Thursday, September 30, 2010

Coffee: Addiction, Waves, Temperature

Every once in a while, I give up coffee and my life kind of falls apart for a little while. When things settle down again and I no longer feel the need, I pick it up again. I wait until it sounds good, smells good, and actually tastes good again. Usually my abuse gets to the point of it not tasting good anymore, nor does it really matter. It gets me moving in the morning and helps me complete the most mundane tasks. Next thing I know, I'm drinking it at every turn. So I quit.

In the interim, I think about my relationship to the beverage, if I should really drink, and how to start drinking it again.  This time I really started thinking about coffee's third wave and our new relationship with the beverage here in San Francisco.

I'm a little unclear on what exactly constitutes the "first" wave, although I imagine it falls somewhere between coffee colonialism and the emergence of Juan Valdez. The first wave lasted until Starbucks started kicking things up a notch, increasing the quality and supply of coffee to the overfed the world over. People soon started having coffee beverages that were the caloric value of a meal. Frappuccino entered our vocabularies as did the ever delightful frappuccino-gut.  And so now we're onto the third wave.  Third wave coffee reaches toward high cuisine and moves away from commodity. It's about small harvests. It's small batches of roasted coffees. It's high cuisine meets molecular gastronomy. It's getting a cup like you've never had before. It's coffee meets wine. It's suddenly finding yourself surrounded by yuppies sipping at four dollar (or more) cups of coffee. It's increasingly keeping me shuttered in the house.
So before I brewed my first cup in over a week and a half, I picked up On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee and took a quick looks at the section on coffee. I was particularly interested in brewing temperatures. Too high of a brewing temperature can render your fifteen dollar a pound coffee from Ritual schwaggy and taste more like a brew from Starbucks.  What a waste. The book suggested the ideal temperature for french press was between 190-195 degrees Fahrenheit for 4 to 6 minutes.

Pardon me if this seems either obvious or just a pain in the butt. I had always heard that temperature mattered, but never had a proper thermometer. In addition, it's an extra variable which just might make your brewing all the less enjoyable. You don't have to do this, but if you're looking to kick things up a notch, I do recommend it.
The result? A very smooth cup that brings out the unique flavors of the coffee without any of the off flavors that had recently pushed me away from this brewing method.  I had mistaken my sloppy brewing technique for a fault in the method. The added bonus was that my head cleared and I felt refreshingly intelligent. It made me able to attend to business with a new sense of confidence.


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