Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Twelve Tips for Coffee Lovers

Life is too short and java too expensive to waste time on inferior products. Here are my totally subjective tips for a good cup of coffee, gleaned from my six winters in Costa Rica.

1. Buy the highest quality coffee you can afford.

2. Choose organic shade-grown coffee. Who wants to be sipping herbicides and pesticides with your brew?

3. Buy fair-trade coffee. It feels better slipping down the throat when you know that the small farmers are getting a better shake.

4. Buy hand-picked coffee. In Costa Rica, the fields are handpicked three times, catching each coffee berry at its ruby ripest. Machine-picking (as is done in countries with larger coffee plantations) strips everything from the plant, including red ripe berries, immature green berries, and overripe black berries, plus leaves, stems, and insects.

5. Buy vacuum-packed coffee. Even better, look for a valve lock attached to the bag. These one-way valves prevent outside air from entering the bag but allow gasses emitted by the fresh-roasted beans to escape. According to the experts at Costa Rica’s Cafe Britt, a bag will keep up to a year unopened and six months in the freezer after opening.

6. Choose whole beans, and grind them fresh. Coffee’s freshness depends not on when it was harvested, but rather on when it was roasted and ground. As soon as roasted coffee is exposed to air, the flavor begins to deteriorate.

7. Make sure your coffee maker is clean. Wash it after each use, especially the part that holds the grounds.

8. Use pure water – unless you want chlorine- or other chemically-flavored coffee!

9. To avoid bitterness, let boiling water come to a rest before pouring it over the coffee grounds.

10 . Avoid percolated coffee. The boiling water keeps circulating, degrading the taste with every bursting bubble.

11. Resort to instant coffee only in an emergency. It is made from the lowest grade beans.

12. If you enjoy iced coffee, pour cooled fresh coffee into an ice cube tray and freeze overnight. The next day, place 2 or 3 of these frozen cubes in your coffee. As they melt, your beverage, instead of becoming watery, will retain its full, satisfying flavor.

After a three-hour Costa Rican coffee tour, which included raking beans as they dried in the sun and practicing making espressos and cappuccinos under the strict guidance of the barista, Antonio, I felt almost ready to apply for a part-time job at our neighborhood coffee shop. But my cappuccino makes it clear that I have much to learn about the fine art of coffee. The top cup shows my muddled attempt at decorating the foam. In the bottom cups are Antonio’s graceful and whimsical creations. But all three cappuccinos tasted stupendous!