Tiffin Project

Coffee In Restaurants

by Mette-Marie Hansen on October 6, 2011

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I eat out a lot – dinner, desserts, wine, cocktails, coffee. Unfortunately, if I do have a cup of coffee after dinner when I eat out, I am most often disappointed. I can handle the 10pm caffeine infusion, as much as I can handle the wine or booze–it is most often the preparation or lack of information (or both) that’s leaving me dissatisfied. I don’t want to point fingers to lazy cafe -and restaurant owners or baristas. If you are someone I’ve talked to about this, or anyone who even likes coffee for that matter, I’m sure you’ve complained about how hard it is to get a good cup of coffee after a $200 dinner a deux.

Working in Specialty Coffee for a little more than a decade, I’ve many times contemplated that what is interesting about the business, is that we are still far behind other areas most often included in a dining experience. Every season, every year, I keep thinking “something important is about to happen, things are changing”. People working in food and beverage obviously have the palate to detect the difference between a cup of any generic coffee or blend and a specialty coffee. I am referring to Specialty Coffee like San Francisco based grand-old-lady Erna Knutsen coined the term in 1974: “to describe beans of outstanding flavor produced by special micro-climates”.

The way I see it, it is about three factors joining forces: The farmer’s efforts, the roaster’s efforts and the presentation/preparation – preferably done á la minute. Unnecessary to say here maybe, but it does not matter how good your green beans are if you roast everything it used to be – a cherry on a tree – away. And it doesn’t matter how good you roast it, if it’s not presented well or prepared wrong. One of the most influential food writers of all times, Brillat-Savarin said “taste is education”. It helps knowing what you taste, so building knowledge is key. Friday night a text message from a friend ticked in with a question about what coffee to choose after an outstanding dining experience in his favorite restaurant. The choice was between “India Mysore” or “Kona Coffee”. Well, at least it was a choice, even though if this was the wine menu, its equivalents would have been “France Burgundy” or “Rhône wine”.

We, the guests, have a great power over the people buying and preparing the coffee – we’re paying for it! We would never pay a huge premium for something described as in the best case, “Rhône wine”, without any further information on the menu or from our server (origin, varietal, flavor notes). Let’s leave the training required for making espresso out of the discussion for now. Actually, I would be satisfied with no choice of espresso / espresso based drinks available, just a clean, delicious cup of any good drip method or french press. Specialty roasters seem to care a lot about sourcing coffee, so for the interested buyer there is a lot of information available regarding where the coffee is from: what is special about the region, what varietals are grown and how is the coffee processed. Exactly how did the coffee transform from a cherry on a tree at origin to a green bean ready to be roasted in Vancouver? A lot of education and thus, knowledge about what to expect flavor-wise, can be gained just here.

Of course, there are many exceptions, not all restaurant coffee is bad coffee. Some people are doing an exceptional job with the coffee as much as with wine and food. This was the introduction. And lots of things can also be said about pairing coffees with desserts – a sweet dessert with lots of fat will bring out the brighter notes in a coffee that you thought of as dark and savory. Paired with extreme sweetness, you will have to think about that coffee in another way. A long discussion for another time. So for now – use your power! Ask questions, pay attention. Something is about to happen.

~ Mette-Marie Hansen

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