It's 7 am in Santa Fe and I have somewhere to be in five minutes. Instead, I'm at pdbean on Cerrillos Road, and though I'd like a cup of black coffee, the customer in line ahead of me is hip-hopping out a half-dozen requests for cappuccinos with caveats, cream and half-pumps of caramel.
I opt to dash, forgoing my morning buzz. So maybe this isn't the first time I've found coffee shopping a little too esoteric for my simple early-morning proclivities. So why, might you ask, don't I just brew it at home?
On a quieter morning, pdbean owner Dan Hogan is able to sit down and talk shop. A purist after my own heart, he sets down two black coffees and begins to reminisce. He talks about his mother's cream and sugar coffee, which he enjoyed as a young boy, and his father Paul Dean (PD), the quintessential all-American, black-coffee drinking, no-nonsense cowboy. I learn that Cowboy Coffee is coffee brewed in a standard cooking pot without filters or tools, not unlike the Turkish coffee on which I was raised. It was coffee that exposed a grainy microcosm of rivers and shadows by which one's future could ostensibly be read, usually by someone's toothless grandmother.
Hogan's "less is more" attitude toward coffee is one I instantly take to. "I'm not a snob about coffee," he says, "and when it's good, all you need is one cup."
Santa Feans have local Aroma coffee and our beloved Ohori's—wonderfully chewy coffee that sometimes leaves one wanting floss and a glass of water. I love it on the weekends with some food, but what I really want to start my day with is a bright, unchallenging cup like Hogan's Allegro Vail blend, one of many light roasts between which Hogan alternates to accompany his daily dark roast.
I don't drink home-brewed coffee in Santa Fe. I've often found it sour and lacking in the depth, robustness and natural sweetness that makes great coffee great. How does high altitude affect coffee and espresso quality at home and with the use of commercial equipment? Drip coffee machines that merely boil are convenient devices but they deliver water to the grounds at below the ideal range of temperatures, leading to underextraction of the beans and a sour, dull or poorly developed brew.
Thus, the only way to compensate for altitude is pressure—and that means espresso—but pulling a proper espresso shot is not easy at this altitude either. Ironically, though the best coffee grows at higher altitudes, with water's lower boiling point in elevated places, brewing can get tricky. Roasting, on the other hand, merely benefits from altitude: The best possible results come from roasting the beans at the same altitude as they'll be used and particularly at high altitudes that allow for faster roast development at lower temperatures.
Hogan, who originally started out roasting his own beans, knows the challenges of artisanal coffee roasting inside and out. As Cerrillos Road's coffee scene's lone indie warrior, Hogan is something of a cowboy himself; when the new Starbucks farther south on Cerrillos looked like it was going to be providing a drive-thru window, Hogan beat it to the punch. As I reflect on the winding queues outside a Starbucks in Beirut, Lebanon, it's not hard to understand why. Evidently, neither religious nor political convictions can keep folks away from their frappuccinos. Coffee is no longer a negotiable luxury. Has the current economy even affected the frequency with which people order lattes in favor of plain coffee?
"Oh, no. Not at all," Hogan says. "Lattes are our most popular coffee drink."
If you can manage the time and money, an espresso machine is the best choice at this altitude, but if it's coffee or bust, then take the advice of Hogan, the folks at Allegro and legions of other coffee lovers in favor of the low-tech French press/plunger-pot method for a richer drink, or manual drip/direct brewing with a cone filter if you prefer a lighter-bodied one. Drip coffee makers that take more than six minutes to brew also make bitterness inevitable due to over-extraction. Whatever you decide, please make only as much as you'll drink, and savor it within a half hour of brewing.
Maybe it's the relative rarity of the stuff beyond American soil, and especially after 20-odd years of the instant coffee and Carnation evaporated milk still served in so many former colonies, but I am in love with plain old American drip coffee and I'm not shy about admitting it.
On a spectrum that includes everything from Polish "mud" to condensed milk-sweetened Vietnamese coffee to Bahraini coffee,the essence of my favorite joe is, as they say, "black as the devil's heart and sweet as a stolen kiss".
Good things to know if you like coffee:
• Espresso has less caffeine than drip coffee. Its shorter brewing time means that less water-soluble caffeine is extracted.
• What you taste with very dark-roasted coffee is the roast and not the flavors within the bean.
• Light roasts contain more caffeine because caffeine is destroyed during roasting.
• The oily slick you see on the surface of your coffee is a sign of over-roasted coffee—another reason to stick to lighter roasts.
• Ground coffee stales 100 times more quickly than whole-bean coffee.
• Don’t refrigerate or freeze your coffee, which you should be buying fresh on a weekly basis. Freezing causes precipitation of ice crystals in the beans and spoils the coffee’s aroma.
• Grind coffee just before brewing: 10 seconds for French press, 15 seconds in a blade grinder for drip.
• Use only bottled or filtered water, never distilled or reverse osmosis for coffee and tea.