It’s a hard feeling to describe, all I can say is when you know you know.
My first time was in the then quiet city of Scilla. I was traveling up and down the coast looking for work. At least… any work that wasn’t tending to goats.
I’d been walking for days, my boots were wearing through to my socks and my body felt heavy. When I finally made it into town I poured myself over a bench and said aloud, ‘Aldo, tonight you eat a real meal.’ So I dragged my bones to the hotel across the street and ate a morzello so good it brought me to tears. Stomach full and nose blown I then said aloud, ‘Aldo, tonight you sleep in a real bed,” and so I reached down, deep down into my pockets, and found my last few coins. Just enough for the smallest room at the inn. I slept like a little bambino. I spilled out of bed, still half asleep, pulled on my boots and staggered down to the trattoria. Without saying a word, the Padrone rested a cup of caffe on my table and left. He must have noticed how deep I reached into my pockets the night before…
One sip, and it was as if a veil lifted from my heavy eyes! Flavor… What flavor! I could taste notes I never knew espresso had locked within. This was nothing like the caffe my papa would roast himself over the kitchen fire — intense and harsh. Instead, it was as bright and sunny as the costal sunrise.
Long story short, I apprenticed under the Padrone, met my future wife, lost everything, became a decorated barista, recruited into the CIA as a foreign operative, lost everything again, and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera… Stories for another time.
But for now, let me tell you what my years of experience and close study has taught me about achieving the perfect caffe.
1. Farming: Great caffe starts with great farms…
Ethics: One is often given a choice - do what's right, or save a buck. Where I come from, we say ‘Al povero mancano tante cose, all’avaro tutte’ - which roughly means, ‘the poor man doesn’t have many things, the greedy man has none’. I told the familia if you’re going to buy caffe, you pay the farms extra, you treat them like familia, and you help them invest in themselves.
Elevation: this is crucial to flavor notes and depth. Colombian caffe is grown over 1,500 meters (5,000 ft) above sea level. This change in light and oxygen gives the caffe brighter, more characteristic notes. Conversely, caffe grown in Hawaii under 900 meters (3,000 ft) is softer and mild.
Soil: the nutrients that feed a tree have a strong impact on growth, yield, and taste. Soil depleted of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium cannot grow healthy crops. It’s important for farms to maintain practices that allow the soil to recoup its lost nutrients in order to sustain healthy plants.
Ripeness: Beans must be sorted by hand, even today. An unripe bean can throw off an entire roast, so this is key. It is tedious and expensive work but its importance cannot be understated.
2. Roasting: I could write volumes...
Roasting is everything. You can do everything right, from seedling to harvest - roast it wrong and you’ve made garbage. The bean is trying to sing, you must roast it to the perfect key for your bean to sing its heart song. There’s no dark roast or light roast for a single bean, only the ‘right roast’ for its individual characteristics.
3. Grinding: What really grinds my gears?
Grinder Type: There are two methods of grinding, blade and burr. Blade grinders are a misnomer, as they actually cut the bean - and fairly inconsistently at that. For a consistent grind, I always recommend a good quality burr grinder.
Size: Depending on the type of brewing you're going to do, you may want caffe like dust or caffe like coarse sea salt. It comes down to water contact, heat, and sometimes pressure. Generally the smaller the grind the longer the water contact. There are of course expectations, we’ll go more in depth on this another time.
Uniformity: Equally if not more important than size, grind uniformity ensures the correct amount of oils are extracted from the bean and minimal silt added. If the grind is uneven, some particles will extract more oil than others - which can lead to bitter caffe. Very small particles called silt can also find their way into your caffe in methods not using a paper filter. This silt will result in a ‘chewy’ caffe - a thicker - stronger tasting effect often found in the french press method and metal filters.
Caffe Freshness: Whole bean caffe is fresh up to 6 weeks past its roast date. Ground caffe on the other hand is a little more volatile, and should be used within 30 days. All caffe should be stored in an airtight container. Caffe needs some time to de-gas (release CO2) and breath after roasting. That’s why you’ll see a small valve in the familia’s bags, contrary to popular belief, they’re not just there for a good sniff.
4. Brewing: The morning ritual we all know and love
This is complicated: There are many different methods and techniques to brewing caffe, I will follow up with more details on this soon.
5. Set & Setting: It’s everything
Where you are and who you’re with: What made that cup in the Trattoria so great? Was it the perfect bean, with the perfect roast, with the perfect brew? No. It was the beautiful city I was in, and the beautiful sleep I had just had, and the beautiful cool girl glancing at me from across the room. Good things happen when you’re in a good place.
That’s all I got. If you want more you’re gonna have to come back for it - but for now, Ciao.