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Monday, March 17, 2014

Growing Buzz

Afternoon Joe Dept.:  I visited the recent Coffee Fest at NYC's Javits Center, and filed this report for Metroland


HAVING MOVED FROM percolator to drip-brewer to French press, I see I’m still not preparing my coffee correctly. My beans are too old; I don’t have a burr grinder; I’m not preheating my coffee filters—because I should be drip-brewing the stuff—and my water isn’t pure enough and it’s probably too hot. It’s enough to drive you to tea. Provided you preheat the pot.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
More than 150 vendors gathered in a wing of Manhattan’s Javits Center last weekend to hawk their wares, and if there was any one thing I could identify as a trend it would be an emphasis on coffee as a tool for world betterment. When you have the “Coexist” bumper-sticker people involved, you can be sure something socially commendable is brewing. And where better to fuel any such revolution than in a coffeehouse? I don’t mean the prefab (and socially onerous) Starbucks variety, but your neighborhood hangout, where, since at least the 18th century of The Spectator, the coffeehouse has served as a place for intellectual discourse, the sea of Facebook-polluted laptop screens notwithstanding.

The Coexist Campaign sees its coffee as one of what will be many products grown through farming cooperatives. The coffee itself is grown organically and hand-picked in Uganda, roasted in the United States, and available in dark and light roasts and a decaf blend.

Café Kreyól’s beans are organically grown in Haiti, a site chosen by company founder Joseph Stazzone to benefit a badly ravaged country. Stazzone himself knows the challenge of turning a life around: He did hard time for a variety of felony convictions, found God while in prison and now runs a company that employs 850 Haitians working at nearly 40 farms.

Colombia is synonymous with coffee, and La Casa del Café produces single-origin roasts from beans grown in the Andes, in the west of that country. Again, the emphasis is on responsible farming and fair trade, but this time the story is about a company that gained its renown by twice taking first prize in a nationally sponsored contest held in Quindio. The company’s product is imported by Colombian Goodies, which adds other coffee-related products (have a chocolate-covered bean?) and snacks to the distribution list. 

Kopi Trading Co., recently founded by Jessie Hsia, who also writes the Eat Big Apple blog, grows beans in Indonesia, an area large enough to produce several different varieties (including one that’s civet-enhanced, which you can investigate on your own). They’re all single-origin, Arabica-bean coffees, but the differences in flavor well underscored the importance of the growing environment. The roasting environment, too. Kopi’s is roasted in Brooklyn, but some bean producers sell their product green and let you work out the rest of it. Ceremony Coffee Roasters was on-hand to offer its services. They’ll roast for you in their Maryland facility (where they have an adjacent coffeehouse) or sell you a unit for work or home.

Want to produce a good blend of the much-maligned decaf? The (Canada-based) Swiss Water process is preferred by many with better palates than mine, so I’m happy to see them offering their process to producers with potent beans. Want a cup before bedtime? Counting Sheep Coffee, I swear to you, adds valerian root to a light or dark decaf roast, so you probably should make it only a cup at a time.

Josuma Coffee Co. specializes in beans from India, sold green or roasted. They featured their Malabar Gold Supreme espresso at the show, and it was the finest espresso I’ve ever tasted, dark and rich and topped with an amazingly complex crema. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that they had a massive commercial-style (La Marzocco) espresso machine with which to draw my sample. And every few booths, I was blinded by another array of gleaming machinery, with touch screens (like the Egro One), lighted edges (Wega), bold colors (like the red Ruby, from Barcelona’s Quality Espresso) and just plain industrial handsomeness (Fama).

Tea too often suffers as an after-dinner drink. Few restaurants have a clue how to serve it, never mind what to serve. “So you sell a restaurant this product that you’re so proud of,” I said to one vendor, “and the place puts a cup of not-very-hot water in front of the customer and plunks the teabag down beside it. Doesn’t that piss you off?” The response was so sad, so extreme, that I forebore putting the question to any of the other tea purveyors.

Eco-Prima carries the gospel of sustainability into its extensive line of organic, fair-trade product. Connecticut-based Simpson & Vail offered sample sips of Victorian Earl Grey, with rose petals and lavender adding to the aromatic bergamot. Novus is an offshoot of Bigelow, providing a higher quality of tea in its teabags.

And what’s a coffeehouse without food? Although I’m sure I’d miss the crunch if I had only Giorgio Cookie Co.’s soft biscotti at hand, it’s an enjoyable change of pace. You already know KIND bars, but they’ve got something more cookie-like coming out. New York’s Macaron Café makes its much-loved wares available wholesale, and it’s funny how one can contrive to pass by the same sample-laden booth repeatedly.

Cook-in-the-cup oatmeal seemed all the rage, offered by at least three vendors. My favorite was Curry Up from Straw Propeller Gourmet Foods, in which, yes, instant oatmeal with raisins and cashews gets curry flavored.

Finally: milk and honey. Nice to see Hudson Valley Fresh, a consortium of ecologically responsible Hudson Valley dairy farms, reminding us that you’d better be putting good milk in good coffee. And Apis Honey is a superb, lightly filtered raw product from Ukraine, available in a variety of flavors, including a dark buckwheat and a unique linden honey. I tasted them just as the show was closing for the day, a sweet ending to an otherwise highly caffeinated event.

— Metroland Magazine, 13 March 2014

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