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vampirical

Coding while you sleep

Coffee

Dec 6, 2005 — I'm shopping around for Christmas gifts and realized that some top of the line coffee will work for a few of the hardest on my list. Any recommendations (I'm looking at you Wirehead)? One of the giftees especially likes hazelnut.

rnewhouse says:

My suggestion is that you buy Fair Trade coffee. A real coffee freak will appreciate it, and it is usually very high-end. A good source for this is Green Mountain Roasters. Great coffee, decent prices, socially responsible. And you can even order by phone. What a concept!

Wirehead says:

Agreed regarding Fair Trade - some of it is quite good. There is a coffee shop in Philadelphia on 20th & Fairmount called Mug Shots that you guys should check out if any of you are in the area, and as far as I know they only sell Fair Trade.

That said, I've never found a truly GOOD espresso that's fair trade. Right now I'm drinking Malabar Gold, which is probably one of the creamiest, thickest espressos I've ever had. Using my Gaggia Paros it produces a crema more than an inch deep, and if I could figure out a way to fill a bathtub with that stuff before it all got cold I'd never leave the house.

As far as brew coffee goes, if you can find some real pure Hawaiian Kona or Jamaica Blue Mountain, and the person you're buying it for is really a coffee lover (and by that I mean they like the taste of COFFEE, not the taste of a decaf nonfat soymilk vanilla chai sugarfree latte with extra whipped cream and sprinkles, or some similar atrocity), they'll thank you. Anything from a grocery store that says "Kona" really isn't - they usually only have about 5% Kona beans (one clue is it costs about a dollar more than Folgers on average). Real Kona runs $25 to $35 per pound. Jamaica Blue is $48 a pound to about $60 depending on where you get it.

Gevalia Coffee is actually a very nice operation these days. It used to be about like signing up with BMG for CD's (sign and return the "please don't send me any crap I don't want this month" form or else), but these days there's web-based administration of your account that lets you configure it JUST the way you want it (i.e., "send me two pounds of Maragogype and half a pound of Tanzanian Peaberry every two months") or even place the account on hold entirely. No subscription fees, and usually they give you a pretty decent free coffee maker or a really nice thermos or something when you sign up. There's often some sort of "every month we'll send you a pound of some cool coffee you've never heard of" program going, too, which is the only reason I know what Maragogype is.

If you were thinking more along the lines of just a couple of pounds of coffee in a box, it sort of depends what type of coffee the person likes.

Personally, I like full-bodied, full-flavored coffee most of the time, which means things like a medium-dark roast Sumatra. For a lighter, sweeter, more acidic coffee, Tanzania Peaberry medium roast is really, really good. As far as the uber-coffees above go, Kona usually is a little on the sweet side compared to other coffees. When made properly it's almost creamy. Jamaica Blue Mountain has been totally, completely different every time I've tried it, but it's always been delicious. I've experienced strong nutty flavors, an almost grape-juice sweetness, chocolate, maple, and just about everything else you could think of. A half pound of really good Jamaica Blue is a revelation to a coffee geek who's never had it before.

After all, there is a reason why James Bond would never, ever eat anywhere that didn't serve Jamaica Blue.

Pointers: If you're buying locally, never buy from a place that doesn't get much traffic. The coffee gets stale. Ideally find a local shop that roasts their own beans on a regular basis - like once a week. Beans roasted more than a couple of weeks ago are worthless, though vacuum-packing can make this stretch to a month or maybe two. A good, fresh medium-dark roast bean will have just a touch of oiliness on the exterior of the bean - too much means over-roasted (well, for my taste anyway - very dark roasts are supposed to be this way, but I think they're too bitter). It would not be at all a bad idea to try samples of what you buy before you give it as a gift, if you like coffee at all. Most decent shops shouldn't have a problem with you cupping a couple of kinds.

And remember, kids: Friends don't let friends drink French Roast.

rnewhouse says:

I have a current Gevalia account and I'm pretty happy with it. Of course, I only order the Peruvian Organic (I have my account set up to send me a pound every eight weeks), but I will condescend to drink the non-organic samples they send along from time to time. I've had a series of their free coffeemakers and they work well. Every couple of years I start a new account with them just for the freebies.

By the way, I was surprised to find out that the company pronounces itself "jeh-VAL-ya" when they answer the phone.

vampirical says:

Awesome, thanks for all the information and suggestions :)

I was shopping around for some Kona before and couldn't find anything to buy, $10 Kona is not what I was shopping for. It was the only thing that came to my mind when I tried to think of real high quality coffee. Jamaica Blue would probably be perfect really, if only I could afford to give it. Oh well.

Wirehead says:

Honestly, most people who haven't reached the level of fanaticism about coffee that I have probably wouldn't be able to tell much of a difference between Kona and Jamaica Blue.

You should be able to get real Kona pretty reasonably. Starbucks even has it sometimes, though they tend to over-roast everything and make it bitter.

peterman says:

Your analysis of Starbucks Kona is interesting. Maybe that's why the only time I remember buying Kona I made a mental note that I don't need to get that again. Maybe I need to branch out a bit.

Do you have the Caribou Coffee chain in your area? I'd be interested on your opinion of them if you do. They are "starbucks meets northwoods lodge".

Wirehead says:

My only experience with Caribou was sub-optimal in that it was an airport station in Minneapolis run by an angry Iranian with the unfortunate habit of actually slapping the baristas at unpredictable times. Their performance was (one can only assume) less than it could have been as a result of this.

It seemed to me like the beans were probably ok, but the espresso was way under-extracted - pretty poor flavor. About average for an airport coffee place though.

FYI: Never bother with espresso from one of those push-button fully-automatic machines, no matter where it is. There are a FEW (very few) home models that are decent - the Capresso Jura is actually pretty good - but the commercial ones in places like Starbucks et. al. are all focused on one thing, and one thing only: producing a hot coffee-like substance laden with caffeine as rapidly as possible which can then be used as the basis for the aforementioned double decaf soy nonfat vanilla chai latte. A good shot of espresso MUST take between 25 to 35 seconds to extract or it doesn't taste right. There is a certain irreducible amount of time that it takes for hot water under pressure to penetrate the grounds and let them start releasing their flavor. If you count the seconds, most of those $4000 machines that the store manager will tell you make "the perfect shot" take no more than ten or twelve seconds, tops. Also don't bother with the espresso machines they sell at Starbucks. They're marked up about 70% and just rebranded low-end Italian machines with crummy pressurized filter holders. The hardware in them is actually not bad, but the filter holders use this weird pressurized gasket thing to fake up some crema even when you don't make the coffee right, so that people who won't invest the time to learn to make espresso properly can fancy themselves master baristas or something. Essentially it's a seal on the inside of the filter basket that forces the coffee through a very small aperture and foams it up a bit, thus over-oxidizing it, flattening and bittering the taste. It looks good, but it tastes terrible. A real espresso machine has a big brass filter holder with a metal filter screen in it, and maybe a metal tension spring to hold the filter in place, and that's it. No rubber gaskets, springs, grommets, or flanges to be found.

/rant

Anyway, some of my friends who are reasonably knowledgeable about coffee seem to like a few of the Caribou franchises in their area, but as with any chain, YMMV. If you can, find one that doesn't use an automatic machine and hope the guy actually knows how to run it.

peterman says:

More excellent info. Thanks. As for the airport kiosks, I know the Minneapolis airport well and sub-optimal is a good summary. I would say the airport kiosks are not representative of the regular outlets.

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