August 27, 2009
Coffee continued

I recently wrote a story about the rise of independent coffee shops in the Sacramento area. At the same time, of course, Starbucks is in a bit of trouble, scrambling to recapture an identity frittered away by over-expansion, watered down employee training and the use of automated machines that runs counter to the company's founding principles.

One clear distinction between many newer independent shops and established chains such as Starbucks and Peet's is the way the green beans are roasted. Many newer shops, known in the industry as Third Wave businesses, favor a lighter roast that highlights a wider spectrum of flavors. Darker roasts, they say, limit the flavor profile and the taste can be bitter. Some lighter roasts can have too much acidity. In the hands of a skilled roaster, everything comes together to produce a coffee that is balanced and full of great flavor.

The problem: when I was reporting this story, most of the people I spoke with who say they love coffee told me they like dark roast. One independent shop owner told me people who say they like dark roast don't really know much about coffee. I think that is going too far. As someone who has spent years -- and plenty of money -- pursuing the perfect cup of coffee, I have concluded that I like my coffee a variety of ways. Some of the light roasts can be overwhelming -- too fruity and floral, too much going on. Some of the dark roasts, especially French roast, have always been too bitter for me.

Now comes the moment of truth: A coffee collective made up of several of the area's best shops (among them Chocolate Fish, Old Soul, and Bloom) will hold another in a series of "Second Saturday" cuppings. The idea has been to come together, compare notes, do some tastings and leave with a better understanding of coffee.

Cuppings? That used to be limited to industry insiders and wholesale coffee buyers. It's a way to get the truest sense of a coffee. The beans are ground and spooned into cups laid out on a table. Hot water is poured over the grounds and allowed to steep. The coffee is then tasted with a preheated spoon. Some people slurp to get aspirate the coffee and get a better sense of the flavors. The Elia brothers who own Bloom Coffee & Tea recently showed me a very cool high-pitched whistling slurp that I have yet to master.

The next cupping is Sept. 12 and it will focus on the very issue I raised above -- light roast versus dark. I just received this email from Edie Baker of Chocolate Fish:

"I've talked with two roasters who are excited about this and have lots of ideas on how to best compare. We may compare one bean roasted 2-3 ways and then compare other dark roasts on the market with some of our medium roasts."

The event is open to the public. It will be from 2-4 p.m. at Chocolate Fish, which is at 3rd and Q streets downtown. It's one of the very best shops in the area. Edie and her husband Andy have plenty of knowledge to share with coffee lovers. This collective idea is also a good thing. Already, we are getting a reputation as a great coffee town.

I encourage anyone interested in coffee to attend the event. The more we know, the better we become as consumers. Better consumers demand more and more from coffee shops. Great shops will meet that demand with great product.

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