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One definition of “overly ambitious” is attempting to write an article about the relationship between coffee and a pluralistic nation of over 1.1 billion people. Compounding this is the nature of India itself — where not only can you find evidence of just about everything, but for everything you find to be true you will also find the exact opposite to also be true.
India is a mesmerizing country that can be quite a lot to take in at any given time or place. Life there seems so much more raw…and vibrant. Besides being a diverse country of contradictions, one seems to experience a 360-degree view of life there — in contrast with our much narrower perspectives of the world here. For example, destitute poverty lives side-by-side with optimistic, upwardly mobile hope for the future. But at either end of this wide spectrum, India is filled with people of great friendliness, joie de vivre, and spiritual centeredness. It boasts some of the best people-watching in the world, and we rapidly developed a great fondness for the country and the people who live there.
Yet despite two weeks in a country that arguably changed us (is there such a thing as an Indiaphile?), we were much less successful at unraveling the mysteries of India’s historic, evolving coffee culture. There are a few reasons for this:
Despite these obstacles, we always welcome flimsy excuses to publish more travel photos.
It’s a bit ironic that Westerner travelers feel the culture shock of India’s raw authenticity — far removed from the corporate sameness that afflicts every downtown in America — and yet dedicated retail coffeehouses in India are dominated by big chains. The independent, mom & pop places called “coffee houses” are typically old school diners, cafés, and restaurants. (Another strange irony: with the escalation of world food prices, there are questions of how middle America can continue to afford organic foods for their families — whereas in destitute India, that’s all they’ve ever eaten.)
Of course, India is a nation famous for its tea drinkers. Chai being the Hindi word for tea — and not that latte-styled spiced tea stuff Americans call “chai” either, which is closer to chai masala gone Starbucks. (Indian trains and train stations are filled with the “chai, chai!” calls of tea-vending children and adults.) As in other developing countries famous for their tea drinkers, such as China, many of the newly affluent are gradually eschewing their daily tea for the perceived cosmopolitan mystique of espresso drinks. And in most modern offices staffed by younger Indians, coffee seems to be the beverage of choice.
However, coffee (kaufi in Hindi) is hardly new to the subcontinent. It’s generally believed that coffee was first brought to India in the 17th century through its historic Islamic ties to Yemen and the Middle East. Today India claims to be the fifth largest coffee producer in the world. Coffee is grown almost exclusively in South India, and most of it has been consumed in the domestic market — with an occasional bulk trade with the former USSR. But since the 1990s, India has developed some excellent coffees. They are also home to some excellent “oddities”, such as Monsooned Malabar and some of the highest quality robusta beans in the world. (Unfortunately we didn’t have the opportunity to visit coffee farms at origin.) Italy is currently the largest importer of Indian coffees.
South India is also famous for what they call “filter coffee” — or what the rest of us call “South Indian” or “Madras” coffee. It’s a ritualistic combination of darkly roasted beans blended with chicory, a lot of warmed milk, and sugar. It all comes together through coffee mixologists who use metal cups and tumblers to form the frothy, sweet, milky drink. While available in Northern India, it was too sweet and milky for our tastes — though some Madrasi purists told us that the concoctions up north came up short to the real thing.
|Name||Address||City||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|Barista Crème||33, 1st Floor, Khan Market||New Delhi||6.60||6.80||6.700|
|Costa Coffee||L8. Outer Circle, Connaught Place||New Delhi||6.40||6.50||6.450|
|Café Coffee Day||14 Indira Gandhi International Airport||New Delhi||7.10||4.20||5.650|
Corporate spokespeople frequently speak volumes more in what’s left unsaid than in what they say. Take yesterday’s Reuters news release from The Big 4‘s Kraft Foods. Kraft’s flagship coffee, Maxwell House, has desensitized American coffee taste buds for decades. Kraft has just recently decided to use 100% arabica beans in Maxwell House’s cans of unholy horror: INTERVIEW-Maxwell House coffee to go 100 pct arabica | Reuters.
In a statement made yesterday by Kraft senior vice-president and general manager of coffee in North America, John LeBoutillier, Kraft is changing the Maxwell House blend “to give mainstream America a richer, less bitter cup of coffee.”
The unsaid message from Mr. LeBoutillier? “For decades we have knowingly given mainstream America a weaker, more bitter cup of coffee. In more recent years, while the likes of Starbucks has created a market for much better coffee than the crude commodity we’ve been forever slinging on supermarket shelves, we countered by offering mainstream America even worse coffee: using cheap Vietnamese robusta beans, chemically treating it to taste more like our usual coffee, and passing the savings on to our shareholders. And by diverting our massive coffee purchases from our usual growers to cheap suppliers of low-grade beans, we helped instigate the global coffee crisis, inspiring desperate measures such as the Fair Trade movement.”
To also cite the Reuters article, “The move is neither an effort to challenge premium coffees nor in response to the hike in robusta futures prices to a recent nine-year peak, LeBoutillier said.” As if we didn’t predict exactly this ten months ago.
Last week, C. Clairborne Ray of the New York Times answered this question as part of the paper’s Q&A feature: bookofjoe: What makes coffee bitter?. (I’m citing it on another blogger’s post instead of the original NY Times source — in case you are religiously opposed to NYT logins.)
As the article states, coffee is a “complex chemical soup”. So complex, in fact, that the answer they offer is a complex alphabet soup.
The digestible short of it is that a little bitterness isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the overall balance of coffee, as it cuts down on its acidity. However, you can cut back on the perceived bitterness of the cup by avoiding distilled water, by brewing at higher temperatures, and laying off the robusta. The Coffee Research Institute also recommends medium roasts, drip-brewed systems, and using a coarser grind.
The uncontrollable urge to assign shamanic powers of eternal life or instant death to coffee are still in full bloom. Last December, we reported on the UK introduction of CoffeeSlender (a.k.a. Café Bulimia), a coffee drink that claimed to help consumers lose weight through something called Svetol — a derivative of green coffee beans. Today we can apparently bypass the beverage part entirely and just take a pill (it’s about time!): Response Source | Press Releases – Green Coffee capsules – all the weight loss benefits, none of the bitter taste!
How this green coffee extract works to help you lose weight is actually a bit scary. According to the press release: “Ingredients in the Robusta green coffee bean inhibit the uptake of glucose in the intestines, regulating metabolism and resulting in weight loss over a period of 60 days.” In short, chemical compounds found in a cheap coffee varietal — one traded on the commodities market by the gross ton instead of by the pound — put your body into a mild diabetic state. Dexatrim latte, anyone?
David Lebovitz is a fairly well-known pastry chef and foodie who launched his career through a long tour of duty at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Lately he’s taken on a great interest in making the kind of espresso he can get in Italy — but not in the U.S. as easily. Following his pursuit of perfection, today he wrote about his recent training at Illy‘s Università del caffè in Trieste, Italy: David Lebovitz: Making Perfect Espresso at Illy.
At l’università, they compared for him espresso made with 100% Arabica beans and with a 50/50 Arabica/robusta blend. Illy openly disdains robusta coffee as a cheaper coffee stock, so it’s not surprising that they went for the full “cheap beans” effect. Yet there are others who argue that the American outright avoidance of robusta in quality espresso is a major problem. In any case, I find an espresso blend of 90/10 makes a nicely balanced espresso — particularly with some of the high-end, carefully processed robusta stocks now available from places like India.
The Illy preachers also sound a bit reactionary to the trend towards single-origin products. It’s a bit like the Johnny Walkers making their case against the single malt scotch trend. While there is a definite art and mastery to making a well-balanced espresso from a variety of blended coffee sources, single-origin espressos can often be excellent for their singularly strong, albeit imbalanced, flavor profiles.
Mr. Lebovitz appears to finally strike good espresso gospel when he writes:
So a good espresso isn’t bitter (or burnt-tasting) and should be a thin syrup, 25 ml (about 2 tablespoons) and should have a layer of crema on top, a bit of foam which barista Michele told me was marked with what he called a “tiger’s stripes”, because of the wavy lines and mottled marks in the foam.
Definitely not, as the Illy guys said, “like your Starbucks in California“…
This is a great site, full of lots of good information. I linked to it twice in responses to comments on my site!
I know far more about chocolate than coffee, although I’m excited by all I’m learning, I think that people get obsessed with terms like single-origin, or percentages, at the expense of taste. I like forestero chocolates sometimes, but wouldn’t use them for dipping. There’s likely lots of badly-processed Arabica beans out there, but it was interesting to sample the 2 offered side-by-side. (When I asked why they didn’t offer us cups of pure Robusta for sample, they said, “We didn’t want to do that to you.”)
Unfortunately where I live, there is a lots of robusta, or poorly-prepared Arabica coffee and it’s frustrating not to be able to get a decent cup of espresso anywhere. So I’m trying to learn more about it at home. I’ve got a good machine, although I think my next purchase is a burr grinder.
Glad you found my post interesting and thanks for your feedback.
Tomorrow’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution nails it with this article headline: Espresso done right is intense — a full-bodied, stop-time moment to savor | ajc.com. Somewhat surprisingly, what follows the headline isn’t half bad either.
The author, John Kessler, goes on to note how rare a decent espresso is in this country — and in fancy restaurants in particular. But rather than merely lament the sorry state of American espresso, he makes a legitimate attempt at an explanation. He attributes this sorry state to a variety of factors, including a cultural preference for the 30-minute indulgence rather than the three-sip shot, insufficient steam pressure from many commercial machines, and an avoidance of robusta beans. It’s a noble attempt worthy of examination.
America’s culture of indulgence is dismissive of the “small tasting”. The small tasting typically makes an acceptable appearance only where physical constraints make it absolutely necessary — such as part of a lavish seven-course meal. (As celeb chef Anthony Bourdain is quick to point out, after the first few bites of anything, our taste buds progressively deaden with the same stimulus. Beyond those first tastes, you’re no longer satisfying your taste buds; rather, you are trying to satisfy something else entirely.) Combine this with our cultural obsession over all-you-can-eat “value”, and its no wonder that our espresso is over-extracted, poured in copious amounts, and almost always washed away in a sea of steamed milk.
Unfortunately, conventional wisdom in this country suggests that espresso is a “hot, bitter brew” — with the maximum caffeinated effect. This reflects just how poor the American cultural standard for espresso really is. I would argue that if it’s hot and bitter, you’re not drinking espresso — you’re drinking something else. In a country where our beverage choices are either “freezing” or “scalding”, espresso should be served a touch closer to room temperature. And if it’s bitter, whoever made it likely over-extracted the shot, and it should be sent back like a corked wine.
But — as Corby Kummer, author of The Joy of Coffee, is quoted in the article — “I hate it when people use a wine analogy for coffee.” Lately, I have caught myself using a balsamic vinegar of Modena analogy. Acidic vinegar doesn’t sound like the kind of appetizing thing you might, say, pour over ice cream. But if you’ve ever had aged balsamic vinegar of Modena, you know just how sweet and syrupy — and so unlike its wine-based American counterpart — it can be. The same is true when comparing a true espresso with the typical American version.
Back to Mr. Kessler’s explanation, I also have to agree that the American espresso is almost universally over-extracted and brewed at the wrong temperature. The general state of espresso equipment tuning and maintenance is sorry and sad. But training plays a huge role too. Machines tuned to perfection could be rendered irrelevant in untrained hands. All it takes is someone to leave the portafilter handles cooling in the drip tray.
However, I am in less agreement with his “aversion to robusta” argument. Sure, robusta is generally a cheaper grade coffee that many American retailers tend to avoid on this criteria alone. And the right percentage of good-quality robusta in an espresso blend can make a huge difference in an espresso’s volume of crema, the richness of its aroma, and the breadth of its flavor profile. But I’ve also had astounding single-bean espresso shots that have blown blends out of the water.
Speaking of ever-tiresome wine analogies… On a semi-related note, today’s The Washington Post today published an article where the author learned how to evaluate different bean stocks through a weekly public cupping at D.C.’s Murky Coffee: Wake Up and Cup the Coffee – washingtonpost.com.
In response to the precipitous rise of specialty coffee in recent years, coffee’s traditional Big Four (Nestlé, Sara Lee, Kraft, and Proctor & Gamble) — rather than compete by raising their quality standards — responded instead by seeking cheaper bean stocks to squeeze out more profits. The Vietnamese robusta coffee market rode the wave of these investments, and its explosive growth, overproduction, and proliferation fueled much of the coffee crisis that inspired Fair Trade and related initiatives to protect the endangered quality coffee grower.
Despite the low-grade coffee that Vietnam came to symbolize, that did not prevent delusions of grandeur. One of these delusions is now facing a harsh reality check, after eight years and $50 million of investment to develop higher-grade arabica bean growth in Vietnam: VietNamNet – Arabica coffee project a fantastic hope.
Robusta coffee is just that — rubustly resistant to drought, heat, and climates that can be inhospitable to the higher-quality arabica coffee species. The problem is that robusta coffee is so inferior, it often needs to be chemically treated to taste more like coffee — and not like the burnt rubber it is most commonly described as. The failure of arabica coffee to take hold in Vietnam only underscores how challenging it is to produce good coffee there.
As Frank Sinatra once sang, “They got a lot of coffee in Brazil”. However, the driest winter in two decades is threatening to drop next year’s crop yield by almost a third: Brazilian drought leaves coffee crop high and dry | Chron.com – Houston Chronicle.
As the reality of global climate change sinks in, one also has to wonder if shifting weather patterns might result in worse and more frequent droughts — steering coffee farmers to produce more heat- and drought-resistant robusta beans. Not that I would call arabica beans an endangered species, but I can’t bear the thought of a post-apocalyptic world where the only coffee available is Yuban-in-a-can.
Decaffeinated coffee was once treated a lot like robusta: as some kind of crude, faux coffee that caters to consumers with the misfortune of a biological defect. But just as high-quality, expertly prepared robusta beans started appearing on the market from places such as India (for blending into quality roasts for espresso, etc.), decaf coffee — or at least the drinkers of the stuff — started getting some love and respect: Demand is growing for rich decaf coffee (syndicated from the Los Angeles Times; new working link).
As I mentioned in a previous post, earlier this year, decaffeinated Fair Trade and organic specialty beans were being bought up en masse by the likes of Wal-Mart. Although I never buy decaf coffee for myself, I typically buy it for caffeine-free friends who come over for dinner (and most often I buy Stumptown decaf beans from Ritual Roasters). And I have noticed that the quality and variety of decaf beans have become much more appealing. When I have good decaf left over, now I don’t hesitate putting it in a stovetop espresso maker or French press.
There’s something purist about good decaf coffee that I like. With so many people who primarily crave coffee for its caffeine buzz, the quality of the coffee can seem irrelevant. In the world of beer, this is like the difference between buying a microbrew for its flavor versus buying a 40 of Colt 45 for the dead brain cells. But let’s not take this analogy too far — I still don’t see the point of non-alcoholic beer. Just as I don’t get why some vegetarian restaurants serve tofu made to look and taste just like chicken. That’s just crazy.
Although expectations of record robusta coffee bean prices were set months ago, it wasn’t until last month that the price of robusta reached a seven-year high in London. What’s next? Some say arabica beans, according to an article in today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Next hot commodity? Arabica coffee beans.
With record robusta prices hitting the pocketbooks of the world’s biggest el cheapo coffee purveyors (i.e., the Big Four: Nestlé, Proctor & Gamble, Kraft [Phillip Morris/Altria Group], and Sara Lee [now Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA]), suddenly the higher quality arabica beans seem more attractive. Some analysts anticipate that this will cause price waves in the arabica market.
Good luck at getting any one of them making better coffee.