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Where Brewing Is an Art

Specialty coffee houses concoct the perfect blend.

Twenty years ago, few Americans could even pronounce latte, let alone order one at practically every corner. That all changed when Seattle-based Starbucks began opening shops across the country in the late 1980s, making drinks such as espresso and Frappuccino household words.

Today, the American coffee culture has been transformed once again — not by a big well-known coffee chain, but by a new wave of small specialty coffee companies that are doing for our favorite brew what small specialty farmers and chefs have done for food.

Artisan coffee — produced by locally owned companies that give the type of attention to buying and roasting coffee beans that winemakers pay to growing and crushing grapes — has created a new world of neighborhood coffee bars and boutique coffee bean roasters.

Coffee roasters — such as Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Ore.; Blue Bottle Coffee Co. in Oakland, Calif.; Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea Inc. in Chicago; Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, N.C.; and Novo Coffee in Denver — have helped elevate appreciation for our daily cup of joe to a new level.

This is particularly good news for older coffee drinkers who represent the fastest growing segment of the coffee market and generally like their java plain. For them, the new coffee connoisseurs are providing more choices for better-tasting, just-roasted coffee to help jump-start the morning.

To say these entrepreneurs are passionate about coffee is an understatement. “The people who are delivering and brewing coffee in these cafes are taking it to a whole new level,” says David Pohl, the coffee buyer and director of education for Equator Coffees & Teas of San Rafael, Calif., considered one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s top small roasters.

What makes this new level unique is the emphasis on the beans’ origin, flavor, freshness and roasting.

 “It’s like a cross between wine and bread,” explains Gregory Dicum, co-author of The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry From Crop to the Last Drop. “Like wine, there are many different kinds of coffee, and “terroir” — the place where it was grown — matters. And like bread, freshness matters. It’s not just how well it was roasted, but how recently.”

In the same way that chefs now stress farm-to-table cooking as a way to support small farmers and ensure freshness of ingredients, the new coffee connoisseurs talk about source-to-cup. They work with individual farmers around the world, buying each type of bean from a single source in the same way that winemakers use grapes from a specific vineyard.

They then roast the beans in small batches, so that the coffee they sell by the pound or brew by the cup has been roasted just a few days before, rather than months ago, as is the case with many of the vacuum-packed bags of beans sold in supermarkets and discount warehouse stores.

This is important, because once roasted, coffee beans rapidly lose their freshness (think freshly baked homemade bread and how quickly it stales). Roasted beans, stored properly, lose quality after a couple of weeks; with ground coffee, it’s a matter of days.

The other difference among the new coffee companies is in the roasting. They prefer a lighter roast to enhance the beans’ more complex flavors, which they describe with wine-critic phrases such as “gentle acidity” and “notes of almond.” They sneeringly refer to Starbucks as “Charbucks,” because its beans tend to be dark-roasted to stand up to the milk and flavoring of its coffee drinks.

“If you put a filet mignon on the grill and cook it until it’s well-done, you lose a lot of flavor. It’s the same with coffee beans. The better coffees taste better with a lighter roast,” Pohl says.

While some may complain about the price of the new specialty coffees — a pound can cost from $12 to $30, depending on the variety — the man who opened New York’s first specialty coffeehouse in 2001 begs to differ. Ken Nye, owner of Ninth Street Espresso, ardently believes that you get what you pay for.

“If people had any idea of how much care and labor go into producing exceptional coffees, they would be shocked. When compared to wine, beer, spirits, cheeses and the like, coffee is an absolute bargain. If priced comparatively, a pound of great coffee could easily cost three to four times what it fetches now,” Nye wrote this year in an online question-and-answer with readers of the New York Times.

“The farmers that produce all of these amazing coffees deserve to be compensated,” he wrote.

Still, as Pohl points out, “there’s cheap wine and there will always be cheap coffee. But people are beginning to appreciate quality coffee, branching out, trying new things. It’s exciting for customers.”

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