Let me start by talking about coffee. Most people adore this bean, or more accurately, cherry seed. There are so many cultures that bask in its gifts, using it to wake up, socialize, meet new lovers, make friends, and to just take a moment to feel refreshed and let go of stress. Yet very few have been given the deeper artisanal knowledge about its harvest and preparation. Well, I’m here to share that right now!
Growing up in the era of Maxwell house and Folgers lead me to believe that the coffee at Denny’s or the gas station was all there was to be known. A few months in Brazil changed everything. The locals there made a coffee that was filtered through flannel into glass, and half the strength of espresso… So wonderful. When I returned, Starbucks were popping up on every block much like churches in the Deep South. But they were churning out burned tasting swill compared to what I had recently grown to adore.
One morning I woke up with the intuition that I would find an espresso machine at a garage sale. I followed this feeling all the way up a mountain road to reveal an estate sale. There I met the owner and began to talk to her about how to use eBay, which was relatively new still. She paused at one point and asked me:
“Are you looking for something in particular?”
“Yep, an espresso machine…”
“Oh, I have one in the kitchen I never use, you can have it for 5 bucks!”
And so I drove down the visionary mountain road wielding my newfound weapon of pleasure. Still so naive. Once home, I scoured eBay to find the best source of Kona and Jamaican coffee, as to my knowledge back then, they were the top of the class. I found a supplier in Canada who looked very legit and I ordered 5 pounds.
At first sip, it was difficult to tell the difference. It was utterly smooth, light and pleasant. But then, I compared it to a standard store bought coffee, I wanted to spit it out grimacing! Returning to these island coffees after that became the only choice. Over the next couple years my taste began to evolve and I discovered the joy of adding salt and organic brown sugar.
Why salt? Coffee misses the mark on your tongue where chocolate is perceived (did I mention that I am a chef?) Adding a pinch of salt opens the side of your tongue to dive into the missing chocolatey nuances that are hidden away in coffee. Brown sugar, strangely seems to be the most neutral sweetener in coffee – intensifying caramel and chocolate flavors. Agave tastes green and refined sugars have a distracting accent as well.
Eventually I knew it was time to get a truly great espresso machine. I was considering either a completely automatic monstrosity or a manual lever machine (the most difficult, artisanal machine you can own.) Looking to my buddy Nick (a great fan of my cooking and often my sous chef) for advice, he turned to me and said,
“Come on Shaun, you know you won’t be satisfied with anything less than the most difficult and the best.”
In total agreement I bought the manual lever factory 16. And years later upgaded to Olympia Cremina.
Lessons learned about coffee by using a manual lever machine:
- The quality of grinder is not an option, it’s bloody imperative. Without a great grinder, your espresso is garbage. The proper shape of the cut is required to release sour as opposed to bitter flavors.
- There is an essential oil in coffee that evaporates in a week or two. When it’s there, the espresso pours like thick honey. When you leave it open or it’s old, it runs like water.
- Espresso should be extracted in around 28 seconds to achieve the best flavor.
- A true ristretto, only possible with manual lever, is a finer grind requiring fewer beans, and it delivers the truest flavor of the bean.
- Micro-foam, is milk steamed in such a way that it feels like cream in your mouth. This is done by adding the air bubbles and then reducing their size with a wave like motion. Not easy, and not going to happen at Starbucks.
So, let’s get to roasting.
One upon a time, my mother invited me on a tour of a local Santa Barbara farm that was actually growing coffee. So off we went, driving up the back country road to be greeted by the owner and fellow adventurers. We walked through groves of avocado, cherimoya and exotic fruits to reveal a hill with just the right conditions for coffee cherries. Yep, cherries. Red juicy sweet cherries that you eat right off the bush. And consequently wake up. The leftover pits are your coffee bean. We watched them separating, curing and roasting the beans. So much knowledge gained! For example, beans grown in Kona, Jamaica or Santa Barbara take up to an extra year to ripen and are overflowing with essential oil. That’s why an old bag of mixed source Kona is still pretty good.
A week later my mother brought me some green coffee from Whole Foods. I had intentions of buying a roaster. But one late night moment I thought, why not just use a pan like they do in Ethiopian restaurants? If you are not aware, Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and it is very deeply rooted in their social culture and knowledge. Most of the best coffee beans on earth are actually from particular Ethiopian farms, mainly in the province of Yerga Cheffe. I also found a picture of an old Colombian man roasting in a hole in the ground with a giant wooden staff. Inspired and determined, I roasted a pound of single-source Ethiopian coffee in my cast iron skillet.
Now, one of the great things about a manual lever machine is that it won’t lie. Either conditions are perfect and you get a deep rich honey-like creama, or it runs like water and is bitter. I had thought that no one could achieve this as successfully as my Canadian source of island beans… To my utter shock and joy, my coffee poured perfectly. It tasted so unique, distinct, new, and it was easy to obtain!
I began to research coffee bean sources and found the most reputable one online. It is a company that scours the earth, hand-inspecting farms, delivering only ethically-farmed, harvested and cured beans that have stunning flavor profiles. These beans put my island coffee to shame. For example a Kona that sells for 40-60 per pound at Starbucks will score between 85-89 points on the coffee tasting scale. But an Ethiopian bean often scores 90-95 points! And it slaps your face with flavors like blueberry cinnamon toast, mangoes, strawberry and lime. A Colombian bean often has a chocolate and apple nuance. A Costa Rican bean often has a marshmallow nutty nuance. Wow!
So I began my journey of pan roasting. By roasting a new pound of coffee every 2-3 days I have roasted around 120 unique coffees from different farms per year for the last 4 years. That experience had sharpened my intuition as to what level a bean needs to be roasted to for its unique flavors to shine.
Most fine coffee shops will only offer 1-2 single source coffees, if any. In my opinion, a blend is like fruit punch. A smorgasbord of flavors that hides any deep nuances of the original beans. If you are dealing with old or not so great coffee, fine; it’s sort of the “Charles Shaw” of coffee. But it has no place in my roasting pan, or store. You will only ever get single source coffees that I love. You will always get each pan/hand roasted, one pound at a time, just for you, and mailed right away. Nobody else offers this.
Will it always be the best coffee you have ever tasted? No. Just like wine, every farm is unique. Every crop and season is unique and without contrast, there is no beauty in life. You have to experience it all to appreciate it all. I will rarely restock a bean. When it’s gone, it’s gone. On to the next experience. And sometimes you will get that experience that helps you to understand what life is about. I call it the meteor experience. Like a cup that is so good, if a meteor hits me after, oh well, I lived well!
No refunds. Not interested in complaints. What I am offering is personal and full of love, take it or leave it. I am truly grateful to have the resources to offer you this experience!