When I was 14, I started to drink coffee while at camp, thin bitter dark coffee dosed heavily with packets of hot chocolate mix. When I was 17 I was an exchange student in Denmark, where my host father looked me in the eye and declared that he was going to teach me how to drink proper coffee (and alcohol,) because if I learned how to do it in the U.S., I was going to learn to do it wrong. When I was 23 I lived in New York City and became enamored of the barrels of beans at Porto Rico Imports in the Village, making a pilgrimage from Brooklyn every time I ran out. When I was 27 I did a grad school project for an interactive media project called “The Obsessive Compulsive’s Guide to Coffee.” Now, at age 38 I have a kettle that heats my water to precisely to 200 degrees, which I slowly pour into a french press with precisely 4 tablespoons of beans for two cups of coffee, then let sit for 4 minutes, which I can now do without using a real timer, and I drink it black. Slowly. I say all this because even with all that evolution and slow learning, I know approximately nothing compared to the eloquent Tim Coonan, owner and roaster at Big Shoulders Coffee.
Go ahead and look up Tim Coonan. You will find he has been a chef in some of the finest places in the world. He was at Spiaggia here in Chicago for nine years. And when you drink his coffee, it is not a fanciful mélange of bean and foam, a place where you will find beans excreted from a civet cat wreathed in such mystery and exclusivity you expect there to be armed guards around the cup of coffee. You will drink coffee. With flavor. No-nonsense and yet highly nuanced flavor.
On a grey Saturday morning, Mr. Coonan was kind enough to let me come in as he roasted his last batch of coffee for the day. I was there at 10:30AM, and he had already roasted 100 pounds of beans. I walked in the door of his coffee shop and was immediately embraced by the heavenly scent of freshly roasted coffee. I had recently been introduced to this glorious scent by my cousin, owner of Cimarron Books & Coffee out in Colorado who has become entranced with the coffee bean and had bought a home roaster to do experiment with roasting. The scent of roasting beans wafting through their house was for me akin to living inside a glorious caffeinated bakery where I was not sure I could inhale deeply enough. So walking into a place where they just roasted 100 pounds… well it was beyond any kid in a candy store analogy you have ever envisioned. Way beyond.
Right in the front window of Big Shoulders sits a commercial roaster, all vivid, shiny, and green. Tim began to work on roasting a batch of Ugandan beans. He explained the stages, such as first crack, and we watched the beans shift from green to brown, far more swiftly than you might imagine. His eyes constantly flicked between the beans and his nearby laptop, where he had charts for previous roasts of this bean, and a gauge showing temperature. His nose was watching even more keenly. Despite the careful gauging of temperature and time, checking against previous roasts, a lot of this really does still come down to the nose. He said there are machines where you can just program a profile for the roast you want and let it go, but there are so many variables that can affect the batch that day he prefers to watch every roast and do it all manually.
I asked about dark vs. medium roasts, and what I had heard about West Coast vs. East Coast roasts, and his answer was not really what I would have expected. I knew about dark roasts being really more about char than coffee, but when it came to the other descriptives, he spoke of how we keep using words like “terroir” and these other coastal definitions, but they are really borrowed from other parts of the culinary lexicon. We don’t really have language yet for just coffee. Terroir is about wine, and about where it is grown, the environment around it. While there is definitely something to that in coffee, it goes farther. It also is what the farmer does to the bean after it is harvested. There is a farmer in Mexico that lets the bean ferment just a little in the bean, giving it this lactic flavor that is unlike anything you will experience in coffee (no civet cats required.)
Tim was kind enough to have the folks at the coffee shop make me a couple of cups of coffee, from a couple of batches he really liked. We stood next to a wall where he had some of these beans in glass jars, and he held up an Ethiopian to smell, which smelled pretty much like I expected (still lovely,) and then he held up a jar of this Mexican coffee with the fermented bean, and I think all of my neurons, faithfully fueled by coffee for many a year, did a double take. He said the first time he had this coffee, he had a Proustian reaction, being reminded of a particular Christmas cookie his mother used to make, a chocolate one with a maraschino cherry in the middle. My first thought (after “Damn, I need to read more Proust,”) was of a coffee percolator from childhood. I have no doubt the coffee was out of a big metal can and nowhere near the quality of modern day coffee, but I always remember that current of coffee scent as the percolator bubbled away, and my grandma making sound effects for the bubbles as they started to dance up into the top (always my favorite part.)
The thing about going to a coffee place like this is that it is very easy to write it off as some fancy-pants place where the service will be snotty and eyes will be rolled if you asked for drip coffee. Trust me, there is a place in my neighborhood like this. Big Shoulders is not that place. Tim greeted almost every person that came in the door with a warm smile and hello, and either he really is just that friendly or he really does seem to know most of his clientele. Kate and Elliott, the two folks working there that day, were also delightful, and also equally passionate about the coffee, taking care with every cup from drip to Clever Cup (and I asked, it is Tim’s favorite method of making a cup of really, really amazing coffee.)
They all talked to me about the concept of the pour over, how water can create channels through the ground coffee so the coffee is not evenly extracted, so they carefully soak the grounds evenly so the extraction is even. The espresso machine there is a magnificent beast that allows them to tightly control water flow over the espresso, due to the same principle of channeling water. The Clever Cup might be the closest to being the perfect cup of coffee you can get.
This is not exactly a place where you will see some overdone flourish when a cup of coffee is decanted, but after all the care spent in making it, there is a sense of pride when they pour out the brew. I sat at the bar for a while, slowly drinking my coffee and trying to suss out the individual flavors. I drank my coffee black, which I can not do without hearing my Grampa’s voice in my head, telling me that it isn’t coffee after I put cream or sugar in coffee in his presence. Honestly, I am probably not going to be the next person writing out a long list of flavors within. But I will be that person finally drinking my coffee black because I am finally beginning to taste some of those subtle nuances, especially after talking to folks like Tim Coonan, whose passion for the humble bean comes through in every cup. Of course, this will not stop me from going back for the latte with a toasted marshmallow on it…
(A more extended photo gallery can be found here: Big Shoulders Coffee on Flickr