The changing art of making coffee
Coffee roasters have always worked with complementary blends of beans and probably they always will. Yet in the past few years, there has been a surge in single origin coffees, drunk unblended, on their own.
These beans, typically exclusive and expensive, come from famous regions in coffee-growing countries or even from a small family-owned estate, where extra effort has been put into the growing, harvesting and processing of the coffee cherries.
For example, pickers might pass over different parts of the plantation several times to achieve optimum ripeness.
Single-origin beans might not be perfectly balanced in their own right, but that is partly the point – they are drunk precisely because of these quirks of character.
Coffee from the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia has such high acidity, for example, that it's probably way out of whack, but that acidity is why it smells so beautifully limey, especially when cooled to lukewarm.
"It's OK for things to have character. They don't all have to be the same," says Nick Clark, of Flight Coffee, citing the example of sauvignon blanc, which is celebrated precisely because it is big on acidity.
Flight Coffee, which is soon to relocate its roastery from Napier to Wellington, owns Memphis Belle, next to Te Aro Park, one of three single-origin coffee houses to have popped up in Wellington in the past two years, each to showcase the specialty beans of three of our artisan roasters.
Eleven months ago, David Lamason, brother of Matt Lamason, of Peoples Coffee, opened a brew bar at the bottom of the Lombard Parking Building.
Like Memphis Belle and Coffee Supreme's Customs Brew Bar before that, Lamason has a blackboard menu of six single origins, which changes as coffee seasons change in the various growing countries around the world.
The other thing that Customs Brew Bar, Lamason and Memphis Belle all have in common are filter coffee brewing alternatives to espresso, made in front of the customer in a natty, futuristic array of coffee gadgets.
Both the Chemex and the V60 use paper filters that were popular 30 years ago, while the impressive coffee siphons we see at Lamason were invented by Loeff of Berlin in the 1830s.
David Lamason imported his coffee siphon, which works on a vacuum principle, from Hario of Japan, the last maker of the coffee siphon.
He sampled their output in the coffee shops known as keisatan that he visited in Osaka while living in Japan.
Hario also manufactures the V60, whose cone paper filter is thinner than that of its predecessor, the Chemex.
Invented in 1941 by a scientist who wanted a clean cup of coffee, the thicker paper of the Chemex soaks up the bitter oils, but weakens the body.
Finally, there's the Swiss-made Swissgold, whose gold mesh (gold, because it has a neutral flavour) makes it the simplest filter of all, which does not require a barista to work it.
For that matter, says my namesake, veteran coffee roaster David Burton, there's nothing at all wrong with the plunger filters that probably 95 per cent of us have been using at home all along.
"There was a period when saying that would have branded you a heathen," he says.
Justin McArthur, of Supreme, puts it another way.
"We've become too espresso-centric in New Zealand – and Supreme is as guilty as the rest for fostering this, considering that 98 per cent of what we do goes into espresso bars," he says.
Espresso, he points out, replaced filter coffee from the likes of Robert Harris tearooms, and in the 1980s and 90s, was seen as modern and glamorous – it was the way to drink coffee, which was fine for the time. However, because espresso is so highly pressurised, it is the most violent, unforgiving way to make coffee, and requires a darker, higher-roasted coffee bean.
Espresso beans are typically roasted for long periods, until the so-called second crack – that second, snap, crackle and pop of the sizzling beans, which serves a final warning to the roaster that they aren't far off charcoal.
This is done deliberately, to mute the acidity in the beans, which the extreme pressure and concentration of espresso would render mouth-puckeringly unpleasant.
Hence espresso coffee beans are more about the bitter-sweet caramelised roasting profile than the inherent fruity acidity of the bean.
When at work, the roaster of single origin seeks to emphasise this with a significantly lighter roast, taking the beans out of the machine about halfway towards reaching the second crack.
Since the overall quality of coffee has risen in recent years, as picking and processing methods are better understood, Mr McArthur feels that he would not be doing justice to Supreme's single-origin beans by continuing to roast them for espresso.
Yet espresso is so ingrained in New Zealand life now that it is no surprise that Customs Brew Bar, Memphis Belle and Lamason all operate espresso machines alongside their filter gadgets.
"We are not saying our siphon coffee is better" says Mr Lamason.
"You can poach a salmon, or you can roast a salmon."
The Dominion Post