By Angela Madaras Photography by Susan Ayer
Coffee has always been this rather predictable dark beverage served upon waking or with a friend while we engaged in deep conversation. I never gave the making of coffee much thought except for finding a roast I like and a brewing method that worked for my taste and lifestyle. These two things have changed over the years—the only consistent being that I like it simple and on the stout side. I recently became more curious about specialty coffee, especially our local artisan scene. There seem to be coffee shops and cafes on every corner, but only a few serving local or artisan roasted, sustainably grown, ethical beans and brews. Those in the know call this “specialty coffee.” The question that kept popping into my head was, “What makes specialty coffee so special?” I wondered if there was an art and or science to making an exceptional cup of coffee warranting upward of four dollars a cup.
I was also curious if our area cultivates a vibrant coffee scene and community. All of this curiosity was “buzzfueled” by my own creations brewed in the dim moments before sunrise. I started buying various local beans while experimenting with each cup. Every morning I meditated to ascertain whether I even had the palette for creating an exceptional cup of java. I started adding flavors like cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla. I used various milks and creams too. In the end I still prefer a dark, rich, nutty roast with robust flavor, and a subtle chocolate undertone, without anything added to hinder the organic qualities craftily roasted into ethically grown beans. These beans provide a good life for farmers, their communities, roasters, and baristas. I found myself immersed in the activity of understanding more about coffee culture and the chain of human hands involved in creating an artistic delicious beverage we consumers seem to take for granted.
With these curiosities I set out on a mission to find local experts in the areas of roasting and brewing. There were too many to include, but I believe I gathered a well-rounded tribe from which to explain the somewhat hidden art and science of brewing coffee. First, I attended a class on various brewing methods led by David Myers, owner of Mighty Good Coffee, and expert Barista, Jenée Schneider. The class was extremely fun and inspiring. Seven of us enthusiastic classmates gathered one Saturday morning in July to learn how to make five different cups of coffee from five different coffee brewing apparatus (makers-methods): Chemex, Hario V60 Pour Over, Classic French Press, Iced Hario V60 and an extremely cool looking Vacuum Pot, which was more like performing a lab experiment than brewing coffee. We were given a detailed brew guide for each method we tried while learning all the subtleties of each pour, and participated in what they called cupping (a tasting). During the cupping, we were able to decipher what we prefer in our cup of Joe and why. We also learned a little of the vernacular one might never hear outside of this caffeine-fueled environment. Jenée commented that teaching customers coffee terminology helps her manifest more precisely what the customer wants and creates a communication between barista and consumer. It also helps the customer better understand the science behind brewing.
There was an emphasis placed on the science of making a great cup of coffee: the best water to use (filtered and/or spring), water temperature for brewing (212 F-Boiling Point), the need to dampen the paper filter before adding grounds, how to best weigh (not measure) coffee grounds, the best grind for each gadget, the ratio of grounds vs. water, and how long to allow the grounds to sit in the water before pouring and drinking (it is different for each brewing device and method). David feels it is best to have the coffee beans ground where purchased or from the roaster, based on the type of brewing method, and to store ground coffee in an air tight container (for up to ten days in a dark cupboard). Storing in the freezer is debatable depending on who you ask. When I broached the subject of keeping coffee fresh, from roasting to brewing with Jim Saborio, owner of Comet Coffee in Ann Arbor, he explained:
“Over the last several years, consumers have really been trained to focus on roast dates as a determinant of freshness. There is some general confusion that freshness is a determinant of quality. Quality is the result of processes running from the growing conditions of where the coffee is produced to how it was packaged and stored after roasting. Coffee often needs to "rest" two to four days after roasting to develop flavor and sweetness. To properly rest, coffee needs to be sealed in an oxygen-free environment. These days, most specialty coffee is packaged in bags with a one-way valve that allows the coffee to release CO2 but keeps oxygen from entering the bag. Valve bags keep the coffee pretty fresh for about two weeks, especially if they've been flushed with an inert gas like nitrogen. Once opened and exposed to oxygen, I've noticed a considerable deterioration of flavor and complexity in as little as 12 hours. Oxidation is an unavoidable enemy of coffee. Roast dates are a nice point of reference, but oxidation always wins. I avoid buying coffee packaged in non-valve bags and keep away from coffee being sold in open-air bulk bins. Learn to cherish the first few cups of a freshly opened bag and humor the cups that follow.”
From the class at Mighty Good Coffee I manifested a round-table discussion and cupping with three local roasters: David Meyers and Barista Jenée Schneider from Mighty Good Coffee, Tom Isaia owner of Coffee Express, and RoosRoast’s Kath Weider-Roos. We tasted various roasts and techniques while engaging in enlightening conversation at the Jefferson Market. It was interesting to witness these roasters supporting one another. They all have the common goals of educating the public and delivering quality coffee to their customers in ethical and artisanal ways. This is community. And the community goes even deeper between the shop owners, roasters, baristas, and in some cases farmers. Many roasters travel to coffee growing countries to buy their beans directly from “fair trade” farmers. Some will offer this information on the bag of coffee you purchase. According to David Meyers, “The best researchers and thinkers in coffee are paying attention and looking for solutions in social responsibility, equity, climate issues, and ways to support farmers. As far as we have come, in terms of buying and selling coffee, the first wave [of the coffee revolution] established how coffee is traded and that hasn’t changed in ways that protect the majority of coffee grown around the world.”
We are an evolving world with people who are doing their best in their own fields of interest to make more responsible and thoughtful, if not meaningful, choices -- from how to run their business to what coffee beans to purchase. Coffee growers, roasters, and shop owners have a responsibility in creating this next coffee wave for the betterment of our local and global community and for the planet. Our issues and priorities have changed over the past 50 years as has the coffee industry. Whatever a coffee shop owner’s passion for creating is (creative space for free speech, a room where office-less worker bees can do their work, a safe place for students to socialize and study, or to provide a better living for farmers in the poorest of countries as well as their baristas and support staff), those who work in this realm have a certain heavy load to carry if they want their art and passion to be a vehicle for change. Coffee can be a metaphor for a new generation of impassioned community builders, artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs who have an ethical standard they are willing to stand by. In other words, social responsibility can begin with the cup of coffee one purchases.
And some bags offer creative and one-of-a-kind artwork, too. RoosRoast and Stovetop Roasters are known for their unique coffee names and in-house designed artwork. I asked all the interviewees if they considered their work an art form or science. Each one said both art and science except for one of Stovetop’s owners, Steven Holm, who said, “I see roasting as a science. There are a lot of complex chemical reactions taking place while roasting coffee and our job is to use the roaster as a tool to manipulate those reactions to achieve a particular taste. I don’t believe that there is any wrong or right way to roast, it just depends on one’s preferences and what they are looking to provide to their customers.” On the other hand Sam Schaefer of Stovetop felt this way: “I believe everything can be viewed as art. Coffee is living organic matter, and it has some rules and boundaries for how it must be handled to ensure excellent flavor, but inside these boundaries we have the incredible opportunity to explore and make decisions that allow our coffee to taste any way we want it to. I think that pursuit of discovering what a coffee can offer us, and finding ways to highlight its exquisite beauty, is everything.” On this same subject Kath Weider-Roos explained her take on coffee as an expression of art: “Roasting is so fun and when I started doing it, I felt like I finally found what I want to do. The way I want to engage with people and my own creativity and theirs, is through coffee.”
Tom Isaia of Coffee Express, one of the first (if not the first) local roasters who began the journey of roasting in 1980, after owning an espresso machine business for ten years, responded to this query, too. He said, “Roasting coffee can be quite technical, and quite a few rely on computers to analyze and make adjustments. I don’t want to get into a debate on whether a human can outperform a microprocessor, but roastmasters with a lot of years under their belt are comforting. So, my take is that it is both science and art.” I found Tom to be the most experienced roaster I spoke with. Tom has been in the business the longest and observed all three waves of the coffee industry locally, as well as mentored several younger area roasters.
I listened to a podcast referring to the three waves of coffee, in which we are at the tail end of the third. I asked the group about this. David Meyers from Mighty Good had his own take on the three waves: “First wave, coffee as a commodity product, not so different than sugar, wheat, corn, orange juice, et cetera. Second wave was the introduction of coffee through specialty outlets. Peet's, Coffee Connection, and eventually Starbucks, were all part of the second wave from the 1960's into the 1990's when coffee moved from the diner setting for endless cups of free and unlimited refills of cheap Joe, to more expensive cups of coffee from smaller roasters, with no free refills. The third wave was what happened as a result of coffee becoming popular and the birth of the internet. Information and interest in coffee grew and people wanted, and could find, a more unique experience. The whole coffee chain adapted, and in some ways exploited, these opportunities.”
Sam from Stovetop had this to say: “The mission is still the same; coffee is an incredibly beautiful and fascinating fruit. We as an industry of growing, processing, preparing, and serving coffee are still striving to celebrate and elevate the coffee and the hard work that goes into it. If anything, the future (fourth wave) of coffee is actually about unification and removing the barrier between what is specialty coffee, and what isn’t. It is about elevating that bottom line, in people and coffee, and empowering those who have previously been overlooked!”
We talked about the fact that customers use cafés as their office or study room while at times only buying one cup of coffee. This makes it a challenge for café owners and baristas to make a living. I asked Onni Stone, a photographer friend who was part of the roundtable discussion, her perspective as she is a struggling student utilizing the free space of a coffee house for studying and also to be in community with others: “I wish we could find a common ground where coffee house owners set limits they need to not be frustrated by people like me who do not have a lot of money and like to have a social place to work from without feeling unwelcome.” Some shops turn off Wi-Fi at certain times of the day or require people to spend a minimum amount when using Wi-Fi. There are some shops around the world that provide “Suspended Coffee” similar to paying it forward. Customers can buy two cups of coffee, one for themselves and one for a person who cannot afford a cup. Maybe consider buying a struggling student or one down on luck a cup of Joe. In this way you help the customer, shop owner, and barista. I personally love the idea of suspended coffee, because it brings the human and social element into the conversation.
Coffee shops provide people not only with a social space from which to work and study, but also to engage with one another in conversations, political dialog, and space to discuss ideas, “in a sober and non violent way,” says Kath. (See: conversational-leadership.net/coffee-houses/). John Roos from RoosRoast adopted a tag line that is printed on each bag claiming, Free Speech Coffee. When I asked Kath Weider-Roos, John’s wife and business partner, about this she explained it this way: “John adopted the phrase early on to reference the way coffee opens people up to start talking. Also, as artists we believe in the power of expression and the ideals of free speech.” This is reflected through the artwork and stories John creates for each of their signature roasts like “Lobster Butter Love.”
When the participants were asked if their coffee careers brought them joy the overwhelming answer was YES! Consider this when you pick the businesses you want to support. Thank them for their service to our community, culture, and that wonderful BUZZ that gets you through a tough day. One Barista told me she acquired joy knowing she was contributing to making someone’s day a little brighter. Which reminds me… Please tip your baristas well. They pour their talents, craft, and spirit into each cup and deserve to know they are appreciated. Onni’s take-away was eloquently stated: “I loved hearing the perspectives of people knowledgeable and passionate about their field. The history of local coffee roasters has enriched my daily coffee experiences. It made me more mindful and appreciative of coffee and the people who are involved in making it.”
There are many websites where you can learn the technical aspects of growing, roasting, and brewing beans. The National Coffee Association is a good place to begin www.ncausa.org. Jessica Meyer, past Lead Barista at Crazy Wisdom Tea Room also recommended two books on the subject: God in a Cup by Michaele Weissman, and The World and Atlas of Coffee by James Hoffman. Both are available at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore.
Sam Schaefer of Stovetop Roasters competes in barista competitions. Top level baristas from all over the nation and/or world compete to find the best in their field. This information is at www.sca.coffee.
There are classes, cuppings, and events at almost every coffee shop and
roaster lab mentioned in this article. Check out their web sites and social media
for updates: stovetoproasters.com, roosroast.com, www.mightygoodcoffee.com,
www.coffeeexpress.com, and cometcoffeestl.com.