The Coffee Bird

The mid morning light cut and shimmered through the misty jungle air.
Things were quiet.  The canopy of leaves far above swayed in silence; a natural ceiling that barricaded the harsh light and protected the warm cradle of life below.  There was no noise, no breeze to shake the leaves, no movement to create the natural creaks and pops that are a part of this protected environment.  The bird listened, but heard nothing.  No enemies, no competitors, nothing for it to worry about.  The bird darted and rocked his head from side to side.  Back to the work at hand: it was time to eat.

The bird stepped along the edge of the wild canopy, looking for a crop that was near and dear to his heart.  It knew that just outside the bubble of the jungle canopy was something that would fill it’s empty gut.  Something juicy and rich, something that would break and yield in it’s powerful beak.  The round, red cherries of ripe coffee called to this bird, and it would answer.  Its hunger was only the first step in the strange voyage of the Jacu Bird Coffee Bean.

Eating Man’s Crops; drinking ….uh…

jacuThe bird, known as a “Dusky Legged Guan” reminds some of a dark, perhaps athletic looking chicken.
Unlike most wild foragers, this bird is free to wander among the crops carefully cultivated by Brazilian coffee farmers.  The bird only chooses the ripest, largest coffee cherries, and eats them one after the other.  It would seem common sense that such an attack upon a farm crop would mean brutal counter-measures by the local farmers.  But that doesn’t happen here.  The farmers have learned how to take lemons and make lemonade from a seemly bad situation.  Actually, they’ve learned how to take bird droppings and make very, very expensive coffee.

A Special Process…

Preparing coffee beans for export usually involves either a drying process that takes the ripe cherries and dries them on screens until the fruit can be removed, or a wet process where soaking does the majority of the work.  The idea is free the seed inside from the fruit that surrounds it.  The chicken – sized jacu bird of Brazil aids in the process by wandering the coffee fields, eating the nicest of cherries, and then naturally stripping them of their flesh while riding about in their gut.  The seed is then unceremoniously deposited; to be collected by excited farmers as a premium bean.  The “stripped” bean is washed and dried and otherwise prepared for export and “Jacu Bird Coffee,”  the coffee prepared inside a bird’s digestive tract.

What’s It like?

Some say it’s great, somehow changed by the enzymes found in the bird’s digestive tract.  Others say it’s about the same as any other Brazilian coffee.  But no matter the taste, Jacu Bird Coffee commands special attention and a special price.  It is obviously a coffee in limited quantities, and does command a premium wherever you might find it.  But what is nice to see is that man has learned to profit from the natural habits of the animals around him.  Instead of killing them off, the coffee farmers have turned the bird into a partner.  Farmer gets a special crop westerners will pay dearly for and the bird gets the bean.  Can’t ask for a better deal than that.

The Coffee Nazi

The One Cup to Rule Them All….

No coffee for YOU!

No Coffee For YOU!

In my life, there have been several moments when people have turned to me seeking guidance and help.  Most have been in my professional sphere, where quick decisions were needed or some strange bit of proprietary knowledge was required to help save the day.  I’ve found lately that such moments of total power come more often than before, but not because I’m smarter or better than anyone else here at work.  The power I hold comes in the form of a small, dark bean.   I hold the power of coffee.

Absolute coffee corrupts absolutely.

I will begin with the fact that my place of work has the WORST coffee on the planet.  This is not the fault of anyone here … they spend money and make the effort to provide us with the ingredients and equipment to attempt a drinkable cup.  The problem is the water, which is comes from limestone aquifers far underneath our feet.  It is terrible tasting, and is too hard to make anything but swill from even the best roasted bean.  So, I have taken it upon myself to provide a select few a good cup of coffee in the morning, made from “imported” water (East Texas will do) and some nice home roasted beans.  I use a chemex drip maker, which delivers a nice, bright cup.  As some say around here, I “murder” Starbucks.  I accept that description with pride.  But the problem is … once you have such power, the ability to have folks “ask” when you will grace them with another pot, things start getting out of hand.

The java junkies come to beg…

One becomes a bit of a coffee dictator of sorts.  A despot of the demitasse.  Who will I grace with a cup of “Gerry’s stuff” today?  Who deserves to be amped up with some nice Columbian or some nice Kenyan Peaberry?  The power becomes addictive, perhaps a wee bit dangerous.  I have visions of standing at my office door, coffee pot in hand, in a Soup Nazi smock.  “You clipped a mic on the cut-in … no coffee for YOU!”   I see myself as kindhearted and humble, but the call of the precious, precious bean …well, it makes one think a bit differently.  Precious…. my precious.   Where was I?  Oh, yes….

Perhaps a coffee lottery…

Or a mail-in essay, 500 words or less on why someone should get a cup of Peruvian Esparanza.  Maybe I can build a coffee wheel of fortune of sorts, where everyone’s picture is on the wheel.  Hmmm….. there must be away to make this democratic, a populist stance towards a decent cup of coffee for all.  Perhaps I should write Mr. Obama, perhaps he can help figure out a “coffee-care” plan that would relieve me from the life and death coffee decisions that now haunt me every day.  There must be an answer, as the java zombies now walk the hall in front of my office door, carrying an empty coffee mug and asking how my day is going.   This is when the power turns ugly, when the burden of the bean becomes too much.  I don’t want this power anymore, I must be free of it, before it consumes me too.

I will be strong, like a good espresso.

I will find an answer, a way to be fair and good with the caffeinated kryptonite that I control.   Perhaps I will increase my roasting output and deliver enough so that the masses can be satisfied.  Perhaps I will free myself of the petty concerns of my daily job and rise to the higher calling of the java evangelist, spreading the word of a good cup to those who have been deprived.

Maybe I’ll start charging.  Wait a minute … charging!

Hmmm….. !  🙂

Coffee Basics Tip #1

Coffee Brewing Basics

While I am off roasting up special batches of Sumatran and Costa Rican for next week, it dawned on me that the basics of coffee making are really simple.  There are a few easy steps that will nearly insure a good cup for anyone who wishes to follow them.  These steps don’t require hyper premium, single origin beans or three thousand dollar espresso machines.  These are basic things that you can do today to have a better cup tomorrow.  I will share them with you now.

Tip #1 – Something is in the water

The quality of the water is critical to how good a cup of coffee you can brew.  If you have hard, nasty tasting water, your cup will taste similar to yak poop, no other way around it.  Water in different areas come from underground sources like aquifers and wells, and that water soaks up a great deal of dissolved minerals.  I’ve you’ve ever tasted really irony or limey water, you know what I mean: it is just terrible.  These dissolved minerals don’t go away when you heat your water…. they taint you coffee cup’s flavor and aftertaste.

Buy some good stuff…

We’ve all seen the condemning news reports telling us how expensive bottled water is no better than ordinary city tap water.  That may indeed be the case, but what’s important is where that city tap comes from.  If you have water that is drawn mainly from rain-fed lakes and streams, you have water that is most likely soft, lacking dissolved solids we’re trying to avoid.  If you have water that comes from wet, swampy areas (Southern Florida comes to mind) that is even better:  this water has passed through a great deal of vegetation.  The water takes on a bit of tannin from the wood and vegetation, which has a positive effect on the resulting cup of coffee.  The water is slightly acid, which works magic on the coffee.  Don’t ask me for the scientific explanation, I don’t have one.  Just trust me, if you can get bottled “drinking water”  from areas with surface fed lakes and rivers, then you’re on your way.

Can I treat my city water?

What about a “Brita” filter or something similar?  It is possible to pull out the bad stuff that makes your water taste funny.  But I found these countertop/faucet mounted filters are limited in ability and capacity.   I found that I had to go all the way and buy a real, multistage filter to get all the stuff out.  Like this one:

This little set up makes chemically pure water
This little set up makes chemically pure water

The filter goes for under 100 dollars, will filter about 1300 gallons of tap water and give you absolutely pure water.  There will be no dissolved solids of any kind in the water…. much like perfectly done distilled water.  I don’t know if you’ve ever drank water like this, but it is weird:  It has no flavor at all, and you actually feel like you haven’t drunk any thing at all.  There’s no “quench” from this water.  Funny, but what it does do is yield a cup of coffee that is flavored purely by the bean.  Nothing to color the taste, it is a case of what you brew is what you get.  Is this preferred?  If you could make your coffee with South Florida water, I’d say no.  But if you have water with lots of dissoved solids in it and you don’t want to spring big money for special water, a little filter system like this is worth the trouble.  Click on the photo to be taken to the vendor who makes/sells these.  I’ve dealt with them for many years and they are straight shooters.

The relationship of water to your brew is very important.  Where you get it, or more importantly how it comes to you is critical for getting the most from your brews.  In upcoming tips, I’ll talk about making a great drip … with common coffee makers, and some no-s0-common coffee makers.

For The Love Of Coffee

The Loving Cup

My romance with the bean began over 20 years ago.

As with most things with love, it is best not to start too early.  A young heart in love with the bean will get the jitters, become overexcited, and eventually unbearably irritable.  I wasn’t a kid anymore when I really sampled my first home-brewed cup, and while it wouldn’t override my love for sweet diet colas and iced teas, I knew that a new door had been opened for me, a romance that would most likely never go away.

House Sitting

I was still a student at The University of Michigan when it happened.  I was house sitting for some friends; folks who lived rather far out of town.  It was a neighborhood where an illuminated house was a safe house, so these friends would invite house-sitters to stay and keep the place cozy while they were away.  For one 2-week period, I got to be the watchdog.

“House is FULL of food,” I recall them saying, “Have whatever you like, we appreciate you keeping an eye on things.”  I nodded and waved as they drove off, fully expecting to find all sorts of goodies to sample.  Eating mass quantities was a primary focus of my college days, so such an invitation would not go unused very long.  I recall padding over to the kitchen to check things out.

This was Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1982.  The echo of the 70’s still reverberated through this community, and the owners of this particular house were grad students who majored in the late 1960s lifestyle.  This meant that I was not going to find “french bread pizza” in the freezer.  I found sprouts.  Damn nice sprouts, but sprouts.  And big mason jars filled with dried beans.  And paper boxes with dried leaves and twigs.  This was not a house FULL of food, as was promised … it was a house filled with hippy organo-crops that looked more like the product of a John Deere tractor than the grocery store.

I was in trouble.  I was going to have to buy my own food while I was at the house.  I had limited funds, so I had to be particularly creative … I think this is where I found a full can of refried beans over corn chips and topped with cheeze could keep me going for at least a full day.  But there wasn’t a soft drink to be had in the place.  Nothing, since these kind homeowners probably grew their own wild teas and let them infuse using sun jars or similar non-sense.

Wait a minute….

While I continued to rummage for old packages of  Grape Kool-Aid, I spied a large, large glass jar.  I mean a really big glass jar, something that looked able to hold 2 or 3 gallons of cargo if properly filled.  I noted the contents to be dark and mottled looking, filled nearly to the top.  The jar was filled with dark, shiny coffee beans.  Hmmm….coffee.  I remember my father enjoying cuban coffee in the afternoons when he got home from work.  He really liked them…more like needed them, really.  I peered through the side of the jar, twisted the lid open, and stuck my face near the open mouth.


Just one sniff.  One little sniff, that’s all it took.  It was like that first kiss, that twinkle in perfect eyes, that first uncertain smile.  In just one deep inhale, the love of coffee took root.  There was no turning back.  I took a single roasted bean in my hand and rolled it back and forth.  I would not have been able to tell you what sort of bean it was, or anything about the roast, other than the small round object was smooth, brown and sported a nearly iridescent sheen.

A few minutes later, I was at the coffee grinder in the kitchen.  It was an ancient affair, a manual deal with a crank at the top and a catch box at the bottom.  I tossed in some beans, twisted the crank, and even more of that wonderful smell filled my lungs.  I hadn’t even brewed a cup, yet I knew I was going to really like this coffee thing.

To make a long story as short as possible, I will save the trial and error associated with actually brewing the stuff.  I probably made a ton of errors and wound up with a cup half way to 30 weight motor oil.  I tossed in several heaping spoonfuls of sugar, and started to toss the stuff back.

I recall working on a term paper, perhaps a review of a movie I had watched for a class.  The normal drudgery of hand pecking papers out on my Brother typewriter seemed to lift that night; it became fun to fly across the keys and type all the movie-related drek that popped into my highly caffeinated brain.  The big secret of coffee suddenly became clear to me:  If you drink enough of it, you become …superhuman.

“Man, this is really good stuff,”  I mumbled to myself in that modest country shack in Ypsilanti, “I gotta have some more of that, and I gotta have it NOW.”

A week later, my home owners came back.  They found their sprouts intact, looking rather tired in the fridge.  The same was true for the tofu, the goat’s cheese, and the organically grown dry pinto beans.  The trash was filled with McDonald’s styrofoam and french bread pizza boxes.  There were also several large mounds of spent coffee grounds.  One of the homeowners stood gasping at the nearly empty 3 gallon jar of expensive coffee beans.

“That was pounds of coffee,” my landlord-warden shouted.  He wasn’t happy I had sucked up all his expensive java.

“Oh, is that a lot?” I said politely, “I don’t usually drink coffee, but I had to do something to keep from starving in this 1960s hippie shack.  Sorry ’bout that.  Great coffee though.”

And so my love of coffee began with a wild, wild week of abandon one spring in the early 1980s.  It was a romance of reckless, perhaps excessive indulgence, boiling hot and filling my senses with memories so intense that they stay with me to this day.  That’s the week my love for the bean began, a relationship that continues unabated to this day.

I’ve put in a lot of time with the bean since then.  I’ve also had a lot of fun learning how to roast, grind and make the best cup I can.  I am not a barrista, so don’t ask me for one of those multi-syllabic concoctions that look more like ice-cream than a cup of joe.  I’m just here to make a damn good cup of coffee.

I hope you are too.