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Food Fetishes

In our cups

I'm sitting with perhaps thirty other people in the kitchen of Boulder's Cooking School of the Rockies; on the table in front of us is an array of small cardboard cups containing coffee. We pick up one cup after another, inhaling the aroma, taking a sip and swirling the fragrant liquid meditatively in our mouths before swallowing.

Katy Hogoboom and Christy Thorns of Allegro Handcrafted Coffees in Thornton are introducing us to coffees from different regions of the world. The Americas are represented by Guatemalan Antigua, Mexican St. Catarina Maragohype and an organic coffee from El Salvador. There are African and Arabian coffees and two coffees from Indonesia. The women talk about the differences in taste, using words and phrases such as "elegant," "bittersweet," "balanced," "cocoa overtones," "wine aroma," "primal," "plush body" and "wild-mushroom notes." They tell us to let the coffee cool before we sip it, because you can't sense the nuances when it's blazing hot.

Thorns and Hogoboom obviously taste all these nuances. For the most part, I can't. I catch a hint of something they're describing, then wonder if I've imagined it. To help us along, we're given bits of fruit and squares of bittersweet chocolate. I taste the organic Guatemalan ("tangy, complex, hints of orange peel and chocolate") and get a hint of fruitiness, but nothing more distinct. Then I eat a segment of orange, wait a few seconds and try again. And there it is: the bright indisputable flavor of orange. I'm quite pleased with myself. Or am I just smelling orange juice on my fingers?

For each coffee they serve, Thorns and Hogoboom suggest a different brewing method: press pot, drip or vacuum pot. Some coffees, they say, taste best with cream, some plain, some with sugar, some iced. There are types that go well with dessert, others that deliver the jolt you want at breakfast.

I'm addicted to coffee. I can stick to one mug a day, but it has to be a strong one. Yeah, I grind my own (though not every day, as Thorns and Hogoboom say you should) and make it in a press pot. This is no more time-consuming than using an electric perc, but there's a nice sense of ritual to it: Put in two tablespoons of coffee; add water just off the boil; stir with a chopstick -- for some reason, you're supposed to avoid metal; and let steep for four minutes. I'm partial to French roast. Thorns and Hogoboom, however, don't particularly like it. They say the French roasting process burns out the flavor, leaving nothing behind but carbon and creosote. Ouch.

I love the mystique of coffeehouses, too. Even haunting the local ones makes me think of a pre-WWII -- and quite possibly imaginary -- Europe, where writers and artists congregated to sip, read newspapers, talk politics and create or disparage the latest cultural trends.

Hogoboom and Thorns have much more to tell us. The coffee bean is the pit of a kind of cherry. The cherry should be harvested when perfectly ripe, which -- for high-end coffees -- requires pickers to return to the trees over several days. Supermarket coffee, by contrast, is harvested in one sweep, and it contains twigs and other debris. And whereas low-grade coffee is grown on lowland farms using machines, chemicals and all the usual agribusiness techniques, the premium kind is grown at high altitudes. The beans take longer to mature and are denser and more flavorful.

I'm thoroughly enjoying this session. I like the idea of paying attention to what I eat and drink, exercising all my senses, really tasting. But I'm also feeling...well...a little effete. Is it right to spend all this time meditating on coffee in a world so full of poverty, violence and despair?

Thorns and Hogoboom have an answer: It pays to look a little deeper, because every cup of premium coffee carries a story. It's about small growers struggling to maintain the quality of their product and provide a livable income for their workers. Coffee, according to Allegro buyer Kevin Knox, can serve as a "liaison between worlds."

Americans are used to cheap coffee, and prices are currently at an all-time low. "It's a devastating time for the small farmers," says Thorns. Production in Brazil has increased; Vietnam, too, has "become a large player," she notes. These countries are flooding a corporate-controlled market with low-grade coffee, and the result is starvation wages for pickers. "It's sweatshop coffee," she observes.

Traditionally, though not in all cases, the best coffees are grown away from full sunlight. But commercial growers have developed sun-resistant hybrids that can be grown at low altitude, resulting in poor-quality coffee as well as deforestation and environmental degradation, according to Thorns.

"What we do," she says, "is build relationships with the small artisan farmers. We sign long-term, multi-year contracts and pay them fixed prices based on their cost of production, plus a fair profit. That means their people make a living wage." The structure of the farms varies. Some are co-ops, in which many families own one acre apiece, others are family run. The best that Thorns has visited provide clinics for the pickers and schools for their children.

The issues surrounding coffee production are similar to those taken on by the Slow Food movement, which opposes the McDonaldization of the world and supports artisan food producers, a more authentic way of living and, above all, delicious food. Sure, there are Slow Fooders interested in nothing more than social one-upmanship, restlessly seeking out food novelties, building huge kitchens, buying elaborate gadgets, competing with each other at dinner parties. But at its best, Slow Food strives toward an integrity of taste that translates into integrity in living. And as I sip the nutty, perfectly balanced brew from Papua New Guinea and ponder the differences between vacuum-pot and manual-drip brewing, it's nice to know that while I'm feeding my coffee addiction, I'm helping maintain some equilibrium in the universe.

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