BY RICHARD FOSS
I distinctly remember the first fantastic cup of coffee I ever drank. It was at a specialty coffee expo, and my idea of what flavors can be in coffee had already expanded. I tasted wine-like notes, blueberry and citrus and hazelnut in beverages that had not been adulterated with syrups, but the peak experience was an Ethiopian light roast. It was frothy, creamy, with notes of cherry and other fruit, and the most sublime coffee I had ever tasted.
“That was probably a wet process Yirgacheffe given a light roast,” guessed Mark Wain of Café Luxxe in Santa Monica. “You’ll taste similar notes in this Costa Rican Tarrazu.” He poured water for a cup, and I observed volcanic bubbling as it went through the filter. “That’s called the bloom – it’s carbon dioxide and nitrogen. The beans release those gases for a short time after they’re roasted,” he said. I took a sip and was in a state of bliss – the cherry flavor was there, along with hints of berries and spice. That coffee of my dreams wasn’t just a fluke.
Wain and his partner Gary Chau looked contemplative when I asked if creating great coffee is a science. “The roasting, grinding, pulling the shots, it’s a scientific as well as artistic endeavor,” Wain offered. “We develop a profile for how to treat each type of coffee. If the green beans are traditionally sun-dried, they’re more acid and fruity – you get berry flavors. If the same coffee is washed before processing you get notes of stonefruit, peaches and cherries.
“We try several roasts at different heat and duration to see which one we like. If the coffee is under-roasted, it’s mild and citrusy. If it’s over-roasted it gets a baked flavor. There are fads in roasting – Starbucks used to over-roast everything, but now some of their competitors under-roast, which brings out a very clean but slightly sour flavor. A little more roasting would bring out some sweetness.”
So once I find a roast that I like, how can I best make it at home? Start with fresh beans. I had talked with Chau a few weeks earlier and he had saved samples so I could try coffee roasted 30 days ago, 14 days ago and one day ago. I smelled each one first; the oldest had a nutty, oily scent, not unpleasant but not alluring. The two-week-old sample was much more complex, while the coffee roasted the day before was so mild that I could hardly tell it was there. The difference was even more pronounced when I drank each cup – the oldest was typical cheap restaurant brew, the middle was richly flavorful and delicately fruity, while the youngest was fresh but slightly bland. It was almost impossible to believe that it was the same beans, just roasted at different times.
I had expected more character from the youngest sample, and I said so. Wain was not surprised.
“It’s best between four and 12 days old – younger than that is underdeveloped,” he explained. “For me, the sweet spot is about seven days, especially for espresso. It’s good from two to 12 days for French press or for pour-over coffee, like a Melitta filter.”
Since most people make pour-over coffee at home, I wanted to explore this further. I had noticed Chau wetting the paper filter with hot water before pouring coffee through it, and asked why. He told me that sometimes filters contain fine paper threads or paper dust, and this way they aren’t carried into the coffee. What about the ones like I have at home with a metal screen? These have their drawbacks – the screen isn’t as fine as the microscopic pores in the paper, so you get mud in the bottom of the cup that keeps strengthening the brew.
To show how French press coffee was different from drip coffee, Chau made a pot, and I watched as he poured a little hot water over the grounds, waited a moment, and then added the rest. “You want to wet the grounds, let them bloom, then add more water. Pour a quarter, agitate it, then pour the rest,” he said as he performed each task with practiced efficiency. It was subtly different – perhaps, I ventured, a little heavier and richer in flavor. He agreed – French press coffee is slightly more oily than that made by the drip method. Some people like a little oiliness in their coffee, especially if they’re espresso fans.
I tried an espresso made with the café’s Testarossa blend and immediately understood what Chau meant – it had the thick, velvety texture and flavor of chocolate, with caramel and notes of Bourbon whiskey. It was delicious for completely different reasons than the Costa Rican.
There are other techniques for making excellent coffee at home, such as grinding it fresh each day and to the correct texture for the brewing method – powder texture for espresso machines and Arabic coffee, less fine for drip, and somewhat coarse for French press. The most important thing is to use freshly roasted coffee. I asked about packaging methods that are supposed to keep coffee fresh, like sealing it in nitrogen-flushed cans, and Wain scoffed.
“Let’s see them demonstrate how that method works by slicing an apple or an avocado and putting it in that kind of packaging,” he demanded. “Let’s see what that looks like after a few days. If you want a great cup, buy from someone who can tell you right away what date the clock started ticking on those beans. Not all coffee shops can do that, but the ones who can will sell you the best cup to drink there, or the best beans to make it at home.”
My suggestion? Visit Café Luxxe and learn how good coffee can be, then throw away that musty stuff in your cupboard or freezer and start seeing how close you can come to coffee perfection. You’ll develop new skills and start the day with a cup worth savoring.
Café Luxxe is at 925 Montana Ave. in Santa Monica. Open Mo-Fr 6 a.m.-7 p.m., Sa-Su 6:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Parking in rear, enter from front, wheelchair access good. Info at cafeluxxe.com. 310-394-2222.