High-Tech Taste Test
Tasting Maine's new speciality coffee roasters
Maine’s newer upper-echelon coffee shops have moved the art of brewing beyond Mr. Coffee and into the laboratory. Each made-to-order cup is thought out and measured to the smallest detail (no more heaping tablespoon estimations), from pre-heating the cup itself to moistening the grounds (get used to the phrase “Your coffee will be a couple of minutes”). Meanwhile, Speckled Ax has introduced such high-tech brewing methods as siphons (pictured right), which uses two glass chambers to create vapor pressure and a partial vacuum. However, before a roast is ready to brew, it must undergo a proper “cupping” — essentially the wine tasting of coffee. You take in its aroma, fragrance, and taste in four steps from its dry grounds to when it’s a hot, steeped cup of coffee, evaluating the roast (in judging silence) at every turn. It involves a lot of ungraceful slurping, spitting, and sniffing. But as anyone that’s been to a wine tasting knows, the experience is about sensory examination, not style.
Tandem Coffee Roasters holds public cuppings every Friday in Portland. We brought along four bags of coffee beans from examples of this new wave of Maine roasters focusing on the artistry and science of coffee. With us to provide tasting notes were the creator of Portland Food Map and coffee aficionado Anestes Fotiades as well as the 2010 Northeast Regional Cupping Competition champion and owner of Speckled Ax Matt Bolinder. Their notes, along with our own, are included below.
567 Congress St., Portland, 207-660-3333
Coffee roast: El Salvador Tres Limites from the Santa Ana region. It’s a naturally processed coffee, bourbon varietal, and comes from an altitude of 4,265 feet.
Price: $14 for a 12 oz. bag.
Tasting notes: “Strawberries,” “notes of chocolate,” “clearly very fruity,” with a “full body.” “A gateway roast to understanding good coffee,” “balanced acidity.”
Place profile: Matt Bolinder, owner of Matt’s Wood Roasted Coffee, opened Speckled Ax in Portland this past summer, in order to, as he says, “finally interact with the customers and be able to explain the processing methods.” His small shop has gained a reputation for its laboratory-like bar with a combination of high-tech brewing methods and expensive machinery (his espresso machine cost $18,000).
158 Middle St., Portland, 207-899-4788, bardcoffee.com
Coffee roast: Honey processed and sun-dried from the micro-lot “guapinal” in Naranjo, Costa Rica, by the farmer Eduardo Calvo. From rich, volcanic soil at 3,600 feet. Price: $16.50 for a 12 oz. bag.
Tasting notes: “Orangey,” “bergamot,” “subtle, and “becomes even sweeter as it cools.” “It’s a perfect morning coffee,” “nutty and pleasant,” and “very well balanced.”
Place profile: At Bard, co-owners Jeremy Pelkey and Bob Garver have visited every single farm that’s featured on the menu, and they provide the coffee’s backstory to any customer that asks. “With Bard we can use smaller farms, and can be more experimental,” Garver says. “Bard allows us to brew coffee exactly as we think it should be done.”
44 North Coffee
11 Church St., Deer Isle, 207-348-5208, 44northcoffee.com
Coffee roast: Sumatra single-origin coffee. It comes from Bener Meriah of the Aceh Province in Indonesia and is grown at an altitude between 3,280 and 4,920 feet. It’s the darkest roast 44 North offers.
Price: $11 for a 12 oz. bag.
Tasting notes: “Bitter dark chocolate undertones,” “earthy,” “syrupy,” “more acidic than the rest,” and “very full bodied.” “This is the most approachable, and the one that most people would say is their favorite.”
Place profile: 44 North is a bit of a hidden oasis — even for those in Deer Isle. It has no identifiable sign, but the aroma of coffee wafting from the second floor of the former Deer Isle High School is all one needs to know they’ve arrived. “It’s just the two of us here,” says Megan Wood, who owns the place with Melissa Rafferty. “And we’re focused on making sure customers get a real sense of where the coffee is coming from.”
Tandem Coffee Roasters
122 Anderson St., Portland, 207-899-0235, tandemcoffee.com
Coffee roast: La Providencia sourced from near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala at an altitude of between 5,000 and 5,500 feet. It’s a mix of the varietals bourbon, typica, and caturra. Price: $9.50 for an 8 oz. bag.
Tasting notes: “A bit of graham cracker,” “notes of red berry,” and a “sweet caramel after taste.” “Creamy,” “bits of chocolate,” and “even some pink yogurt.”
Place profile: The owners of Tandem Coffee honed their craft in New York and San Francisco at the roaster Blue Bottle — considered one of the best in the United States — and their coffee has started to be offered at restaurants Pai Men Miyake in Portland and Fog Bar & Café in Rockland. “We wanted to show the whole story of the coffee in one space, from bean to cup,” says owner Will Pratt.
Brewing at Home
As a certified head judge at the World Barista Championship, Bob Garver of Bard Coffee is about as qualified as they come in terms of brewing coffee. He shares his best practices for brewing at home:
“Although there will be other techniques depending on your brewing method (French press, pour over, espresso, aero press), the following principles apply to make better tasting coffee regardless of the method.
Begin with freshly roasted high-quality coffee and purchase it in bean form. Store it in an airtight container.
Grind your coffee immediately before brewing. The best investment you can make towards great coffee at home is to purchase a good Burr grinder to insure uniform particle size. Your grind should generally be fine when brewing more quickly, such as espresso; medium when using a pour-over method; and more coarse when brewing more slowly, such as with a French press.
A good coffee to water ratio is essential. I recommend 2 grams of coffee for every ounce of water. A good digital kitchen scale will help not only to achieve this but also consistently brew the optimum cup.
Water makes up over 98 percent of your cup of coffee, so use high-quality filtered water. The temperature of
the water must be between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit when brewing in order to liberate the most desirable flavors. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can achieve this by letting the water cool slightly for about thirty seconds after the boil.
Drink and enjoy your coffee when it is fresh brewed!”