Gastropology 101

The Authoritative Coffee: Part 2

by Nadge Ariffin Photography FriedChillies on Tue, March 31, 2009

For the second part of our Coffee Gastropology section, Nadge gets up close and personal with some merry divorcees. Sounds a little bit cheeky? And does he succeed? Read the second part titled: So Global, Yet So Local; and Intensely Personal

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Like it has been since the first cup ever brewed a thousand years ago, it starts with a sip. It has to be a sip, because unlike wine it would be hot. Even if it’s not, it still starts with a sip, because unlike tea for example it has an expectant bitterish taste and one does not want to overwhelm the tongue with a big gulp.

That, in just one paragraph, is how I would differentiate this great beverage of coffee from the other great drinks on this planet.

Starting from its Arabian discovery as early as 575AD, to its diffusion from Al-Mukha port to Cairo to Istanbul, then by the 1600s to Vienna and other European cities, and to Asia and the Americas in just a few short centuries, coffee turned out to be a world cultural phenomenon – drunk or at least tried by more people on earth than any other drink. It is still the most traded consumable commodity item in the world today after oil.

Yet it is still intensely personal. Coffee may have started as a boiled plain black brew, and many still enjoy it that way too. But today coffee can be consumed in a mind-boggling number of forms, from decaffeinated mass production to the most exquisite gourmet preparation, in an espresso all black, in caffe latte style with milk to varying ratios, or foamed cappuccino-mode, paired with chocolate as in Mocha, and finally touched with every kind of spice or flavoring imaginable from cardamom, cinnamon and cloves to vanilla, chicory and honey.

Even in a country like Malaysia, the local coffees are just too numerous to peruse. From the nostalgic ‘Kopi Hang Tuah’ named after the beloved 15th century warrior-defender of the Melaka Empire, to the famous Ipoh ‘White Coffee’ that wasn’t even white to begin with, to the current craze for ‘Kopi Janda’ or KJ for short and many more.

Now this last is interesting; a new coffee phenomenon started by a trail-blazing group of Malay divorcee single mothers who wanted to look for a good business (not good men as good men are hard to find). They branded their product simply Kopi Janda or ‘Divorcee’s Coffee’ and it drove men so wild with a catchy tagline ‘Bukan nak menggoda, Cuma nak berniaga’. Meaning? ‘We’re not out to seduce your manliness. Just here to do some honest business’. Nonetheless seduce it did and apparently became the fastest growing local coffee in a very crowded market.

And crowded it is. From where I sit at this Malay ‘warong’ in Melawati, I can see packets of ‘Kopi Jantan’ or ‘Male Coffee’ as it contains the much hyped Malay Viagra equivalent Tongkat Ali root, as do ‘Kopi Janggut’ or ‘Beard Coffee’ with ginseng too, ‘Kopi AliGuar’ with Guarana whatever that is, ‘Kopi Kampung’ or ‘Village Coffee’, ‘Adikara Café’ with Halia or Malay ginger, and since Kopi Janda was sold out (what did I tell you above), I’m having the ‘Coffea Arabica Susu Kambing’ i.e. with Goat’s Milk. Phew, I’m going to be a billy goat in heat today.

Indeed, coffee choices are limitless and thus it is nigh impossible to say that any specific kind is ‘the perfect coffee’. A minority, like me, actually have no particular preference for coffee, no matter how highly praised are the beans or trees or area it came from.

Anyway the beauty of coffee is that it is one of the most versatile in pairing itself with other stuff, until there is bound to be one bean or blend or sprinkle that will make everyone enjoy a cup of coffee.

Nevertheless, just like wine, there are certain traits or characteristics that can be said to be qualities that make a great coffee. Culinary scientists, (yes there are such people) have found that coffee incredibly registers about 800 discernible flavor nuances on the human tongue, which is twice that of wine. To add on Keeta's article 5 things to look for in a great cup of coffee, here are my 5 indicators (Malay terms are in brackets).

Flavour (Risa, not Rasa) – Although u or taste is subjective, a good coffee does have a ‘character’ that defines it. This could be a mild or strong bitter component that gives it the ‘aahh’, or even a nutty tinge that is an acquired taste. Some coffees have a naturally earthy, ‘berry’ or even ‘citrus’ flavor. In fact, even the term ‘winey’ is now acceptable to describe a hint of desirable red wine-like reminiscence. Also ‘spicy’ is an emergent term used for example in Java coffees.

Acidity (Ketajaman) – No, this doesn’t refer to the pH acidity in lab chemicals, but to as the Malay term says ‘sharpness’, usually in aftertaste. It is also called the liveliness or even ‘brightness’ of the coffee that gives it the ‘oomph’, from low or smooth to high and lively. Some prefer a lower acidy taste, but generally a complete absence of acidity is undesirable and this is called ‘flat’.

Aroma (Bauan) – Yup, this is smell and is crucial as the human sense of taste and smell do work together. Indeed the more complex character of coffee subtly comes from its aroma as much as taste. Professional tasters or ‘cuppers’ will smell the coffee, and describe its fragrance as its ‘bouquet’. It can be soft or strong, ‘floral’, ‘fruity’ and even ‘winey’ too.

Body
(Urutan) – This is not its physical body but the taste sensation that lingers on the tongue. The Malay term meaning ‘massaging’ is probably more correct as it is more of the ‘feel’ of the coffee massaging the mouth rather than taste i.e. the thickness, heaviness or viscosity as it is drunk that leaves a feeling on the palate. For example, espresso has a ‘full-bodied’ character, while a filtered drip coffee is light as the coffee flavour’s oils are removed, and a watery coffee would ‘lack body’ and is thus ‘thin’.

Finish
(Penyudah) – This is a more recently included description; for the overall sensation the coffee leaves on the senses after it is finished. Coffees can ‘develop’ in its finish, meaning how pleasurable an aftertaste it may have that could differ from the first sip. This is also probably the most subjective of the coffee characteristics.

In any case, whether it’s home-made or shop-served, the best coffees are usually freshly roasted (sorry, not packaged) and the whole beans should be ground just before brewing in preferably a ‘presser’-type coffee maker, using pure water right off the boil.

Although coffee was discovered by the Arabs and went to Europe via the Turks, arguably it’s the Italians who have globally ‘glamourized’ the art of coffee making and drinking. Even the espresso, which as its name suggests is meant to be drunk fast, needs to be prepared and taste a certain way, perfected by the machine invented in 1946 by the Italian Acchile Gaggia. Among Italians there are even customs to observe with types of coffee and timing of drinking. For example, caffe latte is considered a breakfast drink while cappuccino is a stand-alone, never drunk after a lunch or dinner.

But then, in the rest of the world the art of drinking coffee is pretty much the art of finding what fulfils the drinker’s pleasure. Feel free to have your choice of coffee anytime and anywhere you please.

However, just start drinking with a sip; a conscious sip.

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