Hot, Fragrant Java: the brew that changed the world.
Comprising a rambling ode to the beverage, a nod to its part in history, and the answer to all your questions.
The perfect cup of steaming Java cannot be born from some dubious can of ready-ground coffee over which you have exercised very little influence. No—if you are really after the best, and enjoy tinkering as a relaxing activity while your mind is pursuing it's own machiavellian lucubrations on some arcane field of endeavor known to few... then read on friend: I will accompany you on a leisurely voyage of rediscovery and we will see that, in this age of industrially controlled tastes, we are actually freer than ever before to express our creativity and indulge our whims. We will take a look at the hows, the whys and the wherefores of brewing the smoothest and most fragrant cup, and at how the ubiquitous beverage was a catalyst to the two revolutions that rocked the world.
We have lost today one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, a man whose vision was matched by his capacity to express it. A man who was either interested in stopping the future or in making it happen—not merely in predicting it. "The most important thing that I've wondered about Ray Bradbury is how he does it? He has written books, stories, poems, manuscripts, and screenplays. He has his own TV show. Everything he writes is on an old electric typewriter. All his ideas seem new and fresh to me. Each page of his stories is unexpected and full of wisdom. He compares himself to a pomegranate. He says that he is so full of ideas that he is just bursting and that the ideas spill out from there." — so writes AradiaMoon in her piece on Ray Bradbury. I did not know until today of Bradbury's fruit analogy, so there is a sense of serendipity for me: I am moved, and encouraged to persevere as by some personal entreaty—logically this is of course nonsense, but then logic is not all we live by.
Even those with no great love of rampant technology have, like Paulo Coelho, embraced the wonders of the internet. It is the marvel of this age, as was the fabled Library of Alexandria in ancient times. Jorge Luis Borges expressed some interesting, though dark and cryptical, views on the matter of repositories of human thoughts...
In addition to the availability of much of human thought at one's fingertips, there is also the virtual commerce which it has generated. Much rubbish abounds, to be sure: but who cares! Why would one care about the rubbish and mass-appeal marketing, when the same medium, with but a little exercise of your critical faculties, can lead you to so much information and to so many truly wonderful niche suppliers who can, with but a few days wait, deliver to your door every thinkable—and even some truly unthinkable—wonder which the wit of man can devise.
The never-before-equalled capability for the small, even tiny, supplier to peddle their wares and original products has greatly enriched our daily lives and represents a true and healthy challenge to the dominion of transnational corporations and their grab on our pulsions and on our wealth. Computer-aided Design and Machining has placed complex metal, wooden or plastic parts at everyone's disposal for truly reasonable sums—even as a one-off. Every exotic material can be had in small quantities. Tools of all descriptions are to be found easily—and they are getting constantly cheaper and more ingenious. 3D printing technology is making inroads that were not even surmisable 5 short years ago. Numerically controlled machinery is now commonplace even in the enthusiast's basement: homo faber has made a quantum leap.
On the more prosaic domestic front, exotic and organically produced foods are widely available direct from the producer, and more reasonably priced than ever before. We truly live in an age of plenty, and it is especially disturbing that, amid all this munificence, many are starving and lack the most basic amenities. But even the remedies to that are ever more accessible, where good will will but apply them, and much is being done—not nearly enough, but much more than ever before, and even in this endeavor, the internet has permitted and facilitated funding of many wothwhile projects. Microfinancing could never have taken off without the internet, which also does much to ensure that most of us can be a philanthropic irrespective of means—and know that every contribution is more likely than ever to actually reach its intended beneficiaries.
It is a veritable Renaissance which we are living in, but we risk losing sight of this—and oh so conveniently for some—because of the superimposed world financial crisis. This is strictly a crisis of dishonesty, greed and trickery: the world is richer than it ever has been. I behoves us not to miss the wood for the trees—but rather to view this epoch for its true riches, than to pay undue attention to its many ills. The ills are there, and they have affected us all to greater or lesser extents, but we have everything to gain by grasping the nettle of the possibilities, rather than by bemoaning our losses. Any and every crisis has been resolved by deciding to "act as if": that is the very opposite of an ostrich mentality.
Never before has the average joe been in such a position of strength: this is approaching a true democracy, one in which your wallet—and it need not be fat or substantial—can be placed behind your convictions and your mouth! We need to fully realize just how much power we collectively wield with our combined spending power. Gigantic tyrannical corporations may be brought either to their senses, or to their knees, by denying them the very oxygen which is essential to any modern lifeform: money.
By another stroke of serendipity I happened to listen just yesterday to "Alice's Restaurant" of Arlo Guthrie fame... well, ♫♪ ♫♪You can get anything you want, in Alice's Restaurant! ♫♪♫♪ Now, I'm making a loose, and entirely non left-right political analogy with this one: I guess I mostly espouse conservative and libertarian values so I ain't no proponent of any sort of "revolution"—what I am a big fan of, though, is the Can do frontier spirit and the rugged self-reliance and spirited independence that made this Nation great. And before the weeping liberal contrarians raise their perpetual grumbles, let me say this: self-relience and an independent spirit never were contradictory with altruism.
Much more real and tangible help has been given to their fellow man or woman by many with money and good sound intentions, than by the skulking grumblers who would rather see us all hamstrung by an ever-growing and all pervasive state, the tentacles of which are even now feeling their way into the very deepest preserves of honest privacy.
I hear you, at the back there—yes, you! You're shuffling your feet and muttering to yourself about this having purported to be an article about coffee. But you would not be entirely right in your grumblings: I did mention at the outset the magic words: "the hows, the whys and the wherefores"—and I am getting there, albeit by the tourist route. And, if you stick with me, you may see that there is a thread which ties all this back rather neatly to good coffee—really there is!
In a recent visit to Paris, I went for lunch to the Café Procope, and over my steaming cup of coffee I could not help but reflect on how many cups of this beverage had been consumed on these very premises, and in such exciting company, in the century leading up to the French Revolution. The Café Procope, in rue de l'Ancienne Comédie, in the Latin Quarter, is reputed to be the oldest restaurant still in continuous operation. It was opened in 1694 by a Sicilian gentleman named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, who offered on his premises the new exotic beverage, that had previously only been served in taverns.
Already at the very beginning of the eighteenth century, Louis de Mailly, remarked: "The cafés are most agreeable places, where one may find all sorts of people. There one sees fine young gentlemen, agreeably enjoying themselves; there one also sees the savants who come to leave aside the laborious spirit of the study..." It was to the Procope, on December 18th 1752, that Jean-Jacques Rousseau adjourned, even before the performance of his last play Narcise had come to its conclusion.
All through the 18th century, the Café Procope was the meeting place of the intelligentsia of the times, and also of the new breed of nouvellistes of the scandal-gossip trade, whose remarks at the Procope were assiduously collected by police spies. Most of the Encyclopédistes were more cautious about how much of the fragrant brew they imbibed, than was Voltaire, who reputedly drank up to forty cups of coffee a day. All that hive of busy and innovative minds met there and partook of the new brew, as did Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Paul Jones.
During the French Revolution, the Phrygian cap—which was to become that epoch's symbol of Liberty—was first to be seen at the Café Procope. Notable figures of that troubled and ebullient time, such as the Cordeliers, Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Jacques Danton and Jean-Paul Marat all frequented the café as a meeting place.
Chroniclers, diarists and historians have written volumes on the rise of the English coffee houses during the 17th and 18th centuries. In these places patrons would assemble for conversation, political discussion and social interaction, while partaking of the newly emerging fragrant brew, of which many of us are so fond to this very day.
So much for the whys— let us proceed with our agenda—and examine the methods and techniques which will produce the best and most inspiring brews.
I suppose we sould, according to linear logic, first address the roasting—and since there is little point in ruffling feathers—that's where I'll start. Coffee beans in their green state are indeed greenish in hue. While a brew prepared from the green beans is considered to possess many medicinal virtues, it is no great shakes at all as a beverage. What makes coffee into the fragrant elixir which, at its seldom found best it can be, is the roasting process. I will describe this essential step fairly summarily, and you will see why later. Suffice it to say that the whole character of a coffee is made or broken by the roasting. Indeed, the roasting is so critical that an incorrect over-roasting will reduce the finest exotic varietal coffee to an average brew and entirely lose all its characteristic aromas and even a great part of its mouthfeel. So, the better your beans, the more care I urge you to take over their roasting, and in general that means not burning them to hell—unless you happen to actually like the watery, bitter infusion of charcoal scented lukewarm water which passes readily for coffee in most establishments.
I'll admit that I'm kind of minimalist and old-school about how I personally roast my coffee, and I am certainly not saying you should do it my way. So, here's how I do it. I have a box made out of steel plate. It is roughly cubical and about eighteen inches of a side, and welded together. Think of it as an eighteen-inch cube with a twelve-inch diameter hole in its top face, the front face is hinged and acts as a door; it has cutouts towards the bottom, with a sliding shutter arrangement to regulate the draft. Sitting inside the cube is a tray which is the firebox and allows the ashes to be conveniently removed after use. The back panel of the cube has holes towards the top from which the products of combustion can escape through a welded-on contraption of difficult to describe geometry, but which connects the exit holes with a cylindrical stub, which is a good fit inside standard four inch stove flue. A four foot length of flue pipe sits on the stub and conveys the heat and smoke safely away from the roaster!
Over the twelve-inch hole in the top face sits an old eighteen-inch heavy-duty hammered steel wok, which is where I actually do the roasting. If you will visualize the wok sitting in its cutout you will readily see that a good part of its belly protends into the firebox. This way most of the wok is directly heated by the flames of the brushwood fire which I light in the firebox.
I originally devised this brushwood-fuelled wok range for coffee roasting, but it has turned out to be a wonderfully efficient and cheap to produce cooking range and I am launching a project for its distribution in thirld-world areas where firewood is a valuable commodity and needs to be used as effectively as possible. The back flue arrangement is also a convenient way of getting rid of smoke from the dwelling—this may seem trite to those who have no experience of thirld-world living conditions, but smoke damage is responsible for much misery and illness.
Having lit a small brushwood fire, I let the wok heat up nicely. I then pour in as much as a pound or more of green coffee beans. With a sort of wooden spoon/palette of my own whittling, I then stir the beans around slowly but as uniformly and constantly as possible. Within a handful of minutes, the coffee beans will reach the first very audible "crack" stage. This sounds for all the world like popcorn popping. I keep on stirring, usually until the second "crack" stage and rarely wait for that to be complete. You can read all about all this in the resource I have pointed you to in the footnotes. I'll add this: nothing on earth can match the heady aroma of coffee as it's being roasted—nothing I can even remotely think of!
Once roasted to your taste you must rapidly cool the beans so they will not continue roasting as they would tend to. When they are cool I put them in my favorite battered antique tin can and leave them to mature for about twenty-four hours. Some coffees benefit from up to three days to reach perfection. Of course, nothing stops you grinding up a freshly roasted batch—and I inevitably do: it is wonderful, but it gets better over the next few days. I aim not to roast more than I will use in a week or less: keeping it beyond the short maturation period you will fast lose the aromas that make freshly roasted coffee such a delight.
This takes us to the grinding. I favor hand grinding for a number of reasons, not least of which is the sheer zen pleasure of the thing. Also hand grinding heats the coffee up much less and thus drives off much less of its precious aroma. Some of the better electric grinders go to great pains to avoid heating the powdered coffee, but these tend to be expensive professional machines. Electric grinders are also so unpleasantly noisy, compared to the friendly crunching murmur of a good hand grinder!
Your carefully roasted beans ground to the right grade—I grind them pretty fine because of how I brew—you are now ready to brew the fruit of your loving and enjoyable toil. To my very personal taste, the very best methods are Turkish Coffee and Cowboy Coffee—actually these are essentially the same thing: the only real difference is that the Turkish brew is intended to be quite thick and strong, whereas the Cowboy brew is aimed at a longer more liquid drink. I use both. For the Turkish brew I use a traditional middle-eastern conical pot made of hand hammered tinned copper, and fitted with a long handle and a pouring spout. The Cowboy brew, I make in a quart-sized enamelled billy, which by my reckoning hails from eastern Europe somewhere. It is thick and well enamelled in plain white with a stainless steel band around the rim: this is convenient since a few taps with the handle of a spoon will settle the grounds and the band stops the enamel from getting chipped.
I have said nothing yet about selecting your coffee, and I will probably write a separate piece on that in the near future. Great coffee is produced in so many countries—as is indifferent coffee. It would be wrong and quite unfair of me to make here any succinct recommendation, since, by omission I would be slighting someone. You will never go wrong with a good Kenyan, Costa Rican, Javan or Yemeni coffee. But do not limit yourself to these: experiment and explore—if you are going to take the trouble of home-roasting and grinding you have a passion: indulge it fully and enrich your experience.
When making the Turkish brew, I will often drop in a few cracked green cardamom seeds as is often done among the Arabs, or as a lovely variant, I will add a few drops of Orange Flower Water, which is often done in the Lebanon.
So you see, my friends, there is good reason to digress on to the political and social and economic arena, when the fragrant wafts of Coffea Arabica sweeten the air—one may well wonder as to the plant itself being provocative of thought and reflection, for in the Arabian peninsula, whence it originates, and in all those territories that were once of the Ottoman Empire, and are now the ebullient mid-east, that fragrant beverage has an unbroken thread of continuity that stretches back into known history and loses itself in the mists of time. And to this day, it is the fuel of conversation, discussion and new thinking.
You have been most patient to have stuck with me for such a long and rambling tale, and all that is left for me to do, apart from thanking you for sharing my train of thought, is to direct you to the most excellent link which you will find here in the footnotes.
In my search for a complete and comprehensive resource for all would-be Java aficionados I came across this great site which seems to me very appealing for the one-stop shopper—they offer everything imaginable for roasting, grinding and brewing, as well as a truly staggering selection of lovingly selected green coffees from around the world—and they also provide a munificence of useful and interesting information.
I have no connection of any kind with Sweetmarias and have never actually ordered anything from them, so I can only endorse them on the basis of the contents of the website. You will find a great number of other good World'oWonderWeb sources, and if you have any firm favorites I will be glad to include your recommendations in these footnotes and give you credit.
Any personal anecdotes will, of course, also be very welcome, as will feedback—even critical—which I will gladly take into account.
decoy_hunches has pointed out to me the existence of two pieces which are relevant to this whole coffee sphere, they are Roasting your own coffee beans and The pleasures and pains of coffee, which tells of a very interesting cold-brewing technique apparently written about by Honoré de Balzac.
Due to our vestigial and idiosyncratic search facility, I was not aware of their existence and I am grateful to him from bringing them to my attention: where technology fails man stands in the breach. That's entirely as it should be.
Via a fortuitous softlink kindly added by a reader I have discovered Segnbora-t's piece The Women's Petition Against Coffee, which as the title suggests relates an interesting facet of the coffee affair. Well worth reading and also contains good references.