One of funnest aspects of being a food and drink blogger is all the doors that have opened and the people I am able to connect with, and all the wonderful conversation we can carry on and the things we can learn from each other. Case in point, my brunch and discussion last week with Michaele (pronounced "Michael") Weissman, author of "God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee," a wonderful book about specialty coffee owners (think Intelligensia, LA Mill, etc.) and their quest to find that flawless brew -- whether it means traveling to isolated villages in Africa and Central America to negotiate with directly with farmers, holding cupping ceremonies for hours at a stretch to evaluate 60+ samples for the best brew and, of course, getting the best equipment (yes, the Clover machine was mentioned) to extract the purest flavors.
Being a daily caffeine addict and an enthusiast of good coffee in general, it was great to talk to Michaele about coffee culture, trends she has seen and coffee-related travels she's experienced (her drinkventures make mine look paler than an espresso-free latte). And of course, I am thankful to her and her publicist (a similarly named Michael Weisberg -- yes, I was confuzzled a bit in my correspondence) for generously providing me with a copy of the book (a gift I will pass along, see end of post). Here's some of the highlights of our discussion:
Given the focus of my blog, we started off talking about local coffee culture, to which she replied that, "I think L.A.'s coffee culture is fascinating, like the cuisine, it's always putting on new hats, happily explorative and very image-oriented," noting how that's reflected not only in the drinks themselves but the design and aesthetics of the coffee houses and even in how the employees and regulars project themselves (I particularly loved the skinny, androgynous hipster image that she painted of the typical indie Angeleno barista and clientele). She also loved Los Angeles' low-rise retail scene, and independent coffee shops fit beautifully into the boutique, boho-chic atmosphere in neighborhoods such as Venice and Silver Lake, where the populace is sophisticated with their tastebuds but casual with their vibe.
What specialty coffee purveyors are looking for: "There's over 60 countries circling the equator that coffee can grow in, so that are many relatively unexplored regions that can yield really wonderful coffee such as Peru, Rwanda and Burundi and even Indonesia" And Michaele notes that while the coffee buyers are definitely keeping an eye out for the next Hacienda la Esmeralda, they are mostly looking for farms that consistently produces high-quality beans to sell directly or incorporate into their blends.
Speaking of coffees like the Hacienda (which fetches $150 a pound, or $22 for a 16 oz. cup at the local Intelligentsia), what gives?: Michaele notes the high prices are due to a combination of factors, from the high quality of the beans (in cupping competitions/ceremonies it consistently holds an unheard of mid-90s out of a 100), the limited quantity produced due to size of the farms, a dash of good marketing, and ultimately -- supply and demand as specialty coffee buyers auction bid to snap up the best of the best.
What does she see in the future for coffee?: Michaele notes that with the current economy the specialty coffee sector will definitely be challenging, but hopes the three companies she profiled and followed in her book (Intelligentsia, Stumptown and Counter Culture) weathers it through. As for further down the line, she really hopes that the restaurant market picks up on the craft of serving fine coffees at restaurants as well. "Too often, coffee is an afterthought at eateries, and that's a pity." She's not necessarily advocating for coffee-paired menus or even a selection of brewed coffees, but that the coffees are least serve with the same care as other beverages. Just like one wouldn't let a wine sit out in the open air, one shouldn't have coffee continually burning and losing flavors in the auto-drip maker.
And for making good coffee at home, her advice rang loud and clear: "Get rid of that automatic coffee maker and invest in a good bean grinder instead!" noting that auto-drips usually don't get the water hot enough and that the burner plate, obviously, ruins the coffee flavors; with a cheapy manual coffee maker that costs as little as $6, you have much better control of the water temperature and the extraction process -- yielding a better cup. As for bean grinders, lower-quality ones tend to be inconsistent, making some grounds that are too coarse and fine that consequently gets under- and over-extracted and again, producing off-flavors in the final brew. Other tips are pretty obvious, such as using beans and especially grounds quickly and buying from a quality source. Finally, Michaele notes (and I agree) that one doesn't have to spend a lot for good coffee, specialty purveyors sell great-tasting blends and even single-origins at around $12-15 a pound, which is comparable to what the national chains are selling at.
And so, as we finished the last of our German apple pancakes and weisswurst at 3 Square Café (along with a cup of deep, smoky Meinl coffee from Austria), I asked her for a must-try coffee in L.A. After a few feeler questions to see what I like in food and drinks, she pointed me to try the Clover-brewed Esmeralda at L.A. Mill ~ so after dropping her at the airport, that's exactly what I did.
A little more learned and a lot more curious and aware of the nuances, I definitely enjoyed this $5 cup. Very smooth and citrusy, a little floral and almost tea-like in bouquet and a rounded body, and definitely none of that burnt, bitter, super-acid taste of the standard office (and even sub-par diner) coffees. A beautiful brew indeed.
"God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee" is out and available right now at all the major bookstores -- great for the coffee-lover in you or any that you know. To find out more about her coffee adventures, check out her God in a Cup of Coffee blog here.
And also, I also have one gently-read, signed copy to give away! If you are interested in receiving it, leave a comment and I'll draw a name / spin a carrot / roll a D&D die around noon Pacific Time Thursday, December 18.