Roast Beef: Finkelstein hates stale beans.
Roast Beef: Finkelstein hates stale beans. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

My education in coffee began, appropriately enough, in college when I learned I couldn’t drink enough of the liquid adrenaline. It was the ’80s in the Midwest, long before Starbucks, French presses, conical burr grinders, single-origin beans, fair-trade coffees, and just about anything that didn’t come in a 2-pound keg of Folgers found on Aisle 7 at the local Safeway.

My caffeine intake would begin in the morning and continue well into the night, when I’d hit the books—or the TV. I’d crank up the hand-me-down percolator, stuff its metal basket with scoops of coffee ground weeks earlier at some faceless factory, and sit back and listen contently as the machine burped its way toward my pot of evening Joe. I loved the process and was oblivious to the fact that the coffee, in all likelihood (and only in retrospect), completely sucked.

You could say I was part of the American swing generation that learned coffee could be more than a morning drug. My parents might have slurped down Sanka and never batted an eyelash, but as I started moving in professional circles, I quickly embraced the gourmet coffee culture that began, as best as I can remember, with the startling notion that you could buy darker roasts. For a while there, few things made me feel more sophisticated than a cup of French roast.

Like a lot of Americans who weren’t born holding a Starbucks latte, I am often conflicted about my daily caffeine ritual, which flits between the desire for a great cup and the need for simple convenience. At present, my kitchen is complete contradiction. On one hand, I possess a bag of fair-trade organic beans from Uganda, which I can grind and steep in my own Bodum Chambord French press. But on the other hand, I also have a high-tech Tassimo machine that uses pre-measured and prepackaged pods to prepare coffee in seconds flat.

If I’ve learned anything about coffee, however, it’s that the perfect cup takes time. And sometimes even a cool new tool, like the one at Chinatown Coffee Co., where former Murky taskmaster/tastemaker Nick Cho now resides. A pair of employees at the Chinatown shop are steeping my Salvadoran coffee in a contraption that looks like a classic drip cone—but isn’t. The device has a stopper mechanism on the bottom, so that when you place it on a hard surface, the coffee grounds and water remain firmly in place. But once the steeping process is complete, you can balance the gizmo over a mug, into which the liquid drips until the cup is full with perfectly extracted coffee.

The device, the employees tell me, is a Clever Coffee Dripper, which combines elements of a standard filter-drip cone and a French press. It’s superior to a regular drip cone, they say, because you don’t have to grind the beans so finely in order to trap the hot water for a four-minute steep; fine grinds, they note, can lead to over-extraction and bitterness. Conversely, they inform me, the Clever prevents any nasty, tongue-tickling grounds from sneaking into your cup, unlike the French press, which is a virtual sediment sieve. I absorb their information, take my cup of Salvadoran java, and enjoy its bright acidic notes.

The beans at Chinatown Coffee come from Intelligentsia, a Chicago-based wholesaler known for its artisanal approach to roasting. Not that this impresses Joel Finkelstein much. Finkelstein is a freelance reporter turned businessman; he opened Qualia Coffee earlier this year in Petworth, and if I could apply only one term to describe the place, it would be “obsessive.” He roasts all his beans in-house, six days a week, then grinds them to order. He dumps the freshly ground beans into a custom-made nylon bag, which serves as a drip cone. Finkelstein thinks paper filters absorb too much of the beans’ precious oils.

Roasting, however, is Finkelstein’s true obsession. Two years ago, he launched Fresh Off the Roast, which produces small batches of micro-roasted beans that he sells through farmers markets and the One Acre Farm CSA. Fresh is the key word in the business title. On my first visit to Qualia, I chatted up Finkelstein in the back of his shop on Georgia Avenue NW, where he was (what else?) roasting beans. He immediately gave me an education on the importance of freshness.

The problem with purchasing roasted beans from wholesalers, Finkelstein told me, is that these companies must deal in volume to make money, which means they will sell you more product than you can possibly use before it goes stale. Fresh roasted beans have a shelf life of no more than two weeks, Finkelstein continued. Once they’re done roasting, beans will release carbon dioxide for approximately 14 days; this “off-gassing” protects the beans, to a certain degree, from the harmful effects of oxygen, Finkelstein said. Once they stop passing gas, though, the beans are more vulnerable than a Prius driver at a Monster Truck Show.

There are a number of variables to this broad rule, Finkelstein was quick to warn me. Ground coffee off-gasses faster than whole beans and, therefore, suffers a shorter, more flavorless existence. Darker roasts, by contrast, hold their flavors better, if mostly because their dominant flavor is, well, the roast itself. And a vacuum-sealed bag will protect your beans from oxygen, but it won’t stop them from off-gassing. If you wait two weeks to open a bag, you better use those beans fast. All of which explains why Finkelstein won’t sell any roasted beans older than six days.

Back at home, I’m breaking into a bag of Ugandan Bugisu, a lightly roasted bean that I bought from Qualia. The bag is stamped with the following: roasted on: Jul 28 2009 use within 2 weeks. A solid 10 days have passed since these beans were pulled from the roaster, which puts me in a no man’s land of gourmet coffee drinking. I’m four days ahead of Qualia’s stamped expiration date, but four days past Finkelsein’s own self-imposed drop-dead date. I’m living dangerously.

Using all the knowledge I have accumulated over the years, I plan to brew the best cup of Joe I can. I boil some water and then take it off the burner until the temperature drops to the ideal 200 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m careful not to grind the beans too finely. I then dump those uniformly ground beans into my French press, set the kitchen timer to four minutes—the perfect steeping period—and pour in the hot water. When the timer rings, I quickly smash down the handle on my press and pour the liquid into my awaiting cup.

I’m disappointed with the coffee even before I sip it. It’s cloudy. It looks like I’ve stirred mud into warm water. I’m hesitant to drink it, so I let it sit there as I check e-mail and think of something clever to say for my Facebook status line. A good five minutes pass before I finally put coffee to lips. The results are startling. Sweet citrus flavors roll across my tongue, awakening my senses and alerting me to one incontrovertible fact: I’m not in college anymore.

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