THE DAILY GRIND

If you want really good coffee, you have to start from scratch.

Jim Edwards used to drink coffee the way many people do-for the aroma and the morning pick-me-up. Coffee was nothing special, but it was always essential. Then he received a package from a friend who managed a plantation in Venezuela. It contained 100 pounds of something he’d never seen before: green coffee beans, fresh and unroasted. A note was enclosed telling him he should place about a pound at a time in a heavy iron pan and heat them, with frequent turning, until they were a uniform deep brown. He did. There was a heavy smell he’d never before detected. “It lingered in the house,” he says. “But that was nothing compared to what happened when I brought it down to the A & P in Snider Plaza to get it ground: When those beans hit that machine warm, the entire store was permeated with the smell. You couldn’t believe it. Everybody in the store was asking what it was.”

It was fresh-roasted coffee, plain and simple. And it was coffee Edwards says tasted “100 times better” than any he’d ever drunk before. He suddenly realized there was something missing in his morning coffee routine: It was the taste of coffee itself-the nuttiness, the acidity, the slightly burnt flavor that all fade rapidly after roasting and which can only be captured from fresh coffee.

That was five years ago, and today Edwards grouses about the unavailability, in Dallas, of green beans to take home and roast (in late December, he was expecting, through “a contact,” to receive a 100-pound bag of green Jamaican). But Edwards is an extremist.

You don’t need green beans-just the best fresh-roasted beans. There are no coffee companies in Dallas that roast a variety of first-quality beans daily and sell retail to the public, but a growing number of gourmet coffee and tea shops offer whole-bean coffee that ranges from stale to extremely fresh. And even if you hit a mediocre batch at a local coffee shop, the flavor and aroma when you grind and brew it will be at least three times as good as a freshly opened can of supermarket vacuum-pack.

Unless it is marked otherwise, supermarket coffee is a blend. Inferior beans may be added to stretch the top-quality or even medium-quality beans. (This accounts for the occasional “bad” can of your favorite brand.) A can of coffee that says “Colombian Blend” may not contain much Colombian coffee. Even if it does, not all Colombian is good; there are lackluster crops sold by even the finest coffee-producing regions.

Whole-bean coffee from a store whose business is primarily to sell coffee is usually of high quality. The beans are generally named after their countries of origin: Kenyan, Guatemalan, Colombian, and so on. The exceptions are coffees that are roasted to a national preference, such as French Roast, which is often a Colombian or Colombian / Brazilian blend simply roasted darker than normal to produce a hearty black brew.

Unlike supermarket canned coffee, the beans are available for inspection. If they don’t look dried out, are not broken, appear fairly consistent in size and color and give off a full and pleasant aroma, they will produce coffee of depth, character, and taste. Just as the sound from a top quality stereo system will not become distorted when the volume is turned up, fresh whole-bean coffee will only increase in flavor when it is made stronger. I have not found a supermarket coffee that can stand this test.

Vacuum-packed supermarket coffee actually is quite fresh off the shelf. As soon as it’s opened, however, a process of deterioration sets in that makes ground coffee flat in as little as two or three days and, if it’s kept near heat or moisture, completely stale within a week. Oxidation destroys the flavorproducing aromatics in coffee. Whole-bean coffee oxidizes slowly. In the roasting process, carbon dioxide forms within the bean, and this protects it from oxidation. When the bean is ground, carbon dioxide is lost and surface area is increased; whole-bean coffee has a better defense. If kept dry and in the refrigerator, whole-bean can last a month from the date of roasting; fresh ground coffee, if stored this way, will last up to 10 days. Whole-bean coffee kept in the freezer will maintain a hearty flavor more than two months.

There is a price to pay for whole-bean coffee, however: anywhere from $4.20 per pound to $6.65 per pound-roughly 30 to 100 percent more than commercially ground coffee. But if you like coffee, it’s worth paying the premium for first-rate beans. The only supermarket whole-bean coffee is Edwards, which sells for $2.53 per pound and is roasted by Safeway in San Francisco and sold at local Safeway stores. I ground it at home and dripped it through a paper filter, just as I do my favorite French Roast. It was no different from the boring commercially ground coffees: thin, slightly astringent, low on aroma, and bitter. It was a waste of time and money because the beans were totally unexceptional.

Most Dallas shops use one or more of the same distributors, most of them in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. They vary in lag time-the shipping time from distributor to storage container in the store-in quantities sold and therefore in frequency of ordering, and in price and service.

The Country Cupboard at Valley View Mall, for example, gets all its coffee from White Coffee Corporation in Long Island. Danny Kopf, White’s “Gourmet Supervisor,” says all coffee is roasted to order for the retailer and that it takes from four days to a week to reach Dallas. In the busy season, Country Cupboard reorders on a monthly cycle; when business slacks off, however, the ordering time goes up to two months. Taking into account the shipping time, that means you get beans up to nine weeks old-and they’ve been stored at room temperature in burlap-covered plastic bags. Country Cupboard, however, has the patience to send postcards to its pickier customers notifying them of a new shipment. The store carries most popular gourmet coffee beans and charges $4.75 per pound. Flavored coffees (with cinnamon or chocolate) run $5.05 per pound and decaffeinated costs $5.75 per pound. This is one of only two shops in town that will, without a fuss, sell as little as a quarter-pound of whole bean coffee at a time-a great advantage if you’re trying out various beans.

The Coffee Company at the Quadrangle is the most established gourmet coffee seller in Dallas. The coffees available here are generally quite good, although experimentation is in order because some of the roasts differ from what is standard elsewhere. The French Roast is the darkest bean in town- darker, even, than the Italian Expresso offered at other Dallas stores. The Coffee Company won’t tell who its distributors are, but a source says most beans are ordered monthly from one of two or three California suppliers. It is the most expensive in Dallas, with prices ranging from $4.85 per pound for Peruvian to $6.65 for Kona (Hawaiian). If you like the coffee at the Bronx (it’s mostly French Roast) or at Lombardi’s (a blend of French and Continental), stop here; this is where it’s blended and ground.

Coffee Limited on Greenville Avenue at Lovers Lane opened in August and is the only store in Dallas that can challenge the Coffee Company. There is a large selection of coffee and reorders are placed weekly with distributors, of whom two are White and Superior in Chicago. The coffee is not as consistently good, by category, as at the Coffee Company, but the winners here, especially the Expresso and the Copenhagen blend, are as good as or better than you’ll find elsewhere in Dallas. Prices start at $4.20 for Venezuelan and run to $6.65 for Sumatra (Indonesian).

Gourmet Junction at Olla Podrida also uses White and Superior, as well as a distributor in San Francisco, and orders are placed monthly. Although a half pound is the smallest bag sold, the store manager says she will soon have quarter-pound “four-packs” available to satisfy the dabbling customer. All coffees are $4.99 per pound, including the decaffeinated, except the Kona and Swiss Mocha which cost $5.99.

The Cheese House, with locations on Forest Lane at Preston Road and in Preston Center, carries White’s coffees exclusively. You can buy a quarter-pound bag here. All coffees are $5.99 per pound, however, which is $1.24 more per pound for the same White’s coffee available at Country Cupboard (the store’s cost on this coffee runs an average of $2.70 per pound, according to a White spokesman). The beans are stored in airtight plastic containers until sold.

Kitchenworks, located in the Irving Mall, uses two distributors, one from Virginia and one from San Francisco. There is a full selection available and reorders are placed weekly on some beans, monthly on others. Prices run from $4.85 per pound for Haitian to $6 per pound for decaffeinated Colombian.

In Fort Worth, the three Cook’s Nooks located at Hulen, Ridglea, and Westcliff Malls sell whole bean coffees at $4.99 per pound. The Bavarian Chocolate and Viennese Cinnamon coffees sell for $5.49 per pound.

All of these stores carry coffee-making equipment, including manual and electric home grinders and drip-style coffee filters and holders. You can spend a few dollars on the basics or more than a hundred on the sexy European machines with award-winning designs. The coffee will taste the same either way.

M. E. Swing’s, a Washington, D.C. coffee company, roasts a day’s supply of beans daily. The oldest coffee youcan buy at Swing’s will be, maybe, twodays out of the roaster, according to Everett Matthews, store manager. The green beans are imported directly fromthe producing countries and selected by Swing’s traveling broker. There is complete control over the product. You canorder coffee from Swing’s through the mails. A friend of mine from Washington mailed me a few pounds of Swing’s coffee two years ago. The Colombian was the best I have ever had.”I think we have the freshest coffee in the country,” Matthews says. “I’m not saying it’s better than everyone else’s.But I don’t know why someone from Detroit would buy here. I guess theyhaven’t found anything they liked.” M.E. Swing, 1013 E St. NW, Washington,DC 20004.

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