Back to the pleasure of holding a proper Coffee Cup

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The high tide wave of disposable cups plates and flatware is one i have suffered much under since returning to the USA. In some seldom localities, and only when directly asked for, one might get a coffee in a cup that is not made out of plastic, paper or styrofoam.

Another strong wave has been the production and usage of reusable containers for hot drinks, but most of these are made partly or completely out of plastic as well.

Hence I am glad to have found an attractive alternative offered by Starbucks. It is a large cup, a ceramic tumbler with cover. Not really a utensil “to go” with, but – as we ought to know – the best coffee is the one to stay.

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A Coffee Sunday / Blue Bottle Coffee, Chelsea, New York / July 21st2012

Today will be a Coffee Sunday.
I am on my way to the Siphon Coffee Bar in the Chelsea branch of the Blue Bottle Coffee Company.

The following awaits me:

Chelsea Menu
Siphon Bar, July 2012

Siphon
Abakundakawa C.O.E. (Rwanda) 7.75
hibiscus, honeydew melon

Fazenda Santa Inez (Brazil) 7.75
hazelnuts, dried figs, tangerine

Amaro Gayo Washed (Ethiopia) 7.50
Blackberry, nutmeg, dark chocolate

Nel
Amaro Gayo Washed (Ethiopia) 6.75

Brioche Toast
Served with American Spoon Black Raspberry Jam and Vermont Creamery Butter 6

Mini-cookie sampler 3.5

Pastries
A full selection of pastries from our espresso bar is available, including cookies, parfait, and granola.

Teas
Yunnan Gold (Dian Jin) 4.5
Jade Oolong 4.5
White Silver Needles 5

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Slow and Cold Coffee Drops at Blue Bottle Coffee, New York

James Freeman, from Blue Bottle Coffee (Okland and New York), demonstrates on an Oji Cold Coffee Dripper.

If you are interested in this type of coffee, check out this information as well, provided by Oliver Strand at New York Times’ Ristretto.

 

[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/hoMogpzweAI%2Em4v%5D

The Periphery of Taste

During my years in Belgium, four artists and I were invited by Joëlle Tuerlinckx to take part in a week-long symposium she initiated. One of the invited artists was the Belgian painter Filip Francis. He is especially known for his work in the 70’s and 80’s in which he mostly focused on thoughts and experiments based on the peripheral perception.

His practical approach to the topic is taken by painting a motive while looking at only one small fraction of the motive. He may paint the portrait of a woman, but may only look at her left hand. Viewing the finished work there will be a perfectly painted left hand, perfectly placed light, perfect lines and contrast, but only for the left hand. The more you look away from the hand, the more everything gets unfocused and distorted. A gradual progression from perfection up to distortion will take place in one single painting, based on his ability or disability to perceive the complete picture without looking at all of it. This procedure does not only show the aesthetics of such a spectrum, but it critically addresses visual limitations. It asks, not how far, but how wide we are able to perceive. Needless to say, one may simply enjoy looking at the abilities of the painter and admire the way he transports this idea into the canvas, but I find it much more challenging and important to consider our ability to see as much of what is in front of us and to exercise the widening of our periphery, and with that our horizon.

A widening of the periphery is possible through eye exercises, training the eye muscles while stretching them and thus achieving more horizontal clarity. In other words, the wider a plain in front of us stays sharp, the better and clearer we are capable of visually understanding places where we find ourselves. Peripheral widening of the vision increases our ability to be attentive, and attentiveness is one thing we truly need.

Here taste happens - the mouth's roof
Here taste happens – the mouth’s roof

It is solely our decision to stay satisfied with the taste of the strawberries we know well, with the type of asparagus we have already tasted, with the olive oil we have bought for many years, or to widen our palate experience. Many believe strongly in purism, something that attracts me often as well and at times imprisons me. It is however my believe that purism is much more the viewing or the remembrance of something proven and known to us, something subjective and of biographical origin, and not something truly pure and whole in taste. Our periphery of taste is usually at the mercy of our memories and of the disgust, compulsion or consistency connected to them. In this case I am not referring to the periphery due to alchemy and expansion through composition, but to periphery of a single picture, within the taste spectrum of a single fruit. I mean the openness I may be missing myself, when I visit a friend or a coffeehouse and my palate might be too fixed on that what it daily experiences and has learned to love, and thus unable to appreciate the momentary taste. A “Yuck!” means mostly the surprise reaction to a new taste and much less a true and objective unpleasant one.

Each picture – be it on a canvas or on the horizon – has a frame and all edibles provide a frame of taste. These frames are not necessarily given, they are not set to be equally readable by everyone, but each individual perceives them according to his very own capabilities. Experiencing an espresso in the mouth as an oil or essence for several minutes means to experience richness in the realm of small things. These are however not small things at all, for the frame could widely vary depending on our ability and willingness to be open for it.

coffee in the mortar

After testing various coffees and preparation systems, and after having dealt with the adjustment of the palate to the different tastes, is it fair to say that a bad coffee truly exists? A common filter system (like Melitta) is certainly not something I wish to call “good quality” coffee, but I do ask myself if “getting to know” a coffee taste in limited frames has anything to do at all with “knowing”, and if a constant widening of the periphery of the taste buds allows a term like “bad coffee”, or does it merely give room for recognizing ones preferred taste? To this I may answer that the more coffees I openly try, the more my array of taste combinations increase and the more I learn about the wide taste frame. The good and the bad tastes become simply various possibilities – increasingly so.

Science tells us that when we are looking at a large object, the muscles and the motion of the eyes are constantly scanning the object. The same occurs when we are looking at a landscape and with each move all eye muscles move simultaneously. Most important for these movements is the steering coming from the brain through regular impulses. This means that the eyes are not only scanning what is physically there but also what the brain thinks to see or wishes to see, according to its previously gathered information. What is there and what it being seen may not necessarily be the same. The brain may send information based on a reduced (or extended) perception of the physical object. Our lungs are as small as we use them while inhaling; our memory is as deep and long as we nurture it and wish to dwell upon it. If desired, one could drink an espresso out of a top of the line espresso machine. On the next day one may prepare a mocca, on the next a filter coffee, not at all to learn to appreciate lesser coffee quality and force them into our realm of acceptance, but to learn about the various possibilities in coffee and expand on these. It may be a gain, also a loss of time, in case repeatedly only a “yuck” were to take place.

An expansion of the periphery of taste has indeed taken place in our societies. Better said, we have discovered or recognized it. During the 17th and 18th centuries and up until the middle of this last century, it seems as though coffee had been only perceived as coffee, as long as it was not a substitute. Today this has changed. Not only do we have at times the possibility of choosing between two, three or more preparation systems in one singular coffeehouse, not only are we informed about specialty coffees like Jamaica Blue Mountain, Yirga, Kopi Luwak, Vilcabamba and many more, but the number of coffee sommeliers grows regularly. Coffeehouses increasingly offer fine Nuances to choose from and some customers know what to expect from a  “Yauco” (Puerto Rico), Turquino (Cuba), Shade Grown Colombia Nariño, Yrga (Ethiopia), while the Baristi offer to brew your coffee with 98° or with 95° to let you taste the difference the temperature makes. This is about increasing the possibilities of capitalizing on product quality and about the perception of the palate, making the taste periphery of coffee more conscious. We ought to know more about the diversity of coffee within our palate, learn to widen this frame and to challenge our tongues through tasting.

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Why Coffee?

Coffea Arabica Linnaeus

From coffee plants to coffeehouses

The coffee we drink worldwide comes mostly from the plants called Coffea Arabica Linnaeus and Coffea Canephora Linnaeus. There are several accounts depicting why and where humans first noticed and started using them, but many of these are merely legends of which there is no documented proof. Irrespective of when this was, at some point they started drying and roasting their fruits, long before starting inventing modern and increasingly sophisticated machines to prepare coffee drinks.

There were times when people enjoyed coffee as a morning soup. It is fair to say that for the many who had drunk beer soups up until then this was a time of awakening. At other times the pulp of the coffee berries was fermented to make wine, it was dried to make hot coffee drinks; or their berry seeds were dried and roasted for the dark brews we know until today.

We have made coffee the Ethiopian way by roasting them with spices and serving them in daily rituals to family members and guests. We have done it the Turkish way, the Mexican way, the Scandinavian way, the Italian way, the US American dinners way, the Cyprus way. Coffee cultures have developed for well over four centuries, if not much longer.

These developments continue and can be seen in places throughout the globe where millions gather daily to have a break, or have their home away from home, their social and business meeting places, intellectual conversations, inspiration, their chit-chat and much more, but to always enjoy their cup of coffee. These places have inspired architects, composers, writers, philosophers and many creative minds. They are called café and cafetería, kahvehane in Turkey, kafenio in Cyprus, were only men meet or kawiarnia in Poland or kissaten in Japan,

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Kaffeehaus in Vienna, where the high-society, the homeless, tourists, businessmen, romantic couples and opera house goers alike gather under one roof. Some others are called coffeehouses, where revolutions had their historic starts and music greats like Joan Baez or Bob Dylan began their singing careers. There were also houses, where for as little as one pence London upper-class businessmen, students, artists, politicians, intellectuals and many others socialized. Hence they were seen as the place where one could pick up more useful knowledge, than by reading a book: they were the Penny Universities.

Why always coffee?!

I do not believe there is one single mouth which had its first sip of coffee, whiskey, beer or dry wine and was immediately delighted by the taste. Some people claim that drinking coffee is not about great taste- but about a necessity. Is it the caffeine and the need for being awake? That seems to be the most common excuse for many and the most obvious attachment, but in my view not the right reason. It is, above all, its taste and aroma. And there is an industry to prove it.

Wether in the East or in the West, Christians and Muslims have witnessed various coffee prohibition times through the centuries. Let us just think of the beginning of the 16th century in Mecca, or Charles II of England outlawing coffeehouses in the 17th century, or Ethiopian clergymen prohibiting coffee through most of the 19th century. To prevent people’s choice of this expensive imported product over the local commodity beer, Frederic the Great prohibited Germans from drinking coffee, as well.

Political, economic and moral conflicts in different cultures and systems have repeatedly tried to interfere with the increasing demand for coffee.  It was, however, not only the prohibition that brought along the need for alternatives – it was the love for that special coffee taste. If this had not been the case, the many companies and recipes producing Caro, Postum, Cafix, Pero and the likes would have not succeeded. People wanted this new and unique taste and the so-called “coffee substitute” industry flourished. Recipes have been developed worldwide using barley, chicory, carrots, asparagus seeds, beetroot, beech nut, dandelion root, figs, potato peel, rye, wheat bran, rice, peas and several other ingredients.

The creation and success of these new products by merely trying to resemble coffee, shows that one taste conquered the planet, and those who have had the privilege of knowing it, did not and do not wish to miss it. Coffee substitutes contain no caffeine, thus one is free to assume that a great deal of the attraction is not based on its drug – but on its taste. The decision of many to drink decaffeinated coffee underlines this claim.

 

Café Zeman, Brno/Czech Republic, Architect: Bohuslav Fuchs, built in 1926 (demolished in 1964)

Why the drama?

Why coffee architecture, why so many palaces built for coffee drinkers, while the fine and elegant wine drinkers gather in cellars? What is this whole fuss about coffee?

It was a tea dealer in Berlin who brought to my attention the fact that in countries where tea grows people tend to be quiet, meditative, slower in their life rhythm, while in countries where coffee grows, habitants are much livelier, they dance more and their temperament clearly manifests in their physical energy. Coffee seems to be a special compound and so are perhaps the countries and regions where it grows.

According to Michael J. Breus, PhD in his Insomnia Blog, some benefits from caffeine has seem to be limited to coffee. This means that the caffeine found in tea does not necessarily provide the results obtained through the caffeine in coffee. Not caffeine alone, but supported by the coffee compound, both lower the risk of strokes.

Hundreds of studies in different scientific fields repeatedly provide information about the health benefits and other medicinal advantages of coffee. The list of uses in various other fields is not shorter, either. Coffee serves as a deodorant; it is being used as colour for printers, as compost for special mushrooms, as active ingredient against hair loss, to only name a few. Coffee grounds are being used to produce furniture and for baths in Japan.

Why ever coffee?

I dare answer that coffee is not just a unique compound for a variety of uses in the field of medicine. For years I have visited coffeehouses in different countries and cities, observing not only the fact that they serve a wide spectrum of drinks between undrinkable brew and magical drops, but also contemplating customers to define or decode the various reasons for their sitting there, which may go far beyond the taste of coffee.  The people sitting in these coffeehouses read the press and the magazines they wish, devour information or even culture. They may watch others around like couples, a waitress, or the commings and goings in the streets through the window; but they may still enjoy being alone in a secluded big room. There are still others who look for a silent, intimate place, undisturbed while absorbed in their depressive loneliness. Still, they will not be left alone. And everything around coffee.

We have been celebrating coffee, while celebrating ourselves. Or we have been celebrating ourselves – while indulging into coffee, without noticing how much we have been celebrating these roasted seeds and not ourselves. Recollecting the flow of coffee history, much of which I have recounted here, considering which international powers coffee has as second most important commodity and admitting which important role it plays in the wide world of pleasure, it is fair to say that coffee is a loaded thing.

The third wave.

Dozens of hot drinks and well over a hundred of cold ones are called coffee. Its potency as a spice has yet to be expanded, we have barely dealt with its surface. The various coffee cultures have each succeeded in their own realms. Italy is not Italy without its coffee and machines, its espresso and coffee palaces, its baristi, its coffee design and coffee technology. Vienna is not Vienna without its Coffeehouses (called Kaffeehäuser) with their Melange, newspapers and Apfelstrudel. Turkey is not Turkey without its mocca, and coffee is not coffee without the third wave we have seen being spread in the last couple of decades. A passion, dedication and at times exploitation of coffee as specialty and less as a routine pick-me-up brew, which shows how much coffee indeed is.

Minimalism at Penny University, London

Yet, a bit beyond this wave, a bit beyond this multi-layered approach to coffee, there is the concentrated approach: the redutionistic “back to coffee” attitude. Quite contrary to the tradition of the Penny Universities, the new London’s Penny University, the coffee bar of the Square Mile Coffee Roasters has chosen enhancement through concentration and extravagant reduction. It is almost anti-social! Six persons may be seated only. No milk. No sugar. No espresso. Penny University has ‘only’ a source for hot water (Über Boiler) and three coffees could be ordered, prepard with “flannel drip”, V60 pour over or siphon.

Why Coffee? Penny University seems to be simply about just humbly answering the question. The concept may be seen as a bold step, snobbery, a religious statement, business strategy, but it may also be seen as the greatest form of shwoing the most honest respect for coffee. With Extroverted and Introverted Espresso I thought to have clearly seen that a ‘simple”, though proud, Italian barista could count as introverted, if compared to another barista working with a Synesso machine, using not 7, but 14 or even more grammes for one shot after meticulously measuring the tamping. I must rethink a bit. Perhaps compared to an Italian barista James Hoffmann and Tim Williams from Penny University are the real introverted coffee makers. And they are not alone, and not the first ones. Japanese Sekiguti Itirou (or Sekiguchi Ichiro) has roasted and served coffee at his Café de L’Ambre in Ginza (Tokyo) for over 60 years and has never done this by using coffee machines or by serving espressi. More and more coffee drinkers, including experts like Scott Rao and Jeffrey Steingarten, realise that espresso is a wonderful drink, but neither the only way nor the best way – just the espresso way.

Are we entering the fourth wave?

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Related reading:

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Before Obama went to Prague, I was enjoying their Coffee

There have been several important men in Prague. Some even come from there, like Franz Kafka (1883-1924), and like Kafka, many have known to appreciate the Coffee Culture of the Czech Republic. Just to mention one, if you happen to be in Brno, you must drop by the historical Zeman Coffee House. You simply must! It is an honorable example of a great tradition we do not see today: Coffee House Architecture – something mostly known from east Europe, Austria and Italy.

I visited Prague just because I had to change planes there, just 5 days before President Barrack Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev met there to sign their agreement on Nuclear Arm Reduction. I saw my stop as my very first opportunity to visit one great east European City, rich in many aspects, some of which I was able to witness in just half a day. For example the handcrafts tradition, which includes making patterns for paper and textiles.

Wooden Molds

On a much modern tone I spotted an exhibition from the german media artist Michael Najjar at the Dvorak Sec Contemporary Art Gallery, just before I had found a wonderfully inviting meat exhibition at the Market Square.

Meat at the Market, Prague (April,2010)

But I needed a Coffee! Continue reading “Before Obama went to Prague, I was enjoying their Coffee”

Vintage Coffee from Cuba in Tokyo

There it comes again – my attraction towards Japan is there once more. This time around, however, it is not because of the Noh-Plays or Yukio Mishima. It is because of coffee.

Sensei Sekiguti Itirou / Owner

This coffee story taking place in a land where tea is of great importance and the people are so keen of  their tradition, draws its beginning with a shipment that never reached its destination. During the second world war the germans took some coffee from Indonesia and stored it in Japan. After losing the war they left the land, but leaving some of this coffee behind them. This is the coffee some individuals like Sekiguti Itirou (or Sekiguchi Ichiro) used to start Café de l’Ambre in Ginza, Tokyo. The initial success of the Café was due to the us-american Soldiers and their guests. Today the success is based on a special alchemy – vintage coffee. The logic and experience of a coffee connoisseurs would normally bring skeptical looks and thoughts when one tries to explain any advantages in the taste of a coffee which has aged a couple of decades. But the experiences and visits of people like Ken Belson, hemmant jha or Michael Kleindl, plus a few other bloggers, testify of a true gourmet coffee.

Tokyo Explorer Sarmoung Roaster on the Roof

Mr. Sekiguti – 96 yrs. – still roasts the coffee for his customers on a daily basis in the roaster he designed. He runs the café with his nephew – Mr. Hayashi – for a demanding clientele they themselves have trained over the years to be demanding. Their guests await a coffee menu with new coffee mixtures, as well as coffees which have been in his cellar for a couple of decades. Among others there is a 1974 harvest from Cuba and one of 1989 from Columbia.

china cup blue
china cup white

The peculiarity of this Café is not simply the coffee quality, but also the handling of their product. All coffees are prepared with heated water on the stove and costumed made cloth bags. Pure trade! No expensive coffee machines are available, no Espresso Continue reading “Vintage Coffee from Cuba in Tokyo”

Coffee: automation and the hand

Is there a difference between the taste and quality of a coffee obtained from an automated coffee maker as opposed to one prepared manually? 

Since many years I have used the handy turkish mocha wooden grinders to prepare my coffee. Using them is an old, time-consuming and arduous shore, especially in societies where any product on the market is available ground and where most of the grinders used domestically function electronically. Several weeks ago I stopped using this antiquated grinders to go even a bit further back in time. Some friends and acquaintances I have met during my travels and those I have hosted myself are surely surprised about the absence of my wooden grinders, but it is a fact: none of them are part of my baggage now. However, this instruments absence in my daily coffee rituals and research has nothing to do with a new concept aiming to discard of its use. It is merely chance that I have landed in the situation where I use my two arms and hands with a mortar weighing some 3,3 Kilo. Pretty much a sport, but considering the fact, that I counted 473 circular movements while making coffee some months ago, it should be clear to the reader, that pleasure for me has little to do with laziness – it is the opposite. 

Before: Wild coffee from Ethiopia (Espresso roast), cocoa, cinnamon, clove and Hawaiian black sea salt

 

As I started working this way several weeks ago it was necessary for me each time to make a conscious decision of taking the Mortar and the Coffee in my hands. Starting the procedure was constantly accompanied by knowing it would need much more time and energy for me to drink the first drops out of my espresso glass. But the drive to experiment and discover with the palate the real quality of what I was doing or trying to achieve was greater than any scariness about possible aching muscles. And every movement has been worth it, not only for the sake of taste. 

Time plays a crucial role with a mortar, not only due to the time needed to obtain the necessary coarseness, but because this is something one needs to learn when striving for a good cup of coffee. Grinders have usually a range of possibilities between coarse and fine for a reason. The importance is perceived at the latest when taking the first sip. If the result is a good one, the strenuous effort has been worth it. Luckily only the beginning brings difficulties along, for the longer one beats with a pestle, the better one is with the mortar, resulting in even more than just physical, timely and tasted differences. 

In my opinion, humans love immediacy and immediacy influences greatly our decisions – it does not matter if these occur on a common daily basis or previously planned, no matter if complex or simple. Continue reading “Coffee: automation and the hand”

Extroverted and Introverted Espresso

A few months ago – while enjoying a small space and a wonderful coffee – I was reminded that extravagance and simplicity, as a form of expression, are not at all related, but in their contents they are not necessarily different and even at times it might be impossible to differentiate between the two. Hence I wish to speak in this context from an extroverted and an introverted  espresso way.

Around 1822 the French had built the idea of an espresso machine. They displayed a prototype at the 4th World Fair in Paris, back in 1855. It was not until 50 years later, however, that Desiderio Pavoni and Luigi Bezzara introduced Continue reading “Extroverted and Introverted Espresso”

Slow Coffee or pushing a button

these are the 2 possibilities we have almost every time, unless we are at a train station.

What is there to experience in the mouth, in the body, what do i drink, what happens at all, when i simply push a button in order to drink a coffee?

It is common that we measure the necessary water and coffee (unless this is done automatically by the machine) and after pushing one or two buttons, each has several minutes to spend in the wash room, until some noise gives signal that the cup of coffee could be picked up so we may continue Continue reading “Slow Coffee or pushing a button”