Coffee: A Memoir

1 Jun

By Alissa Von Bargen

I remember my first time. Lido di Jesolo, Italy, 1998. I was on a school trip, and everything felt new. The romance of Italy was in full bloom that April. I was young and unprepared, but isn’t that the way it’s meant to be?

There’s nothing – nothing – like the first cup.

Coffee was a revolution. After that first sip of heady Italian coffee laced with fresh milk, I had grown up. At 17, I was finally a coffee drinker, and there was no going back to the innocent days of café mochas topped with sweet puffs of whipped cream; hardly real coffee. I mourned the day I left Italy, knowing that I was hooked forever, and knowing that I may never have coffee like that again.

After that first euphoric discovery, I tried every kind of coffee I could find over the next five or six years, desperately trying to recreate the magic. Tim Horton’s, Second Cup, standard diner joe, the weak cups of coffee my dad would make on a Saturday morning. I had no shame. I took it with milk and sugar, but in a pinch, I would take it any way I could get it. (But let it be said that good diner joe, despite its shortcomings, can be a life raft to the shores of sanity on rocky mornings-after, or when deadlines creep up on you like a bad rash.)

I moved out to British Columbia two years ago to manage a newspaper, and began to cop out. The search was hitting a dead end. The coffee at work was dismally bitter and acidic, and the lack of a fridge meant there was only (gasp!) Coffeemate. I became a turncoat.

I drank cappuccinos.

I didn’t mean to do it, it just happened. The coffeehouse down the street was solace, and they specialized in espresso-based drinks. Doesn’t every gal go through a phase?

But my saving grace was my current live-in partner. A coffee-lover with a conscience, he imports fair-trade organic Arabica coffee from a Zapatista cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico. A fresh-roasted bean was key, he told me. He roasted green beans in an old popcorn machine, pouring two or three handfuls at a time, and watched as they turned from pistachio green to a golden-toast hue, and then deepening from a milk chocolate brown to a deep, serious, oily brown-black. He crushed them in a blender, and infused the coarse grinds with steaming hot water in a French press. I learned that darker roasts have less caffeine, and that the best-tasting beans are picked from high altitudes, not the clear-cut farmland cultivated by the Tim’s and Starbucks’ of the world.

From time to time I’ll have a cup here, a cup there, but I know that I’ll always come back to his cup. His favourite medium-dark blend was exactly what I had been searching for. Heaven.

How to roast your own coffee:

We all like a good cup of coffee, but it’s hard if you don’t want to pay a ton for pricey coffee roasters, purchase expensive pounds of roasted beans, or consume daily gut-rot from Timmy’s. Don’t worry, you can have it all by roasting your own! Besides being more delicious, fresh-roasting your own coffee is cheaper, and you can buy organic, fair-trade green beans for about a third of the price of roasted beans. All you need is an old circulated-air popcorn popper, a wooden spoon, and an electrical outlet outdoors. You can usually find a popper at a thrift store or second-hand shop for next to nothing. Happy roasting!

Plug in the popper and pour green beans in the hole. Fill about a centimeter below the plastic part of the popper, just like you would with popcorn kernels.

Stir the beans periodically as they churn in the popper throughout the process. “Chafe” (flakes from the beans’ outer layers) will start floating up from the popper in the early stages – that’s perfectly normal.

Listen for the first cracking. The beans will start to turn brown and then you will hear cracking or popping noises as each bean expands, increasing its flavour. The excess chafe will puff up. After all the beans have cracked once, you have a light roast coffee, and all the chafe will be out of the popper. But I know you don’t want to stop there!

Keep stirring as the coffee continues to roast. Wait for it…a second cracking is coming, and the coffee will get darker, more flavourful, and a bit oily. Right after the second cracking is considered a medium roast. But for the bolder tastes….

Dark roast is next, about two minutes after the second cracking. Brown-black beans with a serious oil to them. Sometimes I’ll do a medium roast and another dark roast and combine the two for a mellower coffee. Roast to taste!

I use a blender to crush the beans, but if you don’t have one on hand, put some beans in a Ziploc bag, and crush them evenly with a rolling pin or a wine/liquor bottle.

Fresh roasted coffee is best consumed within a week, but you can always freeze it to maintain freshness.

A great source of green beans is The Merchants of Green Coffee. They do business online, and at a storefront in Toronto on Matilda Street.

Alissa von Bargen is the editor of surface & symbol, a Canadian arts newspaper.


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