The dining staples you'd expect to find on the street or in diners are becoming more and more upscale in the District of Columbia. What does that signal about the city to its longtime residents?
Across every continent, people build their daily routines around coffee. Many Americans see “a cup of joe” as little more than a caffeine delivery device. But this unique tropical fruit can take on the flavors of micro-climates around the world, from the mountains of Jamaica to the high plains of Ethiopia. We dive deep into the art and science of coffee with a James Beard Award-winning writer and the brain behind a small-batch roasting company and coffee shop in Washington.
- Corby Kummer Senior Editor, The Atlantic; Author, "The Joy of Coffee: The Essential Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying" (Houghton Mifflin, 1997)
- Joel Finkelstein Owner, Roaster, Qualia Coffee (Washington, D.C.)
Qualia Coffee owner Joel Finkelstein talks about the art and science of coffee roasting; how he uses roasting profiles; and why a really good cup might not need any milk or sugar.
MR. KOJO NNAMDICoffee defines the daily routine for people all across the globe from the Horn of Africa to the back allies of Rome to the massive chain donut shop around the corner from your house. But there's an art and a science to a great cup of coffee that even escapes those who see the beverage as something more sophisticated than a caffeine delivery device.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA great cup of coffee can tell us stories about agriculture and the global quest for the perfect bean. A humble cup of joe can tell us stories about chemistry and physics and how the slightest change in roasting temperature can alter the delicate balance that makes for such a delicious drink. And your morning brew can provide a window into complex stories about big businesses and the influences they command over billions of people.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd joining us to help explain all of this is Corby Kummer. He is a senior editor at The Atlantic where he writes about food. He's written several books including "The Joy of Coffee: The Essential Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying." Corby Kummer, it's really enjoyable to have you here.
MR. CORBY KUMMERAnd what's most enjoyable is I get to meet you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for coming. Also in studio with us is Joel Finkelstein. Joel is the owner and head roaster at Qualia Coffee. That's a small batch roasting company and coffee shop on Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C. Joel Finkelstein, thank you for joining us.
MR. JOEL FINKELSTEINThank you. And I’m glad that you had asked me how to pronounce my name, but you knew how to pronounce Qualia.
NNAMDIThanks a lot, yeah. I'm more familiar with Qualia than I am with your name. 800-433-8850. Are you a coffee drinker? What do you expect from the drink or do you look to it as a caffeine delivery device? 800-433-8850. Corby, you very well may have passed more than ten Starbucks franchises if you took a cab right to our studio today. But it wasn't that long ago that you were writing about how coffee was being rescued from a 30-year slump here in the United States only to become what you called the wine of the '90s.
NNAMDIWalk us through the history for a minute. What brought the sleeping giant of coffee back to life?
KUMMERWell, what -- so let's talk about what killed the sleeping giant and why it went to sleep. So there was good coffee in this country until the early '60s when there was started to be a supermarket war. So now we all know that we're supposed to drink Arabica coffee, the kind that's grown -- and Joel Finkelstein wouldn't touch anything else. He would only have the high grown Arabica coffee, which needs cool nights and warm days to develop its perfect ripeness and all this.
KUMMERThat was what was in supermarket blends until the early '60s when there started to be the rival of the dreaded Robusto, which like its name will withstand much lower temperature -- much lower levels and much higher temperatures at night and humidity. But it's cheaper. It has twice the caffeine in it and half the flavor. And I call it like Balsa wood in your mouth. However, those who have fell in love with coffee in Italy have tasted Robust and miss it when they get to this country.
KUMMERIn any case, the real rescue of it began in the middle '60s with Alfred Peet and Peet's coffee. He was from a Dutch coffee roasting family and he decided he was going to roast coffee dark. He was the very first one to roast it really dark in this country. And it was he who spread the gospel, he who actually trained the three people who founded Starbucks, which they did in the early 1970s I think. I think it recently had its 30th anniversary.
KUMMERAnd then they started buying quality beans, of the kind that I think Joel has brought into the studio. But what happened was there was a pause. And what was that pause? It was the commercialization of Starbucks which kind of steamrolled the guys who, when I was writing my first book, would now be older than Joel, but who were roasting it themselves. Mom and pop roasters loving the individual beans just the way Alfred Peet did, buying all the kinds that I just saw on the Qualia Coffee dot -- the Qualia Coffee blog.
KUMMERWhen they came in -- Starbucks has done a lot of fantastic things for coffee. I am not one who knocks Starbucks in general. Does some flavor coffee, has lots of different varieties, they tell people about the world of coffees and where it comes from and has really laid the groundwork for this new second wave. Would you consider yourself part of the so called second wave, Joel? But don't let me ask him...
NNAMDIOh, that's all right. No, take over. I don't mind at all. It's what you do.
FINKELSTEINIt's funny because I actually have a customer who describes Starbucks as the gateway drug to good coffee.
KUMMERI've heard that, I've heard that, yeah.
FINKELSTEINAnd it -- I mean, in a lot of ways it did introduce Americans to the idea that your coffee shouldn't be coming out of a can. So I think that knowledge has been very helpful.
KUMMERIt shows you beans. It shows you the different kinds of coffee. It swishes up the blends and it makes you want to have your own blends. But if you want an extension, if you want very carefully artisan roasted batches it's Joel's quality and others like it that you go to.
NNAMDIJoel was a freelance reporter not that long ago who mostly turned to coffee for the caffeine. But at a certain point you started experimenting at home with roasting your own beans, experiments that started with a hot air popcorn popper.
FINKELSTEINYeah, and I'm not -- that's not unique to me. I mean, a lot of people have started off with coffee. And I still very much participate in the home roster community, which is a very creative inventive group of guys who just like to tool around and aren't afraid of fires.
KUMMERAnd what about the chaff? I used one of those hot popcorn poppers...
FINKELSTEINDon't do it inside Corby.
KUMMERThe chaff goes all over your kitchen. It's in every kitchen drawer, on every piece of silverware and your wine opener for the rest of your life.
NNAMDIYes. Well, Joel has moved on from that. Can you tell us about the first proper roaster that you ever worked with?
FINKELSTEINWell, I don't know if I've ever had a proper roaster yet. But the first roaster I built for commercial use was based on a barbecue grill. And in terms of that group of guys who are very inventive, there was as guy out there who started hand making stainless steel drums that you could stick in your rotisserie grill and roast a quantity of coffee that you really couldn't do otherwise with a home rig.
FINKELSTEINAnd now I've graduated to the commercially built roasters which are, you know, tens of thousands of dollars and pretty inaccessible to most home roasters.
NNAMDIBut wait for one second, Corby. As a...
NNAMDI...as a food writer you've -- and as a journalist, you've been around the block but you seem to have a particular passion for coffee, a passion strong enough that compelled you to write an entire book about it. What is it about coffee that makes you feel so strongly about it?
KUMMERGosh, you know, I love it and I'm going to give the answer, whenever Jerry Baldwin, who was one of the three founders of Starbucks and then bought Peets and writes for us at theatlantic.com, says someone will come up to him and say, you know, my best cup of coffee in my entire life -- he'll stop them and say, were you on vacation
KUMMERIt's almost -- so I spent a lot of time in Italy in the '80s and '90s. And I go to Italy a lot. I'm lucky. And I fell in love with the way Italians live and the way they drink coffee. And it seems so much more careful. And I have to say, if you asked Howard Schultz, who has a whole new jobs creation strategy that you're going to be hearing about in the next couple days, who took over Starbucks and is the one who made it thousands and thousands of Starbucks, he would say it was going to Italy and falling in love with it that was his conversion too.
KUMMERSo I fell in love with the whole way of life but I also fell in love with that power, that freshness, that non-staleness, the impact of the coffee when it went into your mouth. And I think that Joel probably has a similar conversion experience. We kind of all...
NNAMDIWhat's your conversion experience, Joel?
FINKELSTEINI was on vacation, ironically enough.
KUMMERAh, there you are.
FINKELSTEINAnd unfortunately, I mean, for many years, D.C. was a wasteland of coffee quality. But I did, I had an experience where I was on vacation in one of these little towns with their own coffee roaster, their own small batch coffee roster.
NNAMDIWhat country, where?
FINKELSTEINThis was in the U.S. It was in Delaware. And it's not that uncommon a thing I realized, but just the fact that the coffee was fresh -- and I've started to think of coffee more like -- well, roasted coffee is more like produce. Whereas I think a lot of people think of it as more as bulk goods. That experience was revealing to me.
NNAMDIWell, let's get geeky about it for one second because...
FINKELSTEINWell, I am wearing the caffeine molecule on my shirt now.
NNAMDIExactly what is that?
FINKELSTEINIt's the caffeine molecule.
NNAMDII was asked to ask you about exactly what that was on your shirt.
FINKELSTEINYeah, I mean, coffee's obviously much more complex than this, but it's sort of the savior in the -- the salvation and the curse of coffee.
NNAMDIGood. You're taking in the right direction. We're getting geeky here. You've had a commercial roaster custom built for your needs at Qualia. How would you describe your approach to roasting beans and the equipment you use to do it?
FINKELSTEINWell, the simplest way to describe it is it's called profile roasting. So rather than baking where you're just trying to get something to a certain temperature -- a certain end temperature, we watch the coffee as it's roasting and change the rate of heating during different phases of the physical change between coffee.
FINKELSTEINBecause when you start off with coffee it's -- the green coffee, as you call it, is much smaller, it's denser. It's got a high moisture content and it's going to change quite a bit physically during that process. And there's different parts of that process that we try to manipulate to optimize the flavors.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that one of your roasters built a computer program for you that allows you to monitor every shred of data about the batches you roast. What are the things you pay closest attention to?
FINKELSTEINYeah, actually that barista of mine is actually -- was one of your former guests, Andrew Passell .
NNAMDIHow, yeah, the home beer brewer, Andrew Passell, yes.
FINKELSTEINThe home beer brewer. He's got many talents.
NNAMDISo it would appear.
FINKELSTEINBut we have six thermocouples, which are actually just thermometers that a computer can read that assess the temperature of the beans. We test environmental temperature, which is really just the temperature of the air as it enters and leaves the bean chamber. We look at the -- we also track our controls so we can control the amount of air going through the roaster. We can control the amount of heat going into the roaster and we can control the speed of the drum.
FINKELSTEINAnd then we also have to watch the temperature of the beans as they cool down because a lot of the flavor can actually be lost during -- if you don't cool the coffee down fast enough.
KUMMERSo can I jump in here?
KUMMERSo when you go to any kind of large scale Italian roaster they all -- or actually any roaster, they will have these computer programs that are telling them every minute. I think that George Howell of Coffee Connection started using the word profile for profile roasting 'cause he pioneered small batch roasting. He was one of the people Starbucks came in and said, why don't you let us buy you.
KUMMERAnd so he started the Cup of Excellence which was the International Coffee Association and the National Coffee Specialty Association. So you are looking to bring out certain aspects of this green bean that you've brought in that you either want to emphasize the acidity, which in the coffee world is a good term. Acidity means sparkle and life in the cup. You actually want it. And some you want to tamp down like bitterness. So presumably you've had some dud roasts before you decided on the profile you want.
FINKELSTEINYeah, and on my original roaster, the one I built, it was very visceral. It was all about smell and -- not even sight 'cause I couldn't see the beans -- but I could smell the beans. I could sort of measure temperature close to the beans. I could listen 'cause the physical changes actually produce a noise. And...
KUMMERIt's like popcorn.
KUMMERThere's the first pop and the second pop.
FINKELSTEINSo we -- the system that Andrew built is so sort of sophisticated that we're still really defining how -- what each of the different components mean. And so a lot of what we've been doing over the last year is actually data gathering and then going back and tasting the coffee and seeing what we do like and what we don't like.
FINKELSTEINI like drum roasters. There's a lot of different types of roasters out there. I like drum roasters because they tend to roast longer and they tend to bring out more body in the coffee.
KUMMERSo drum roaster is like a drier.
FINKELSTEINYeah (unintelligible) ...
KUMMERIt's like a clothes drier. It spins like this. It rotates circularly.
FINKELSTEINAnd uses a combination of conduction and convection, versus an air -- the popcorn popper which is all -- it's just all air. There's no that agitating and heating the coffee.
KUMMERAnd there are wood fire drum roasters. Some people think that the smoke under a drum will give you this wonderful delicious smoky roast. Have you ever had wood-fired roast?
FINKELSTEINI haven't. I mean, I've had -- I've certainly had closed drum roasters that don't have any air movement in them. And that's -- you know, each different -- everything you do to coffee -- I mean, everything you do to coffee from the way you grow it, harvest it, process it, roast it, brew it is going to bring out different flavors. And that's what makes it so interesting. You know, there's no bad way really to -- I mean, there's definitely bad ways to roast coffee but there's so many different ways to roast it well.
KUMMERYou use such a good word when you say it's like produce. It is a fresh product and it goes bad and you have to be really careful about the way you keep it. So I'm now always going to call it produce from now on.
NNAMDIIf, like me, you're enjoying listening in on this conversation between two people who really know what they're talking about, well, we got to take a short break. But we'll be coming back to this conversation. And you can call us. If you have already called we'll try to get to your calls, 800-433-8850. If the lines are busy go to our website kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. We're talking coffee. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking coffee with the two best people in town to talk coffee with. Corby Kummer is a Senior Editor at The Atlantic where he writes about food. He's written several books including "The Joy of Coffee: The Essential Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying." And Joel Finkelstein is the owner and head roaster at Qualia Coffee, which is a small batch roasting company and coffee shop in Washington. And, Joel, you have brought several flavors of beans with us. Tell us exactly what you did bring.
FINKELSTEINWell, I brought -- I wanted to sort of show the spectrum of coffee and so one of the coffees is a very quintessential Central American coffee. Kinda what people will think about when they think of coffee. And it's a very nicely processed, very clean cup. It's a very satisfying, very subtle in some ways.
FINKELSTEINAnd then the other coffee is actually a Bali that has been naturally processed, which means they leave some of the fruit on while they're drying the coffee in the sun.
NNAMDIIs that the one that has the peppery smell?
FINKELSTEINYeah, it's got -- it actually infuses the fruit with some of the flavor of the fruit. And it gets a little bit of fermentation. Some people will think it tastes a little alcoholic.
KUMMERAnd it smells it.
FINKELSTEINYeah, it's -- the smell and the flavor are very prominent. It's sort of -- in terms of what Corby was talking about in terms of acidity, it's very high in acidity so you get this very pungent, very strong flavor in the front of your palette.
NNAMDIIt smells really good. Corby, I read that when you're brewing at home you’re an evangelist for stovetop brewing, which is really popular in Italy. You wrote an entire chapter in your book about the M-O-K-A. Is that mocha or mauka?
NNAMDIAbout the moka pot. Why are you so partial to stovetop brewing and moka pots?
KUMMERYou know, I'm afraid to say this to Joel 'cause I think he probably hates it and he probably believes -- because something that's this delicate...
KUMMERWell, you've got all your strength. Something that's this delicate and this fruity might do better with another brewer. For example, just a classic pour over cone brewer which is very fashionable right now among people like you. The pour over that takes a very long time and you very carefully dampen the ground coffee, which you have just ground at that moment, wait for there to be an absorbent bed and then slowly drip the rest of the coffee through. So slowly that if you go to an artisan coffee shop in the morning and order a pour over you have to call in late for the meeting.
KUMMERBut a stovetop moka is about four minutes and it -- I just say it's one-and-a-half times normal brewed coffee. It's not Espresso by any means. It uses a tiny bit of pressure to force hot water up through medium ground coffee. But it's a strong brew that I like. Now you can tell me that I'm all wrong and you hate it.
FINKELSTEINI think -- I was saying before, everything you do to coffees can bring out different flavors. So I'm sure that that brings out a unique profile of flavors. I mean, the only thing I would discourage from any -- people from using is, of course, a percolator. That's the one brewing method that I think really damages coffee.
KUMMERIt is a crime, yes, because it's constantly recirculating partially brewed coffee back over the beans. You only get -- you -- the coffee only passes through coffee beans once. You only come this way once in life and you should never reuse coffee beans.
NNAMDIJoel, I noticed in the video, which you can find at our website kojoshow.org, that Qualia -- at Qualia you brew your coffee with custom made coffee socks that hang from Bunsen burner holders. Why do you prefer these coffee socks over paper filters?
FINKELSTEINWell, the socks that you described are actually -- they're a food grade nylon that we've been using for a while. And we've gone -- that’s the latest version. We've gone through probably four versions of it. But my feeling has always been that paper or cloth or -- is really going to absorb some of the flavors that we want to get through. And I think that's why a lot of people like a French press.
KUMMERIt's why I like a washed metal filter that sits in the cone -- sits in any kind of drip coffee maker but it lets through the oils. I really hate paper myself.
FINKELSTEINYeah, and the nice thing about the nylon filters is they're -- actually have much smaller holes than a metal filter. So we're not getting any of the...
FINKELSTEIN...the grinds and the fines in the cup. So we get something that's a little bit -- it's almost a compromise between a paper filter drip coffee and a French press.
NNAMDISo you don't actually throw out the coffee socks after you've used them either.
FINKELSTEINNo. We reuse them. The material itself is -- it's great material because it doesn't absorb those oils. It dries very quickly so we can sort of soak it in Espresso cleaner that'll get rid of whatever residual coffee is there and then dry them and reuse them.
KUMMERWhere can we get these nylon socks? Seriously.
FINKELSTEINI mean, we do sell -- we sell a cone version that works with the Harios.
KUMMERYeah, I went through a sock phase myself. You know, I used cotton socks, 'cause this is campfire coffee, because it doesn't -- 'cause it allows in a lot of the flavor. Because when I was in Naples I saw -- when they were brewing coffee for iced coffee they had these enormous socks. I mean, they looked like balloons, huge things that they would steep for hours and was always cleaning them.
KUMMERSo when -- and so any cloth I've had absorbs oils and gets gross and dirty. So I'm very interested in this nylon which sounds easier to clean.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. And, by the way, we mentioned the video that you can see at kojoshow.org. Our web producer, Anne Stoppa (sp?) visited Qualia with producer Michael Martinez and Paulo Esparon (sp?) on Monday afternoon. They didn't come back until this morning.
NNAMDIHere's Ed in Washington, D.C. Ed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EDYes. Hi, I'm a home roaster and I use an air roaster. And I want to talk about finding the green beans. I found a couple places where I get them, but I was wondering if you could help me find a couple other places. The places that I found so far are Sweet Maria's out in California. And going to Mayorga's warehouse and they'll sometimes sell you green beans. But any suggestions, I'd appreciate it.
FINKELSTEINWell, we sell green beans. I'll just say that.
KUMMERI was hoping you'd say that.
FINKELSTEINBut I would also say depending on what quantity, there's a group that I work with which is wonderful. It's called the Green Coffee Buying Club. And when I started moving up from just a hobby roaster I was able to go with these guys and get much larger quantities of coffee at a almost wholesale price. So that's available on line.
NNAMDIEd, thank you for your call. Good luck to you. We move on to Frank in Fairfax, Va. Hi, Frank.
FRANKHello, Kojo. And I'd like to ask your guests and clear up an interesting point. Two years ago my wife and I visited in Guatemala including a coffee plantation. And I was stunned by these red -- the red fleshy fruit that you spoke about a few minutes ago. And I tasted it and I thought it was good. But the coffee plantation owners simply disposed of it polluting the rivers.
MS. CONNIE SAGEHow do you like this name for it, mucilage? What is -- it's the coffee cherry that you were tasting. It is -- the coffee is the seed of a fruit that grows on trees. And have you -- Joel, have you tasted the mucilage?
SAGEOr it's like jelly and it really isn't bad at all, but it isn't that good either. So some people make...
FRANKWhy wouldn't they make a commercial product out of it such, as you say, jellies or syrups or perhaps fancy lacquers?
KUMMERIt doesn't have that much flavor on its own, that's why. It's just a kind of encasing for the coffee seed. I've often wondered the same thing you have though because there's an enormous number -- there's an enormous amount of waste. Now, when it's dried by the so called natural process, which Joel was talking about just a few minutes ago, some of that mucilage -- I can't remember the nicer euphemistic word for it -- actually adheres to the bean, it dries on it, it slightly ferments and that's thought to add flavor.
KUMMERBut by most people and most coffee growers it is thought to be a possible contaminant. And it can -- there can be fungi in it and enzymatic damage. Therefore almost all coffee that we have is the so called washed process in which that stuff that you wondered about being thrown away is washed off with water. It's just rinsed off and thrown out. But I've never heard it -- sometimes I've seen it used for compost but no, I haven't heard of a secondary market.
NNAMDIFrank, thank you very much for your call. Speaking of compost, Corby, a lot of coffee drinkers have gone gaga for civet and the beans that are found in the droppings of a furry little animal that lives in Southeast Asia. Why are so many people willing to pay hundreds of dollars per pound for beans that were found in, well, dung.
KUMMERIt's the craziest thing. I mean, it's the hotter than hell night for habanera chilies, you know because they're daring themselves to have it. It tastes like nothing. It's gross. It's kind of sweet and flavorless. But the whole idea that it was in some animal's droppings and that it's really expensive, I just think it's a ridiculous kind of fetish item. Now, Joel?
FINKELSTEINYeah, it's hype. It's total hype.
NNAMDIAnd, Joel, while we are in hate them mode I hear that you've got a beef with restaurant coffee, that you find yourself continually disappointed by the coffee at fine restaurants. And spend enormous amounts of energy into every aspect of a meal until they serve you coffee.
FINKELSTEINYeah, and I understand it's a cultural thing. I mean, I know I went to a restaurant and I won't name it but we had this, you know, elaborate several-course meal that took two hours. And at the end of the meal we were offered coffee that was ground. And as Corby knows, you know, they had bought ground. As Corby knows that's a guarantee that it's stale. So it amazes me that restaurants who consider -- you know, put very -- a lot of thought into every ingredient they use, will use -- will serve coffee that's mediocre.
NNAMDIThe corollary to that theorem, Corby Kummer, is that you say you have literally been hurt by some of the food that you've eaten at coffee joints. Why do you think those painful experiences are so commonplace?
KUMMERDo you mean why is there such lousy food at too many coffee joints?
KUMMERBecause if they're focusing on coffee it's very hard for them to focus on food, is what it amounts to. And what Joel was just saying about restaurants is, you know, when you think about it wine comes in a bottle. And there aren't that many ways you can screw it up, though you can screw it up. There's a hundred ways you can screw up coffee in a restaurant. It takes a whole different training program, a whole bunch of equipment.
KUMMERSo when I go to a wonderful pastry shop, which I will do at the drop of a hat -- my motto is I brake for bakeries -- I don't really expect particularly good coffee. But I'll go out of my way to Qualia. I wish you'd just buy some good pastry. Do you?
FINKELSTEINWell, we do use a local baker who is pastry chef at some fine places. And we try to make everything that we serve sort of match the quality of the coffee.
KUMMERBut you know, there's something else when you mention it, Kojo. I haven't met many coffee people who particularly like pastries. They're not really interested in them. And so maybe that's part of the reason.
FINKELSTEINI mean, I would say it's really -- it's a hard thing to do. And if you're not doing it on site it's just a challenge.
NNAMDIJoel Finkelstein is the owner and head roaster of Qualia Coffee, a small batch roasting company and coffee shop in Washington D.C. Thank you for joining us. Corby Kummer is a Senior Editor of The Atlantic where he writes about food. He's written several books including "The Joy of Coffee: The Essential Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying." And, Corby, it was a joy to have you in studio.
KUMMERAnd to be here. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Summer slide, or the learning loss that occurs for students over summer break, is a problem affecting low-income youth in particular. How can educators, librarians, parents, and school systems fight it, and ensure young people stay intellectually engaged over the summer months?
Phoenix School in Montgomery County, Md. opened in 1979 to support students recovering from addiction. The school shut down in 2013, but advocates say it should reopen in response to the local opioid crisis.
Roosevelt Island, which lies between D.C. and Arlington in the Potomac River, recently reopened after the removal of about 200 diseased trees that were under attack by an invasive bug species -- the Emerald Ash Borer.