Coffee Talk: George Howell on Terroir and Inventing the Vocabulary for Coffee

IMG_20131120_141546What is the most commonly consumed drug in the U.S.?

Coffee. Many of us drink it every day. And we all have certain particular preferences: with cream or milk or black, sweetened or not, freshly ground, French pressed, drip, pour over–etc. But while we might know what makes a cup of coffee ideal, and enjoy the beverage on a daily basis, what do we really know about coffee?

Recently coffeemaker George Howell visited the restaurant where I work to give a presentation on coffee. His beans are produced with an emphasis on terroir, which you’ve probably heard about in reference to wine: it means that everything in the plant’s environment, such as soil, weather, even more abstract things like the history and culture of a place, impact the quality, flavor, and temperament of the harvest.

I was never very knowledgeable about what makes one coffee better than another, although over the last year I have become loyal to Stumptown coffee and found that drinking it (freshly ground and French pressed) is a considerably different experience than having a cup prepared the same way made from generic beans. According to Howell, a coffee’s “personality” is determined through a complex relationship between its variety and the terroir (much like a person’s personality is a product of a relationship between nature and culture). In addition, craftsmanship, seeds, and soil nutrients are all critical factors in a coffee’s development, and of course the roasting process and even brewing will have an impact.

Coffee, Howell told us, only became a social beverage in the late fifteenth century, when Europeans began roasting coffee after discovering it during sojourns abroad. The three main varieties of coffee, Arabica, Tipica, and Borbonne were planted all over the world as Europeans’ appetite for the drink increased. Over time, a spontaneous mutation produced a kind of coffee tree called Katura that is now common in the Americas. But alongside the variety, so many conditions factor into the way a coffee will taste when it’s finally poured into your cup, that it’s impossible to say exactly how a batch of beans will taste solely based on which variety it was harvested from.

The kind of coffee culture that has been growing in Brooklyn and many other cities across the U.S. is a relatively new thing, and Howell said that it lags “about 100 years behind wine” in terms of its maturity. The vocabulary for being a coffee connoisseur is still being “invented,” he said, and we are all “co-exploring” the realm, powered by caffeine and an appreciation for the kinds of moments that arise while sharing a freshly brewed cup of coffee in good company–deep conversation, warmth, alertness, a sense of being connected to the earth and its unbounded energy.

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