Coffee culture

April 16, 2007

Palm Beach Post-Cox News Service

Thursday, April 05, 2007

“Do you want a coffee?” asked Alessandro, cocking his head in the direction of a stand-up coffee counter facing the street, where two baristas in black bow ties stood by watching a World Cup match on a wall-mounted TV.

We were in Venice, Italy, having just spent the past half-hour standing on cobblestones and screaming into cellphones as I canceled our overnight train to France and my friend Alessandro booked us a flight.

 

I was feeling overwhelmed by the frustration, the heat, the pigeon droppings, the beelining tourists, the remnants of black cuttlefish risotto in my stomach.

“Let’s get a coffee,” he persisted, leading me to the counter and ordering “due ristretti” — two short pulls of espresso so concentrated that the foamy crema on top of the cup overwhelmed the puddle of pitch below. We stirred in a little sugar and tipped the shots back.

Ah, those next few seconds. It was a moment I had grown fanatical about. Addicted to. Not just the shot of drug to the head, but also the temperature (never hot enough to burn), the viscosity (it sits on the tongue like cough syrup), the bitterness (you flinch at first, then as you relax new flavors rush forth). This moment in time, this alone, is the essence of coffee.

In my 20s, I returned from trips to Europe smoking a pack a day. In my 30s, I wanted a flask of wine with every lunch. Now, in my 40s, it’s a four-demitasse-a-day habit.

Great. The problem is that all the espresso on this side of the Atlantic rhymes with “ducks.”

Have you tried looking for good espresso here? In a fancy restaurant? You’ll get a lovely porcelain demitasse cup holding a brew so watery it can’t support a decent head of crema. At Starbucks? The espresso is so punishingly bitter I’d rather have cough syrup. At another coffee shop? Great, tell me where, because I’ve tried them all.

Coffee culture has changed markedly in this country over the past 20 years, mostly for the better. The Specialty Coffee Association of America estimates that we drank more than $11 billion worth of high-end, “gourmet” coffee in 2005 from cafes, boutique roasters, kiosks and carts. That is more than half of the estimated $19 billion U.S. coffee market.

In the process, we’ve developed quite the attitude. For starters, we’ve learned to look for 100 percent arabica coffee. Arabica coffee is the kind with the nuance, the character, the length on the palate. Coffee shops use it. Dunkin’ Donuts uses it. Even McDonald’s rolled out its Premium blend “made only with 100 percent arabica beans roasted to perfection.”

We vaguely know that the dark, easy, flat-tasting coffee that we can drink by the bucket in a diner is made with a blend of arabica and cheaper robusta beans. The 2-pound tins of pre-ground Folgers that our parents still buy is a blend of arabica and robusta, its flavor commensurate with its lower price. Robusta coffee has a soft, broad flavor that some people find muddy or musty. (Vietnamese iced coffee has a strong robusta flavor.)

So we prefer arabica to robusta. What else?

Well, thanks to coffee shops like Starbucks, we’ve also learned to love the charming ritual of the espresso machine. The hiss. The smell. The customization of each beverage, beans to cup, just for you.

We love the coffee drink as an indulgence. Three dollars. Sixteen ounces. Thirty minutes of peace. Foam on our lips. Yum.

This coffee interlude bears no resemblance to knocking back a quick ristretto at an Italian coffee bar. That’s the problem.

The espresso brewed in America gets away with being so sharp because its sole function is to give backbone to a leisurely cup of sweetened, super-hot foamed milk.

Still, we use Italian machines. We use Italian coffee. Why does the espresso invariably come out so bitter?

There are at least two reasons. Many machines aren’t set to a high enough pressure as they force steam through the coffee grounds. Steam is inversely proportionate to temperature, so the water gets too hot and overextracts the grounds.

The other reason lies in our aversion to using robusta coffee. The typical Italian coffee shop may not make a big deal about sourcing Kenya AA or Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee. No, they use a blend, which always includes a small amount of robusta.

This unsophisticated bean not only provides a sturdy platform for the more complex flavors of arabica coffee, it helps build the luscious head of crema that in itself tames the bitter edge.

I once brought up this issue with food writer Corby Kummer, who has written extensively about coffee. He agreed that educating Americans about the value of robusta coffee was the most important step toward getting better espresso here. I asked him if it was like the way bordeaux producers blend grapes.

“I hate it when people use a wine analogy for coffee,” Kummer snorted, thereby ending the conversation.

Maybe the better analogy is music. When I stream a song from my laptop to my family room speakers, it sounds good. When I stream the song and also activate the speakers on the laptop, then the music resonates with a fullness I hadn’t heard before.

It is that quadraphonic fullness that makes the few seconds you spend with a cup of espresso such a welcome moment in time. It is a drink that flirts with every possible unpleasantness and yet manages to fill your palate with a cascading harmony of flavors. Let me repeat, this is coffee.

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