My friend Matt invited me to have lunch with him and a friend of his. Said we had a lot in common and had shared some stories about me to him and wanted to put faces to names. I thought sure, that’d be great! Someone else who’s into sustainability, air quality and coding! Little did I know that I was also about to meet (perhaps) the worlds most passionate coffee enthusiast.
I don’t know how it came up during our lunch conversation, but it did somehow. We were talking about our coffee habits and one thing led to another and he’s invited us back to his home a short walk away from this hole-in-the-wall restaurant that are so common in China. They, more often than not, happen to have some of the best Chinese food in the world.
Just to clarify here, I considered myself to be a coffee connoisseur of a sort. I like to buy my coffee from a local roaster here in Dalian (Brian of Legacy Coffee), carefully selecting from his offerings of beans from Africa and South America and so on. Then I grind my coffee just like your average coffee drinker, and most times I’ll grind enough for a few days’ worth of coffee. Then I’ll pour a few scoops into my French press, pour in boiling water, wait about 7 minutes, then drink it black.
So we go over to his place, he pulls out a couple extra chairs and begins preparing the coffee. Little did I know, my new friend had started making this cup of coffee perhaps as early as one week ago when he roasted his 42nd batch of beans! Now, my new friend has a bit of a background that lends to his current taste for coffee, which happens to be of the espresso genre. Originally from the southern U.S. but having lived abroad for decades in places like the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, or in Spain or most recently China for a spell of years, he has developed his taste for coffee in a very interesting way that manifests itself in distinct ways, all of which I can’t claim to have picked up.
Before doing anything else, he pulls out a precision scale, places a cup on it, tares it, and measures out the exact amount of water, then pours it into a relatively small, char-blackened container smaller than your two fists. He continues by measuring out 18 grams of dark, oily coffee beans which just so happen to come from the Yunnan province of China. A place that has gotten the attention of such names as Nestle and even Starbucks for coffee exploitation because of the currently under appreciated yet high quality of their beans.
Once he had measured out the beans, he poured them into the container of a small rickety hand mill with a crank on the top whose handle had been inverted and wooden box base removed to instead be sitting on top of a modified pvc pipe fitting and held in place by his hand. After grinding some, he stops for a moment and indicates a box sitting next to me. He explains how this grinder is supposedly one of the best hand mill coffee grinders available on the market, but that his old grinder makes a better cup of coffee, so he doesn’t use it.
After grinding all the coffee he takes out a small wire-mesh strainer and begins working the coffee grounds through it with the backside of a spoon, weeding out grains that are too large and pouring them back into the grinder for a second pass. He also suspects grating the coffee through the strain to have some additional affect this has on the quality of the coffee, but is only speculative. After sifting and grinding a couple of more times, he was left with only a small amount of coffee that wouldn’t get any smaller no matter how many times it was passed through the grinder.
He then began to systematically, almost ritualistically pack the coffee grounds into a circular container, one scoop at a time, tamping down all around the rim before finally tamping down the middle and adding another scoop. He did this one ata time until the container was full and all the coffee grounds had been used. He then sat the container into the top of the water pot, and screwed on the top part, which resembled a kettle. If you looked inside it, you would see an up spout through which the brewed coffee percolates. He places this on the stove.
In the meantime he prepares the coffee cups, which were two vase-shaped glass shot glasses essentially, and then a porcelain shot glass. Him and Matt use their regular glasses, and I got the shot glass. Matt’s glass was clean and clear, our friend’s was tinted brown. He doesn’t like to wash his. They take theirs with some sugar substitute derived from birch bark.
He then pours out an opaque, dark-brown colored coffee into our respective cups. The smell is delightfully rich and there’s a glossy sheen on top from the oils. The first couple of sips adjust my palate to the bitterness of the coffee that I love, but I immediately notice the smooth mouthfeel and lingering aftertaste. Eventually, my tongue begins to distinuigsh the richness and depth of the flavor. I’m not adept enough to tell you exactly what it was that I was tasting, but I do know an amazing cup of coffee when I get one and this was definitely that, at least! At most, perhaps the most finely crafted cup of coffee I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking.
We enjoyed the coffee while talking in chemistry and engineering lingo about the contributions and concentrations of suspended solids and particulate matter in the coffee, and of his experiments where he evaporated the water out of a sample of brewed coffee and compared the mass of what remained to the original mass of the coffee and the remaining mass of the dried coffee grounds used to brew the coffee.
I witnessed something beautiful today watching this 70-years-young man prepare coffee for me. I said to him that it had been a privilege to try his coffee, and a pleasure to watch someone prepare with such passion. He responded by saying, “It isn’t passion, it’s fire.”