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Something's Brewing in Office Coffee

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By Michaele Weissman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Doug Cohen's boss at the University of Maryland's Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics calls him "our ayatollah of coffee." Spend time with the talkative Cohen in the College Park break room, where he rules over $28-a-pound coffee beans and an $800 commercial coffee maker, and you realize his boss does not exaggerate.

"I think I have frightened a few people," says Cohen, a senior engineering technician and founder of the office coffee club, referring to his hard-nosed habit of chucking unlabeled packages from the break room refrigerator and freezer because "you can't store the world's finest coffee beans in a filthy environment."

Cohen's determination to avoid what he calls "old-fashioned office swill" is no anomaly.

Throughout the region, more workers are drinking upscale coffee in the workplace. In public-sector offices -- government rarely provides free coffee -- brew lovers are forming coffee clubs. In the private sector -- most notably at companies specializing in biotechnology, high tech and finance -- many employers now subsidize the better stuff.

On-the-job coffee consumers often exhibit a convert's zeal for their favorite beverage. At the university, Cohen's 20-minute morning coffee ritual mixes engineering's precision with near religious devotion. Arriving at the break room at 7 a.m., he filters the water, preheats all the equipment, rewashes the coffeepots that were washed the night before -- "overnight, dust falls," he explains -- and puts the beans in the microwave for a few seconds to release their flavor, a coffee-brewing innovation to which he proudly lays claim. Then he grinds the beans very fine, brews the club's coffee in an electric pot and pours it into an airtight carafe.

Each club member donates a pound of high-end beans each month. Cohen's contribution is usually 100 percent, private reserve Kona grown on Lehuula Farms in Kealakekua, Hawaii, and airfreighted to him the day after it is roasted. "When you open the sealed container," Cohen says with a sigh, "it smells sooo good."

After he brews the high-quality beans, Cohen, a man of generous, if bossy, impulses, uses the same equipment to make coffee for the non-elite drinkers in the office, who pay 25 cents a cup to imbibe pre-ground Costco brew. Mostly, the coffee aristocrats and the groundlings get along fine, though occasionally, Cohen says, an infuriating co-worker will sneak a bit of java from the upscale carafe. "People are lazy," he says. They will poach, instead of making a new pot.

So who are these on-the-job coffee fanatics?

In general, they are younger rather than older coffee drinkers. "Many older people who grew up on commercially canned coffee find this new, high-end stuff too strong," says Vincent Iatesta, owner and roastmaster of Caffé Pronto Coffee Roastery in Annapolis. "Younger workers are the early adopters" in the growing market for high-end coffee, he says. "Starbucks created the demand. They opened the door for coffee lovers and for high-end roasters like me. For that, I applaud them."

To take advantage of the growing demand, Caffe Pronto sells freshly roasted coffee beans wholesale to office clubs. One of his customers, Gary Shenk, works for the Chesapeake Bay Program of the Environmental Protection Agency. Each week, he buys beans for three office clubs with 70 members.

Just buying good beans doesn't guarantee a full-bodied, sweet -- as opposed to acidic -- mugful. Brewing technique counts. "There's a lot of scientific evidence showing if you use too little coffee, you will over-extract the beans and get more of what coffee roasters call sours," Iatesta says. The right brewing method, he adds, requires cleanliness, filtered water and a pot that controls for the three Ts -- time, temperature and turbulence.

Equipment that can meet these brewing requirements is starting to show up in offices.

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