Once upon a time, there was a girl who did not know very much about coffee, and accidentally began to blog. It isn't exactly a fairy tale beginning, but there you have it: two and a half years ago, steeped in graduate studies at the University of Washington, wholly unrelated to my academic expertise and knowing far less than I ever anticipated I could know about the topic, I began to blog about coffee.
"The Best in Coffee 2010"
Today is the last of those blogs. And since this is not a fairy tale, I do not have the luxury of an ambiguous Happily Ever After ending; I am expected to make some worthwhile "open" ending instead. So all of last week, I wondered what the last blog should be about. What last great grain of knowledge should I pursue for and impart to my readership?
And then I realized that in over two years of coffee blogging, I (personally) have learned... a lot. And after two years of writing this column, this is my decision: perhaps it is possible, just possible, that I have earned the egotistical right to write a final post about me. Or at the very least, about things that I have learned while writing this column.
Thus, we arrive at this: highlights from a couple years of spilling the beans... Five Critical Truths Gained While Coffee Blogging. Follow the links for more details.
1. There are many, many, many ways to brew coffee. Once upon a time, drip coffee and espresso made up my narrow little world. Life was so simple. Since then, Aeropress Coffee, Siphon Pots, Clevers and Clovers have rocked coffee, and I have learned that each of these brewing methods has devotees who can abide brewing coffee in no other way. In reality, each has its own unique pros and cons, and each shapes flavor and texture in a different way. No one brewing method, in my humble opinion, is perfect for every coffee... though most brewing methods may do any one coffee justice.
"Drip Coffee Threatened"
Personal Favorite: the Chemex consistently produces excellent coffee, and is extremely flexible in accommodating a variety of flavor profiles and even brew times.
2. Roasting Coffee Defines Its Flavor. Once upon a time, my apartment had never smelled of badly pan-roasted coffee. "First Crack" were not words I'd actually used in conversation, and fewer independent roasteries had suffered through "20 Questions." Since then, coffee has become increasingly mysterious. Single Origin Espressos, tirelessly tested blends, and such artfully micro-managing roasters as Velton Ross have explained in detail the idea that each coffee bean has a unique, independent, ideal roast. Intricacies such as altitude, plant varietal, and the nutrient-saturation of soil make the difference between a coffee that opens up brilliant flavors a split second after it reaches first crack and a coffee that remains dull until it is darkly roasted.
Personal Favorite: the most alarmingly beautiful coffee experienced so far in 2012 must be awarded to Kuma Coffee's Tano Batak... coffee from a region so often rendered nearly dank -- deeply earthy and herbal -- by roasters, but dancing with lively green pepper aroma and faint hints of gin in the Kuma roast. This coffee, like no other, worked to put Kuma on the local roasting map.
3. Good Coffee is Tricky. Once upon a time, I could pull a decent shot of espresso. No really, I swear I could! Since then, variable concepts like even grind, ideal tamping technique, water pressure, water purification, extraction time, output ratios... you name it, the concept has robbed me of my ability to make coffee. Paralysis sets in when viewing an espresso bar. What if the grind is wrong? What if the dose is wrong? Good heavens, what if the shot is over-extracted by a second??
Personal Favorite: Although I do sometimes make coffee... my favorite thing about drinking coffee is that, usually, somebody else made it. This may appear to be a cop-out, but few coffees, as far as I can see, are really worth that much stress.
4. Sometimes, Other Cities Make Coffee Too. Once upon a time, I visited a city called Monroe in Louisiana, and discovered that the nearest Starbucks was 2 hours away in Jackson, Mississippi. Going out for coffee in Monroe at that time meant a run to the gas station. Since then, I have traveled to other places and seen other things, and Monroe has marginally improved its coffee situation. But in many respects, the best in traveling coffee adventures have still been relatively local: Olympia and Portland providing two excellent examples.
Personal Favorite: The "best espresso" award has not yet shifted from Water Ave in Portland, Oregon. Although, Olympia Coffee Roasting is a consistent contender.
5. Coffee is a Commodity. Once upon a time, I thought this final blog would be a guide to labels like Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and the Rainforest Alliance. But after researching all the articles for and against every aspect of every single label, the best end result I could come to was this: care about where your coffee comes from. Care about who grows it, care about how much they are paid for its sale. Care about the working and living conditions of the people who picked it. When you bring a bag of coffee home, take time to look at what region it was grown in. Know if it came from a single farm or a Co-Op. Know if the regions where it was grown were war torn. Know anything else you possibly can about it. Realize that a "Fair Trade" stamp may only guarantee that a certain percentage of the beans are "Fair Trade," and be aware that "Direct Trade" means different things to different companies. Learn that coffee has a sordid history of human rights abuse and environmental destruction, and realize that you have every opportunity to find out whether your coffee is continuing or combating this history. Use the internet: most of this information is readily available online.
ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Personal Favorite: Agros International arguably does more for its coffee growers than any other US-based agricultural outreach I can think of. Its people and records are accessible for questions, and its farms are each individually profiled by its website to get your research started.
With that, we reach the end of Spilling the Beans. But not the end of coffee blogs at the Seattle Weekly! Keep an eye out for a new column, titled The Americano Dream, authored by Seattle Weekly's Chelsea Lin.