America’s Best Coffee
Published: April 2009
By Francine Maroukian
Put down that cup of average joe: there's a coffee renaissance afoot in America. <strong>Francine Maroukian</strong> sips her way across the country to find the crème de la crème. <b>Plus:</b> A java-lover's dictionary.
Every day, Americans drink about 400 million cups of coffee, and I am nothing but grateful
for my generous share. I got my first intoxicating taste as a 10-year-old in the markets of
Istanbul, and the lure of coffee can still pull me out of bed in the morning. Coffee does
more than anchor my day; it roots me as I travel. My twitchy need for flavor over sameness
propels me past those coffee-shop clones into cafés serving java from local roasters.
The beans may come from Africa-Arabia, Latin America, or any of the other growing regions
around the globe. But the distinctive way those beans are roasted is what marks the coffee
in certain cities for me, from Blue Bottle's fudgy brews in San Francisco to the velvety blends
of Philadelphia's La Colombe.
Long before Americans knew how to pronounce words like venti and breve, we
lined up to buy coffee from our hometown roasters. It wasn't until the postwar years, when
supermarket convenience triumphed over freshness, that coffee became just another mass-produced
item, like detergent. The sliced-bread blandness and that little plastic scoop stuck in the
grounds didn't just replace real flavor; big-brand uniformity obliterated the relationship
between regionality and roasting style . Stripped from its community roots, coffee began to
taste the same no matter where you went. While newly minted suburbanites considered it modern
to perk their morning cups with coffee from vacuum-sealed cans, nonconformists rebelled against
the split-level monotony by taking refuge in urbane coffeehouses from North Beach to
Greenwich Village. Like the Parisian existentialists of the twenties, the Beat Generation
huddled in their cafés and showed "squares" how different life could be if you wore
black, recited poetry, and drank coffee you couldn't see through.
Half a century later, in this day of corporate coffee chains, I've embarked on a quest into
uncharted caffeine country: the realm of American craft roasters who are focusing on bean
sourcing and signature style, all while revitalizing independent café life. In doing
so, they are putting the buzz back into their neighborhoods—not to mention every single
one of my mornings.
Down an alleyway and under the raised-track garage door of an architect's wood shop stands
the Blue Bottle kiosk, more coffee rave than café: I feel lucky to have found it and
wonder if it will be there when I go back. Despite its cobbled-together look and spontaneous
vibe, this 10-foot-by-10-foot stand, made from salvaged city materials, didn't appear overnight.
Roaster James Freeman spent many days walking his dog around the Hayes Valley before he decided
the place was right: "This is not a hazelnut latté neighborhood; it felt like they were
our people." The coffee he serves is equally authentic—both certifiably and traditionally
organic. Freeman's Three Africans blend, a fairly dark roast, bears the subtle imprint of dried
blueberries and cardamom. The earthy Yemen Sana'ani is one of the few single- estate origin
coffees that makes an excellent shot of espresso: complex, thick, and almost buttery. In Blue
Bottle's "world headquarters"—a 182-square-foot Oakland workroom —Freeman roasts
about 40,000 pounds of coffee beans a year using an infrared seven -pound-batch machine, which
he describes as "heartbreakingly" small. But he tells me he's looking to buy a battered old
12-kilo machine if he can figure out how to run it without smoking out the neighbors. A fan
of personalized equipment, Freeman uses a customized stainless-steel drip bar to make the coffee
at the kiosk. Grinding beans to order and using this drip-by-drip method, instead of holding
brewed coffee in a "hot pot," isn't just slow, it's excruciating. When you haven't had your
coffee yet, four minutes can feel like forever. But you get what you wait for: a deeply aromatic
and heavy-bodied coffee. Every Saturday, Freeman transports his second kiosk—a propane-fired,
stainless-steel single-axle trailer—over the Bay Bridge and parks it under a folding awning
at the Ferry Building Farmers Market. He heats water on a Coleman stove and between about 7:20
A.M. to 2 P.M. serves espresso drinks, drip, or New Orleans iced coffee to roughly 750 people.
"Oh, it's intense," he says. "I close my eyes on Saturday nights and see milk swirling in a
315 Linden St.; 415/252-7535; www.bluebottlecoffee.net.
At ﬁrst glance, it's hard to reconcile the size of Intelligentsia's factory, crew, and
1.5 millionpound annual production with the term micro-roaster. But what qualifies
cofounders Doug Zell and his wife, Emily Mange, and their director of coffee, Geoff Watts, as
micro isn't the quantity they produce. Rather, it's how engaged the partners are in sourcing,
stopping just short of growing the coffee beans themselves. "We are involved with farmers from
the very beginning, working to build the coffee we want and using long-term contracts at prices
that reward and encourage quality," Zell says. Although the idea of fair trade gets bandied
about in today's $8.5 billion specialty-coffee industry, it's a complicated socioeconomic contract
that doesn't always correlate to quality and, as practiced, is often little more than a marketing
slogan stamped on a bag. To take it beyond a catchphrase, Watts spends more than half the year
traveling the mountainous equatorial regions between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn with
one goal: establishing relationships that provide small farmers with economic security in exchange
for the best they can grow. The result is a portfolio of 30 coffees: both single-estate origins
and blends, featuring Intelligentsia's World Exclusives, seven coffees that the partners consider
to be the future of the bean. These coffees—from the smooth, ripe, fruity Colombian Tres
Santos to La Tortuga sourced in Honduras, with its notes of cocoa, almond, and tamarind—are
the result of direct collaboration with growers' cooperatives. This connectedness has always
been a part of Intelligentsia's culture. After the 12-kilo roaster was moved out of the original
Lakeview café, the team didn't ﬁll the space with the kind of tables for two that
typically end up seating one, resulting in the separate togetherness found in many chain coffee
shops. Instead, they brought in oversized barn planks to create communal seating for 10, a welcoming
gesture that resonated with locals looking for a way to come together not only at the same time,
but also at the same table.
3123 N. Broadway Ave.; 773/348-8058; www.intelligentsiacoffee.com.
As cofounders of the innovative Zingerman's Delicatessen, Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig
have spent the last two decades building their reputation by traveling the world in
search of the best foodstuffs. But when it comes to coffee, there's no need to leave town. I
meet up with computer programmer turned Zingerman's roaster Allen Leibowitz at work in his 1,000-square-foot
niche of the 24,000-square-foot mail-order warehouse where one man and one machine roast about
40,000 pounds of coffee a year, 66 pounds at a time. But Leibowitz isn't in a hurry to change
that. "Doing things on this scale gives me a better understanding of exactly what a specific
bean likes in terms of heat," he says. "Some require low heat over a longer period in order
to highlight their best characteristics." Take the India Coorgi: trial and error taught Leibowitz
that the beans need to be roasted just slightly darker, at higher heat over a shorter period
of time, to bring out the spiciness and hints of clove and mace. At this point, because of the
quantity of beans he buys, Leibowitz is limited to working with brokers, instead of directly
importing from producers, and relies on cuppings to become familiar with the taste of the beans.
"We're not these firms' biggest customer, but they know we buy the best," he says. Of the 15
Zingerman's coffees, 12 are single-origin, like the thick and chocolaty Papua New Guinea. The
remaining three are blends, including Roadhouse Joe, a slightly nutty mix with lots of body
and no bite. The coffees are used throughout the Zingerman's businesses on a rotating basis.
The Roadhouse blend is even featured as an ingredient in the restaurant's spicy tomato barbecue
sauce. But the quirkiest place to get a cup—and give a nod to Detroit's car culture—is
at Roadshow, a 1952 peanut-shaped Royal Spartanette aluminum trailer coach customized to look
like a coffee pot. Roadshow is parked outside the Roadhouse restaurant, two miles from the deli,
at the corner of Jackson Avenue and West Stadium Street. Pull up to the window and order your
Roadhouse Joe with a cakey nutmeg-spiced doughnut rolled in Muscovado brown sugar. The
combination is sure to keep you driving in circles.
422 Detroit St.; 734/663-3354; www.zingermans.com.
After hatching their plans in a nearby pub, former baristas Todd Carmichael and Jean Philippe
Iberti put a 15-kilo Vittoria roaster in the window of their café and went into the
coffee business, cranking out enough smoke to season swanky Rittenhouse Square and attract
the attention of the local ﬁre department. Over the next 10 years, the partners made
their creation a destination, a feat that impressed city ofﬁcials so much that they
affixed colorful French Quarter markers to the street signs on the café's corner. Making
my way through the crowd inside—1,500 people a day get their coffee at the 28-foot-long
turn-of-the-century mahogany bar—I find nothing for sale except coffee drinks: no mufﬁns,
wraps, or logo-emblazoned travel mugs. The partners are roasters, not retailers, and the strength
of the company rests on four distinctive blends—ranging from the deeply rich and truly
dark Corsica to the creamy and slightly sweet Nizza, which tastes delicately of caramel. There
is little confusion about priorities. La Colombe coffee may be the choice of star chefs like
Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Alain Ducasse, but every decision the partners make is in service
to their blends. "Product first, customer second," Carmichael says. Loyalty is tied to the
green coffee bean as a blend component, not as the product of a specific region: it's either
a good note in the chord or it's off. Then comes the heat. Again, the partners stay committed
to their four recipes. Instead of roasting the beans independently and then blending, the
partners blend first and then roast. "Think soup," Carmichael says as he shows me the control
panel behind the towering fluid air-roaster that turns out about 1.5 million pounds a year.
"You wouldn't cook all the ingredients separately and then combine them. You find the right
temperature to cook them together so their ﬂavors mingle and marry."
130 S. 19th St.; 215/563-0860; www.lacolombe.com.
Wonder what's brewing in the bean business?Here's the latest lingo for any aspiring coffee connoisseur.
A precise tasting process, often performed around a revolving circular table, designed to
determine the flavor profile—body, acidity, and aroma—of a coffee.
This tiered unit has filters on the top levelthat drip coffee into cups underneath, while
the barista moistens the grounds, waits, adds more water, and stirs.
to set an international price for coffee beans, intended to enable small farmers to be able
to sustain their land and families. Look for "Fair Trade Certified" labels.
A device that releases hot air into the roasting chamber (imagine a popcorn popper) to levitate
the beans and prevent them from coming into contact with the hot metal canister, which in
traditional drum cooking can scorch a dark roast.
Beans that have not yet been roasted.
Traditional Organic Coffee
Crops grown without synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
The degree to which the green coffee bean is "cooked," along with the "heat recipe" (how
high a temperature is applied and for how long). The roasting brings out or diminishes certain
flavor characteristics in the bean. Beans that are less roasted have a tendency toward a bright
acidity, like lemon; beans that have been roasted more tend to have a bittersweet quality,
like cocoa.Single-Origin Coffee A coffee produced in one geographic area.
Single-Estate Origin Coffee
An unblended coffee made from a single bean that bears the name of its unique grower and tastes
distinctively of its region.
Also called gourmet or premium, this variety is made from exceptional beans grown
only in ideal climates; these beans often have characteristic flavors shaped by the soil in
which they were grown.—F.M.