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Coffee: The Wine of the Nineties

February 1994

You expect to find coffeehouses in Seattle, though you might not expect to find Java Joe's in downtown Whitefish, Montana. But there it is, a wooden hut, beckoning passersby to drive up for a cappuccino to go. In downstairs launderettes, at deli counters, along Main Street in any college town, Americans are lining up for exotic espresso-based concoctions, not "regulars," and instead of doughnuts they're munching on long, thin hazelnut biscotti, which shatter like glass between the jaws. they're flavoring the drinks, too, with syrups (orange, almond), powders (cocoa, vanilla), and spices (cinnamon, nutmeg).

The coffee shop is America's backfence hangout again--only this time coffee is an attraction, not an occupational hazard. It is also the grand hotel lobby of times part, where one could read, meet friends, and watch the world go by. In short, sidewalk cafes have finally arrived, and they're making the country a lot pleasanter for travelers.

America's awakening to fine coffee has rescued the drink from a 30-year slump. The "Specialty coffee business," marketing high-quality beans, not those mass-produced for supermarkets, is a burgeoning industry. More and more people are willing to pay a premium of between two and five dollars for a cup oftheir favorite Ethiopian or New Guinea brew. From a scanty 25 coffee bars in 1979, the number grew to 250 in 1989 and may jump to 10,000 by 1999. Sales of specialty coffee doubled in just a decade, from $ 750 million in 1979 to $ 1.5 billion in 1989. Trade membership in the Special Coffee Association of Americais soaring. In the past few years attendance at its annual conventions has doubled. The aisles jump as visitors sample coffee after coffee while scanning futuristic push-button cappuccino machines. The new craving for the great good cup started in 1966 with the founding of Peet's, the legendary Berkeley coffee shop. Alfred Peet, an opinionated Dutchman who learned the business in the coffee capital, Amsterdam, bought only the finest beans from the finest growing regions. In 1971, three of Peet's devotees launched Starbucks in Seattle. Now the largest coffee retailer in North America, with more than 260 outlets serving over a million customers a week, Starbucks wants to put a white mustache on every American.

It was Peet who first made Americans conscious of arabica beans like Sulawesi and Kenya AA. These beans develop the richest flavor when grown at highaltitudes. Following Peet's example, Starbucks and most other specialty roasterssell only arabica beans. Supermarket brands usually consist of blends dominated by a much cheaper kind of bean--the robusta, which is low-grown and dull-flavored. Tasting 100 percent arabica beans after a steady diet of canned robusta is like going from black-and-white television to color.

Alfred Peet liked a very dark roast, darker even than what many southern Europeans drinks. Because his beans were so much better than anyone else's, people assumed that a dark roast meant quality and sophistication. Dark roasts are seductive, and dark-roasted beans do make the best espresso. But a dark roast can blind consumers to the quality of the beans. A medium roast shows subtle flavor distinctions to far better advantage. A dark roast can also hide a multitude of flaws--as Italians, the world's canniest roasters, and the French, who still buy a dismaying amount of robusta beans from their former colonies, have always known.

To develop a coffee palate, start out with as simple a drink as you can bear--preferably just a shot of espresso. The prized quality in espresso is a rounded, rich smoothness, with a sweet overtone on initial sipping and a bittersweet, lasting finish. Many of today's bars rely on syrups, milk, and powders to hide a thin, dull, sour espresso; try the foundation before you build onto it.

If you want the mollifying addition of milk, order a caffe latte (one-third espresso, two-thirds steamed milk). Latte means milk in Italy, where a caffe latte is seldom seen. There, the milkiest drink is the magisterial cappuccino (one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third foamed milk), drunk usually before 11 A.M. The Italians' drinks are based on "six drops of energy," as one Italian aptly calls the standard one-and-a-half-ounce shot of espresso. Ours are based on milk. Caffe latte is the gold standard (well, tan verging on gold). It's generally served in a glass, perhaps with vanilla powder or shaved chocolate. If that sounds like too much, try an espresso macchiato, meaning an espresso just "stained" with a bit of warmed milk.

After learning to appreciate espresso, you can move on to brewed coffee--the king we all grew up drinking, including filtered, percolated, and the kind made in the France plunger pot. You can taste differences in brewed coffee that don't show up in espresso. The essential quality in brewed coffee is acidity, which doesn't mean the terrible sour taste of burned coffee that has sat on a warmer for more than 20 minutes ( coffee brewing's cardinal sin). Instead, it means liveliness and sparkle.

Look for that sparkle when trying any of the new specialty coffees, whose names read like the legend to a world map. Ask for help. If you want full body, for instance, try an Indonesian coffee like Sumatra or Sulawesi. If you want singing, high notes, try an East African coffee, preferably Kenyan. If you want a balanced coffee with medium body and wonderful acidity, try a Costa Rican or a Guatemalan Antigua. Take a few sips before you add milk or sugar. Does it seem thin? Some coffees are naturally low in body, and no brewed coffee will have the body that espresso has. However, a superbly brewed cup will offer a sweet beginning, sharp but not astringent flavor and a long, clean aftertaste.

The search for such coffee can be a full-time job for a latter-day IndianaJones. Dave Olsen, a vice-president of Starbucks, still crisscrosses the globe, hoping to be the first to clinch an exclusive contract with a remote coffee farm. George Howell, founder of the Coffee Connection, the best-established chain on the East Coast, is another charismatic world traveler; his trademark motto is "In search of the ultimate cup." It's understood that he'll never find it.

The focus of Howell's obsession has lately been Kenya. Over the past few years he has braved political instability and government monopolies in order to meet growers on some of the world's most beautiful coffee farms, run by related tribes--in the Aberdare Mountains, north of Nairobi. He gave the farms an incentive by offering a cash prize for beans processed as clean, sharp, and richly rounded as possible. After an exhausting series of tasting, he settled ona winning bean, charged with the "blackberry" flavor Howell craves. No wonder people call coffee the wine of the nineties.

What does this mean for the traveler? That an inviting place to recoup between long walks is just down the street, whether you find yourself at the Cleveland Museum of Art or an entrance to Yosemite. And even if you're not goingto the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya or the volcanic cone of Antigua, in Guatemala, you can travel there with your cup, sipping an aromatic brew and thinking about your next voyage.

    -- Corby Kummer

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    Copyright © 1994 by Corby Kummer. First published in Travel and Holiday, February 1994. All rights reserved.
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