30 | Oct | 09

Richard Johnson

Is This Coffee ?

I don’t know if it was the coffee beans (Tanzanian Peaberry and Sumatran Mandeling), the hand grinder, the personal cafetiere or the trioxane pocket stove in her handbag that give it away. But I knew early-on that my wife was particular about coffee. Now, to make matters worse, she has gone and struck up a relationship with our local coffee cart. “Try one of these” she says, handing me a coffee with a spoon dipped in white chocolate. “You want cinnamon with that?” She’s lost her coffee-loving mind. But she says she’s tasted the future. And, apparently, it will be served with gingerbread biscotti.

I remember a time when it was different. When a ‘free refill’ was a threat rather than a promise. When coffee tasted like tea. I remember industry insiders talking about toasted bran and chicory as “the new coffee” because coffee was dead. But then came Frasier and Friends, and all of a sudden we were ordering double skinnies like we knew what it actually meant. Now coffee shops are everywhere. Baristas are busily swathing espressos in hot milk, whipped cream and flavoured syrup, and handing us back something that looks like an ice-cream sundae. Which isn’t always a good thing.

You see espresso isn’t a solution but a colloid—a mixture of liquids, gases and finely dispersed solids. It has more than 1,500 chemical components detectable by taste and smell—far more than wine. A good espresso will give you an aftertaste that can last for 20 minutes, making it a good match for a short cigar. Wine, which we get terribly uppity about, is judged to have ‘a long finish’ when its aftertaste lasts for over 60 seconds. So the bean and the roast are important. The double dash of raspberry syrup doesn’t really help.

My biggest gripe is with the big coffee chains who buy pre-ground coffee. Or grind enough to last them for two days. I’m here to tell you that oxidisation is public enemy number one. Which is why I liked the smaller places. All the mobilers I know use freshly ground beans. They don’t extract the espresso too quickly (anything under 20 seconds, and I recommend a simple grinder adjustment) and they don’t try to pull multiple shots from one load of coffee. They even put the right amount of steamed milk into my cup.

All I want is my uncommon grounds. Like the coffee I tasted this week from Lean Green Machine. They deserve their success. I know that it’s fashionable to knock Starbucks. And I would always prefer a good coffee cart, given the choice. But all Starbucks is actually doing is free-market capitalism. Better than anyone else. Go live in Cuba, I say. Which doesn’t sound much of a threat any more. And it’s not like we’ve got a British coffee culture to get sentimental about. Yet….