"You're the cream in my coffee . . ." Used By permission of Chappell & Co. Inc.
The hard core take it black and basic, swilling Brazilian, Colombian or Jamaican, thick and a little harsh. None of the chocolate, almond or cinnamon sissy stuff for them. Beyond liking the taste, they admit to a certain need. The blood vessels and nervous system aren't cranked up to full tilt without it.
Coffee. The buzz that's reached gourmet status. As first advertised in 1652, coffee "quickens the spirit and makes the heart lightsome . . . is good against sore eyes, excellent to prevent and cure the dropsy, gout and scurvy . . . neither laxative nor restringent."
No one's ever died from an overdose -- give or take a few laboratory animals -- though coffee's come under attack for causing excessive gastric and cardiac activity, nervousness and worse.
At best, it's rich-smelling, smoothtasting, strong though not bitter potion.
The world's most popular beverage has roots tracing back to Ethiopia (Abyssinia, to the klatchers). Long valued for social, religious and medical reasons; brewed in European coffeehouses since the 16th century. Definitely a kick.
Wedged between greasy spoons at 1013 E Street, is Washington's quaint keeper of coffee lore, SWING'S. Passed to the third generation of owners, they sell "thousands of pounds a week" and are the city's only remaining on-premises roasters.
Walk into the narrow shop, and let the aroma woo you first. Then fall for the old wood and mirrors, the ladies behind the counter shoveling beans from huge red bins and onto the scales, and finally, the prices. The most expensive bean is Hawaiian Kona, a reasonable $5.40 a pound. Choose from a dozen varieties, most $3.85 to $4.60 per pound. (After 25 years on the measuring and weighing job, Ethel Powell favors Swing's French Breadfast coffee).
Fully 60 percent of Swing's business is wholesale; some restaurants buy 50 to 60 pounds of beans weekly. Larimer's and Chevy Chase Market are customers. One of Swing's oldest accounts is O'Donnell's, loyal to the house blend, Mesco (M.E. Swing Co.). since 1940, Hammels West in Georgetown uses Swing's Mocha Java and Guatemalan blend. The Yugoslavian embassy gets a special blend of Colombian, French Breakfast and Ethiopian. Hungary's diplomats order a blend of French Breakfast, Ethiopian and Colombian. Egypt's ambassador drinks Swing's French breakfast.
An even bigger firm, 75-year-old Wilkins Coffee of Landover distributes a whopping 50,000 pounds of coffee a week. Some of it, mainly Brazilian beans, goes to the executive offices of the President. Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head. Found my way downstairs and drank a cup . . . -- Lennon/McCartney. (c) 1967, Northern Songs Ltd. Used by permission of Maclen Music, Inc. All rights reserved.
Hot news on the coffee beat: decaffeinated has arrived in a big way.
Michele Mackulics, owner of the CONNECTICUT COFFEE CONNECTION, finds more and more people are drinking decaf for health and fitness reasons. Although her decaffeinated French Roast is the top seller ($5.99 a pound), her personal favorite is the decaf Breakfast blend, to which she gives a modest rave: "I find no funny taste to it or anything." YES Food Shop, mecca for natural food eaters, has a dozen decaf varieties, all pure water processed and devoid of nasty chemicals. The service is natural, too: Shovel, grind, package and label your own.
According to Cecelia Bradshaw, owner of the DAILY GRIND at 1613 Connecticut Avenue NW, the decaffeinated coffees sell out ahead of regular speed-freaky beans. She holds herself to four cups a day, mostly decaf. A sampling of her Decaf Chocolate Almond (at $5.69 a pound), one of the six she carries, turns up a sweet, flavorful coffee but one not as fullbodied as a connoisseur requires.
In fact, purists are appalled at the clamor for decaf. "Once you mess around with the natural product you lose the character," says Everett Matthews, managaer of Swing's. "No instant coffees can compare to fresh brewed, and it's the same for decaffeinated."
Swing's stock only one kind of decaf, preferring Colombian to the rest of the lot. "Sometimes a Bogota might cup-out better than an Armenian or a Medellin excelso," he says, "but they're all varieties of Colombian."
Coffee producers have managed to keep the decaffeination process semisecret.
It's a water-steaming method -- some processors soak the steamed coffee in a chemical solvent, (often methylene chloride, under investigation by the National Cancer Institute); others avoid chemicals entirely. Either way, it's done when the beans are in green form (preroasting) and ultimately leaves the liquid 97% or 98% caffeine-free. Swing's decaffeinated bean is processed in Switzerland, shipped back and sold for $4.75 per pound.
The Connecticut Coffee Connection is a veritable Swing's Uptown, turning over 450 pounds of coffee a week. Mackulics carries six of Swing's varieties, including the house blend, in addition to five decaffeinated types. number-one selling French Roast, and a unique blend of Amaretto and almonds (6.49 a pound). Her genuine Jamaican Mountain at $7.99 a pound -- is "not to be confused with Jamaican-style coffee sold elsewhere," she observes dryly. Coffee defies all known chemical tests for evaluation of quality and can be evaluated only by the senses of taste and smell. -- Encyclopedia Britannica.
Experts don't pretend to label any single bean as best. But world-wide consensus is, the higher the altitude where it's grown, the milder the product. c
In any case, analyses that follow are open to outraged attack.
Brewed in Melitta, Melior and espresso makers, all samples were sipped black. Emerging as Most Serious: Jamaican French roast from GEORGETOWN TEA & Spice (for special occasions at $7.99 a pound), not a great espresso but a thick, strong cup of coffee; Daily Grind's espresso, ($4.69 a pound), strong but not brutal; authentic Jamaican Mountain from Connecticut Coffee Connection, ($7.99 a pound); and Ethiopian from GEORGETOWN WINE & CHEESE, ($4.29 a pound) with a slightly bitter edge that sent all but the most macho scrambling for milk.
Weaklings were LARIMER'S Espresso ($4.69 a pound); Jamaican-style from THE PERFECT CUP at White Flint, ($5.50 a pound), and a pricy but not very special Plantation Kenya AA ($6.49 a pound) from Connecticut Coffee Connection. The Perfect Cup boasts a wide selection, including 10 decafs, and an adjoining cafe with daily coffee specials for taste-testing.
Nice gimmicks but you wouldn't want to buy a whole pound: Daily Grind's Cafe Orange (smells great brewing but doesn't taste like much); Georgetown Tea & Spice's Alpine Mist (would you suck a wintergreen lifesaver while drinking a perfectly good cup of Brazilian?), their Amaretto (a better bet would be a decent cup of coffee and a snifter of the liqueur), and their Decaf. Cinnamon Vienna (not too strong, not too sweet, almost best when aspirated). Decaffeinated Swiss Chocolate Almond from the Georgetown MARKETHOUSE is very good for decaf, one of four decaffeinated coffees there. (Owner Anna Baldeon says her Colombian Supremo Sumatra compares to Jamacican Blue Mountain, a tiny crop that's notoriously hard to find.) Sweetest and richest of those decafs-sampled at YES is the Chocolate Macaroon; it smell fattening.
Some rubes doctor the drink practically beyond recognition, polluting their mugs with powdered cream-substitutes, packets of sugar or artificial sweetness, and ending up with a muddy, watered-down cocoa. The hasty settle for instant cups, intimidated by Margaret Hamilton and Danny Thomas. Others, a half-step toward civility, buy grounds by the can, looking for "heavenly coffee," "good to the last drop." Still others desert the real thing in favor of decaffeinated, under the glare of Robert Young.
Trust a pro. Swing's manager sniffs at the range of trendy java flavors cropping up in every wine and cheese and gourmet pit stop.
"We don't add any flavors because we don't want foreign aromas in our coffee mills. If a person wants to add vanilla or chocolate flavoring or cinnamon, we sell it on the side." In fact, they offer a range of Wagner extracts and spices.
Will the hot-shot flavoring trend pass? "I'm afraid they're here to stay," Matthews observes, filtering his disdain I had some dreams they were clouds in my coffee . . . -- Carly Simon. (c) 1972, 1973, Quackenbush Music, Ltd. Used by permission.