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Legit Coffee

The quest for enlightenment through coffee.

Tag Archives: beans

NathanAbout a week and a half ago Matt B and I ventured over to Echo Park and Silverlake, two well-established über-hip neighborhoods in Los Angeles, to check out the neighborhood in general and Intelligentsia Coffee in particular.

(Incidentally, the Echo Park/Silver Lake boundary has never been clear to me. When we went adventuring, I thought we were in Echo Park, but the Intelligentsia Web site claims their shop is in Silver Lake. So, yeah. Still not clear to me.)

Matt and I set out to get a sense of the complete experience, including atmosphere in addition to the coffee. For my part, I enjoyed the atmosphere and the coffee, though the latter really challenged me to think about what espresso ought to taste like — more on that in moment.

First, the atmosphere. Compared with their Chicago shops and the Venice shop, this edition of Intelligentsia felt a lot more homey. We sat at the bar in back, but there was a nice covered seating area, and there was more of an arts-and-crafts feel to place. There was a sort of living sculpture piece on the wall, which featured some sort of evergreen sprig collage. I can’t really do it justice without a picture, but it was pretty. While the baristas were definitely hip and frequently tattooed, there was less of the suspenders and premium-but-vintagey denim uniform you see at the Venice shop. I found the baristas a bit friendlier, too, though that may have been just a matter of who we happened upon that day. Overall a pleasant place to be.

Matt ordered a cup of Ethiopia Yirgacheffe. I neglected to pay attention to its preparation, but the default at Intelligentsia is the Hario pour-over, which produces a lighter-bodied and crisper coffee than some methods. We detected definite floral notes —  I think the first thing Matt said was, “it tastes like flowers,” and we detected bluebells, violets, and lavender. We agreed it had a sort of tea-like body and flavor, a conclusion that was no doubt influenced by all the flowery tastes. As it cooled, we noticed a decidedly different profile, with more acidity and spices such as coriander emerging.

I inquired about the Kenya Gichathiani espresso and was told that it tasted of tangerine, and the gentleman barista was not kidding around. In fact, a tangerine flavor completely dominated, to the point where it was not totally recognizable as espresso. It had a spicy, nutmeg sort of flavor as well. Initially I thought this would be terrible with any amount of milk, but I now think it might make a decent latte or mocha espresso. Too little milk, though, and you might have a hot, thin tangerine milkshake. It was that powerful.

In the days after I had the Gichathiani, I kept asking myself whether I actually wanted espresso to taste like that — to taste like tangerines rather than some sort of Platonic ideal of espresso. I struggle now to find the right words to describe how I feel, but I can put it this way: after drinking it, I almost immediately fell off the single-origin, light-roast bandwagon. My Northwest-born soul couldn’t help shouting, “it’s tasty, but it’s not really espresso!”

I understand of course that it is, by definition, espresso, and I understand that as a single-origin espresso, it is meant to be idiosyncratic. And it tasted good. And I believe in coffee pluralism. Perhaps it’s good to have once in a while. Day to day, maybe, if it’s right for you.

For me…well, like I said, I struggle to understand. I suppose that’s okay. That way, the quest continues.

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MarcusA while back, I promised some explication on how to get decent espresso at home. Now, the cafe is a wonderful thing, and I do think that what you pay for isn’t the coffee, it’s the place. If you’re going to have some coffee at home over breakfast, or in the car, you can make your own espresso and do quite well.

And, it is pretty hard to beat cuddling your cats, sipping espresso, listening to NPR while the sun streams in on a lazy morning.

I’ll assume you’ll be buying a good quality burr grinder and an espresso machine with a pump capable of reaching at least 10 bar of pressure.

STEP ONE: what do you want to drink?
You need, even before you go buy a serious machine, to decide what you’re going to drink. Straight espresso? Americano? Latte? This decides whether you want a double boiler or not. If you plan on foaming milk a lot, don’t screw around, pony up for a machine with separate boilers for your espresso and your steam. But also see below about foaming… It is not a trivial business.

STEP TWO: your beans matter a little less than you think they do.
While it is true that the start of good coffee is a good roast, there are so many ways to screw up, and so much personality that goes into making espresso, that you will really need to find a bean that works for you, your grinder, and your machine. To give you a sense, we have found at home that the Costco branded Starbucks espresso roast does almost as well as many primo roasts (Zoka Paladino, SCW’s Best, Gimme Leftist). Why? Because you don’t have a $5000 machine, grinder, and the time to get things perfect. That said, you can still get a fine, rich, chocolatey cup every time.

Lesson: experiment! Be brave!

STEP THREE: Figure out your grind.
There is a whole literature out there on how to do this. Common rules are that the pressure should be 9 bar or that a shot should come out in 20 seconds. Forget all that. What you want is to have a medium brown foam flowing into your cup. This depends mostly on your grind and how hard you tamp. Practice tamping: get a bunch of coffee ground, and mass or measure out equal amounts of coffee. Practice tamping until you can get consistent packing, as measured by the height of the puck in your portafilter. Now start playing with both the tamp and the grind until you find chocolate heaven. You can narrow in by trying one tamp with several grinds, then picking the best grind, and adjusting your tamp. Repeat until you perfect it!

Next time: beyond the ristretto! Milk!

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mattbMuch like Batman, Coffee is constantly fighting Mr Freeze thanks to a commonly accepted belief that coffee should be put in the cooler to maintain its freshness.  It works for meat. It works for veggies. Why not coffee?

Think about coffee- more specifically that expensive coffee that you are putting in your freezer (I’m assuming you didn’t put Folgers on ice). The bean itself is incredibly porous, and by putting it into your freezer, you are welcoming it to absorb the pantheon of odors/flavors that permeate your fridge. As delightful as salmon is for dinner, I don’t want my Ethiopian blend tasting like it just came out of a river.

Even if your freezer doesn’t host any aromatic threats to your coffee, you should still be cautious. Moisture alone can prove to be erosive, especially if you thaw and refreeze your coffee multiple times.

In cases of needing to store beans for an excessive amount of time, some have adopted a “one-time-only” freeze practice. As the name implies, you only freeze the beans once, and once they are defrosted, they never return to the icebox. This reduces the amount of damage that the expanding and contracting moisture can cause, and limits the amount of exterior tastes that can be absorbed.
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I have never found myself with enough coffee on-hand to need to resort to this method, so instead, I keep my beans in an airtight container placed in a dry, cool location.
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