IT was bound to happen sooner or later; I suppose the only wonder is that it took so long. After dinner a couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me for a cup of coffee. And that's when I realized I had no earthly idea how to make one.
I'm 51 years old and I've been cooking seriously for more than 25 years. I've written two cookbooks. I can make fresh pasta fine as a silk scarf and a consomme that sparkles like a mountain stream. Yet I didn't know how to make a really good cup of coffee. (And judging from what I'm usually served in restaurants, I wasn't alone -- not that that's any excuse.)
It's not that I don't like the stuff. In fact, I'm something of a minor-league coffee geek, complete with a really good home espresso machine (Rancilio Silvia), top-quality grinder (Gaggia MDF) and a standing order at a local roaster (the Caffe d'Abruzzo blend from Supreme Bean in North Hollywood). I can talk tamp pressures and extraction times with most anyone.
But there's a difference between espresso and coffee, both in technique and aesthetic. Espresso is highly extracted and intensely flavored, intended to be consumed in two or three good slurps. Coffee is brewed more gently and meant for quaffing, the kind of drink you sit around with and sip over conversation.
And more and more of us are taking that sipping seriously. Though American coffee consumption overall has been in steady decline for the last 30 years, we're certainly drinking better coffee. The number of so-called gourmet coffeehouses increased from 500 in 1996 to 8,500 in 2001.
So, I figured, how hard can it be to make a great pot of coffee? Rooting around in my pantry, I found an old French press machine, and I thought I could improvise. And that's when the depth of my ignorance really hit me: What kind of beans should I use? Will the same ones I use for espresso be OK? Where do the best beans come from? And what about the "roast" anyway? How much coffee for the pot? How finely ground? How much water? How long do I let it steep before pressing?
So many questions, and judging from the amount of coffee left in my guest's cup, I got the answers to all of them wrong. After more than 20 years of espressos, whatever coffee-making skills I'd once had were long gone, vanished from my memory like the lyrics to a George Michael song.
But while forgetting "Careless Whisper" may be a blessing, I realized there was no way I could go any longer without being able to make a really good cup of coffee.
When stripped to its barest essentials, brewing a good cup of coffee is pretty simple. There are really only three variables -- the beans, how they're ground and how the liquid coffee is extracted from them. But as with all simple things, every step must be done correctly. Any misstep is immediately obvious.
Begin with the beans
MY first stop was my local coffee roaster, where they have a pretty good selection of beans roasted on the premises.
The beans are at once the most complex part of the equation and the easiest to solve. At first glance, the choice seems bewildering. Walk into any moderately stocked coffee bean purveyor these days and you'll find more than a dozen choices spanning two or three continents and a range of roasts.
Coffee beans, like wine grapes, reflect the climate and farming culture of the places they are grown. And because coffee is grown in almost every tropical area -- Africa, Indonesia, South and Central America, the Caribbean and even Hawaii -- there is a seemingly endless list of place names.
Indeed, much of the romance of coffee is in the parade of exotic locales and comes with exploring their diverse products. Sumatran coffee is complex and medium-bodied; Ethiopian Harrar is wild and fruity; Brazil's Bourbon Santos is light and bright.
Unlike wine, though, where a handful of place names have become hallowed ground, recognized as producing the very best of the best, there really is no such sure distinction in coffee. Indeed, the quality and freshness of the roast will almost always trump provenance. A well-handled Colombian may be short on mystique, but it will probably make a better cup than the most hallowed estate-grown Jamaica Blue Mountain that was sloppily roasted or has been sitting around for several weeks.
And then there are the blends. Many names you'll find on coffee beans won't reflect a place at all -- or at least not one that grows coffee (my Caffe d'Abruzzo beans are a prime example). These are combinations put together using beans from various areas that when ground together emphasize the strong points of each and minimize the weaknesses. To extend the wine analogy, these are like Bordeaux blended from a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, rather than a California Cabernet Sauvignon made from the pure essence of one grape variety.