Bleary-eyed, I'm hanging out with the birds on the patio waiting for the coffee maker to finish brewing my first cup of hot, black coffee. It's 5 am. Oh yes, the life of a writer, awake at any hour waiting for an idea to strike. At this ungodly hour, a good gulp of caffeine feels like Zumba for the brain. A dark roast tasting of chocolate and burnt sugar will fill my cup this morning. There's something that's just so sweet about coffee. It's not simply the taste or the opportunity of sharing a pot with friends. It's that the story of coffee is the story of people.
Jon McKittrick is an independent roaster and owner of Syndicate Coffee. ... McKittrick recounts his own coffee discovery moment. "I fell in love with the idea of coffee long before embracing the actual drink. The times having a coffee break with my Grandfather, working on his farm as a teenager, left an indelible mark. They were moments of happiness and good, thoughtful conversation. The coffee was instant and horrible. But so many good memories centred on having a cup of coffee that I embarked on a journey to find a cup that I actually could stomach and enjoy." He eventually got what he was looking for.
McKittrick says that a great roast, "is all about experimenting and discovering what tastes great and what gets thrown out the window into the garden. I’ll roast each new batch of beans to my standard light, medium and dark roasts to ‘feel’ them out and go from there."
McKittrick works with the Organic Products Trading Company to source the best beans because "they’ve developed relationships and work collaboratively with farmers and cooperatives on everything from growing practices to community projects to gender equality initiatives."
Suneal Pabari and Adam Frank founded The Roasters Pack with the goal of helping more people have that moment when they say "coffee can taste like this?!" The Roasters Pack is a monthly delivery system that sources its coffee from independent roasters all over Canada.
As for choosing which roasters to feature, he says, "I love how diverse each one and their roasts can be. I love how great a lot of their stories and backgrounds are. Most of the ones we work with are small so they simply focus on making great coffee. I want to try and help them get their great product into the hands of coffee drinkers."
Joe Harrison operates Grizzly Bear Coffee, where he, too, offers a monthly coffee delivery service called the Coffeeshare Club. "I loved that smell of coffee [growing up]," Harrison tells me. "I love the way coffee is associated with conversation, creativity and comfort."
With so much freshly roasted coffee in reach of almost every Canadian neighbourhood, it's time to push the Nespresso aside and try something entirely different. I asked Pabari what impact the prevalence of convenience coffee (like Keurig) has on the roasters he's met. "It’s tough," he admits. "That would be one of the most discouraging things about this venture. For many customers convenience is trumping taste. The encouraging thing is that we know that we're providing consumers with an amazing cup of coffee, and it creates even more of a taste gap between the k-cup coffees and ours. Great coffee isn’t very accessible to Canadians as Tim Horton's and Starbucks practically dominate the market and are the accepted cup of coffee. Luckily, on a trip to Costa Rica in my late teens I had an incredibly vibrant and complex coffee that changed everything. It didn't taste like anything I had tried before." Now, doesn’t that sound like something that would get you out of bed every day?
Despite the challenges, Harrison feels that "the world of coffee drinkers is large, and there is room for all sorts of drinkers. It's very similar to the beer industry," he argues. "There are the major players, like Molson and Labatt, but there is also a strong independent micro brewing culture that thrives."
Drink with the pros
As for which beans and roast to buy, there seem to be so many choices that navigating the cafés and coffee bean aisles can seem a little daunting.
"There are two varieties of coffee beans," Harrison begins, "Arabica, which has a cleaner and brighter taste, and Robusta, which has a darker and muddier taste." Pabari continues:
"The flavour profile can vary depending on the farm, the soil, the elevation, how the coffee was converted from the coffee cherry to the green coffee bean and more. It can even change from year to year. But it's one of the reasons that coffee is so diverse (and interesting)!
"For roast levels, it’s easier to understand. One general rule of thumb is that the lighter the roast, the more acidic it will be. You’ll probably be able to taste fruitier elements or floral elements. The lightest roasts will even have tea-like characteristics! When you get into darker roasts, you’ll pick up more of the roasting characteristics, and it’ll have less prominent acidic flavours. There will actually be less flavour from the bean itself when you drink the darkest roasts, and more flavours that have been roasted in." McKittrick adds, "it can be confusing because each brand has its own marketing terms, like Full City, Cinnamon and Italian. I stick to the basic light, medium, dark and blends."
Almost all of the coffee beans roasted and sold around the world are derived from two species of coffee beans – Arabica (70%) and Robusta (25%).
By far the most popular worldwide, Arabica is a lighter, softer coffee than Robusta.
- Popularity: popular in Central and Northern Europe; found in cafes and specialty food shops
- Caffeine: 0.6 – 1.5%
- Smell: Not roasted – similar to blueberries; Roasted – fruit notes and sugar tones
- Taste: Full bodied and smooth with a sweet profile of fruity and zesty flavours. Highly influenced by climate, so each growing region will have a different predominate flavours: berries (Ethiopian Harar); earthy (Indian and Indonesian); citrus (Central American); chocolate (Yemen)
- Uses: 100% Arabica coffee grounds; blends with Robusta; espresso
Though not as popular as Arabica, Robusta has its unique appeal and more affordable price tag.
- Popularity: Popular in North America and Mediterranean; found in supermarkets, grocery stores and other bulk retail venues
- Caffeine: 2 – 3%
- Smell: Not roasted – reminiscent of peanuts; Roasted – likened to burnt rubber
- Taste: Grainy, woody and astringent with notes of oatmeal Full-bodied and strong with earthy flavours and high acidity. Bitter and harsh
- Uses: Espresso blends; freeze-dried coffees; coffee-flavoured frozen drinks
When used in a blend, these two species balance each other. Arabica adds a smooth, fruity note while Robusta gives the blend a bit of kick, both in caffeine and acidity.
Coffee has evolved since it was first discovered, with producers mixing the two species to create unique hybrids. The below map shows where each species is grown:
(The following is a continuation of Not Your Average Joe)
Now you have your hands on fresh, locally-roasted coffee beans. How do you get the most from them? Invest in the right grinder. Sure, blade grinders are available in practically every store that sells household appliances. But, take heed of this advice: just don’t go there. Those spinning blades make uneven mincemeat of the beans resulting in a less flavourful brew. Stick to a burr grinder. They’re more expensive, but the action of two abrasive plates crushing the beans does a better job at maximizing the flavour. Now, go buy a good coffee maker.
A quick look through my kitchen revealed four different types:
Which one I use depends entirely on the day of the week, the roast and my mood. But, geekiness aside, the key to great-tasting coffee is learning how to get the most from whatever coffee maker you own. Coffee experts will tell you that the best coffee is made with a manual pour-over style, like a Hario or Chemex. Some will also insist that the beans be freshly ground, the coffee pushed to the side of the filter to form a divot, the water poured in a clockwise direction, the bloom stirred six times with a bamboo paddle and the coffee steeped for precisely four minutes.
That little ritual does produce a tasty cup, but if you’re not yet ready for that level of commitment, here are some useful tips:
- Water temperature should be about 200°F because if it’s too hot, the brew will be bitter.
- Buy freshly roasted coffee in small batches.
- Grind the beans right before you brew.
Now it’s your turn to go on a tasting adventure.
While many see coffee as a morning beverage, sipped with breakfast and enjoyed just as much for the taste as for the energizing kick the caffeine provides, coffee’s unique flavours are excellent accents for your evening cocktails.
Experiment with your new coffee knowledge with one of these delicious cocktails.
1 cup coffee
1 shot Bailey's Irish cream
1/2 - 1 oz whipped cream
Coffee and Dreams is inspired by a Colombian bar with the same name…. this is a coffee drinker's drink. Pour one cup of hot coffee and add Bailey's Irish Cream and top with whipped cream. Add milk if desired, but the Bailey's Irish cream might be enough, enjoy.
4 cl Licor 43
Put liqueur and coffee into mug. Pour cream gently over the coffee but don't let them mix.
1/6 glass rum
1/6 glass strong black coffee
1/2 glass cold water
Stir the rum, coffee and water together. Top with the whipped cream. Sprinkle with a pinch of well-ground coffee and drink with a straw.
4 oz hot coffee
1 1/2 oz Frangelico hazelnut liqueur
1/2 oz dark crème de cacao
2 oz heavy cream
Pour the coffee into an Irish coffee cup or glass. Add the Frangelico hazelnut liqueur and crème de cacao; stir. Float the heavy cream on top, and serve.
Pour vodka and Lapponia Lakka into an Irish coffee cup. Fill with hot coffee and float fresh cream or whipped cream on top.
Q School is a micro-publication dedicated to helping you get the most out of life. It's like a snack for your mind.
Published by Quench Digital.
Art direction and production by Paris Associates.
Photography and media provided by:
Images sourced from:
- Hot Coffee image - http://www.syndicatecoffee.ca/
- Pack of Roast - http://theroasterspack.com/
- Grizzly Bear Box - http://www.grizzlybearcoffee.com/
Arabica vs Robusta
Map of Growing Regions - http://espressocoffee.quora.com/Coffee-Bean-Species-%E2%80%93-Arabica-and-Robusta
Images sourced from:
- Wikimedia Commons (see images for source url)