Monday, January 21, 2008

Coffee: The Fragrant Cup Revealed

My introduction to coffee began in a modest 1960’s family kitchen. These were the days of percolators, Nescafé and ads for Mr. Coffee™ featuring baseball great Joe DiMaggio. My mother drank two or three cups of coffee a day, a pack of cigarettes always within arm's reach. She took her coffee light with Sweet’N Low™ and in the afternoon added one or two Dutch-style pretzels, which she would dip into her coffee to soften before eating. Her coffee habit caught the nose of my sister who at age two displayed a taste for the brew and was permitted one or two sips with an accompanying pretzel. As a child, I never liked the taste of coffee, but associated the aroma with quiet moments my mother, sister and I shared together. I enjoyed coffee the way one enjoys the perfume of another—by encounter and in memory.

It wasn’t until I met my husband that I began drinking coffee. This was largely due to the extraordinary aroma generated by a peculiar gadget that graced our kitchen; the Chemex®. At first glance the hourglass shaped carafe, which is corseted by a wooden neck and a string of rawhide, exudes retro bohemian style. Invented in 1941 by German chemist Peter Schlumbohm, the Chemex® was inspired by a passion for coffee and an ubiquitous laboratory staple—the Erlenmeyer flask. Electricity is not required to brew a pot of coffee in a Chemex®, but patience is. If you enjoy the aroma of coffee, you can extend the sensory experience by becoming directly involved in grinding, wetting and brewing the beans. These steps result in a highly fragrant cup of coffee that is free of bitterness and sediment. Once the Chemex® is mastered, it boldly unmasks the drip machine for what it truly is—a scent bandit.

Coffee contains over 800 aromatic compounds and is one of the most fragrant foods in the world. Of these compounds furans and pyrazines dominate the aroma spectrum, luring coffee drinkers with their savor. Furans lend caramel-like aspects while pyrazines add toasty flavors. Though roasting and country of origin contribute to differences in taste, it is important to note that not all coffee beans are alike. Arabica beans are highly fragrant and indigenous to Ethiopia and Yemen. Robusta beans, which are used to make espresso, are native to Uganda. Higher in caffeine than arabica beans, robusta are essential to the development of crema (the foam that caps a shot of espresso) and possess a telltale rubber note that can be exaggerated in overly roasted coffee.

Over the years I’ve experimented with a variety of coffees and found that medium roasts possess smooth bouquets that are as complex as perfumes. In the interest of promoting a more fragrant cup, the following coffees are recommended for use in a Chemex®:

Fazenda Lagoa Estate of Brazil (Medium/French Roast)
Mingling notes of chocolate, honey, and caramel are topped with traces of walnut. Low acidity and a touch of sweetness make this the perfect choice for an unadulterated cup.

Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Organic/Fair Trade (Light/Vienna Roast)
Notes of maple, honey and floral nuances of lemon blossom leave a sublime impression.

New Mexico Piñon Coffee (Medium Roast)
A unique melding of roasted coffee and pine nuts results in an incredibly smooth and earthy flavor. Faint traces of toffee and vanilla linger on the palate. Not a flavored coffee in the commercial sense.


For an instruction sheet on brewing coffee in a Chemex®, visit Sweet Maria’s. They sell the eco-friendly coffeemaker and related accessories.

In February 2006 The Sun published a wonderful selection of coffee stories submitted by its readers. Each is a testament to the importance of coffee in our culture and the role it plays in memory (Issue 362, February 2006). A partial sample can be uploaded for free in PDF form. The ad-free magazine is published monthly and worth the subscription price of $36/yr.

Photograph of latte art taken at The Pioneer Coffee Roastery in Australia and posted by Gilfer on Flickr.

Animator Jonathan Ian Mathers takes a hilarious crack at a commercial coffee chain in Coffee House Propaganda. The main character is a ranting squirrel named Foamy. Warning; hilarity and profanity are involved.