The taster’s choice

Like oil, coffee is a foundation of American life. A majority of people in the United States consume the dark liquid every day, and it’s one of the most widely traded commodities in the world.

With this obsession comes connoisseurship. That’s why for the past year, Scott Rogers, owner of Gloria Jean’s Coffees at the Oakwood Mall, 4800 Golf Road, has taught coffee tasting seminars to help coffee drinkers learn to discern the differences among the glut of choices on coffeehouse menus.

Rogers will lead two hour-long seminars at 10:30 a.m. Saturday and 6:30 p.m. Monday. As of Wednesday afternoon, four seats were available in the Saturday session, while the Monday seminar is filled.

“We do it somewhat informally,” Rogers said.

In formal coffee tasting, or “cupping,” the taster steeps coarse-ground coffee in hot water directly in the cup and then slurps it with a spoon to “give your mouth the full sensation,” he said.

In the seminars, attendees sample different fresh-brewed coffees side-by-side to learn about the five characteristics of coffee: aroma, flavor, body, acidity and finish (aftertaste).

“Acidity isn’t necessarily positive or negative,” he said. “People’s preferences vary.”

African coffees tend to have high acidity, he said, while Indonesian coffees have lower acidity.

Coffee itself originated on the plateaus of central Ethiopia and has been cultivated since the sixth century, according to the Coffee Research Institute, headed by coffee scientist Michael Griffin.

The species Coffea arabica accounts for about 75 to 80 percent of the world’s commercial crops and is considered to be of higher quality than the next most common variety, Coffea canephora.

Studies have linked its consumption with decreased rates of suicide, cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, atherosclerosis, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and diabetes, according to the National Coffee Association. Worldwide, the International Coffee Organization reports that 1.6 billion cups are drunk every day.

Altitude, soil conditions, shade and the care plants receive all affect the taste of the coffee, Rogers said. High-quality, uniformly sized beans yield the best coffee because they roast evenly, he added.

Beans picked from the top of the plant are the most flavorful and have the most variation, said Jeremy Kachmar, owner of Racy D’Lene’s Coffee Lounge, 404 Riverside Ave. Coffee from the top of some Ethiopian plants, he said, tastes just like blueberries.

National chains tend to opt for beans picked from the middle of the plant, he said, so the taste of their coffee is the same at all stores.

Kachmar, who earned his master’s degree from UW-Eau Claire in 1999, re-opened Racy’s as a smoke-free coffee house at the beginning of this year.

“I’ve been around coffee for a very long time,” he said. “I used to be an old patron of Racy’s before I bought it, and I lived in Seattle for a couple of years. You really have to pick and choose what you’re serving.”

A key ingredient to good coffee is freshness, he said. He buys coffee from a roaster in Minneapolis, which ships coffee about a day after roasting it.

“Once you roast a bean, it starts to break down,” he said.

Because of this, coffees are shipped frequently and brewed immediately, never being stored for longer than a week, he said.

House blends tend to be popular, coffee shop employees say, as well as seasonal flavored coffees such as pumpkin spice.

“People like the house blend a lot,” said sophomore Matt Baudo, an employee at Acoustic Caf‚, 505 S. Barstow St. “I don’t think a lot of people know the difference.”

One trend in consumer tastes is a preference for dark roast coffees, said Rogers and senior Phil Holleran, an employee at Coffee Grounds, 745 Kenney Ave.

“A lot of people do appreciate the fact that we have dark roast,” Rogers said. “Dark roast is very popular.”

Holleran said, however, that dark roast coffees are not necessarily better quality.

“A lot of people tend to associate good coffee with a dark roast,” he said. Each coffee has its own distinctive flavor, and roasting the beans more means they lose some of their subtlety as the roasting obscures their natural flavor. The Coffee Grounds roasts its own beans at the main location at 3460 Mall Drive.

Baristas across Eau Claire say latte, mocha latte, espresso and cappuccino drinks are immensely popular.

“A lot of people order a cappuccino without really knowing what it is, because they’re used to the Kwik Trip (version),” Holleran said – so many The Coffee Grounds has a separate recipe for customers who prefer the latter.

Lattes with organic soy milk are also gaining popularity, Dancing Goat Coffee House, 408 Water St., owner Laura Bembnister said.

The U.S. market for specialty coffees was nearly $9 billion in 2003 and is growing steadily, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

Fair trade coffee is the fastest-growing segment of the specialty coffee market, according to Transfair USA, which certifies fair trade products imported to the United States. Certified importers build long-term relationships with farmers to promote economic stability. They purchase beans directly from the farmer, not from a middleman, and pay a minimum fair-trade price higher than the market price.

Organic, fair trade Mexican Altura coffee is one of The Coffee Grounds’ most popular varieties, Holleran said.

Senior John Zanetti said he frequents The Coffee Grounds specifically for the fair trade coffee.

“I’ve done the Pepsi challenge with different kinds of coffee,” he said and he said he likes fair trade French press coffee the best.

“I can’t get a better cup of coffee,” he said.

Zanetti’s passion for the beverage goes beyond consumption. About two years ago, Zanetti and other students lobbied Sodexho to offer fair-trade coffee on Eau Claire’s campus. Jazzman’s now offers one regular and one decaffeinated blend of fair trade coffee daily.

“(Farmers) can send their kids to school and have drinkable water,” Zanetti said. “It’s a simple way to make a huge difference.”

Racy’s, the Acoustic, Dancing Goat and The Coffee Grounds all offer fair trade certified coffee. Gloria Jean’s sells coffee purchased from farmers certified through the Rainforest Alliance, which ensures the farmers treat laborers and the environment well.

“People are asking for them,” Holleran said. “There is quite a demand. They tend to be my favorite coffees in terms of taste.”

Bembnister agreed.

Zanetti, who wants to be a human rights lawyer, said he’s committed to making sure his caffeination habits promote social justice for people around the world.

“I was raised as a middle-class white guy in the suburbs,” he said. “It’s a small thing I can do.”

But the drink’s appeal is more than just a morning pick-me-up. Around the world, coffee brings people together.

“Coffee has been around forever,” Kachmar said. “It’s become one of the staples of gathering.”

Patrons usually choose a favorite coffee shop and develop a strong loyalty to it, he said.

“Once they find a coffee house they like, they tend not to go anywhere else,” he said. “You can’t be everything to everyone. … It’s nice to have diversity. Everyone has to have their own niche.”

Hannah Larson, an employee at Dancing Goat Coffee House, said coffee shops provide a space to escape the pressures of everyday life to listen to music, talk with friends or just relax.

“The atmosphere here is really cozy. With a warm drink, it kind of sets the mood for everything,” she said.

Kachmar said he sees quite a few 14- and 15-year-olds in the shop. When he was that age, he said, coffee was a beverage reserved for adults.

“People younger and younger are drinking coffee,” he said. “It’s ‘cool’ to go out and order a mocha with your friends.”

Another draw, he said, is coffee shops provide a quieter, all-ages alternative to socializing at bars.

“You could gather at a bar, but that tends to be a little louder and have a different sort of clientele,” Holleran said.

A cup of specialty coffee allows drinkers a momentary indulgence, Rogers said.

“It’s a small luxury,” he said. “It’s the kind of luxury you can enjoy every day.”