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Grounds for Dissent in Coffeeland


This will go down as the Starbucks decade, when latte stopped being la-di-da and suddenly you could buy Sumatra and French roast at any supermarket. Mr. Coffee, which converted America to filter coffee 25 years ago, has just acknowledged the era by bring out its own line of French plunger pots and burr coffee grinders.

But if you look around at a Starbucks, you'll see more dairy products than coffee being consumed. When the decade opened, coffee people were hoping for the opposite emphasis. Still, the tide may be turning back in coffee's favor, to judge from the fact that two premium-coffee biggies just addressed Los Angeles within two weeks of each other.

Jerry Baldwin went first, at an American Institute of Wine and Food event at Campanile Oct. 18. Baldwin is the guy who founded Starbucks and then sold out three years before it went national (smooth move, Jerry) in order to run Peet's Coffee, a far smaller chain that was confined to the Bay Area until last year.

Baldwin had studied coffee roasting under Albert Peet, and the Starbucks-style dark roast is Peet's. "His roasting process was eccentric," Baldwin said. "It makes a big cup of coffee, but it sacrifices the higher notes. It concentrates the flavor in the cello and bass range and scants the violin notes.

"Ironically, the traditional signature roast in New York was dark, while in California it was light. But in specialty coffee it's come to be the reverse."

Baldwin was crusading against paper filters, because they add a paper taste while muting the coffee's own flavor. "Flavor is largely born by lipids," he said, "and the lipid molecules are so large the paper filters them out." If you must make drip coffee, rather than plunger pot or espresso coffee, he recommended the washable gold-plated filters that are sold at specialty coffee shops and upscale kitchenwares stores.

His other crusade was to get people to buy coffee in small quantities for freshness. Freezing only preserves coffee against oxidation, he warned--the coffee will continue to lose flavor the whole time it's in the freezer, just as surely as if it were sitting on your kitchen counter, because gases trapped in the beans are slowly escaping.

"And never take coffee directly from the freezer, or even the refrigerator, and brew it," he said passionately. When the grounds are cold, their flavor won't be fully extracted.

About two weeks later, on Oct. 29, Ernesto Illy of Illycaffe Co. addressed about two dozen restaurateurs and food writers at Vincenti's in Brentwood. His main crusade was to get the people who run the espresso machines in restaurants to do their job properly. "In Italy," he pointed out, "the barista is a star, he gets tips, he has face-to-face contact with his customers, so he makes better coffee."

Dr. Illy was trained as a chemist, and it colors his whole approach to coffee. Here's his take on the practice of putting lemon peel in espresso, which he says is due to the over-roasting of coffee in this country: "Lemon peel is added because it contains chemicals called terpenes, which numb the taste buds. The patrons are defending themselves from excessive bitterness."

Illy explained that the browning of coffee (like the browning of meat or bread crust) is caused by complex chemical processes known as the Maillard reaction. The reason you have to watch your steak or bread (or coffee) closely toward the end of the browning is that the Maillard reaction, once it starts, actually creates heat of is own and speeds up the process.

And the reason distilled water makes worse coffee than tap water (bottled drinking water is best, of course) is that there's no calcium in it. In the presence of calcium, some products of the Maillard reaction turn into surfactants, or wetting agents, which extract more flavor from the coffee and also allow the oily droplets of coffee extract to contact the tongue better.

"This is why Los Angeles coffee has more flavor than New York coffee," he said. "New York water is very soft, practically distilled."

So maybe there is hope for coffee. At least out here.

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