Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Monday, April 12, 2010
I've been reading a lot about coffee recently, and not just in my own blog posts. In hopes of further perfecting my already exemplary roasting technique I've hounded Steve (Alec Guiness to my Mark Hammel) and others with bona fide Coffee Skillz for any and all documents/videos/performance art pieces that might help me improve.
And let me tell you, blogger to bloggee, there isn't much out there; and most of what is, is in Italian. Fortunately, recent advances in coffee technology have allowed Italian roasters to translate their works into English. Although the method is still in its nascent stages, it has given other humans who don't ride vespas and are less predisposed to coffee roasting a peek into the vast compendium of coffee knowledge compiled by the likes of Illy and International Institute of Coffee Tasters.
Currently, I'm reading Espresso Italiano Roasting, which is a lot like reading Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow in that everyone who's read it says they get most of it, when really, no one gets any of it, not even Thomas Pynchon. The difference is that Thomas Pynchon made Gravity's Rainbow hard to read to torture undergraduates, whereas Espresso Italiano is hard to read because it is a technical manual translated by an unpaid intern armed with only a 5th grade English reading level and an Italian/English dictionary. (Unlike other interns, IICT interns are actually strictly prohibited from "getting the coffee," as this is a symbol of status and prestige. So it is the tenured faculty who make coffee for the interns while the interns generate spider graphs and speak at coffee tasting symposiums.)
While the Espresso Italiano Roasting yields several sentences whose challenge to the rules of English grammar obfuscate any information they might contain in Italian, I found one gem that I'd like to share with you. In the section entitled Science Can Only Support Art, author Luigi Odello concludes:
“Therefore the old limiting concept of roasting process must be left behind , avoiding to frequently resort to cause-effect logic and , above all, it must always be borne in mind that end consumers can only rely on their sensory organs to assess the roaster's job. That is why roasting must be considered on a scientific basis, yet no high standard product can be obtained without art, which is the intellectual part that only the sensitivity of who supervises production can add.”
While the lyricism of Odello’s Italian doesn’t quite find it’s way into the English version, the sentiment remains clear: You can study all you want but perfection is only attained by intuition. Leave it to the Italians to add sentiments to a scientific trade manual that in America are left to movies like Top Gun and Searching for Bobby Fisher.
In any case, Odello touches on one of the most compelling aspects of coffee roasting. Roasting, chemically speaking, is a very complex process (the number of chemical compounds present in the bean double over the course of a 15 minute roast), yet the means by which we control it are simple (air flow and heat). Furthermore our ability to detect with instrumentation what is going on inside the bean at any moment is fairly limited, which means that intuition, guided by years of experience, is what leads to truly exceptional roasting.
I encourage anyone as interested in the philosophical and spiritual aspects of coffee roasting as I am to avoid Espresso Italiano Roasting at all costs and opt instead for the well-researched and surprisingly well-written Coffee: A Dark History by Anthony Wild. Mr. Wild eschews the typical apocrypha associated with coffee’s origins for some real investigative reporting. His conclusions cast coffee in an interesting light: Although he falls short of conclusive evidence, his research points to a certain Sufi scholar inventing the means by which we consume coffee today. Sufis made their devotions at night which would give them a specific interest in stimulants; their interest in alchemy as a physical analogue for their spiritual devotions lead them to experiment with otherwise uninteresting substances, hence roasting an ordinary seed, and their contact with the Chinese treasure fleets would have meant they were familiar with infusion brewing as they would have been served tea.
All attempts to explain the origins of brewed coffee at this point are conjecture, and they are likely to remain so, but I find Wild’s theory particularly compelling. Certainly whoever first roasted coffee was guided by intuition, and I like to believe with Odello that today’s roasters do the same in their continued search for perfection.
Alright - that about wraps up this long and winding and overly sentimental post. As a parting meditation, please enjoy these pictures of webs spun by the highest spider on Earth.