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Coffee is about taste.

In my first substantive piece on coffee, which you can read here, I elaborated on how coffee epitomizes a sense of “place.” That is still true to the core; “where” we drink our coffee affects our perception of the coffee we drink. Coffee is an experience that, at times, goes beyond what is contained in the mug itself, drenching our senses with the surrounding atmosphere of where we partake in our coffee sipping. Transcendence is the optimal word to describe coffee, in which our minds travel freely in the midst of memories and thoughts intermingled with every mug we have ever held in our hands.

Perhaps this is why we have come to expect so much of coffee. Specialty roasters introducing enticing, single-origin offerings from the most exotic of farms along the equator, a disdain for internationally chained coffee shops, and an uprising of local, quality-focused cafes armed with highly trained and sophisticated baristas have contributed to our growing expectations of coffee experience. Given such expectations, recent articles criticizing Michelin-starred restaurants serving Nespresso pods, and charging small fortunes, are not surprising. This is a crime against humanity. A restaurant’s coffee, especially if proud Michelin stars hang by its name, should be on par with its food. If the bill requires me to pull out Benjamins, serving me a Nespresso pod I can sip for free at the Williams-Sonoma shop down the street is absolute nonsense. Coffee at the end of a meal should be nothing short of the pinnacle of pleasure. Pods and capsules are lame letdowns, air whooshing out of a balloon. Deflating, deflating, deflating.

Along this line of thought, it would undoubtedly make sense to expect an extraterritorial coffee experience at Noma – the number one restaurant in the world, touting a newly revamped coffee service to match its renown for mind-blowing creations, such as fried sea moss and fermented crickets. Surely, the number one restaurant would conjure exotic coffee porn worthy of its culinary magic. Surely, the number one restaurant would awe us by serving a cup of beans extracted from cat fecies, freshly grounded and brewed table side, in a vacuum, by an astronaut. That would scream innovation. Surely, the number one restaurant would not bring out a V60 and do the whole hand-pour fad thing. That would never scream innovation.

That is exactly what Noma did. According to the coffee blog Dear Coffee, I Love you, Noma recently revamped its coffee service to match its four hour long, $400 dining experience. The initial result of such revampation is as follows: head sommelier Mads Kleppe using an 03 size V60 to brew Kenyan beans sourced and roasted by Tim Wendelboe, winner of the 2004 World Barista Championship (read the full article here for an in-depth culinary and coffee experience at Noma). Beans are seasonally sourced and roasted to match the seasonal menus. In particular, I took great interest in the fact that one was guided and seated at a separate post-meal lounge, just for the coffee, and that the coffee was decanted in custom-designed brown glassware before serving. Artisanal brewing on the V60, extra care in decanting, and served in beautiful mugs.

While admirable, what sparked my conscience on “coffee and innovation” resides elsewhere, on an article posted on an “espresso news and reviews” blog, arguing that Noma’s table side V60 coffee service does not live up to the restaurant’s reputation, “as if high cuisine has fallen for the pour-over coffee fad rather than trying to chart its own course.” (you can read the full article here) A restaurant has been heralded as the world’s best for three consecutive years, the executive chef announces that he is revamping its coffee service, and after four hours and too many courses to remember, one expects big things from the coffee. But the author of the “Dear Coffee, I Censor You” article misses entirely the point of coffee and innovation. The author is displeased that the number one restaurant has settled for a V60 “fad” that has sprung up in the last few years among any old around the block wannabe third wave coffee shop. The author expected more. But what fuels this expectation? Would cricket coffee be less of a fad and more of an innovation?

To begin, what is “innovation” anyway? What does it mean to innovate? What can be defined as innovative? Perhaps something new, something not seen or experienced before. Perhaps taking something old and transforming it, giving it new life. Perhaps it needs a “wow factor,” that light bulb in one’s head, that “aha” moment. For the sake of food and culinary history, cooking methods have evolved over time to make ingredients taste better. Ancient humans consumed raw meat at first, before the discovery and use of fire. Then one day, they thought ‘hey, why not put this hind leg of gazelle over an open fire’ and voila, meat cooked over flames, the char and the fat dripping off, has been loved since. These ancients did not sit around and watch the burning fire: they ate the meat. In the coming generations, man tweaked his fire techniques to better roast the meat, to create maximum taste from the meat. What the hell is innovation as it pertains to coffee, then? It must be “taste.”

Noma is all bout “taste.” Its seemingly innovative ingredients and cooking methods are chosen and executed to bring about innovative “taste.” Accordingly, the chosen beans (Kenya) and brewing method (V60 pour-over) were precisely called out of the bench and into the game because they bring about great “taste” to accompany a great-tasting meal. Innovation for the sake of innovation is useless. There is no need for rocket science brewing for rocket science brewing’s sake. When did we start needing circus acts to enjoy a cup of coffee? When did we start expecting circus acts to enjoy a cup of coffee? The coffee experience need not look like a damned AP chemistry lab. As one may observe, the word used here is “experience,” not “experiment.” An innovative coffee experience means one will enjoy a great tasting cup of coffee, period; the road one takes to reach that great cup is varied on a wide spectrum, but the road itself is never centerfold in the coffee experience. It is just the road. Noma’s coffee acts as a sub-part to its overall dining act; the coffee compliments the food. The room in which the coffee is brewed and served compliments the food. The vessels in which the coffee is decanted and served compliments the food. After all, it is a restaurant. If this revamped coffee experience (beans, roast, brew method, service vessel and atmosphere) accentuates the food, then the coffee is innovative. Also, to Noma’s credit, the coffee was served with a chocolate-dipped potato chip and a bone marrow infused caramel (what?). Even these accoutrements, undoubtedly, were served with the Kenyan coffee because they accentuated each other in the best of ways, not for the sake of infusing bone marrow with caramel, although that is truly innovative on its own merits.

For black coffee lovers, there are two broad categories of brewing techniques: (1) full immersion, and (2) filtered. There are other methods that take both of these into consideration, such as the syphon and the aeropress. One’s brewing method of preference depends on one’s preference for coffee “texture”; if one enjoys, a more dense, thick texture, with a fuller taste, full immersion methods, like a French press, best suites ones desires, which allows the coffee’s natural oils are “immersed” into every yielding drop. If one enjoys a lighter, cleaner, more crisp texture and taste, filtered methods, like a Hario V60, best suites those desires. More importantly, brew methods differ from bean to bean, and from roast to roast, to draw out the best flavors of each batch. And much like sommeliers and their wines, “coffee pairing” is also emerging, in which coffee is matched with food, both savory and sweet. Nothing surprising there, as the hundreds of varieties of coffee each have unique characteristics that lend themselves to different dishes. For example, with a medium rare bone-in rib eye steak, I prefer more bright and acidic beans, perhaps Ethiopian, to accentuate the steak’s richness. With sweets, such as pies and cakes, I prefer more medium to dark roasts, with fuller bodies and cocoa notes. This is coffee innovation centered almost entirely on taste, not a cat-shit-coffee-brewed-in-a-vacuum-by-astronaut science project.

The brewing method is a mean to an end. The method can be a single “particle” of the show, but it is never the show itself; the cup of coffee you put in your mouth at the end, that is the show. To be fair, some brewing methods are downright innovative and fun to watch. Hell, have you seen someone work a syphon? All that glassware and heat lamp action is beyond sophistication. That moment when gravity pulls the immersed coffee down through the filter is a great pleasure to look at, let alone taste. This performance has a purpose, to brew a cup that incorporates both a full immersion body and a filtered crispness. That said, even syphons and other outer space methods serve only as means to that golden end we all search for – a good cup of coffee.

It is possible that some day in the future of coffee brewing, there will be some new and fascinating way to brew coffee that will shock our taste buds. But in the meantime, certain brew methods are loved and used repeatedly because they yield the best cup. Steak still tastes the best when its flame-kissed, right? One does not take a dry-aged, luscious cut of meat and dump it in a boiling pot of water for the sake of doing just that. If, for unimaginable reasons, boiling steak results in better taste, go for it. Yet this is highly unlikely. Flame-kissed. Very few things have changed in that department. This truth also applies to coffee. The pour-over method is no fad, as the Melitta cone has been around for a century, and the Chemex is over seventy years old. The popular nature of a brewing or cooking method does not devalue the method. On the contrary, it heightens its value. “Boundaries of the culinary world” are bent and broken by ingredients and methods that have been proven over time. Yes, fried reindeer moss and fermented crickets do not typically fit the definition of “popular nature,” but using dried ice on every other dish and topping everything with nasty and pointless foam is not innovative either. Under this definition, even Starbucks is capable of innovation, coming up with their blond roast, which just means they managed not to double burn the hell out of their beans. Does not change the fact that it sounds funny to step up to the counter at seven a.m. to order “two tall blondes.”

One may argue (meaning the author of “Dear Coffee, I Censor You) that coffee’s boundaries will never be pushed using a simple V60. But then you are doing it wrong. To utilize the best characteristics of a V60, it makes more than a scale and a blog post to follow. It is not something “every wannabe third wave coffee shop has been pumping on every street corner in every coffee-aware city in the world for the past several years” (quoting Dear Coffee, I Censor You). You need to do it right. The perfectly roasted been, under two weeks old, the perfect, even grind, the perfect water temperature just off the boil, the perfect bloom, the perfect timing. It takes perfection. This required perfection is what creates innovation in coffee. That light bulb in your head after that first sip, or on some mornings, that slap-in-your-face flavor you get after a perfectly brewed cup of coffee, is what draws out that “holy shit” shit expression, which, translated, means “innovation” in coffeese. After a great meal, you are led to a “coffee lounge” (that sounds sexy), presented with a carefully picked Kenyan batch that has been specifically chosen to match the food you just devoured with all five senses, and handed a hand-poured cup in a custom-made mug designed to help you reach coffeegasm. Take that first sip, and if your first thought is “why the hell is he using a V60,” something is terribly wrong. Coffee innovation is spoken through the final liquid itself. If one expects a show, Vegas is open twenty-four-seven, and one would not be surprised to find exploding capsules of coffee somewhere on that strip. But this is not the essence of coffee. Not even at the world’s number one restaurant. No coffee porn fantasies here. Just coffee.

This is in line with what I have written previously on coffee; you pay for the experience, the atmosphere associated with coffee. You’re in Copenhagen, in a specially decorated coffee room, sipping hand-poured Kenyan coffee, nibbling on bone marrow infused caramel. Digesting, relaxing, reflecting on that incredible meal you just had. This is priceless aurora resulting in a highly innovative and non-duplicative coffee experience. Much like that cup of Ethiopian coffee I had on the shores of Haewoondae beach in Busan, after stuffing myself with the best bulgogi in the world at Uhnyang Bulgogi. Coffee, in signifying “place” and “circumstance,” also signifies innovation. The process of brewing that perfect cup of coffee, from the harvest, the washing and drying, the roasting, the grinding, and the brewing of the beans, is nothing short of a miracle. The masterful end product, black liquid gold, is at the pinnacle of innovative beings, even without the presence of unnecessary circus acts. The coffee itself, while arguably the most important criterion when discussing coffee, need not always be the center focus of an “experience.” Where one drinks it, with whom, after eating what, in what the coffee is placed in – all of this adds insurmountable value to the overall coffee experience. Innovation is place. Innovation is people. Innovation is the pairing of coffee with food. Innovation is in the vessel. One need not look further. Innovation is right there, in the cup in front of you.

After all, fermented cricket coffee would taste like, well, fermented cricket.

“Place” is associated with just about everything that our senses come across. In whatever activity our body and mind take part in, we do so in a “place”; whether or not one recognizes or appreciates such a phenomenon is an entire dialogue on its own. Our daily commute takes place somewhere (train, subway, bus, parking lot-like I-66); our work takes place somewhere (cubicle, hole-in-the-wall, highrise); our mingling chatter takes place somewhere (sidewalk, bar, lunch line at the salad place that for some reason always has a line); our gastronomic activities take place somewhere (Korean deli, at my desk in front of a computer monitor, Indian lunch buffets with unnamed but delicious curry creations).

Coffee epitomizes the imprinting power of place. In turn, place symbolizes an attached ambiance, a feel, a mood, a hue associated with the place that holds the coffee.

A vast number of coffee drinkers, for decades, drank coffee not only for the sake of coffee, but more so for the attached ambiance. The price one paid for a cup of black liquid gold was not limited to the beans themselves, but included the chair one sat in, the light fixtures above one’s head, and the streaming music. I recall, as a youngster in Korea, a time when (before the onslaught of Starbucks and other chains) coffee shops were referred to as “dabang.” These peculiar establishments – now almost unheard of, practically extinct – were the preferred meet-and-greet points for just about any occasion, particularly for blind dates. The servers slash waitresses, affectionately referred to as “madame,” played the roll of hostess more than a mere server. Patrons oft returned to a said dabang just for a renowned madame’s company.

And the coffee. Dabang establishments have left a permanent imprint on Korea’s coffee culture, a tattoo-like presence. The term “dabang coffee” is still used when one would like to sip a cup with cream and sugar, with more cream and sugar. Coffee was first introduced in Korea to the royal family at the start of the twentieth century, and as the beverage began to take to the masses, the unfamiliar and rather bitter taste of this black liquid was understandably pacified by the inclusion of cream and sugar. Like other cultures, coffee was enjoyed as an after-meal splurge, a sugary exclamation point, acting more as a dessert than anything else. The popularity of “Americanos” and black drip coffee is only recent history on the Peninsula. The lasting impact of said dabangs can still be reminisced by Korea’s love for instant coffee; convenient one-pack-a-cup sticks with ground coffee, powdered cream, and sugar.

Coffee influences where and how we converse with one another. Where once a dabang hosted blind dates, a Starbucks or Coffee Bean stands to host chitchatting college students in Gangnam. A lasting similarity, though, is the relatively muted interest towards the coffee itself; as it was decades ago, one pays for one’s seat and right to chat in that specific ambiance.

Greeks had their own association with coffee, as painted here by Nikos Kazantzakis:

“I took a seat in a kafeneion. The coffee and water came. Today is Sunday, services are over, and now the householders proceed to the square. Dressed in their Sunday best, grim and pompous. They sit down, light their cigarettes, sip water and wait with faces turned toward the north. What are they waiting for? The newspapers from Athens. React to the order around you, resist the current, say no! when all those around you are murmuring yes; this is one of the most demanding obligations of a soul that lives in a bankrupt era. Consonance and balance are fertile virtues in creative times; but when the historical moment of dissolution is at hand, a great struggle is needed to keep your soul in order. In order to catch hold, not to be swept away, a good method is to concentrate your mind on a great soul, one which sprang up and blossomed in your native soil. Today as I sit in the Tripolitan coffeehouses watching the people and listening to their talk, I sense that if I were a young man living in Tripolis, I would concentrate – in order to save myself – upon the rich, aggressive, cunning and valiant soul of Kolokotronis.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, Journey to the Morea).

Throughout his account of his travels through Greece, Kazantzakis was intrigued by the the substance of people’s conversations while they sipped coffee. Not even “sipped,” but often his subjects would order a coffee, a couple glasses of water, and converse; the sipping of coffee is rarely mentioned in his narrative. The Greeks of the Peloponnesos, awaiting news from Athens, debated politics and the economy; they spoke of struggle, of resistance, of bleak hope. Coffee was the perfect vehicle to deliver such conversations. In the midst of political chaos and uncertainty, the “kafeneion” served as the vehicle of mutual gatherings – whether or not the coffee was consumed was secondary. And the Greeks seemed fond of their glass of cold water with their coffee; reason not elaborated by the author, but indeed for some purpose. Coffee, water and cigarettes, inseparable trio for conversation, at least for the Greeks.

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Coffee’s sense of place, and its vehicular role of delivering conversation, does not always lack a rising truth: the quality of the coffee. One speaks of paying for the coffee shop ambiance, the seat and the lights, a gathering place of political discourse. But now more than ever, the “taste” of the coffee itself has a sense of “place.”

The cold-brewed coffee transforms one’s perception of the standard morning buzz or after meal coffee; the art of “culinary coffee” should be increasingly appreciated. La Colombe Torrefaction, a personal favorite, steeps its dark Corsica blend for sixteen hours in stainless steel wine tanks, resulting in its Pure Black creation with an ultimate clean and crisp coffee. Its subtle cocoa tones rest profoundly on one’s tongue – throughout the meal, and specifically with red meat. Coffee and meat, lamb chops or a bone-in rib eye for instance, are excellent partners in crime. The natural sweetness in cold-brew coffee sublimely tosses around the iron and fat in a bloody steak. A few swings of the steak knife and a chug of coffee transports one’s senses to Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, wherever the coffee beans have been grown and hand-picked.

Culinary coffee allows a profound shift in the “place” of coffee. No longer limited to the dabang, the Starbucks, or kafeneion, coffee now roams freely from table to table, across cuisines, to be enjoyed in conjunction with a culture’s specialty dish or mom’s home cooking. Coffee’s notes and flavors are vast and numerous like the Greek gods, each with a variant fury. Matching a bottle of some French wine with a Chilean sea bass (which is, by the way, endangered) drenched in truffle oil should now be as ancient and antiquated like the ruins of Corinth. Culinary matching now breathes in the fresh wisp of fresh-ground coffee or a “cold one” from steel wine tanks. The vast bean varieties from growing regions all across the globe presents an unexplored “black ocean” within the art of food.

Some say we are what we eat. One must add that we are what we drink, where we drink, and to what purpose we drink to. Coffee signifies place. Valuation shall not be shortchanged only by the beans’ price tag, or with the real estate associated with the chair one sits in to enjoy such coffee. True valuation, like good coffee, shifts – from table to counter top to cafes and the streets. Where we drink will always add value. With whom we drink always adds conversation, with its own scale of values. What we drink (region, bean, roast, brewing method) levitates our coffee experience beyond our physical presence and transports coffee’s sense of place to unseen and unknown plateaus. In all aspects, coffee is the medium in which one finds common ground where none previously existed, orating stories of people and their places, echoing those efforts of Homer himself.

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