Recently my teenager got a taste for coffee. To stop him spending all his my money on four-dollar lattes, I dug a frostbitten bag of ground coffee out from the back of our freezer. It was a Starbucks Christmas blend a friend had brought for a dinner party the year before, because she knew all I ever had in the house was tea. As my kid started working his way though it, I watched in horror as he half-filled his mug with cream and shoveled in four or five spoonfuls of sugar each time. I smelled the bitter, musty grinds in my sorry stash and realized that use-by date might actually matter.
A devoted Earl Grey drinker, I had much to learn about making a proper cup of coffee. So on a recent trip to Rise—an independent takeaway coffee shop by Ryerson University in Toronto—I got a crash course from co-owner Alan Smith:
Sip around: There are approximately 50 coffee-producing countries in the world. To find out what you like, experiment. Alan’s favourite beans are from Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, and he usually kick-starts the day with Harrar longberry coffee. “It has beautiful blueberry notes, and a chocolaty-ness,” he says. In the afternoon he likes a Latin American coffee—often from Guatemala. “It has classic hazelnut notes and is very balanced, with smooth, subtle flavor.” In the evening? “Typically something from Indonesia. I love Papua New Guinea coffees.” Those have earthy, organic soil tastes and work well after heavier dinners comprising of dishes like steak or chocolate desserts.
Buy Sustainable and Organic: “Coffee is the most heavily sprayed food crop we import into Canada,” says Alan. It’s the leading cause of water pollution in coffee-producing countries, and it’s the second leading cause of rainforest destruction in the world, because rainforest wood is typically used to dry freshly harvested wet beans.
In organic coffee production, no toxic pesticides or fertilizers are used. The beans are shade-grown too, so the rainforest trees sheltering the coffee bushes provide a habitat and landing place for migratory birds.
The alternative is beans grown on hybridized trees bred to tolerate full sunshine. Monoculture methods were designed to make mechanical picking possible. “But coffee doesn’t grow naturally this way,” says Alan, “So to keep it alive, they have to pump it full of chemicals.”
Support Fair Trade: If small-scale farmers sell cherries(the fruits of the coffee plant) to a local buyer, they’ll get 8 to 15 cents a pound. The minimum price for fair trade cherries is $1.26. “By supporting fair-trade coffee, you’re guaranteeing that farmers stay on their land, keep investing in their farms and grow excellent coffee year after year after year,” says Alan. “Otherwise, those farmers have to borrow money at exorbitant interest rates to feed their families, send their kids to school and buy tools. When the debt gets too much, they sell their rainforest trees for timber, then move to the city. And the world’s best coffees disappear with them.
Store Beans Properly
Green beans go in the cupboard in a dark bag; roasted beans, in an air-tight container. While green coffee beans are shelf-stable for two to ten years, roasted coffee should be consumed within five to ten days of roasting, for peak flavour. The longer it sits after that, the more the oils in the coffee oxidize and turn rancid, creating a bitter flavour and for some people, causing an upset stomach.
Find a Local Roaster
“You want to get the coffee within two days of roasting,” says Alan, who works with 23 Degrees in Toronto. Buying locally roasted beans keeps transportation time down. “Companies like Starbucks do actually buy quite good quality coffee, but they roast it and ship it; it sits in a warehouse; and then it might sit in stores,” says Alan. “By the time you get it, it could be two months old—they’ll never get the perfect cup if they ignore the roasting step.”
Brew It Right
“You have to make sure your principles of brewing are appropriate—you don’t want to put an espresso grind into a Bodum press,” says Alan. The roasted bean must be ground to match the brewing method. Also, you should use freshly boiled water to extract the oils and flavour better. And once your coffee is brewed, drink it straight away—it will never taste great after a couple of hours in a Thermos.
Hit Your Personal Sweet Spot
The perfect cup of coffee, made from fresh-roasted beans, is full, sweet and delicious taken black. “Milk and sugar are often only there to disguise the bitterness of stale coffee,” says Alan. That said, at Rise, the goal is to make coffee drinking a happy experience for customers—not always the case in indie coffee shops, where staff can be eyebrow-raising jerks if you’re not ordering double espressos. The sugar at Rise is fair-trade cane (brown for its maltier flavor) and the milk, local and organic. Of the non-dairy options, a customer favourite is the Coconut Canadiano, made with espresso, hot water and coconut milk. And if you’re into alternative sweeteners too, Alan recommends honey for its rich, full flavor.
Don’t Feel Guilty
Coffee has been much maligned for its jitter-and-bad-breath-causing effects. But there are health benefits to drinking a few cups of the good stuff each day. It helps balance blood sugar blood sugar (when drunk black), has cardiovascular benefits, and fills you with antioxidants. Two to three cups a day is safe and healthy, and if you’re drinking the good stuff, you’ll feel satisfied enough not to crave back-to-back refills anyway.
Alan sent me home with a bag of freshly roasted beans, which Kiddo has been grinding every day. They smell kind of like chocolate and hazelnuts, making even me to make the switch from my beloved leaf to the bean.