Roasts of the town
Do you want your last cup of coffee to be locally roasted? Or something instant and prepackaged?
It’s terribly tragic to consider, but in some of the finest, Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, where chefs go through great pains to deliver one-of-a-kind, intricately prepared and arranged plates of food; where blood, sweat and tears symbolically pepper the meals that are consumed at exorbitant, out-of-this-world prices; where the artisanal meets fine art, and you almost hate to tear into something so passionately arranged, the coffee you consume comes in the form of a capsule that is placed in a austere machine, and brewed at the push of a button.
A monkey could literally brew your coffee for you.
Nespresso, which is a division of Nestle, is the largest producer of capsule espresso that conveniently for them can only be brewed with their machines. They have a variety of these espresso capsules that are supposedly tailor-made to individual tastes. And the idea is that you’ll consistently get the same cup of espresso with each brew. They are sealed from the same type of roast, with the same amount of espresso, and are sealed, apparently, at the coffee’s freshest.
Now there is something to be said about consistency, but who really likes the same shit every day? Isn’t this reason relationships become stale? Isn’t it true that the only constant in life is that, as capricious human beings, we are consistently inconsistent?
But it’s more than that. In a way, it’s that dread that in this increasingly mechanized world, where the majority of communication occurs in an electrical haze, we’ll forget what it means to have a human touch.
Fortunately for us, locally anyway, there are still those out there concerned with bringing a cup of coffee to you that from the farming of the beans, to the roasting, to brewing there is a concern with quality control that involves the trial and error of human experimentation.
There are many stages that lead to you sipping on a brewed cup of coffee. But, perhaps the least understood is the middle stage—the roasting. Many of us take for granted that coffee is a slightly greasy, black, beetle-looking seed we call a bean. Few of us realize how it got to that stage, however.
For many local roasters, the roasting itself is where their human touch to coffee comes to the forefront.
Joey Trujillo of The Hub Coffee Roasters describes it like cooking.
“It’s just like cooking something in the kitchen,” he says. “There’s science behind it, but there’s also a lot of intuition.”
The skills that are developed while roasting are enhanced daily, and ultimately lead to a better cup of coffee brewed at their cafes.
For Mark Hirose of Magpie Coffee roasting small batches allows them to fine tune the product that they ultimately offer the public. “It’s a catch-22 that we have a one-pound roaster. But that does give us the ability to really control what the end product is. With roasting, there are a million different variables—from where you start the roast at, where you end it, and everything in between.”
Hirose’s roasting and business partner, Matt Sewell, like Trujillo, compares the process to a cook. Though the way that he describes the process sounds more like being in a laboratory.
“All it is, is cooking,” says Sewell. “So, you are essentially caramelizing and carbonizing sugars. You are just converting long-chain compounds into shorter-chain simple sugars. Through that you are developing a flavor profile. You are developing sugars. You are developing acids; breaking down certain acids; increasing certain acids, and all of that contributes to the final flavor,” says Sewell.
In a way roasting is a simple endeavor. It’s not hard to learn. Hirose, for instance, describes roasting as a novice using a popcorn popper and coffee beans that he bought from shady dudes in little ziplock baggies. “It was the romance of it,” he says, that got him into roasting in the first place.
Like any great romance, it begins with a whirlwind but only survives if it matures into something more substantial. For these roasters, it’s not just about learning the motions, but developing a craft over time.
Trujillo describes a process by which they take extensive notes of what works and what doesn’t.
“We keep track of time and temperature for each roast,” he says. “We make note of everything. We have to be able to attribute this new flavor to what happened in the roast. And, we can certainly recreate it.”
But, the process of developing flavors in coffee begins in the growing process. The coffee bean is actually the seed of a fruit that resembles a cherry, and this fruit is finicky, the quality variety of the fruit only growing at certain elevations, and at certain degrees of latitude.
Most roasters who aim to produce a quality product try to purchase beans grown at higher elevations.
“Higher elevations create a denser bean,” says Sewell. “So, the chemical chains are more developed. That denser bean packs in more potential flavor.”
“Coffee is very sensitive to temperature swings, and that’s why it’s grown at a certain temperature and a certain belt around the equator,” he adds, describing the just how susceptible to the elements the fruit is. “Because it wants a certain temperature and certain altitudes. If you get high up, could get too cold. Or, if you too low, it gets too hot during the day. Coffee is just so sensitive to the climate.”
What these local roasters hope to achieve, is quality at all levels. They choose to buy their coffee beans from the best locations, grown on cooperative farms by farmers who equally care about the quality of the bean. For it the thing that sustains their community.
But simply getting your hands on a quality bean is not enough to ensure that you get a quality cup of coffee out of it.
Trujillo understands that great effort went into procuring these quality beans, and the roasting must live up to the product they buy. “It’s the same thing when we roast our coffees to when we brew them. We want to do [the coffee bean] justice. I mean, it’s gone through a lot of trouble just to get in here.”
It seems that there are simply too many variables, too tweaks of the human hand, to think that our quality coffee will come in a capsule hereafter. And, though at the moment the capsule phenomenon is largely contained to Europe, San Francisco is soon going to be invaded by a huge, state of the art, modern Nespresso café. It’s only a matter of time before it catches on here.
And something that Sewell says should be enough for anyone to take this capsule phenomenon seriously. He explains to me that, because of changes in our global climate, as early as 80 years from now, coffee as we know it could become extinct.
Coffee is an age-old tradition in human agriculture. Should the last cups that humanity drinks be delivered by such cold, inanimate means? Or, do we want that bean, that roast, and, finally, that brew all to have a bit of amour behind it? Drink every cup as if it were the last.