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Finding the Right Grounds for Judging the Coffeehouses : Caffeine craze has hit in a big way. Emphasis is on flavor, ambience.

October 14, 1993|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More than 100 kinds of coffee are imported into the United States from around the world. The buyers, brokers and roasters who import and sell coffee beans taste, or as they call it, "cup," a lot of coffee.

Slurping the coffee through the lips, swirling it around the mouth and spitting it out, they are able to discern and judge the subtle interplay among the sweet, sour, bitter and salt that, coupled with a distinctive aroma, comprise the taste of coffee.

In its travels and mutations from bushy plants grown across the world to the contents of a coffee cup in Ventura County, many factors affect the taste of coffee. From cultivation to roasting, the many-step process--much of it done by hand labor--can be compared to the complexity of winemaking.

Grown only in temperate climates in Africa, Asia and Latin America (and parts of Hawaii), coffee beans are affected by variations in soil, weather and altitude. Beans grown in Antigua, Guatemala, are as different from those grown in Sumatra, Indonesia, as lamb is from beef.

FOR THE RECORD - LIFE & TIMES / WENDY MILLER By WENDY MILLER
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 21, 1993 Ventura West Edition Ventura County Life Part J Page 2 Zones Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Column; Correction
MEA CULPA DEPT: Our apologies to photographer Jerry Mennenga, who shot the giant coffee cup for last week's cover photo illustration. His name was inadvertently omitted from the list of photo credits.

How the beans are processed--separated from the pulp of the cherry-like fruit and dried--also affects the taste. Processing can't make a bad bean better; but it can certainly ruin a fine bean. Because so few beans contain the perfect combination of flavor, acidity and strength, blending various beans together becomes an important part of the art and success of a coffee dealer.

Until they are roasted, coffee beans actually have no flavor at all. Time in the roaster, as well as temperature, also greatly affects the taste. Usually the less time in the roaster, the lighter and more acidic the coffee.

The dark roasts used for espresso are the least acidic coffees of all, having more sweetness to balance the acidity, although acidity is a necessary factor for taste.

Less roasting time also means less moisture is removed, making lightly roasted beans heavier and more profitable--another reason why bulk commercial brand coffees are lighter in color and less tasty.

Most of the coffee drunk in Ventura County comes from generic bulk or canned coffee: undistinguished in flavor and highly acidic, but satisfyingly caffeinated. We've been drinking it for decades.

However, in the last 10 years, as people have become more interested in better foods, specialty coffees have been on the rise, making their way into the cups of the converted in ever greater numbers. They now amount to about 10% of the market in America.

There are dozens of retail coffee outlets in Ventura County that sell a wide variety of beans and coffee paraphernalia. Many even make fine coffee and espresso drinks. What distinguishes many of them is that they tend to be goody outlets rather than coffeehouses in the traditional sense.

But recently, a crop of the real thing seems to have sprouted like dandelions all around the county.

Historically speaking, a cafe or coffeehouse is a place where people of like attitudes congregate. Coffee is the draw, but not the whole event. One goes for the coffee drinks, compelled by addiction as much as taste and attraction, but one comes away nourished by conversations, poetry readings or by time spent reading or writing alone.

This type of place is rare around the county. What is far more common is the idea of coffee as a special treat or indulgence. So along with the coffee comes a vast array of decorated coffee mugs, coffee paraphernalia, candy, jams, teas, biscuits, gifts and even flowers. In some of these businesses you can't even find the coffee counter through the maze of shelves full of gewgaws and tchotchkes.

We traveled around Ventura County and "cupped" a lot of coffee, mostly cappuccino's, which we prefer. Here follows a brief, descriptive and somewhat opinionated look at many--but by no means all--of the places to buy beans and get a decent cup of coffee.

THOUSANDS OAKS

Bent on Coffee

140 W. Hillcrest Blvd.

379-2402

Located in a new shopping mall--a little pinker than most, with more turquoise trim than most--Bent on Coffee makes one of the best cappuccinos ($2) we tasted. They have a very impressive roasting machine, which sits near the front, looking as if it could pull a train. They sell dozens of kinds of beans and blends and a ton of flavored beans, including chocolate orange and decaffeinated butter rum. They offer five coffees of the day to choose from and a big selection of biscotti. They also display their share of gifts and paraphernalia. We liked the little case of antique silver spoons.

Cafe Cappuccino (The Oaks mall)

278 W. Hillcrest Blvd.

379-2759

At first sight this appears to be just a small coffee bar, but around the corner are a dozen small tables. They also have a little kitchen that turns out salads with organic greens and sandwiches like baked goat cheese with walnuts. They sell juices and Italian sodas, but no beans. They make the cappuccino ($1.60) just right.

Gloria Jean's Coffee Bean

222 W. Hillcrest Blvd.

(The Oaks mall)

379-1625

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