Caffeine Dreams: Tasting the Perfect CoffeeS

I love coffee. Probably more than you do. But I'm not as obsessed as the people who devote their lives to coffee, forever searching for the perfect cup through practices that mingle science and voodoo. I want to be.

When I (or anyone) order a macchiato at either of Ninth St. Espresso's Alphabet City outposts, it's always made by a dude in his 20s wearing a baseball hat and facial hair who appears to move with a level of enthusiasm rivaling that of an arthritic retiree working as a night-shift security guard at a library. It looks like he simply doesn't care. At least, if you don't watch closely.

After he presses the tamper into a mound of brown, almost velvet-like powder to compress it into a perfectly even puck of coffee for proper extraction, he gives the portafilter a fast twirl, proving the coffee is packed in tightly enough that gravity can't wrestle it out. The steel pitcher holding the steamed milk is slammed into the counter once then swirled, twice and another swirl, three times—then half of its contents are dumped into a drain before they're poured into a tiny cup with hand movements that slink back and forth so subtly they're almost imperceptible, smoothly layering the milk into a triple shot of thick and rusty brown espresso, the drink topped with an arabesque mark of white in a small sea of tan foam. I wasn't witnessing malaise, but the skillful, measured movements of a pro.

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That's merely what I can see—what I didn't know before talking to Ninth St.'s owner, Ken Nye, is everything leading up to that. The $15,000 hand-built La Marzocco machine my drink was crafted with is the only one of its kind in the U.S., an "almost prototypish" model that stuffs the state-of-the-art in espresso-making technology into a retro body style that evokes fine Italian machinery as much as it does coffeeshop centerpiece (photos above). The heart of the machine is an electronic PID-controlled triple boiler system. Typical commercial machines have two boilers—one for the coffee, one for the steamer—but Ken's machine has separate boilers for each group head (where the coffee comes out), each of which can adjusted to within a tenth of a degree.

Ken says that kind of temperature control really matters. He and others avow that taste begins to change within half a degree—as coffee gets hotter, it tends to be more bitter, while cooler coffee can be more sour. (How important is temperature to coffee? Ken keeps his shops at exactly 73 degrees year round—for the beans, not the customers.)

Older machines just couldn't get that kind of precision. They had a typical variation of a few degrees either way—which is why Ken retired his 1970s machine, which it sits, gorgeous as a classic car, in the back of the shop. The new machine is a glimpse of what other top-of-the-line espresso machines will perform like a year from now, says Jacob Ellul-Blake from La Marzocco R&D—though they'll have even more sophisticated, programmable controls for pressure, too, giving a barista exacting digital power over nearly every parameter of the coffee.

How those parameters are changed is where engineering meets art—it's entirely based on taste. Artisan coffee-making may be at last trodding toward digital control en masse, making the production of a cup of coffee approximate voodoo-inflected mad science. Ninth St.'s relatively new $3000 Mazzer burr grinder is also electronically controlled, its older grinder relegated to pulverizing beans for decaf, while water filters run amok throughout the shop to ensure a mineral level of 100-150 PPM/TDS, lest the water be "lifeless" or too hard, and damaging to the equipment—but the very analog rituals of tasting, like cupping, prevail. After all, there's only two elements in coffee: Coffee and water.

And despite all of the gear, what this bleeding edge of the coffee industry is attempting to imitate is the old-school wine industry. To see that, I had to step back a level, from coffeehouse to roaster, so Ken directed me to the current supplier of his beans, Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee.

Intelligentsia's New York training lab, run by David Latourell (formerly of the Clover's progenitor, the Coffee Equipment Company), is a large white space divided into two rooms. Two-thirds of the space is the lab, with two long steel tables pressed back against the wall, cluttered by nearly $50,000 worth of gear for making coffee: Chemex to vacuum pot, caffe solo to Clover. The other third of the space is a dedicated cupping room with a hydraulic table cut into a stage. Intelligentsia is one of the three big roasters, along with Portland-based Stumptown (who just opened a NY roastery) and North Carolina-based Counter Culture, currently spearheading the so-called third wave of coffee, the second wave being, in a nutshell, Starbucks.

The two big messages of the third wave, if you buy into it as a movement, are sustainability and coffee as a "culinary experience."

By sustainability, that means environmentally accountable and fiscally beneficial to the farmers who grow the beans, long screwed over by Big Coffee. But the sourcing goes beyond just quality and fairness: These people are bringing wine's notion of terroir into coffee—tasting precisely where coffee is from, not just down to the single-origin farm level, but down to blocks of a farm's land. (By the way, David says that Starbucks' sourcing practices are exceptionally solid, so no ill should be spoken of them in that regard.)

The incredibly nerdy and exacting methods developed lately for brewing coffee aren't about convenience, like the drip pot. They're designed to express and articulate the particular qualities and complexities inherent to a coffee, to make it possible to not simply taste coffee like wine, but to talk about it in a similar manner—"gilded by an orange and lime citrus acidity, the center of Itzamna radiates flavors of fruit punch and caramel"—and ascribing those qualities to a particular origin.

The feedback loop of the relationships with farmers that these roasters have been building for years now, David says, doesn't just mean that coffee is more responsibly harvested, but that coffee is actually better now, and there are coffees that were never possible before, since farmers have been refining their practice to grow coffee that suits the tastes of roasters who will pay more for particular beans.

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David is actually un-elitist as they come, despite being at the center of a movement that smacks of cultural and culinary elistism. For him, all the gear, all of the mechanical extravagance and precision, is all about taste and getting the flavor profile you want out of coffee. He refuses to judge even those who drink Folgers and like it (he just wishes they'd buy coffee from somewhere that practiced more ethical bean sourcing). But I mean, how much can you really taste the difference between various coffees, or hell, one coffee prepared different ways? To find out, David made us several cups of coffee, prepared using the Clover, Chemex and CafeSolo.

Clover is particular suited to experimentation, since nearly variable can be manipulated digitally and the process is easily repeatable, potentially turning every cup into a science project. The Chemex delivers the cleanest profile of any brew method, plainly exposing the bean's flavor profile—there's no muddling to hide it, like with a French press—and the Cafe Solo is kind of like a reverse French press, offering something a bit heavier and richer. (We explained most of the major ways to make coffee earlier with Ken and David's help, if you're curious.) We tried Intelligentsia's La Soledad, from Guatemala, Flor Azul from Nicaragua, and La Maravilla, also from Guatemala.

Here's where I'm coming from, going into this: I can tell the difference good coffee and shitty coffee. The latter, well, tastes like shit. The former, I can drink black and like, tasting something more simply coffee, but that I can't define. In other words, the flowery descriptions adorning bags of coffee from most specialty houses haven't actually played out like that on my tongue. It's a rudimentary sophistication.

After an introductory cup of the Flor Azul, we try the La Soledad in the Clover with a 30 second brew time. It's pleasant and fairly light. There's a defining acidity to it, but it's not bitter in any way. David adjusts the steep time to 60 seconds. The resulting cup is mellower, and loses a lot of its punch. He makes a third cup, this time upping the dose: Perfection. A happy medium of the first two, what people mean when they say a coffee is "juicy" suddenly makes sense to me. I can't tell you if it was "pear" or "apple," but the subtle bite of a tart fruit is there, then it dissolves into something smoother, almost "herbacious," as David called it. Well, he also said it tasted very "green," since for him, coffee has strong color connotations. This would prove to be our favorite cup.

Next, we go to the Chemex. The coffee is thinner than what came out of the Clover, and the taste has a lot more acidity to it. And, I can't believe I'm saying this, but I picked up a weird cinammon note that became a lot more pronounced than it was with the Clover. What. The. Fuck. Am I really starting to taste like the obsessives I've been talking to? The cup that came out of the Cafe Solo is initially a disappointment that seemed overextracted, though letting it cool longer made it better, rounding it out to something more balanced, though ultimately kind of forgettable (I know, because I forgot what it tasted like and apparently didn't deem it worthy of taking notes on).

Beyond David's advice to junk my albeit fancy drip coffeemaker for a French press or Chemex pot, I kind of wondered how much I learned would stick with me: I mean, I actually did taste a real difference between all of the coffees we drank, but I got to compare them one after another. I got a machiatto from Ninth St. on my way home the next day, and there it was: Juiciness. I remembered it. I understood it. It was still there. Not merely "this doesn't taste thin and burnt and shitty" like a machiatto does from all but a handful of coffeehouses in New York, but layered on top the subtle sweetness of the milk and velvet mouthfeel is a tartness I can actually identify as "juicy." Fuck, it might just be peach.

I guess there is no going back.

Taste Test is our weeklong tribute to the leaps that occur when technology meets cuisine, spanning everything from the historic breakthroughs that made food tastier and safer to the Earl-Grey-friendly replicators we impatiently await in the future.