Sunday, March 06, 2005



Starbucks was giving away free samples (whole beans) of a coffee they call, "PANAMA -- LA FLORENTINA".

The short version: I liked it!

I evaluate coffees by the following criteria:

a- Do I like the taste
b- Does it give me a headache (French Roast usually does)
c- Does it wake me up or not
d- Does it keep me alert
e- Does it overdo it and give me a coffee buzz.

The medium sized version: I liked the taste, it did not give me a headache, it did wake me up and I stayed alert without a coffee buzz. It did well on all five tests!

I looked up some web sites on coffee. The ones I found had too many chemical compounds listed, with little indication of the effect of those compounds on my 5 tests. Worse, even the way they tested the effects of the coffee's chemicals were irreproducible at home. So that was useless research.

There were some books that were a little more helpful. (eg Mary Ward, "The Top 100 Coffee Recipes -- A Cookbook for Coffee Lovers" -- It's the introduction, not the recipes, that made this book useful.)

The extent of detailed knowledge about different beans, coffee chemistry, and methods of preparing coffee is impressive and voluminous, but mostly more frustrating than useful. Because little of the history (roasting method and date, specific location of harvesting...) and specific nature of the bean is available to the consumer. (Kenyan from Elgon? Kenyan from Blue Mountain coffees that originated in Jamaica? There's no way to find out, for most sources of coffee. -- Starbucks does have some information on their website about their coffees. Check, for example, the information on "PANAMA -- LA FLORENTINA", and "KENYA").

There are a lot of variables in the way coffee actually tastes. And it is real hard -- unless you are a very serious coffee drinker -- to control most of those variables. Some of the issues are:

a- The kind of coffee bean and the way it was roasted
b- How long it has been since the bean was roasted
c- How long it has been since the coffee was ground, how finely was it ground -- and how it has been stored
e- What method was used to make the coffee (perk, drip, French press...), what temperature was the coffee steeped at, how much coffee was used, and how long did the coffee stay in contact with the water
f- What kind of cup is used for drinking (wax and plastic cups can "contribute" to the taste)
g- How clean is the cup, the grinder, and the bin where the coffee was stored (if you get it at the supermarket, the bin probably has traces of older, stale coffee, and more than one kind of bean -- including possibly remnants of flavored coffee beans)
h- What kind of water (tap, bottled) is used for the coffee
i- How long it has been since the coffee was brewed, and whether it was re-heated
k- What kind of milk, cream, creamer -- and how much (if any) -- is mixed with the coffee
l- What sweeteners and flavors are added to the coffee -- and how much.

Each of these factors makes a significant difference in the way the coffee tastes. Freshness, cleanliness, and high quality ingredients are very important.

Purists get fresh unroasted beans from a specialty coffee supplier, and know exactly how they like to roast the beans (themselves) and grind them, and have a consistent method of brewing the coffee.

I simply grind beans from Starbucks or get Columbian from a supermarket and use a funnel drip with bottled water. I get inconsistent results that usually vary from OK to pretty good. I am never exactly sure why one cup is better or worse than another. My guess is that it depends a lot on the condition of the beans I get from the store, and a little on changes in the temperature of the water, the amount of coffee I use, and how finely I grind it.

(In my own anecdotal experience, it also makes a difference what time of the day I have the coffee; whether it is the first cup or I've already had coffee; and what I'm eating with it.)

The cup of Florentina was stronger than Columbian beans from a supermarket, but milder than most Starbucks coffees. I suspect it was fresher -- more recently roasted -- than most of the coffees I use, because it was considerably richer in flavor.

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