Call me coffee challenged
By Rachel Tepper,
I’m a fairly picky eater. That said, I’ve been willing on more than one occasion to dine on something still quivering. But I do have gastronomic hangups that, try as I might, have proved insurmountable. Among them, it’s my dislike of coffee that elicits the most severe reactions.
I’m a firm believer that if a person can articulate a particular repugnance in full sentences, she should be spared ridicule. But that’s hardly been my experience; shock quickly turns to pity, which nearly always results in a patronizing discussion about how, at 25, I’ve just not found the right cup. For many, not liking coffee isn’t a preference. It’s a condition.
They’re not entirely wrong. Drinking coffee is often a mark of entrance into adulthood. As a child I guessed at this, often requesting samples of my parents’ morning cups with clear anticipation. So bitter! So burnt! But no matter, I thought. I’ll grow into it.
Why would a person not hooked on a highly addictive substance try to get herself hooked? True, I’d be opening the door to stained teeth, coffee breath and chemical dependency. But I’d also be saying hello to boosted energy levels, a more regulated digestive system and, according to some studies, a reduced chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia in my old age. Plus, I wouldn’t get sideways looks so often, or feel like the odd woman out.
According to the National Coffee Association, 58 percent of the 2,663 adult Americans in its annual survey drank at least one cup of joe every day in 2011, and 68 percent of them drank at least one cup per week. In my age range, 25 to 39, the numbers are nearly identical: 66 percent drink a cup at least once a week and 54 percent drink it daily.
I don’t want to dislike coffee. I regularly steal sips from friends’ cups just to make sure my taste buds haven’t miraculously mutated overnight. If anyone could somehow convince me, I figured I’d be up for the challenge.
Dennis Marron took me up on it.
He’s the new chef at Poste Moderne Brasserie in Penn Quarter and a profound coffee lover who began drinking the stuff in high school, more than 20 years ago. His profession has only inflamed the casual habit. “I have anywhere from five to 12 cups a day,” he says. “It’s probably too much. It’s like a cup an hour at work.”
To have really good-quality coffee that’s roasted properly and handled with care, Marron preached, is how you get to “really like coffee.”
I was skeptical. But at this point, what did I have to lose?
When I met Marron at Poste on a cold afternoon in January, he marched me right past a Starbucks to Chinatown Coffee Co. “You should get to learn what real coffee tastes like first,” he told me.
The tiny brick-walled spot on H Street NW is known for its dedication to hand-poured coffees and its carefully curated selection of beans. There, general manager Josh Croston overheard us. He, too, wanted to help convert me. He had been successful before, having turned his tea-drinking girlfriend on to Geisha coffee beans from Panama.
Things started off in a disappointingly familiar way. I’d just been drinking the wrong coffee, Croston said. But he didn’t leave the statement unqualified.
“In terms of brewing coffee . . . a lot of times I relate it more to steak,” he explained — a metaphor I could appreciate. “Roasting a coffee really dark is like getting a well-done steak. You just taste that it’s well done. But if you get something rare, it’s going to taste very different from something that’s medium, where you’re getting some of the nice mix.”
Most of Chinatown Coffee Co.’s roasts are somewhere between rare and medium, unlike those of Starbucks and some other beans, which are roasted much darker (a fact well known among coffee snobs). Lighter roasts make it easier to appreciate the subtleties of a particular brew.
Croston selected a few coffees for me to try, prepared in a variety of ways. First up, a Guatemalan number from Heart Coffee Roasters retrieved from a large Fetco brand drip brewer behind the counter.
I didn’t hate it, which Marron and Croston counted as a moderate success. Still a bit too bitter for me, I declared. But although the taste was tangy, with a bite of acidity, through it I could detect hints of stone fruit and toffee. It lacked the outright acridness that would have forced me to call off this experiment once and for all.
Next, the same beans were prepared in a Chemex, a glass device that looks like a beaker pilfered from a 10th-grade chemistry class. With this method, the beans are ground and placed in a paper filter that fits inside its upper portion. Water is poured through it by hand, resulting in a single serving of coffee. It’s fresher than anything out of a drip machine, which is brewed for multiple cups and often sits for long stretches of time.
The difference was striking. The coffee had a stronger aroma, and the toffee and stone fruit were noticeable through the tastes I didn’t like.
Why was this cup so much better than the last? Most of what a person tastes is actually smell, Marron explained.
“It’s like when you taste wine,” he said. “You taste the wine, and then you should breathe out through your nose. And then you get the rest of the flavor.”
Croston agreed. Even the highest-quality beans will lose much of their aroma in the insulated cavity of a drip brewing machine. “If you were to have a really dark roast or something that’s just a lower-quality coffee, all the pleasant things about it . . . that’ll all evaporate off, and all you’ll have left is that really bitter sort of smoky bitterness.”
In the Chemex, he continued to prepare the grounds of another bean: an Ethiopian variety from Intelligentsia Coffee, which supplies the vast majority of Chinatown Coffee Co.’s beans. Instead of the paper filter he had used with the Guatemalan beans, this time he used a metal, laser-etched cone.
Again, a marked improvement in taste from the previous cup. Although the beans weren’t roasted significantly differently, these tasted much sweeter, like Concord grape. The brew was lighter as well; it could have passed for black tea. There was hardly any of the bitter aftertaste I dread. I could actually drink this, I thought. Voluntarily!
The bean was sweeter, but Croston said another factor was the metal filter, which allows more particles to pass through than its paper equivalent, which means more oils wind up in the coffee. “Fat carries flavor,” Marron chimed in. “That’s why higher-fat-content food taste better. Steamed vegetables don’t taste as good as vegetables with butter.”
Excited by the headway they were making, Marron and Croston decided it was time to take things to the next level: espresso.
I was nervous. Espresso is an infinitely more intense version of coffee, created by forcing a small amount of nearly boiling water through finely ground coffee beans. It has a more in-your-face flavor, and I worried it would set back my progress. Still, my recent experiences buoyed my confidence.
Croston served me a cortado, a chocolaty-looking espresso drink with delicate swirls of steamed milk draping the foamy surface. The milk, he told me, would reduce the acidity. It looked downright adorable. But a small sip quickly shattered any delusion that I’d been wrong about coffee. This was outrageously bitter, practically undrinkable. Croston and Marron, surprised that I couldn’t detect any of the cortado’s subtle sweetness, each took sips to make sure I hadn’t gotten a bad batch.
The chef’s resolve was unswayed. Next stop: Pitango Gelato on Seventh Street NW, where we were joined by Samantha Brown, the shop’s area training manager. Together she and Marron selected a cup of mocha for me to try.
Pitango’s version is a concoction of espresso mixed with a velvety drinking chocolate, which reminded me of the rich, semisweet hot chocolate that often accompanies fried churros in Spain. Despite an initial hesitation, I was surprised to find it drinkable, even enjoyable, although it wasn’t sweet as I had expected.
“A really good mocha doesn’t taste like chocolate or coffee,” said Marron. Much like an Americano cuts the taste of espresso with water, the sugared hot chocolate in the mocha balances out the coffee beans’ intense bitterness.
Brown had another suggestion to help me get past undesirable undertones: a caffe macchiato, which literally means “espresso stained with milk.” For me, she suggested adding half an ounce of honey per ounce of espresso. Where the cortado at Chinatown Coffee Co. was brash, this macchiato was restrained. The honey, far from cloying, helped me get past the initial punch that made the cortado so inaccessible. I nearly finished the cup.
Now that I understood not all coffee is created equal, Marron wanted to show me its range. At Poste that evening, he would prepare for me a multicourse meal fit for an episode of “Iron Chef.”
Marron started with marinated prawns sauteed in a house-made coffee- and vanilla-infused oil. He paired them with a vanilla parsnip puree, garlicky kale and an airy swath of vanilla froth. The coffee was subtle, yet perceptible in the slight tang against the sweetness of the components. Like the chocolate in the mocha and the honey in the macchiato, here the coffee played a balancing act, rounding out what could have tipped too much toward sweet.
The chef next presented his take on coq au vin glazed with red wine and coffee. Again, the coffee whispered more than it roared, tempering what could have been a savory dish with overly sweet tones. Marron explained that by adding coffee to the mix, “you don’t get that sugared sweetness associated with glazes.”
His last offering was a knockout: a rib-eye steak crusted with a mixture of ground Colombian coffee beans and black peppercorns, accompanied by hen of the woods mushrooms. Marron had deglazed the pan with Kahlua and added a red-wine reduction, a veal demi-glace and espresso; this sauce was drizzled around the plate.
If I had been waiting for a dish that screamed coffee, this was it. It truly brought Croston’s steak metaphor full-circle: the fatty marbling of the steak enhanced the coffee’s better qualities, and the sweetness of the sauce overrode any bitterness.
To round out the meal, Poste’s lead bartender, Jason Wiles, brought me a warm glass filled with a blend of amaro liqueur, amaretto, Grand Marnier, chocolate bitters and a splash of coffee. Two coffee beans floated daintily on the surface. (He has since concocted a chilled version, now being served at Poste.)
It was sensational. The perfect way to end a meal that smacked of coffee but didn’t hit me over the head with it. When Marron came by, he grinned as if he had won something. “Cooking is all about balance,” he replied.
That night, I had trouble sleeping. It could have been my mind racing with the thought of a coffee-filled future. But it was probably just the three-plus cups’ worth of caffeine pulsing through my system. Drinking coffee may never become routine for me, but the small journey opened my eyes to its possibilities.
I am content with my newfound status as a middle-of-the-road coffee person. I prefer mild roasts. I prefer mild flavors. But with coffee, sometimes it’s all about striking an even balance.
Tepper, an assistant editor at Huffington Post D.C., will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.