Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The State Of Coffee Drinking In Our Communities: Part Two

I'm fresh from an amazing experience at what is clearly San Diego's finest coffee shop called Caffe Calabria and, to be honest, still enthralled by the coffee experiences The Jess and I had in Portland, so in that spirit we go forward in our exploration of what's new and exciting in our coffee community. To capture the spirit in which it's written, and because there are links to some newspaper articles, get something nice to drink, and take your time.
You make recall, avid reader, that The Jess and I hosted a coffee cupping a few weeks ago, which was a great success, after having learned about the process at Stumptown Coffee in Portland. What made this so much fun was not just the variety of flavors and smells we experienced, it was having a communal process like this that was cheap, interactive, and highly entertaining. No need to go to a wood-paneled tasting room at a winery to explore the subtleties of a choice beverage, this same level of sophistication can be enjoyed anywhere and with anyone.
This is no longer a grassroots effort, either, as artisan coffee shops around the country are realizing that their clientele want more from their beverage experience than grab and go. Here is an article from the NY Times detailing the growth of the cupping movement.
Not only are we, the novitiate, beginning to break the shackles of the mass-produced junk from Starbuck et al, but there is a new cohort of experts finding their way into our communities and neighborhood coffeehouses to bring expertise and enthusiasm to this movement. The Los Angeles Times documented this new education a few weeks ago.
There is no hope of cupping and discussing high quality coffee unless it is roasted properly, and that is, in my opinion, where the true artistry of this process lies. Delicately controlling such roasting variables as temperature, duration, intensity and manipulating them to bring out the true taste signature of a coffee bean is a most exacting science. I haven't even begun to manipulate temperature myself, just trying to figure out roasting duration. There is a tremendous demand for skilled roasters, because more and more customers expect locally roasted, fresh beans. Now the call sign for a marquee coffee house is no longer a trademark name, it is being able to serve expertly roasted beans that have been prepared either onsite or nearby. This art form and the demand for it has also drawn the attention of the NY Times, and I just love the fact that newspapers with the size and scope of the LA Times and NY Times are showcasing this movement!
Caffe Calabria subscribes to this roasting protocol, as does Stumptown in Portland. The Bay Area is studded with wonderful coffee shops that are roasting their own beans (check out this wonderful blog for updates and reviews of Bay Area coffee shops.) There are even two coffeehouses in my hometown of Santa Rosa, Ecco Caffe and Flying Goat, which are roasting and spreading the gospel to nearby stores and customers.
You may have noticed that oftentimes the coffeeshops on the cutting edge of this movement are often referred to as "specialty" coffeehouses. I think it's high time that this appelation is dropped, as it connotes a certain aloofishness, not to mention expense, which simply do not apply. These are coffeehouses, stripping the bean down to basics and showcasing the fundamental greatness of coffee, so lets save the "specialty" nomenclature for stores serving banana milkshakes.
Let's go back to Caffe Calabria for a moment, because it captures what happens when a single entity subscribes to this approach. As I walked from my car, I saw a man get out of a Caffe Calabria truck. I introduced myself and asked about the store. We started chatting, turns out his name is Arne Holt and he's the owner!
We went in and he took me all around the store: we went into the shopping area with all the coffee equipment you could ever want, we saw the roastery just behind the cafe area and I watched a batch of beans go through their paces under the watchful eye of Jesse, the roaster. We finished by checking out the upstairs cupping room (cuppings at 8:15 Mon-Fri) and chatted about The Jess and I taking a barista course. I went down to the cafe and got ready for a tasting.
I selected my standard measuring stick, the latte, and it was PERFECT! Smooth, sweet, with beautiful latte art on top. These baristas are clearly at the top of their game and proud of what they do. We had a great conversation as I enjoyed my coffee. They do the iced toddy, which is the favorite cool beverage of The Jess, and take tremendous pride in pulling first class espresso shot. The WiFi is free, the pastries incredible, and the coffee is as good as you can make it.
San Francisco has Ritual and Portland has Stumptown. San Diego has answered that challenge with Caffe Calabria, and answered with vigor!
The cornerstone of all of this, and what I believe to be the final common pathway for coffee enjoyment is roasting coffee at home. Easy, fun, cheap, social, environmentally responsible, you name it, this hobby provides it, not to mention delivering knockout coffee. You can easily source beans from sweetmarias.com, and can choose organic, fair trade certified products. The roasting is quick, the cleanup is quicker, the end result is heavenly!
In whatever form you choose, coffee preparation and drinking no longer needs to be a rushed and banal experience underwritten by huge businesses. It is now a delicious, accessible, and responsible way to recreate, socialize, and wake up in the morning.

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