pump offered the barista greater control over the length of the shot, the amount of pressure used to force the water out of the boiler. Also, for the first time, the barista was able to perform a low-pressure preinfusion before beginning the full pressure brew phase. This was a complete departure from what espresso had been before towards the drink we know and love today. Gaggia’s design is also where the phrase “pulling a shot” derives from. This is because the barista had to physically pull the piston lever down in order to apply pressure to the hot water in the boiler and produce a shot. Very simple mechanics, but they demand a high level of knowledge, attention and skill from the barista in order to produce great espresso. Realizing the market for companies that wanted to brew espresso but don’t want the attached cost of training every employee to very exacting brewing methods, Faema released their E61 espresso machine in 1960. This machine featured an internal, motor-driven pump, which would provide consistent, adequate (about 9 atmospheres) pressure for the entire length of the brew process. The skill required for operation was dramatically lowered, and consistency went way up. To this day, mechanical pump espresso machines (with some variations) remain the most popular design for commercial applications.
In part 2, I will detail the current trends in the espresso world as well as try to dispel a few prevailing myths out there.
January 14, 2010
Venice (Mother of Cafes):
Although coffee had been consumed in so-called “coffeehouses” by many different peoples across Africa and the Middle East for decades, the first Italian cafe did not arrive on the scene until 1645 with the opening of the Cafe Florian in Venice. Although initially coffee was greeted in Venice with a great degree of skepticism, the people soon fell in love with the “Turk’s brew”. The Florian was spacious, ornately decorated with gold leaf and watercolor paintings on the walls, and in other words strictly forbidden to those of the lower classes (although they had their own cafes). But especially unwanted were the Turks and any other foreigners, because at that time the Venetians did not like foreigners and didn’t even want to associate with them. So, they too had their own separate cafes. The most notable of which being the Cafe Lavena which opened up in the year 1750 (albeit under a different name) by Carlo Lavena. Cafe Lavena had it’s fair share of famous customers, but Richard Wagner, who would visit daily with his family to write music and converse with Carlo Lavena himself would eventually become such a fixture at the cafe that it earned the nickname of “Wagner’s cafe”. Amusingly, at the same time that the German Richard Wagner was composing music and socializing at the Lavena, the Italian Giuseppe Verdi was doing the same at the Florian. Neither ever thought to cross the dividing wall and meet the other.
Although today the French are renowned for their corner cafes attended by philosophers, writers, politicians and film stars alike, coffee did not catch on in France until the late 1684, well after the opening of the Florian. But suddenly in Paris (thanks partly to Soleiman Agha, Ambassador from Sultan Mehmed IV), there was a craze for all things Arab. Their clothing, their sofas and especially their coffee. The French were eager to make up for lost time when it came to coffee, but there was a problem: They didn’t know how to make it. so, It was up to an Italian named Procopio del Cortel who saw the profit to be made in Paris to open the first “french cafe”. In France, just like everywhere else, coffee came to be associated with sex. It was reputed to be an aphrodisiac for men and thus became very popular among women in opposition to wine which was seen as harmful to a man’s “performance”. And also just like everywhere else, along with cafes came the cafe culture, because when coffee replaces wine and other alcohols, suddenly people can have long, coherent conversation, something which can prove not only to be informative, but seditious and even outright treasonous.
Oddly enough the first coffeehouse in Europe was opened in Oxford, England, by a Jewish immigrant from Lebanon in 1650. Of course initially British coffee merchants sold coffee to the gullible citizens as a cure for dyspepsia, eye-sores, coughs, colds, rheumatism, consumption, head-aches, gout, scurvy, etc. Ironically, they fail to mention the one thing that coffee is believed to be good for today. As Reay Tannahill mentions in her book Food in History, “Modern research does, in fact, suggest coffee may be good for…Asthma. It is also thought to reduce the chance of developing cancer of the colon.”
Coffee took England by storm. By 1700 there were 2,000 coffeehouses in London alone. The English introduced coffee to the East Indies where they brought thousands of Tamil laborers from South india to work on their coffee plantations in Sri Lanka. The repercussions of this can still be seen in Sri Lankan politics to this day. Coffee houses became known as “Penny Universities” in reference to the price of the coffee as well as the stimulating conversation. However, in England, women were strictly forbidden from coffeehouses unless they worked there (in which case they were probably one of the many prostitutes who earned their living there.), thus coffeehouses became more like gentleman’s clubs. But, once again coffee became associated with sex, but this time to it’s detriment. The women of England noticed that their husbands after coming home from a coffeehouse would tend to be less than responsive to their advances in the bedroom. So, since women had no idea that some of those men had already gotten their fill at the coffeehouse, the women assumed that there must be something about the coffee itself which inhibits the man’s libido. The ladies of London even went so far as to publish a pamphlet called the “Maiden’s Complaint” which among other things accused coffee of causing their men to “…have nothing moist but their noses, nothing stiff but their joints, and nothing standing but their ears”.
The men then wrote a response stating that it was in fact the complete opposite and that coffee actually made them better lovers. However, regardless of how popular coffee was with the men, the ladies and the children were becoming more and more hooked on a new brew called tea. Suddenly, by the 1800’s tea houses were sprouting up everywhere and partially because of it’s refined simplicity and partly because of it’s family-friendly atmosphere the tea house would come to completely replace coffee in English culture.
December 16, 2009
Hello again! Well, after a relatively long hiatus I have returned to brighten up your collective days with more information on our very favorite bean (well, actually it’s a the pit of a cherry, but “coffee pit” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it). On today’s menu is a bit of the history behind this “magic” brew:
A landlocked country (since the independence of Eritrea) in the Eastern part of Africa, this country is considered the birthplace of coffee. Aside from the legends of Kaldi the goatherder who found that his goats became excited after eating the berries of the coffee trees, the exact discoverer of coffee’s stimulating properties is unknown. However, it is generally accepted that Ethiopians were cultivating and using the coffee berry as far back as the 9th Century AD. Even to this day coffee trees grow wild in the Kaffa highlands where they were first discovered. For Ethiopians, coffee not only provides around 2/3 of the total exports for the entire country but it is also a source of heartfelt pride. The Ethiopian people have developed an elaborate ceremony for coffee preparation and consumption (which can sometimes take as long as a few hours to complete) and they perform it at least three times a day. This ceremony is considered to foster strong familial bonds as the entire family is gathered together during this ritual. Only the youngest female of the household is allowed to roast and brew the coffee and the eldest member of the family is always served first. The beverage is poured from a height of approxamitely a foot to allow the aroma to permeate the room, and then flavored with sugar or salt. If a guest is invited to coffee in an Ethiopian household, it is considered an insult if the guest does not drink at least three cups as the third cup is considered to bestow blessing.
By the 10th Century, coffee had spread to Sudan and across the Red Sea to Yemen where it was called “qahhwat al-bun” (wine of the bean), or qahwa for short. The first coffee trees cultivated in Yemen are believed to have been of the Arabica species, one of the oldest and most respected for it’s flavor and aroma. Coffee was welcomed by Yemeni authorities because it was seen as a better alternative to Qhat. Qhat is a slow-growing shrub, who’s leaves were actively consumed by residents of East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as a narcotic. The leaves contain the alkaloid Cathinone which, when chewed, produce an amphetamine-like response lasting for around an hour followed by a nauseating “come-down” . Qhat was widely considered to cause lethargy, aggression, various stomach problems, tooth decay, as well as sexual impotence. Coffee however was associated with religious devotion as it was important to the Sufis (aka the whirling dervishes) for them to stay awake during their long nighttime ceremonies where they hoped that by spinning rapidly for hours they could enter a trance-like state and make contact with the divine. The sufis, after gathering in Yemen for their devotions, would return to their homes and they would bring the knowledge of coffee back with them, thus spreading coffee farther to the Middle East, Persia and Turkey.
It was in Turkey that coffee was raised from just a mere stimulant to a passion. As the Arab Empire was expanding in the Middle East, Turkey became the epicenter for the coffeehouse and coffee culture. According to the historian Ibrahim Peçevi Efendi, the first coffeehouse in the world was built in the Tahtalkala district of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in the Ottoman Empire (Modern-day Turkey) around 1554 AD. The importance of the coffeehouse to the history of the world can not be exxagerated. The coffeehouse represented something that had never been seen anywhere before; it was a place where men (women were strictly prohibited due to segregation of the sexes), nobles and commoners alike, could gather and play games, hear the latest gossip, and most importantly they could have educated discussions. This fact would later give coffeehouses a reputation as a den of dissidence and revolution. Coffee in Turkey was never to be questioned until Sultan Murat III who, after hearing about people in coffeehouses drawing lewd and humorous pictures of him, placed a ban on coffee. Murat’s justification for the ban was that Turkey is a muslim state, and alcohol as well as all stimulants (i.e. coffee) are strictly forbidden according to the Qur’an. The punishment for using stimulants is immediate execution. Murat III’s ban would be in effect until 1595 when he died and the following sultan reversed it, and coffee has thrived in Turkey ever since. The Turks prepare coffee over an open flame in a long-handled pot called an Ibrik. The coffee is finely ground and put in the Ibrik along with water and a healthy dose of sugar and heated repeatedly before being poured, grounds and all, into cups. The result, aptly named Turkish Coffee, is thick, strong, sweet and complex. Turkish Coffee was popular in its homeland as a dessert drink. It was not until 1573 (when the German Physician and botanist Leonhard Rauwolf made note of a “noxious” drink which he called Chaub) that Europe would be introduced to this intoxictating beverage.
November 24, 2009
November 24, 2009
Hey guys! So last week I ordered and received an 8-pound sampler of green coffees selected by the folks at sweetmarias.com. On Thursday, I loaded a cup of their “Sulawesi Tana Toraja Ke’pe” into my brand new whirley-pop for the first time and the result was a pretty darn good coffee. But…it could have been better. However this is not actually a reflection on the coffee itself but my mistakes during the roasting process. Nothing really big went wrong which, considering my culinary ability, is rather lucky, but there were some things I learned not to do:
First off, I was roasting on my stovetop, and I was constantly fiddling with the temperature controls because I wasn’t sure what was too hot or too cool. The end product was quite light as I hit first crack and thought I was in second already and scrambled to cool it down. Also, a lesson I learned was to refrain from opening the little door and looking into the pot as much as possible, because it produces a very uneven roast.
The final challenge came during cool-down. It soon became very apparent that my system (a large, cold aluminum pot) was not nearly efficient enough. It took approximately 3 minutes to cool the beans to room temperature. According to the people who know, that is much too long.
The next morning, I brewed a cup for myself and my family. Like I said above, it was pretty good. The aroma was very sweet and nutty, the unevenness only seemed to add a tad more depth, it was sweet and had a very bright fruity tone. However, it was not a balanced cup. It was lacking on the lower end, almost too sweet (once again not a problem with the beans but the roast).
This time I came prepared. About an hour before roasting, I put both the pot and a pie tin in the freezer for the cool-down phase. Then I measured out a cup and a half of the “India Organic Jasmine Estate Yellikudige”, preheated the whirley pop and tossed in the beans. Despite all the weird sounds and smells, I completely refrained from looking and relied on my other senses (well, maybe I looked once or twice, but only for a second!). I heard first crack and I bravely marched past it until a minute through second crack. Then I dumped the beans into the pan, from the pan to the tin, and carried the tin outside into the 53 degree air. They cooled in under 2 minutes. Success was finally mine! The beans were dark and oily, a fine French Roast if I do say so myself. Much more even than the last batch and much tastier.
The flavor was clean, complex and nutty, with definite citrus accents. The sweetness blended perfectly with the subtle acidity. Sweet Maria’s mentions floral notes which are definitely present in this cup.
Anyways, this is getting a little lengthy so, in conclusion I’ll say these first two roasts have been very instructive and I will keep you guys posted as I walk, crawl and stumble blindly through the dark on my way to coffee nirvana. Hope to see you there,
November 2, 2009
So I’ve been researching coffee this past month before I start roasting and selling my own, and have been very impressed with the amount of information there is out there on every question you could ever think to ask about coffee. there are many websites dedicated to roasting, grinding, brewing, growing, history, folklore, ad infinitum. This is all because coffee is surpassed only by fine wines in terms of variety, flavor characteristics, complexity, association with production area and (of course) just plain snobbery.
The question that then comes to mind is why do so many people settle for the bare minimum of coffee palatability? Certainly it’s not a matter of economics because even top grade coffees can be purchased at a half what you would pay for them in-store if you buy the beans green and roast them on your own time. Also, simply buying whole beans and grinding them as needed gives one a very sizable increase in quality without any real increase in price.
Could it be time? Possibly some people are just so busy that they can’t afford those 15-20 seconds it takes to grind coffee, or the 7-15 minutes it would take to roast a pound of coffee. Maybe I’m out of touch, but I can’t really buy that excuse. If anything I think it’s the perception of lack of time rather than an actual one.
No, to me the most plausible explanation as to why people are drinking coffee which would serve better as plant fertilizer is a combination of a market that is so inundated with cheap alternatives passing themselves off as something more than what they are and consumers who don’t educate themselves beyond what the label tells them. We live in an age when anyone can access information instantaneously that previously was only available, if at all, after extensive time-consuming research. There is no reason why coffee drinkers should not be able to explain the difference between Arabica and Robusta coffees or why one should buy whole beans over pre-ground at least, because these things have a direct impact on the quality of the cup they drink. The internet is a good source (if used with skepticism and caution) for anything you could need to know about coffee as well as many other things.
Now, I realize that in the real world, enjoying a really good cup of coffee is not on the top of everybody’s list because either they don’t like coffee all that much or they’ve just got much better things to do, and that’s okay. But, it’s my belief that if those people were given a cup of joe worth savoring and then given a choice, they would not go back to what they used to call coffee.
I was talking with someone I know not long ago who has repeatedly told me that she thinks coffee is disgusting without loads of sugar and cream. I then inquired as to what kind of coffee she drinks. Of course the reply was Folgers half-caffeinated pre-ground yuckiness. I was about to launch into a long-winded explanation of all the things that are wrong with that, but caught myself. I could have bored her with descriptions of the chemical interactions of coffee beans with oxygen and explained why decaffeinated coffees will never ever taste as good as regular coffees, but in the long run I would have accomplished nothing. It’s times like those that one has to realize that continually lambasting anyone for their beliefs is almost always going to entrench them more so in them and leave them thinking worse of you. An important key to getting along with people is realizing that your opinion is not the most important…no matter how right it is. ;P
If you want to learn more please visit these great sites:
October 31, 2009
Welcome to “Boutades, Babeldom & badinage”. This where I’ll be sharing with you my insights, thoughts and discoveries on…well, just about anything. I hope you leave here having found what you were looking for, or maybe even something you weren’t.
All ado aside, the topic of this essay will be a small turkey leg-shaped country in central Asia called Tuva.
Sometime in late 2007, a copy of Ralph Leighton’s “Tuva or Bust!” cam into my possession. It’s a fabulous account of how he and his close friend, physicist Richard Feynman, tried valiantly to travel to Tuva, which was then a part of the USSR. It’s a very heart-breaking book because just as you feel that Ralph and Richard have finally jumped every political/beaurocratic hurdle, Richard Feynman is diagnosed with cancer and, sadly, dies before ever setting foot on the country of his dreams. These days, travel to Tuva is still difficult, but much easier than when Richard Feynman made the attempt. This has resulted in a massive influx of Tuvan culture and people and the country is gaining a lot of recognition here in the states.
A little history:
From 1207 to 1757, Tuva was a part of the Mongolian empire and was known as Tannu Uriankhai. It was then brought under the control of the Qing Dynasty in China and remained that way until 1911. Soon, Russians began to immigrate in to the area and a treaty was struck between Russia and China allowing the migrants to stay provided they live in boats or tents. Later on the Russians where allowed to live in buildings and finally in 1911, tsar Nicholas II took advantage of the Xinhai Revolution to claim Tuva as a protectorate. During the 1920’s Tuva was an essentially independent republic called Tannu-Tuva, but by the end of WWII, a Kremlin-orchestrated coup would distance the country from Mongolia, eventually annexing it into the USSR in 1944, there it remained until the early 1990’s when it signed on to a treaty of federation allowing Tuva to have an autonomous government with a constitution and a parliament of it’s own and the ability to lobby for independence.
Tuvan music is among the most fascinating folk musics of the world, mainly because of it’s “throat singing” or, as they call it, khoomei (translated means whistle). In order for a singer to sing khoomei, he (traditionally only males sing khoomei as it’s believed it can lead to infertility in women) must be able to sing a note, then by manipulating the position of his tongue, jaws and lips, increase the volume of the resonant pitch. The result is a sweet, whistle-like (hence the name) sound along with a lower droning sound that is quite entrancing.
Interesting (yet useless) facts:
– Tuvan stamps from the 20’s and 30’s are highly decorative and collectible.
– Nomadic Tuvans recognize no national borders which has led to quite a few of them to reside outside the republic’s borders in China, Mongolia and Russia.
– Kyzyl is the capital city of Tuva and lies at the exact geographic center of Asia. There is a stone monument there which says so.
– An annual festival is held in Kyzyl in memory of Richard Feynman.
I could go into the folklore and geography of Tuva and a million different other things here, but that’d just ruin you’re own process of discovery. A great resource for anyone interested is fotuva.org, a site run by Ralph Leighton with “Richard Feynman as it’s patron saint”. Well, that’s about all for now. Till next time,