Not long ago, the coffee-brewing industry revolved around convenience. It was all about where you could you grab a hot cup of joe on the go, finding the fastest way to extract the caffeine out of those magical beans and inject it into your bloodstream.
Fortunately for all coffee lovers, the coffee culture has greatly evolved since then. Now, some coffee geeks are bravely roasting their own beans at home. The nerdiest are buzzing about the most-expensive beans — like civet coffee (known as “cat poop coffee”), or the newest strange coffee to join the scene, Black Ivory Coffee, which is similarly made using elephants. And others attend regulated coffee cupping rituals to evaluate and discover certain flavors, aromas, and nuances of different coffees.
But it doesn’t matter how fancy, refined, or perfectly-roasted your coffee beans are if you aren’t giving them a proper brew. By not focusing on how your coffee is made, you could be missing out on the beautiful flavors and aromas your specialty beans possess. I recently discovered the difference it makes at a home brewing class at Joe, a rapidly expanding small chain of coffee shops, where I learned of the many kinds of brewing gadgets and devices you can buy in order to make a better cup of coffee at home. Surely you’ve seen them before. They fill counters of high-end coffee shops across the country — various pour-over options and a range of different presses.
The first thing Azeb wanted to know about me was if I was on Facebook. After that she got to the less important stuff: Where I was from, if I was married, had kids, believed in God — and what was I doing in southern Ethiopia? Azeb, a 25-year-old business student with big glowing eyes and long dark hair, was born and raised not far from where we were having breakfast. We ended up sitting together when we realized we were the only people in the dining room at the Lesiwon Hotel in Yirgacheffe, the namesake town of a region known to coffee cognoscenti for producing some of Ethiopia’s highest-quality coffee beans.
As Azeb scooped up pieces of her omelet with torn-off hunks of bread, as is the Ethiopian custom, I stabbed at mine with a fork and told her about my travels thus far in her country. But it was something I mentioned in passing that seriously broke the ice. Until this trip — specifically the day prior to our chance encounter, when I had driven down from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to the southern part of the country — I had never seen a coffee tree.
Azeb’s mouth fell open, her head tilted heavenward, and she let out a high-pitched laugh. “You’d never seen a coffee cherry before?” she said, and then she just stared at me, her mouth still agape, as if I’d just casually asked her if airplanes drive on invisible roads in the sky.
Even the most unrefined palate can tell the difference between a good cup of coffee and a bad cup of coffee. I’m well aware that the fine line between the two can easily affect the outlook of an entire day.
After years of enjoying my store-bought coffee in blissful ignorance, I started to wonder what I was really paying for when I threw down three dollars for a cup of hot bean water. I found that even with hand crafted Japanese kettles, meticulously weighed beans, and the never-ending list of “the best” brewing methodologies, we have little control over our own brew. Not even the most well-equipped coffee connoisseur does.
Walk into Houndstooth Coffee on North Lamar in Austin on any given afternoon and the scene looks pretty average. A friendly barista takes orders at the counter, the familiar sound of the coffee grinder whirs in the background and clusters of people study and chat over cups of steaming java.
If it’s a Monday or Thursday at 1:30 p.m., things might look a little different. The atmosphere changes when a group of 6-7 people gather around the rectangular white table in the center of the room, alternately smelling or sipping through a series of cups of coffee. Patrons sneak glances at the group as their heads bob up and down like chickens pecking at feed, sniffing and slurping coffee and engaging in caffeinated discussion. MORE
When I studied abroad in Rome a few years ago, my travel packet included a primer for ordering espresso from the little museum café around the corner from our classrooms. To begin with, we were warned, don’t order espresso, a term which refers to a technique and not a beverage. Instead order caffè — short for caffè espresso, there’s no other kind — and embellish the word with lyrical phrases to indicate how long to let water seep through pressed grounds and how much milk to add and when.
I usually don’t make much conversation in cabs, but this cab driver had many questions. What kind of music did I want to listen to? He thought I might prefer one station if I was going to a club, another if headed to a date. Was I going on a date? Ah, a double date. Did I know the other couple well? Going to a nice dinner?
I fell quiet after this deposition, but after a few minutes of cruising downtown in the rain, the driver surprised me with another question. “What is the alphabet of dating?” he asked.