Luke, join the dark side…or wtv you want really!
BY JESSE LEWIN
We’ve come quite a ways in coffee. I mean, literally, who the hell knows what the first roasts ever, tasted like so many years ago?! Now there are oodles of different roast profiles (Basically how coffee is roasted and to what degree) & varietals (“Strains”...like all that weed you were buying in College) as well as a multitude of brewing possibilities. Which is all awesome! We now sit between the last incarnation of coffee & the new age of beliefs & style that many consider to be the “best” version of this delicious drink many of us consume on the daily. We are in the “Golden Age” of coffee as so many of us say today but, are we just talking about the quality of green coffee that now is so accessible for us roasters out there, and is this golden light actually transcending all the “links” or tiers in the coffee industry., including the final product, which is what I’m going to tackle here. I’m going to keep it simple because if not, this post could go on forever and a great deal of the info i’d spew out would bore some to death. We’ll discuss more details in later posts. Let’s just focus on roasted coffee, the stuff we need to wake up in the morning. Not Maillard reaction & the physics behind roasting. I can totally wake up without those nuggs.
I remember the instant coffee my dad would drink...2 sugars & a splash of 2% milk. I hated it. I remember the cloudy, muddy coffee my teachers in high school use to drink...that smell is burnt into my olfactory memory. The first coffees I ever had were really dark! I remember when I was a kid, I had a “Venetian” coffee, as they called it, at breakfast with my mom. It was pretty much a flat white with chocolate AND a slim slice of orange! WTF! Today, I’d be questioning the sanity of the people behind the coffee shop, but at the time, I was maybe 10 or 11 years old….it was friggin nuts and I loved it. The craziest thing about this story is that years later, I was dialing in a new coffee at the shop I had at the time, and that particular espresso** tasted EXACTLY like that sweet, creamy, “Venetian” drink I had so many years before! It’s also the reason why we’re cranking out a blend for our clients, & ourselves, that resembles this experience. I’m going off on a tangent so, i’ll reel it back in and try my best to stay on track. It’s hard for me most days.
**(Im going to use “spro” in the future so, just to clarify for those who aren’t in the 411, it’s just a short, semi douchey way to say ESPRESSO)
My point is, I loved that coffee. At the time, cafés I had access to were using only italian style or french style coffee roasts. Which means the beans were REAL dark….Darth Vader dark…Russell Crowe goin’ down the tubes and hitting that guy with a hotel phone type of DARK. So, would the coffee, minus the orange and the chocolate, still appeal to me today? Probably not. Even though there are many more heavily developed or “Roasty” coffees that I have enjoyed thoroughly. Having tried Italian & French roast coffees throughout the years up until even recently, many of them are so charred, that after a sip or two, your mouth is incredibly dry, and the taste of ash and carbon is just everywhere. Total nightmare.. If you really look for it as a casual coffee drinker you can even taste/smell mold in there too because some companies buying coffee to roast this dark (If the beans are real dark and oily…….yeah…..that’s it) acquire these coffees, which have often succumbed to one or more factors that can lead to overall degradation, and even mold (GROSS!) at a fraction of a fraction of A FRACTION of what we in the specialty coffee industry, pay for our product.I can eat leek ash on a great plate of food or charred onion...but coffee roasted to that degree is just a disservice to the client & all the hard work and hard earned money that went into growing and acquiring the raw product. (Cue R.E.M. - Everybody Hurts….& cry a little)
Now let’s jump into the future...well, let’s say the not-so-distant past. People were popping up with all these rad coffee shops & everyone either looked like a badass rockstar or a minimal electro artist from Kreuzberg. Yeah, I guess some of us still resemble that now…...
It was a crazy exciting era & I miss that excitement all the time.
Anyway, when we all jumped into this new “wave”, like any new trend or whatever, you feel kinda cool, you’re hanging out with other kinda cool people, there’s a bit of an elitist mentality that creeps into people’s minds (Me included), & just in general, you were looking at the Starbucks people like they were frauds. In a way, there was a foundation for that belief. Us REAL coffee people were using TAMPERS, DIALING IN, and slangin lattés with friggin swans on them. OF COURSE we were way cooler! We were. Maybe some questionable haircuts & way too many coffee related tattoos but, we were definitely making it clear that being a barista was a technical profession & was a LEGITIMATELY cool job to have.
This confidence and perceived “all-knowing” brought about a whole slew of great things, BUT we also fell into a sort of pit trap I like to call...The Grassy Hole.
I remember talking about Tim Wendelboe years ago and at the time, in Montreal at least, many were looking at me like I had just made up this fictional character with a weird name & was painting them as some kind of coffee unicorn-god. To be fair, he is a coffee virtuoso but, there are some things I came to realise as time went on about my coffee hero and inspiration that made me change how I thought about what he did & continues to do so well, & how it affected us so many miles away.
“Nordic” style coffee roasting is one that I think most of us understand to be the practice of creating a very light, yet developed roast profile. This doesn’t mean scandinavia didn’t have a plethora of places serving super dark, one could say, overdeveloped (To be nice) coffee. Nor did they necessarily achieve developed, light roasted coffees without a whole bunch of duds in there. Even today, the number of people that can roast coffee WELL in this style, in my opinion, are few and far between. It’s SO difficult to do an awesome job. Not just once, but many times over. Just figuring out what the most ideal way to roast any single lot of coffee is a daunting task and my hat is off to all those who take a stab at it. Light roasts….when they’re good though, they’re friggin’ amazing! It can be so sweet, complex, & just pierce that tiny window of development so you’re not in the green-zone, which ends up making everything taste quite...like fresh cut grass, sometimes hay (Just examples). Which is exactly what, at one point in time, I was seeing, & tasting, all over the place. A grassy, underdeveloped, green, and in response, under-extracted (Which is a topic for another post) product that is far from a delight for anyone to drink. Does under extraction ONLY stem from underdeveloped coffee? HECK NO!....but again, for the sake of this post let’s just focus on roasts. Stable & consistent espresso extraction is already pretty darn tough when you’re in the scenarios you need to be in to actually make money. Doing TONS of volume. So what happened was there came to be a myriad of coffee roasters that, with the backing of some baristas, shop owners, etc. , were pushing a product that was essentially inaccessible to the palate of “Jack” & “Jill”.....and Jack & Jill are super important because they are your community, your friends. We had become so busy chasing how the coffee LOOKED, how close it was to our nordic friends & I think perhaps were swayed by the group mind into believing that, everything that was off in the cup, was normal. “Everybody’s doin’ it” kinda thing. We lost sight of what’s important. Do I love the coffee I roast? Do my people love the product I offer? Do I think the farmers who laboured a ton for this coffee would be proud of what I’ve done? These are all real tough questions. It’s not easy sometimes when we’re standing so close to the fence, to see the whole game playing out in front of us.
Every roaster should keep on trying stuff out. Experimenting. Taking chances. You don’t want to play someone else’s music! You want to be inspired by it and learn from it. Find your own signature in roasting & whatever else you do. Roast coffee you love drinking. Sweet, clean coffees that make everyone happy!
I’ve changed a great deal since the beginning of my career in food, spirits, & coffee. I had so many bad habits, preconceived notions, & just a whole lot of issues with perspective. I once only wanted to drink really light roasted coffee and nothing else. Now I feel like punching my younger self in the face for being so moronic, but hindsight is always 20/20. I was being a dufus. I love coffee for what it is. I think the fact that some coffees just taste like nutella! It’s sweet and rich and super awesome! I like having a crazy natural (we’ll hit that another time too) that tastes like a bowl of candy your grandparents may have had on the coffee table! If it’s light & delicate or a darker & rich…..if it works for that particular coffee, it’s going to taste great. Keep an open mind & you’ll have so much more to discover, not just about coffee, but about yourself! Cheesy, yes, but it’s real. It happened to me.