Coffee Has Changed Since the Old Days

Aug 17,2016

Here's the book I'm currently reading before I go to sleep each night. I actually took a picture of my own copy with my cheap mobile telephone, but the glare from the overhead lamps was bad, and besides I'd have to go through a skein of steps to get it uploaded on the blog. Explaining what it takes is boring, but suffice it to say that filching someone else's picture from Yahoo! Auctions made more sense.

Kimiko Takashima's Kotsu ga Wakaru Koohii Kyoushitsu

While reading about coffee might seem an odd choice for bedtime, I like it because it's written at a simple enough level that it doesn't make too many demands on my fading mind, other than to teach me a few new items of vocabulary relating to the whole business of coffee from growing to brewing.

Among the books recently scavenged from the used book shops as part of my birthday celebration, this is the only one not in English that's really appropriate for just before going to sleep. Then again, because it's not my native language, I'm still not half finished with it even though my birthday was in July. I can't seem to get through more than a couple of pages before I conk out.

As you see here, the jacket sleeve says it was put out in 2002, but I swear it's much older. For one thing, the author's photograph looks like it was taken in about 1985. Besides, she includes things like instructions for making your own net for drip coffee, something I'm sure no one ever does anymore. You can probably find much cheaper and more effective ones at the one-coin shop. Back in the 80s, I guess, not everyone was using paper filters yet. I didn't myself drink coffee when I was in grammar school, so I don't really know.

At any rate, there's quite a bit of interesting stuff about the legend of Kaldi the shepherd, who found his flock freaking out after they ate some berries from a strange tree. From then it was a history of eating wild coffee berries raw, making soup with them, and eventually getting around to roasting them. I didn't actually know how recent the whole custom of coffee really was, even in the Arab world. In either direction east or west, it's quite a modern thing. It was all the Turkish method wherever it was drunk, until drip percolation was invented in France in 1711. From there the science of brewing developed quite a bit into what we know now.

Some advice that the author, Kimiko Takashima, provides in this book is that moistening the coffee grounds slightly before pouring allows some of the flavour to release and prevents clumping, allowing all the compounds to be soaked out. It's important, she says, to let it drip slowly through the filter while pouring, not letting the foam disappear; if hot water is poured over the grounds after the foam is gone, the temperature fluctuation will cause odd and unpleasant tastes to form. She also says that water for coffee must be drawn straight from the tap, not filtered or left standing, and that water, once boiled and left to cool, can't be boiled again for later brewing. Apparently the balance of iron and other minerals changes and affects the flavour.

This is all interesting stuff to know, but as of yet I haven't noticed any difference in taste whether I follow this advice or not. I've ordered some higher-end coffee (as beans, not pre-ground) which should arrive soon, and I'll try it with those. In the meantime, all I've got to work with is a small sack of pre-ground Kilimanjaro. It's labeled only as Kilimanjaro, with exact source information not appearing on the package. The company's website somewhat nebulously implies that it might be pure Tanzania, not a blend, but I can't be sure. It seems to be a medium roast. Adding milk obliterates any characteristics it might have, but drinking it straight according to Takashima's method reveals it to have a vaguely neutral darkness with a round sourness poking through that's sort of citrusy and sort of not.

One of the odd things about the book, and what I think is an indication of its age, is the assertion that Americans generally prefer a light roast. That may have been the case once, but it's certainly not now, with the rise of Starbucks and other chains preferring to roast their coffee into charcoal so that it can be tasted through all the buckets of milk they add to it. This is particularly true, I've heard, in Seattle, which is now home to some of the darkest roasting in the world.

It wasn't this extreme when I lived in California. I worked in a coffee shop, and they offered as their regular tap a 'house blend' and a 'French roast'. The French roast was dark, and I think the 'house blend' was medium. I have to keep that 'house blend' in scare quotes because that's not really what it was. I didn't actually think about it until it was spelt out in Koohii Kyoushitsu, but a house blend is supposed to refer to a coffee whose beans have been ordered single-source from different regions, and blended and roasted on site for a blend unique to that cafe or restaurant. That's not what we had; the owner of the place I worked bought whatever beans he could get cheap in bulk and simply labeled it 'house blend,' the way he labeled store-bought orange juice 'fresh-squeezed' and discounted muffins 'day-old' when they'd been suffering under heat lamps for a week or more. 'Just stick it in the microwave for a few seconds,' he'd say, as if that would magically make it fresh again. The horror.

Nonetheless, it seems that at that date when this book was published, most restaurants and coffee shops were really still doing their own house blends. I'd really like to know when that was.

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