Chicago: Making Your Coffee Better

The era of cheap coffee is ending as the commodity increases in price. But for coffee snobs, that’s actually okay: a good gourmet Chicago coffee is still cheaper than McDonald’s, if you make it yourself.

Photo: leyink (CC by 2.0

The first time I realized that coffee was good was when I aided one of my colleagues on this story about Intelligentsia and coffee-making as competitive sport.

After he judged Riddle’s performance at Navy Pier, he called him “the stealth bomber of baristas.” “There’s no wasted movements,” he said. Tony Dreyfuss, co-owner of Metropolis, Intelligentsia’s biggest competitor here, saw Riddle at the regionals. “He’s like the best DJ, who shows up with the least stuff,” he said.

But it’s not enough for a barista to master the machine, according to Turer. He says an ideal espresso has a “thick crema . . . toasted hazelnut brown in color with a reddish-brown reflection and striping or flecking of both light and dark brown colors” and “depth and complexity, sweetness, acidity, and defined body.”

In college I was a barista, despite the fact that I rarely drank coffee, and got to be pretty good at pulling espresso and foaming lattes. But I didn’t appreciate quite how elaborate the process could get until I joined my colleague at Intelligentsia’s roasting works to watch barista Matt Riddle make a ginger-rich drink. After that I started trying the company’s more elaborate offerings, grinding my own coffee—haven’t tried roasting it yet, some things I like to leave for the artisans—and messing with pour-overs and french presses.

Intelligentsia isn’t the be-all and end-all of coffee for me; I also like the roasts at my local, Star Lounge, and just finished a bag of Metropolis’s excellent Good Soldier Schweik. I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t been to Asado, but I have been to its owner’s inspiration, San Francisco’s Blue Bottle:

Passing through San Francisco in 2005, Ashtari had his second epiphany: he took the opportunity to queue up for a cup at the Blue Bottle Coffee Company, famous for its $20,000 Japanese siphon bar, a coffeemaker that according to owner James Freeman in the New York Times makes a “sweeter, juicier” coffee with “kaleidoscopic” flavor and sometimes “a texture so light it’s almost moussey.” Most of the time, though, baristas at Blue Bottle prepare regular drip coffee manually in porcelain strainers lined with unbleached filters, grinding beans for each order, pouring hot water over them, and stirring until a perfectly extracted cup fills up below.

You don’t have to pay $20,000 for a decent siphon setup, but it sure looks cool. I was actually most impressed with Blue Bottle’s Kyoto-style iced coffee, which involves dripping cold water over coffee grounds for eight hours, and the result is pretty impressive. Those machines are pretty pricey, though.

Anyway, while I’m increasingly familiar with the diversity of coffee preparations—Intelligentsia’s iPhone app has a good guide to pour-over coffee, the cheapest possible coffee-nerd method—the other end of the gourmet-coffee market has been relatively unknown to me. Which is why I was glad to see Intelligentsia back in the news again: Cool Hunting has an interview with Intelligentsia buyer Geoff Watts, who explains how the company has been building its own market for high-quality coffee:

The farmers there generally treated coffee as a cash crop and did not have a culture of consuming it. We’d learned so many times over the years, that if you are not consuming the product that you are creating, it is a lot harder to be motivated to pursue better quality. We started the program in Rwanda to teach coffee farmers how to prepare and consume their own coffee so they could be their own quality control. We built several hundred kits with little pans, a mortar and pestle to grind the beans, a sample of how the coffee should look when it was ready to brew, and an illustrated manual for coffee roasting in the local language. Then we did trainings in small villages. We taught the farmers to roast coffee over a fire. You can roast decently in a pan. It’s not ideal, but you get surprisingly tasty results. For many of them it was the first time they had coffee, even though it was growing in their backyard for years.

If you’re interested in roasting your own coffee, here’s a how-to.

For an even deeper look into the gourmet coffee business, GOOD’s Zak Stone has a long piece about “the end of cheap coffee,” which has less to do with the increase in high-end roasters than climate and economics:

“Over the last four or five years nearly every farmer in every country I work with has experienced climate events that they’ve described as completely out of whack,” says Watts, who helped found Intelligentsia in Chicago 16 years ago. “And these are people that have been growing coffee on those farms for 20, 30, 40 years. … They’re seeing rain when they had droughts before; they’re seeing droughts when they usually have a lot of rain. They’re seeing hail and frost in places where it didn’t exist before.” Extreme weather events “are happening simultaneously in every part of the coffee-growing world,” he adds.

Not that coffee is the only staple facing a price spiral:

Wheat, maize, sugar and coffee have hit near record levels in the last six months, and dairy, oils and cereal are all 20-50% above where they were last year. In the last six months, too, many leading food companies have said they expect commodity prices to rise at well over the inflation rate this year. Unilever expects a 14-16% increase, Nestlé 8-10%.

But as that article points out, most of what you’re paying for is labor. The site The Simple Dollar figures that, at $24 for 48 ounces of Eight O’Clock coffee grounds, a cup of coffee is $0.38 for 16 ounces of coffee once brewed. If you think Eight O’Clock tastes like dishwater, a 12 ounce bag of Intelligentsia house blend comes in at $14, or $1.17 an ounce. One ounce will get you about the equivalent of a medium coffee, so it’s still cheaper than McDonald’s coffee, and about a dollar less than a Starbucks grande. In other words, it’s actually cheaper to be a coffee snob than to be lazy about it. Cheaper still if you teach yourself to roast it, but one thing at a time.

 

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