When the Starbucks steamroller passed over the land, coffee was enjoying a renaissance sparked by Alfred Peet, who opened his first coffee roaster and shop in the Berkeley hills in 1966 and showed Americans a world of flavors beyond the bland blends they were used to. Peet’s Coffee & Tea gave rise to the Gourmet Ghetto, whose most famous occupant was and is Chez Panisse. Peet died in August at 87, his legacy already assured by those who trained with him—including the three founders of Starbucks, one of whom, Jerry Baldwin, eventually bought Peet’s. And now a new generation is picking up where they left off.
Video: "A Magical Cup"
Corby Kummer tours the cutting edge of the coffee world, where baristas use mesmerizing high-end brewing techniques and light roasts are making a comeback.
"Do It Yourself"
A highly recommended home brewing machine and how to get it.
Peet had a passion for dark roasts—beans heated over a flame, turned constantly, for longer than was traditional in the United States or the northern Europe of his upbringing. He taught his students to roast beans with a subtlety and patient care that few can master. It’s all too easy to char beans in the name of sophistication. The fixation with espresso and milk drinks came only with the Starbucks rollout.
The revolution Peet began was in full flower in the early 1990s, when I researched and wrote The Joy of Coffee (published in 1995 and revised in 2003), with mom-and-pop coffee shops springing up in most cities and many small towns. They largely disappeared once Starbucks started expanding in earnest. Now young roasters and baristas are filling Web sites with notes on their latest visits to small, fair-trade coffee farms and on the sleekest new equipment.
Less noted, but no less important, is a revived appreciation for lighter roasts. This is the gospel of George Howell, whose Coffee Connection became to the Northeast in the 1970s and ’80s what Peet’s was to the Northwest, but with far lighter roasts and an emphasis on brewed coffee rather than espresso and on single-origin coffees rather than the blends of beans from around the world that Peet made his signature. Like so many others, Howell bowed to Starbucks, selling them his name and shops in 1994 and agreeing not to market his own brand of coffee for seven years. He spent his noncompete years working in Brazil and several other coffee-growing countries, pointing producers toward methods for achieving high quality that had long been eroding. To give them incentive, he helped create the “Cup of Excellence,” a contest held in seven Latin American countries each year followed by an online auction in which roasters around the world pay high premiums for the winning beans, which are usually in short supply.
Now Howell is back, buying and roasting his own beans near Concord, the proud Colonial-era town near Boston, and baristas across the country are branching out from espresso to the kind of single-origin, lighter-roast coffees he has long championed. Howell has spent three decades honing his taste for clean, pure flavors in the cup and the fruity, singing “acidity” that in coffee terminology is a prized sign of beans raised at high altitudes and carefully picked and processed. His quest is ever for the “blackberry” intensity of beans from his favorite coffee-growing country, Kenya, and his analogy is ever to the subtle distinctions in wine. (Because he can’t use the Coffee Connection name, many of the fans waiting for a Howell return don’t know they can get his beans again—and the name he chose, Terroir Coffee, to evoke the specificity of wine, is hard to say. The name to bookmark is terroircoffee.com.)
A recent wave of excited blog entries about a professional brewing machine designed to showcase just these kinds of flavors had a jazzed charge usually reserved for the latest espresso maker. I knew I had to find one. It didn’t look easy.
The Clover hit the coffee world with the force of a sexy stranger new in town. The stir was understandable. No coffee machine looks quite like it. The action is not in the front but on top, where customers can see it. And it is hypnotic. The barista grinds coffee for each cup and strews the measured grounds into a well with shiny silver walls and a fine-mesh screen at the bottom. A fixed faucet pours hot water over the grounds, and the server stirs the mixture using a flat plastic whisk (baristas swap secret Clover stirring techniques on Web sites). The coffee steeps, gurgling slightly, for 40 to 70 seconds. Without warning, the screen rises to the top of the machine. The brewed liquid is magically sucked beneath, leaving just the grounds at the top, which the barista rakes off with a silver-handled squeegee.
Sightings of the Clover—introduced two years ago by a Stanford-trained, Seattle-based product designer, Zander Nosler, and promoted by Anastasia Chovan (the coffee world abounds with great names)—have been rare. On the East Coast, the Brooklyn-based Café Grumpy (see what I mean about names?) has installed two at its Manhattan location, in Chelsea. Other shops on the coffee vanguard, like Intelligentsia, in Chicago, and Stumptown, in Portland, Oregon, a city that is to coffee today what Seattle was in the first flush of the Starbucks craze, feature them. But outside these coffee hubs the Clover, at an average of $11,000 apiece, is a snow leopard. I clicked on a map at cloverequipment.com and found one machine in service in the Northeast: at a coffee shop less than a mile from where I live.
Justin McCarthy opened Velouria Espresso (he made up the name to evoke velvety coffee and to sound Italianate) last summer in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, a neighborhood open to new experiences. He knows by name and drink preferences the tattooed, Mad Men–horn-rimmed young customers I saw come in, bleary-eyed, at noon. McCarthy, who brews only beans from Howell, says he likes to tell customers, “Strong is not a flavor.”
I kept ordering different coffees, less to sample them than to watch the machine, which had the appeal (if not the colored lights) of a vintage jukebox. Every time the screen rose majestically, I half expected a miniature band to be on it, à la Radio City. But the Clover has its limitations. It emphasizes acidity almost excessively, and I frankly preferred the same coffees in a standard Fetco filter-drip, an industrial machine in wide use.
Nosler told me that some coffees are “more forgiving than others,” and that light roasts like Howell’s are “harder to brew” on his machine—a problem he is working on. His main goal is to allow shop owners to “find a market for their gems,” a reference to the high-quality, small-farm beans, including Cup of Excellence winners, that the new breed of café owners seek out like wine merchants. Caroline Bell, who owns Café Grumpy with her husband, Chris Timbrell, invested nearly $25,000 in two Clover machines, despite thinking that she could “buy a car or go on a really nice vacation” instead.
Brewing coffee to order brings some of the personalized glamour of espresso to the usually drab drip coffee, and it allows shop owners to take a chance on an expensive coffee. Prices are usually set by the weight of the coffee used per cup. At Café Grumpy that varies from $2 for a standard coffee to as much as $8 for a rare one. Brewing only in a Clover at the Chelsea shop (the one in Brooklyn still brews in a Fetco, or individually in a plunger pot) was a risk: New York customers might chafe at the wait and at having to pick one of half a dozen kinds of beans. But a wait time one barista estimated at 1 minute 20 seconds, and a staff able to explain the differences between beans, brought Café Grumpy the loyalty Bell had hoped for: “If you’re interested in complex flavors—good complex flavors, I mean—you won’t want anything else.”
Good complex flavors are Howell’s specialty, and ones that dark roasts, with their brute power and body, generally obliterate. Light roasts show best when brewed at high temperatures and relatively quickly. This is why he sells only the Technivorm brewer, a Dutch machine that has long been the gold standard for brewed coffee. I brought a few standard home-brewing machines to Howell’s headquarters for what I thought would be a straightforward taste test against the Technivorm. Peter Lynagh, a young man who moved from Austin to fulfill a dream of apprenticing with Howell, and Vince Fedele, an engineer and longtime Coffee Connection fan who is Howell’s chief operating officer, became somewhat obsessed, comparing heat cycles and flavor profiles. So did Howell, who was just back from Colombia. What Lynagh and I thought would be a morning turned into three very long, highly caffeinated days.
The Technivorm delivers results that professionals demand: consistency batch after batch, whether in small or large quantities. It is particularly well suited to lighter roasts. Water at 197 to 201 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which Fetco and similar professional, but few home, machines brew (home machines generally don’t get above 185 or so), brings out the greatest range of flavors in coffees with high acidity—the fruity, desirable kind. These are the flavors that come out in the marathon “cupping” sessions roasters stage constantly, steeping ground coffee in hot water and, after a set time, “breaking the crust” and allowing the grounds to settle to the bottom of the cup.
Fedele asked Lynagh to measure water temperature at every stage of the cycle, and then plotted the results on a graph. (He posted it at terroircoffee .com.) The Technivorm won, as it did most but not all of the blind taste tests. The brewer that got up to a high temperature most consistently after it, a Capresso, was generally but not always second in the taste tests. Sometimes a Braun I picked up at the hardware store was, and sometimes an inexpensive Mr. Coffee; sometimes the Technivorm itself came in second. “I’d drink all of them,” Lynagh remarked after the first round on the third day. Given that Lynagh had paid $179.50 for the Capresso at Williams-Sonoma, and terroircoffee.com sells a terrific-looking Technivorm for $215, the Technivorm seems a clear choice if you plan to explore the world of light roasts and are willing to spend more than, say, $60 to $80 for a brewer.
The coffee in the tests really showed its stuff when it cooled to near room temperature. This is the telltale point for any coffee, and it marks a sharp division between dark roasts, which start out mouth-fillingly rich but tend to become bitter and flat when they cool, and light roasts, which can start out fruity and thin but go on to develop a light, syrupy body (Howell calls it “buttery”). At the cooling point, the Technivorm brews always stayed true.
The Technivorm isn’t for everyone. Though the neat new design has a smaller footprint than its predecessors, it’s still deeper and taller than most home brewers. The precise heating control that brings out the full spectrum of flavors is best suited to what the Italians call vini di meditazione. Even Howell admits that his palate is at its sharpest in the morning, when he claims to spend a full 45 minutes pondering his first cup of coffee. After dinner he’s just as happy with a sediment-filled, thick cup (light roast, of course) from a French press pot.
Anyone thinking of meditating over a morning cup of coffee should try out a Technivorm. Start with a Kenyan from Terroir, and you’ll soon see what keeps Howell cupping in Concord and Kenya.