Coffee: The Need For Caffeine Where Does Local Fit In? The Coffee Project Part 1

March 2, 2014 at 3:10 pm

DarkMatter CounterCultureBurundiCoffeetastingCounterCulture

When it comes to coffee, if you are a coffee drinker, sometimes the biggest criteria in the morning, is speed. How quickly can you start smelling which seems to give your neurons a jump start, than sipping a cup of coffee and feeling the caffeine start to go to work in your bloodstream. People will wait in long lines patiently, but when it comes to their time up at the register, that coffee had better be poured instantly. The quality or taste of the coffee is not the most important criteria, speed is.

On the other hand, there always has been a demographic that looks and drinks coffee the way craft beer or wine people do, with the same multitude of descriptors for smell and taste, and in Chicago, that demographic is growing quickly and is not just for hipsters anymore. The industry term is specialty coffee but it is such a broad category to itself that it includes huge companies as well. I had already started this coffee piece with the idea on focusing on smaller, “local” coffee establishments, especially roasters, when this map came out of local coffee shops, created by Drew Moody of the local (locally created, nationally followed) coffee blog , A Table In The Corner Of The Cafe (for anyone interested in specialty coffee, this blog is really informative on many levels). There are 30+ local coffee roasters and shops found on the CTA line and more seem to spring up each day.

From a Beet perspective, my first interest was the farmers. Coffee is very obviously not local since it is grown at higher altitudes and in warmer climates in places like Ethiopia, El Salvador and Sumatra. However, you can still support local when it comes to coffee because most of these local Chicago shops are either directly or from a supplier sourcing from farmers who farm sustainably, care about the effect of chemicals on their plants and realize that by growing in smaller quantity and caring about the plant creates a higher quality bean and is better for the environment, all that you want in a farmer. For most of these shops, they know the farmer or cooperative that they source from or they source from suppliers that know the farmers. For the same reason that you shop at a farmers market for better tasting vegetables, these shops all serve coffee made from quality beans because the beans they use are ultimately sourced from farmers that care about the plant, the soil and the bean. In my journey down the coffee hole, I thought I would start taking a look into some of these local roasters and suppliers from a “local” perspective and a “why should I take time to smell the coffee”.  First up on a very long list, “planet” Dark Matter and Star Lounge in Humboldt Park and Counter Culture Coffee, a national sustainable coffee supplier and coffee educator with a Chicago hub in the West Loop who supplies beans to many local Chicago shops and who serves as a coffee incubator for local shops and baristas. Next up for Part 2, Ipsento (my first experience of a coffee cupping) and Sparrow Coffee Roastery who I met and tasted their coffee at the Green City Market BBQ last summer. Do you have a favorite local Chicago coffee shop or roaster? First, if you have read this so far, you will make me a very happy person so let me know what your favorite local shop is in the comments below and why I should check it out and I promise to write about it here!

StarLoungeBeanflightBlack Flash

Dark Matter and Star Lounge where do I start? I met Jesse Diaz the founder of Dark Matter at a coffee pour over session sponsored by The Trenchermen. (coffee cuppings and pour overs are 2 different ways coffee people sample coffee for the flavor and quality) DM is the coffee roasting facility where they even sell drip (so you can stop your car, pull over, get a cup and drive on), beans and is on Chicago and Western, Star Lounge is the coffee lounge which tends to have even more product for sale and is just a few blocks further west on Chicago. For example over the holidays, they had gift boxes with bean flights of their coffee blends. At first glance, DM/SL has that “coffee, only hipsters wanted” feel. But to quote Jesse, he calls it a “bohemian culture” and that DM/SL is open to everyone, he just wants people to enjoy coffee that is sourced equitably from the farmer. But one thing I will say, Jesse is adamant about fair treatment to the farmers and “true price fair trade” in his coffee dealings. He is a one man “union for coffee farmers”. At the pourover session Jesse talked about his relationship with the Pacas family in El Salvador. You might have thought you were at a wine tasting when he started to talk about older plants, culitvars/varietals, the soil and that Pacas beans, were for all intents and purposes organic, although they were not certified. As Jesse went on about his dealing with the farmer I was clapping in my mind because that is exactly the way I think of the farmers who I buy from at the Chicago farmers markets. So in some cases, DM has direct trade dealings and in other cases, they source from local suppliers, who they trust is treating their farmers fairly like the Chicago supplier for DM’s sumatra beans.

It is hard to be short in talking about DM/SL because once you start going down the coffee hole with them you keep going and going. Suffice it to say, that coffee culture like farmers markets creates communities. The DM/SL community is one where coffee blends with art, take their labels for an example, blends with music blends with the local community. DM/SL is their own culture and you just have to go there to experience it. My brief takeaway is that they are all about the bean and the roast. They are doing all sorts of “experimental” roasts using barrel aging as part of the process to explore the different flavors they can create from the bean. They have collaborated with Koval Spirits, and many other local distilleries to infuse the green beans with whiskey, absinthe before roasting which creates an entire new tasting profile after roasting. There are always new blends on the counter at  DM/SL sometimes paired with music that you can acquire with the coffee. They take roasting and flavor of the bean and I think let the bean speak for itself. Since I have always been a “let the flavor of the vegetable speak for itself kind of person” it completely carries over to coffee. So if you care about where you buy your vegetables, I suggest taking a look into coffee beans as well. If you have an opportunity to experience a pour over session with DM/SL or see their coffee beans on a shelf, buy them, take a taste of their coffee, you will not be disappointed and you can feel assured that the farmer and/or cooperative that the beans were sourced from is being treated fairly as well which is not always clear in the coffee universe.

NewcoffeewheelCounterCultureLabChicagoJosh COunter

Before you even walk into Counter Culture’s Coffee Lab on Ada St, know this from their website, “Building a sustainable business is central to Counter Culture Coffee’s mission. We seek coffee that not only tastes good but also does good, from our local communities to the communities around the world where we source coffee. Whether through our our Counter Culture Direct Trade Certification or our Save Our Soil campaign.” So even though CCC is not a locally headquartered company, they supply coffee to a lot of the local coffee shops in Chicago and their beans are all about relationships with the farmers and equitable treatment.

There is a reason CCC Chicago calls their “office” a lab and a training center. If you want to go down that coffee rabbit hole and learn how to distinguish one coffee from another, one shot of expresso from another, basically coffee A to Z, CCC is the place to get your coffee PHD degree. “We love teaching people about coffee – from preparation at home to all-around coffee knowledge to professional barista techniques – and learning along the way. To share what we know, we put together straightforward instructions for our favorite home brewer, collected an ever-expanding range of coffee information, and designed an expansive curriculum. Our hands-on training comprises engaging and informative weekly public tastings to comprehensive curriculum and certifications for coffee professionals.”

CCC Chicago offers cuppings mostly every Friday, check their facebook page to double check. I went to one of their Friday public sessions, where Joshua Dugue was leading us through a tasting of their expresso roast, Toscano. He went from several times of “dialing in” the grind to the length the shot was drawn to coming up with descriptors of what we were tasting. There were about 8 people at the cupping including 2 students from the University of Chicago that have started the Dot Cross coffee project where they are trying through tasting events to bring more knowledge of specialty coffee to the campus. All I can say is, that after leaving that morning and over the course of the next week, having an expresso machiato at “fast food” coffee bars in my neighborhood, the memory of how smooth and flavorful the expresso shots were that I tasted at CCCC lingered in my mind.

I followed up this expresso cupping with a visit with Josh to cup CCC Burundi’s blend and go through the flavor profiles. I learned aobut their brewing weight ratio, 17 to 1, water versus coffee, their use of filtered water (100 parts/million) and temperature of the water among other factors. Needless to say, I was attempting to train my palate to recognize a colorwheel of flavor(bascially to turn my palate into a taste version of a Crayola crayon box) like the coffee flavor wheel which CCC developed. At first I was very skeptical if I would be able to do it. I was familiar with wine tastings and my palate had gotten better at recognizing tannins, sugar, fruit versus vegetal but I was not sure if I would be able to do that with coffee. But I left having been able to recognize a few distinct characteristics, nutty, fruit, brightness and acidity among other notes. In the hopes of not going from coffee 0 to 100 too quickly, I won’t even go into the other training aspects CCCC offers(they are one of the top if not the top organization in the US training professional baristas), learning about the different brewing methods which sound like you are evaluating new foreign sports cars or bicycles, Chemex’s, Aeropress’s, Hario V60′s, and various other extraction methods. Yet again, I truly suggest you stop by one of CCCC public cupping sessions on a Friday to stop and smell the coffee. But their attitude is to spread coffee love and knowledge so that more people will stop and smell the coffee but at the same time the farmer is always in the picture. In both cases, Dark Matter/Star Lounge and Counter Culture Coffee Chicago are both about supporting and growing the local, specialty coffee community in Chicago with the farmer and where the beans are sourced always in mind. What is not to love about that!