1/27/09

My Stimulus Plan? Coffee.

Sometimes I feel like Special Agent Dale Cooper, not because I have backwards-talking dreams or special powers of prognostication, but because my love of coffee is deep and abiding.



Coffee, I feel, is truly one of the most amazing gifts that the universe has given to us, ranking with life, fire, sex and the rising and the setting of the sun. Now we know it's good for you, too.

The New York Times reports that drinking coffee is linked to mental health later in life, lowering the risk of dementia (Hat tip: James Fallows).

Coffee has already been linked to a lower risk of suicide and a short-term increase in intelligence--as Fallows once noted , "Albert Einstein, or someone similar, once defined a mathematician as a device for converting coffee into formulas"--so, either the coffee industry has a better PR machine than Dairy (responsible for all of those illustrated charts that lived in elementary schools when I was growing up propagating the absurd notion that dairy was, nutritionally speaking, on an equal footing with protein, cereal and "fruits&vegetables") or it really is the greatest stuff on Earth. I vote for the latter.

***

Now, I've been looking for an excuse to write about a particularly powerful coffee experience I had recently. I was purchasing some foam board at an art supply store near USC, when the owner enthusiastically informed me that the best cup of coffee I would ever have in the whole world--"and that includes Italy and France!"--was just around the corner. I was already intrigued by his enthusiasm, but then--voice lowered, eyebrows raised--he said, "He has a Clover."

This name was familiar to me. In December of 2007, The Atlantic had a story on the changing coffee culture. There was a return to lighter roasts underway. Part of this shift was a new emphasis on single origin--as opposed to blended--coffees. People were starting to talk about coffee with the same language and attention they used to reserve for cabarnets and single malts.

But those other passions are, for the most part, unmediated by technology. They require no machine to come into being. Coffee is different. The cowboy method produces a product vastly different from a french press. Even electric coffee pots come in all shapes, sizes and price ranges: the Clover is the shapeliest and priciest of all. From Corby Kummer's article in The Atlantic:
The Clover hit the coffee world with the force of a sexy stranger new in town. The stir was understandable. No coffee machine looks quite like it. The action is not in the front but on top, where customers can see it. And it is hypnotic. The barista grinds coffee for each cup and strews the measured grounds into a well with shiny silver walls and a fine-mesh screen at the bottom. A fixed faucet pours hot water over the grounds, and the server stirs the mixture using a flat plastic whisk (baristas swap secret Clover stirring techniques on Web sites). The coffee steeps, gurgling slightly, for 40 to 70 seconds. Without warning, the screen rises to the top of the machine. The brewed liquid is magically sucked beneath, leaving just the grounds at the top, which the barista rakes off with a silver-handled squeegee.
Now, I hesitate to mention this bit about the Clover. After I had the coffee experience I am about to describe, I did a little research on the coffee shop (there is apparently a vast internet culture devoted to finding, promoting--and dissing--the best cups of coffee in Los Angeles) and I discovered that the owner was actually a little shy about his wunder-machine. For him, you see, it's all about the beans. The machine is just a means to an end. As well it should be. The end, of course, is an incredible cup of coffee.

So I walked around the corner from Roark's, the art store, and went into Cafe Corsa. It's an unassuming place, set in a strip mall. Neither thick with scensters, hipsters nor any other -sters, there's not a pork pie hat to be found in the place. I asked for a cup of coffee. Jars of beans were proferred for me to smell. Various regions of Guatemala were described. Words I had only heard used in association with fine wine or great jazz poured from the owner/operator. The words were informative, not snobbish or intimidating. I got the feeling his goal was accuracy, not superfluous connoisseurship.

The beans went in. The coffee came out. I sipped. It was good--good enough to skip the cream I usually add--but when something has been billed as "the best cup of coffee you will ever have," it is hard not let your expectations overtake your taste-buds. I thought that maybe, in this area, I just didn't have the refined sensibility to distinguish good from great. So I sat down to drink the rest of my coffee.

Now I remember hearing somewhere that, unlike dark roasts, lighter roasts open up a little as they cool (they are brewed at exceptionally high temperatures). The bold, broad flavors of dark roasts are best served hot; even a good cup of dark-roasted coffee can start to taste bitter as it cools. Lighter roasts, however, develop as they cool down. Just as the flavors of a red wine augment as it breathes, so this cup of coffee began to blossom.

Soon I was in a world of shape; the coffee had volume. I don't have the lingo that aficionados have, but I could definitely taste words like "bright" and "lemony," what Kummer calls the "fruity, singing 'acidity' that in coffee terminology is a prized sign of beans raised at high altitudes and carefully picked and processed."

The only thing I can think to compare it to is scotch. If you have a drink of Johnny Walker Red Label, you may say, "Hey, that's good;" Black Label, "That's damn good;" but then, if you have a sip of Glenmorangie, you are suddenly not thinking of a single taste, either good or damn good, but of a delicate, carefully crafted experience that unfolds over time. At the end of a sip, you are somewhere different than where you were at the beginning; it has movements. You don't just taste the vanilla and the orange, you pass through them. In this way, good whisky is like music. So too is the coffee at Cafe Corsa.



The best part? My coffee was just $2.50.

Cafe Corsa is located at 2238 South Figueroa, Los Angeles, California 90007. (213) 746-2604

1 comment:

M. Lieberman said...

You'll be happy to know that a coffee place opened in Binghamton that is world-class, jaw-droppingly good. Roasted in house, beans fairly traded and shade grown, and admittedly a bit bourgie. I'll have to try this Cafe Corsa, however.