I inhale deeply, taking in the varied aromas of freshly ground coffee roasted to just the right hue. I take a sip and the taste buds all across my mouth send one clear message to my brain: this is real coffee.
"Before we launched," says Tyler Youngblood of San Francisco based coffee company Azahar, "we tasted coffee from 400 farms in Colombia to decide who we wanted to work with. We contracted with six of them."
I meet him in Colombia, where he's doing a demonstration at one of these farms and showing a few visitors like me from the U.S. how to find good coffee and prepare it well.
According to surveys from the National Coffee Association, 63 percent of Americans drink coffee daily (much higher than any other beverage), while those who drink it at least once per week is up to 75 percent.
Although the plant originated in Ethiopia, much of the coffee, good and bad, comes from the stretch of land between the bottom of North America and the upper half of South America. Eleven of the top-20 coffee producers are countries in the Americas, with Brazil being the dominant world leader. These statistics are based on volume, however, so regions that go for quality over quantity may not appear on that list at all. Jamaica and Panama get high marks, as does Hawaii, but quantities produced are low compared to Brazil, Vietnam, and Indonesia—now the clear top three.
There may be disagreement over which region produces the finest coffee, but most experts will agree on what thing: most of the coffee we drink is crap.
The reasons fall into three categories: quality, freshness, and preparation. Plus most consumers haven't drunk enough good cups to know what they're missing. Once you visit a few coffee farms and taste several cups that have hit their full potential, the drek served in most chain outlets seems like a whole other—and inferior—beverage.
The Perfect Cappuccino
"How many of you put sugar in your coffee?" asks the Cafe Jesus Martin coffee shop owner in Salento, Colombia. Most of us raise our hands. Instead of chiding us, he says, "I don't blame you. Most coffee you get—including here in Colombia—is so bad that you need something to cover up the taste." He then proceeds to pass around two sets of coffee beans, then two sets of ground coffee. One smells aromatic, rich, and delicious. The other smells like dried out dirt.
He explains that one batch is a collection of quality beans fresh from one of the best local farms, roasted yesterday, the beans ground a few minutes ago, The other batch came from a supermarket shelf, pre-ground Colombian coffee of dubious origin and low-quality beans, packaged who knows when. "Coffee already has natural sugars from the bean and the caramelization process of roasting," he explains. If it's good coffee made well—and not over-roasted—you don't need to add sugar. To prove the point, he sets a cappuccino the barista has just prepared in front of me and for once the claim of "This will be the best cup of coffee you have ever had" is not an idle boast. As I relish every drop, I can't recall a better one.
Coffee with Care
I have had other great cups of coffee that came close though, usually in places like this that take their beans very, very seriously. Often they're in spots very close to the source, where not much time or distance has transpired. I think of the little coffee shop Carajillo Cafe in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, one of the two prime coffee centers of Mexico. There someone takes your order, including your favored method of preparation, then presents it all with as much flair as if they were opening a bottle of decades-old Bordeaux, using beans ground just before serving.
I also think of my visit to Finca la Milagrosa farm in Boquete, Panama. This unusual coffee farm produces some award-winning, expensive coffee, but it's not because of any technical advantage. The owner, Tito Vargas, is a former taxi driver that couldn't afford most of the equipment he needed, so he made it. The production area is like a tinkerer's workshop, with coffee roasters made from a washing machine cylinder, industrial light covers, and a steering wheel axle. The coffee grinder uses parts from a discarded motorcycle. He scoops beans out of the smallest roasters with a spoon soldered onto a screwdriver.
"How long do you leave them in there?" I ask him.
"Until they're ready," he replies, as he scoops out some and puts others back inside.
He takes the freshly roasted beans, grinds them up, and makes coffee in a French Press to serve us as samples. It's divine, of course, as we sip it under the clear plastic tarp serving as a roof over some of the processing equipment. With the Geisha variety of coffee grown here selling for as much as $100 a pound to the Japanese, Tito could surely upgrade to a better building and new equipment, but he probably thinks, "Why bother?" What's here has served him well and it's the output that matters. The love that goes into making the best coffee he can make seems to matter more than capital investment.
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