Aug 232010

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This is what’s left of my 3rd attempt at roasting coffee in my new SR500 air roaster that I got from Sweet Maria’s. I had never tried roasting coffee before. Now I have an idea of what roasters mean when they talk about “first crack” and “second crack.”

For my first batch, last Wednesday evening, I followed the manufacturer’s instructions exactly. The beans ended up a bit on the burnt side and oily on the outside. Whoever said you can’t get dark roasts with an air roaster? You can with this one. The instructions said to wait at least 3 hours before grinding and brewing, so I waited about 3 hours and 4 minutes. It was good, but there was a strange, burnt aftertaste that shouldn’t have been there. Surprisingly to me (though perhaps not to anyone else) that batch got better after it aged a day or so. But it’s all gone now.

I shortened the roasting time for the 2nd batch, and it ended up too light and too uneven. It’s drinkable, but not a favorite. Myra asked what the funny taste was. I haven’t offered her a 2nd cup.

She says I got it right on the 3rd batch (above). I got it by increasing fan speed and cutting the roast time not so much as for the previous batch. But as can be seen, it’s not as even a roast as it ought to be. Some beans are too light in color, and some are perhaps too dark.

Tom at Sweet Maria’s suggests that with the SR500 one should roast smaller batches to get more even roasts. Using the manufacturer’s measure, each batch is a litle more than a quarter-pound. If Tom is right that a 90 gram batch is about right, that means I can divide each one-pound bag of green beans into five equal portions.

At one time I wondered if I really wanted a roaster that couldn’t do more than 1/4 pound at a time, but now I’m glad I got the one I did. If I did bigger batches, it would take me too many days to drink them up and I wouldn’t have the fresh roasted beans which are the whole point of roasting one’s own. 90 gram batches ought to be about right for our household.

I got the 8-pound sampler with the roaster. My first experiments have been on the coffee labelled “Rwanda Gkongoro Nyarusiza”. The cup I had this afternoon had a bit of fruity taste to it. I went back to read Tom’s label on the bag: “…restrained acidity, sweet citrus, rose, tea-like flavors, floral brightness, medium body, dried orange peel.” Well, I can’t make all those specific tastes, but it did have a pleasantly surprising fruitiness that I hadn’t noticed on previous cups, or even on any other coffee.

Oct 302009

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Today is coffee day! Today the mail brought a freshly roasted supply from Great Northern Roasting Company in Traverse City. Usually I like single origin coffees, which I sometimes mix together on my own. But this time I tried Jack’s Breakfast Blend again. I tried it back in January, but it was not my favorite that time around. It’s a lighter roast than I usually prefer. But this time I noticed some good, brownish flavors that I had never before tasted. Excellent! I’ll try it again tomorrow morning.

That’s one of the good things about coffee. It’s an adventure. It’ll be a sad day when quality control reaches the point where it’s exactly the same each time. The beans may vary, the roast may vary, the brewing may vary, and the setting in which one drinks it may vary. All those factors contribute to making it a different experience each time. (This time we were watching a production of Doestoevsky’s Idiot on YouTube. I was almost concentrating too hard on the movie to notice what I was drinking, but the coffee was good enough to interrupt my concentration.)

By the way, I am not going to say whether or not Jack paid me to say nice things about his coffee. I dare the FTC to try to get that information out of me. The FTC move is just an opening to regulate speech — a plan to follow in the distant footsteps of Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez.

I once was offered a free product after having said something good about it in a blog. I ignored the offer on account of not wanting to compromise my independence. But if it happens again, I may just accept and not say anything about it, as a form of resistance to the FTC.

Besides, regulated reviews would make life too boring, whether or not I’m the one being regulated. We like to read the motel reviews when we travel on my Spokesrider outings. We’re always looking for cheap places to stay, which means we’re undertaking a little risk right from the start. It’s challenging to read through the reviews and sniff out the fluff pieces from paid shills, as well as those that whine about things that don’t matter, and separating them from the useful reviews. It’s a good survival technique to be able to read between the lines to know who to believe. I’d hate to have that taken from me.

Apr 112009

Beer is a social drink. Bottled water is a drink for loners.

That’s my summary of Susan McWilliams’ article at Front Porch Republic, “Beer and Civic Life.” Here is a sample of the way she puts it herself:

Drinking beer emanates, albeit clumsily and with all the familiar risks, from essentially social impulses. Most people drink beer to lower social inhibitions, to make it easier to have conversations with other people, to assuage loneliness, to grease the wheels for engaging in what my students euphemistically call “relationships” – in other words, to give a form and excuse for social life. You don’t drink beer to improve your private, individual health.

By contrast, you don’t drink bottled water if you want to have an excuse to hang out with your friends. Drinking bottled water emanates from essentially private or individual concerns. It’s pretty straightforward, actually: you drink bottled water precisely because you do not want to drink common water; you literally do not want to sip from the public trough. The ascendance of bottled water in America is yet another signal of the ascendance of a culture that is individually oriented, almost pathologically obsessive about bodily health, and suspicious of the public sphere.

I think everyone would agree that wine, too, is a social drink. I might have a small glass in the evening by myself, but I’ll at least offer a glass to anyone else within hearing distance. To really enjoy it, though, you need to be with other people.

Coffee is different from all of the above in that it is an all-purpose drink. It’s good to enjoy together with others as an after dinner drink. Coffee is even worth talking about if you and your drinking companions are so inclined. Water, on the other hand — especially bottled water — provides nothing to talk about.

But coffee is also a good loner drink, e.g. when I’m alone with a newspaper or a book.

I just had a cup of Ethiopia Sidamo coffee all by myself, and like so many African coffees it was excellent — very smooth.

The package says “Gerbichu Lela – Sun Dried Ethiopia Sidamo — USDA Organic — Full City.” It has been a long time since I drank an Ethiopia coffee on a regular basis. I used to get Ethipian Sidamo beans from Upson Wine and Coffee in Kalamazoo. But Upson quit carrying it many years ago. I was one of only two customers who had been buying it, I was told. (Maybe it’s not a drink for crowds.) Upson is still my favorite place to get Sumatra and Costa Rica Terrazu beans, but it doesn’t have all the others I like.

A couple of weeks ago I wanted to order some more Tanzania Peaberry beans from Great Northern Roasting Company in Traverse City. That one has a wonderful minty flavor.

“Minty” is not in the official description. I’m not enough of a coffee snob to be able to detect all those flavors listed in the descriptions. But there is something in that Tanzania Peaberry that I don’t taste in any other coffee. But unfortunately, Jack called to tell me that he was all out, and it would be a few weeks before he had more.

He talked me into getting some of his Ethiopia Sidamo beans instead. I ordered two pounds, in addition to a couple of types of Mexico coffee that I’ve liked. It will take several weeks to drink that much coffee, and older coffee is not as good as fresh roasted. If money was no object I’d buy smaller amounts of coffee every week. But I try to save money on shipping and/or driving. And even after several weeks these coffees are still far better than any beans I can buy in the grocery stores, which are not all bad themselves.

After the first couple of cups I started to regret that I had bought so much of that Ethopia coffee. But then I realized it’s really good. Maybe I just had bad luck brewing the first two cups, or wasn’t paying careful enough attention. Now when I know I have time to sit back and enjoy it, either alone or with my wife, I go for the Ethiopia.

There is one factor that encourages at least a small level of sociability. I like making two cups, one for me and one for my wife or anyone else who cares for one. It tastes better when I make two at a time. It’s probably because the double amount of water holds the heat better in the French press.

So in summary, if you’re a sociable type, drink beer or wine. If you’re unsociable, drink bottled water. If you have multiple personality disorder, drink coffee — the drink for any level of sociability.

Dec 112008

Speed Gibson prodded me into using the Internet to find Caribou Coffee locations. I like to know where one can find a decent cup of coffee along our route from southwest Michigan to north-central Minnesota, where my parents live.

It had been some time since I tried using the Internet to do this. As I looked up the site I thought to myself, Sure, you can put in the name of a town and find the Coffee places within so many miles. But I want it to tell me where I can find coffee along our route.

And then I saw it on the Caribou Coffee page: Under “Find a Location,” there are the choices: “By City,” “By Address,” and “Along a Route” (!). Just what I wanted!

Now if only Caribou Coffee could make better coffee. I usually prefer it to Starbucks (too burnt), though the Starbucks quality is probably more consistent. But the last time I got a Caribou cup at Hudson, WI, I had to throw it out as undrinkable. There ought to be a rule that a person who doesn’t drink coffee shouldn’t be allowed to stand behind a counter and sell you coffee. (I don’t actually know that it was a non-coffee-drinker, but I can’t imagine someone who drinks coffee selling something that has gone bad.)

And coffee that might be OK with milk, ice, and whatever is not necessarily going to be good to drink straight. Not all coffee shops realize that.

Here is a quick summary of some memorable places where I’ve gotten coffee.

  • The best coffee I’ve ever had was a cup of Zimbabwe coffee in September 2003 at a coffee house in Millersburg, Ohio that has since gone out of business. My wife agreed. I don’t know if it was fresh roasted but it was ground fresh for us.
  • We just picked up an order today at Upson’s in Kalamazoo. Roasting day is Tuesday. I like the way Linda roasts, though some people might like it roasted not quite as dark. Unfortunately she doesn’t carry as big a variety as she used to. I get Sumatra and Costa Rica coffee there. I used to get Kenya AA as a special treat, and an Ethiopian until she said I was one of only two customers for it and she wouldn’t be getting more. This is where I get most of my beans.
  • Once in a while I order coffee from the Great Northern Roasting Company in Traverse City. The variety is not great, but Jack produces some exquisite roasts. He roasts just before shipping. I just finished a great cup of Tanzania Peaberry from his beans.
  • I get the coffee of the week from Sweet Maria’s now and then. It’s also where I order my french presses and other supplies. Maybe someday I’ll order a roaster from them, too. Roasting my own is probably the only way I’ll get some of that excellently complex Yemen coffee on a regular basis.
  • Last summer we stopped at Canterbury Coffee in Bellefontaine, Ohio. They have a big variety to choose from. (How come places like Caribou and Starbucks don’t offer choices of regular brewed coffee?)
  • Bella Caffe’ in Park Rapids MN will let you order a fresh-pressed coffee in a french press. I’ve long thought coffee houses should offer this. I’ll gladly wait 5 minutes for coffee to be fresh ground and fresh brewed to order. I discovered this place several weeks ago. But they serve you the press. Well, that’s not necessary. The thing to do is push the plunger after 3 minutes and immediately pour it into cups — not let the coffee sit in the press. But at least one can get fresh brewed coffee there.
  • Most Panera Bread places sell decent-to-good coffee, though I’ve found 1-2 places that try to skimp. Skimping on the coffee makes it bitter. I’ve had decent cups of coffee at MacDonalds, too, and have also had good coffee at Arby’s and Tim Hortons. But some people in these fast-food franchises shouldn’t be allowed to make coffee. I suspect they are non-coffee-drinkers.
  • At gas stations I sometimes put a little in a cup and sniff it before deciding whether or not to buy a cup. I’ve had really good gas-station coffee, but it tends to be a crap shoot where you lose more often than not. Coffee can be ruined by people who are too cheap and who skimp on the grounds, or who don’t clean their equipment properly, or who let the brewed coffee sit too long and let it go rancid. But at least there is the possibility of getting good coffee on the road these days. Most coffee nowadays is better than what you used to find 20-30 years ago. It’s certainly a lot better than the stuff I used to drink then.

Time to go brew another cup. What should it be? My personal blend of Sumatra-Costa Rica from Upson’s? Or should I break open the “Terruno Nayarita Mexican Natural” from Great Northern? Decisions, decisions.