I’m thinking about where to get some new beans to try.
I’ve just finished a bag of El Salvador Pacamara beans from Starbucks along with some Guatemala Cloudforest Coban imported and roasted by my coffee aficionado friend, Dante. I’m not too keen on Tong’s or Tommy’s Coffee from the weekend market and I want to try something different from my usual go-tos. I’m looking for a bean that can give me a cup that hits most if not all the right notes in balance, acidity, and flavor. I also don’t want something over-roasted. These days, darker roasts seem to connote sophistication and represent “real coffee,” but that isn’t entirely true.
Z, a similarly caffeine-fueled chum, talks about a bag of Papua New Guinea beans that she got at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, so off I go. As I make my way there, it occurs to me that Z and I don’t eat so much as drink coffee together, strangely enough. Looking back, I eat three times what she does but she sure as hell can out-drink me when it comes to coffee.
At CBTL, I find a bag from Papua New Guinea alright, but I blanch when I notice the manufacturing date: April 2008. Expires: June 2010. Eew! Coffee beans begin to lose aromatics as soon as they’re roasted, more so if they’re ground. The single best advice I’ve gotten on improving the quality of coffee I drink is to start with good beans that have been carefully roasted within the past week. Quite an impossibility in Manila considering that most of the beans I buy (unless they’re from Dante) don’t indicate the roasting date. Barring such knowledge, I do what I can by buying whole beans and grinding them just before brewing. Though I can’t keep the beans for the recommended 10 days – it takes me three weeks to consume a 250-gram bag – I do store my beans at room temperature in an airtight container.
Highly averse to paying P499 (and drinking!) nearly two year old beans, I rifle through the rest of the bags at CBTL, my fingers flicking the tops of the packages like they’re decks of cards, the bags’ various shades of ochre glinting like the tip of the sun. Never underestimate the power of fancy packaging and the terror of the prospect of a coffee-less morning. Hmm: Mocha Java, Sumatra Mandheling, Kenya AA – all beans that I’ve tried at one time or another both from my “duo of dealers”, Starbucks and Dante. I flit between the Costa Rica La Cascada and the Viennese Blend, finally choosing the latter. Compared to the others, it’s relatively “new.” Manufactured May 2009, expires November 2010.
Though I employ a variety of brewing methods at home, I always use my French press when trying out a new bean. Let’s just say that aside from the rather romantic description on the bag, “Medium-bodied with a rich aroma, full flavor, and nuances of chocolate”, my cup is anything but. Bitter and overly roasted, it tastes old. Ugh! And yes, I’m well aware of the importance of grind, brewing time, and temperature.
- photo taken with my Nokia 6700 Classic
Dangling the Viennese Blend bag over the trash, I call Z. In my highly un-caffeinated state, I detail my woe. Melodramatic yes I am, and no, I’m not reaching for that 3-in-1. “Why don’t you try 18 Days? They pride themselves on freshness, ” she suggests. It just so happens that 18 Days opened a café late last year at the Cash & Carry Mall near Buendia. So I chuck the Viennese Blend in the bin and a few hours later, I’m looking at the café with my friend, Mike who works nearby.
I wish I can say that I’m enveloped by the smells of coffee emanating from the medium-sized roaster, and taken by the pastries preening on the plates but it’s a fantasy. Cash & Carry Mall is jammed with stores and restaurants punctuated by stalls selling sundry items from Indian jewelry to kakanin. Still, people have to have their coffee and it’s nice to have options.
18 Days is a local company that believes coffee is best enjoyed within 18 days from the date of roasting after which flavors and aroma start to decline. The website invites interested consumers to visit the particular site and “…proudly experience the origins of Philippine coffee … from soil to cup.” There are green beans sitting on the shelf as well as beans that have gone straight from the on-site roaster to any of the red-lidded jars on the display. I briefly wonder if 18 Days believes in “de-gassing.” During the final stages of roasting, the beans release carbon dioxide gas – up to a minimum of three times their volume; I’ve read stories of “exploding” cans/foils of coffee resulting from freshly roasted beans that were packaged before they de-gassed.
Mike and I order a cup each of the Arabica, Arabica Blend, and a latte. Containers of muscovado sugar (no white on site) and creamer are presented, and they do serve milk on request. I start on the Arabica first, bringing my nose close to the cup, covering the sides with my hands and taking a deep sniff. It smells burned. A noisy slurp confirms this. The Arabica Blend, a 70:30 mix of Arabica and Robusta, looks more attractive with its crown of silken crema but it’s terribly bitter. This may be because the beans are too fresh – they’ve just come out from the roaster and there’s a good chance they’ve been over-roasted.
Mike is looking at me strangely. “It’s not cutting it for you, is it?” I shrug. “Eh.” he says dismissively. “I’m really liking this, though.” He utters this as he dumps two heaping spoonfuls of muscovado and creamer into my Arabica Blend and then takes a deep sip. “Nice!” He booms. I sip too. The creamer has dulled the acrid edge of the coffee somewhat but the muscovado (which I don’t believe goes too well with coffee – mine at least) gives the liquid an odd, out of place sweetness.
And it goes on. Mike and I are sipping from the three cups on the table as he plays semi-mad scientist with the muscovado and creamer, tweaking it to his pleasure and remarking on how noisily I drink my coffee. I’m dissatisfied and somewhat discouraged. I admire 18 Days for their commitment to freshness and local coffee farmers but I’m not too confident with their roasting techniques. The coffee produced because of it is not what I’m looking for, at least not right now.
So my search for quality coffee beans goes on.
G/F Cash & Carry Mall
South Super Highway corner Emilia St.
Bgy. Palanan, Makati