Friday November 5, 2010
Coffee in Paris this ain't Starbucks
Almost a month ago, to the day, Rosco and I went to Paris.
For the love of coffee.
There, we found a certain little street where the smell of roasting coffee becomes almost tangible. It literally draws people out of their shops, dragging them by their noses, cartoon style, down the sidewalk. They stand, transfixed, inhaling deeply. Pedestrians stop in their tracks, captivated by the complex aroma of a million tiny berries transforming from flavorless nibs into one of the most globally loved and sought after commodities.
Dark smoke billows from the rooftop, and when the breeze blows just right, you can actually see the coffee scented plumes streaking down the from the rooftop and drifting through the little street.
The coffee roaster’s shop occupies an old storefront that dates to the 1880s. The handsome front counter is new, though, custom built by a local carpenter. Behind it, two beautiful stainless steel buckets of just-roasted coffee beans cool before they’re packaged.
The owner, my friend Mark, sits behind the counter, sipping coffee and scribbling notes onto a pad of paper, deciding on his next blend. He’s a veteran of the wine industry and has turned his expert palette from one of the world’s most intoxicating beverage, to one of the most addicting.
He hasn’t opened a coffee shop or cafe, as most Americans would think of one.
Certainly you could buy a cup of coffee here, but forget about anything like a double whip mocha frappa whatever. You’ll get nothing but scorn. Mark opened up this shop for coffee, not calorie laden liquid desserts masquerading as beverages.
If you ask Mark, he’ll tell you coffee wants to brew in a French press. No surprise there. He also recommends, if you have an interest in truly tasting the coffee, drinking it from a bowl. For the same reason you wouldn’t drink a fine Burgundy from a mug. So that the aromas can expand, so that you can breathe deep when you drink, so that you can smell and taste every nuance the coffee has to offer.
(Side note: I always wondered about those coffee bowls! I should stop eating ice cream out of mine. Or I should just add the coffee to my ice cream and enjoy an affogato. Maybe toss in a biscotti. You know.)
In the most literal interpretation of the term, Mark has opened a coffee shop. A micro roastery where he works with just twelve pounds of beans at a time. This helps ensure his coffee won’t languish in a pantry or on a store shelf, losing its flavor by the day. How can it? No one can buy more than a few bags at a time. So his patrons, his following, finish their bag of coffee before the beans have even turned three weeks old.
They come back for more.
They don’t run out of his coffee and, out of sheer laziness, buy more at a supermarket. No. They’re hooked, and they come back.
Mark leads Rosco and me through the small warehouse in the back, where burlap sacks of raw, khaki colored coffee beans from far flung places sit on wooden pallets in two tidy rows. He points out what each country’s bean has to contribute: the Mexican for a deep, almost chocolatey nuance. Sumatran, for body and flavor without much acidity.
Mark takes some coffee from the warehouse to the front of the shop, where his roaster sits. The machine must stand ten feet tall, with a silver tube extending through the ceiling, and then up, up, up through the roof, where it expels the deliciously scented smoke that lures the locals into his shop every afternoon.
As in baking, the roaster is preheated, to somewhere around 400 degrees. And, as in the kitchen, gas heat is preferred. Once the machine has reached temperature, Mark pours in twelve pounds of mostly Sumatran beans. The addition of so many relatively cold beans drops the internal temperature of the roaster down to the 170s.
The goal now: to heat them up to nearly 460, and fast. The whole thing takes no more than 16 or 17 minutes. Most importantly, the beans need to reach 440 degrees so that their flavorful oils will emerge.
When the beans have finished roasting, Mark opens the hatch and the hot beans come rushing out of the roaster and into a hopper. For a single moment, a thick veil of steam shrouds the beans, and then woosh it dissipates.
The beans land in a hopper, where a paddle will turn them continuously, until they have cooled sufficiently. To my eyes, it looks like a giant mixing bowl, filled with coffee. I wish I could add in a few pounds of melted chocolate just to see what would happen.
Rosco and I hovered beside the machine, breathing the warm air deeply. I felt like I actually absorbed some of the caffeine from the air, feeling a rush to my head; or perhaps, I just got light headed from huffing coffee steam. Either way. Good times.
The most thrilling part, though, came when Mark extracted the beans from the hopper, opening a little door at the bottom and releasing them into a waiting stainless steel bucket.
As a coffee lover, I don’t think I can overstate the sheer joy of watching a waterfall of coffee beans tumbling down in total freefall. I wanted to stick my hand in the stream, like little kids do at fountains in the park. The glossy, glittering beans, just gleefully spilling into the bucket, the wonderful sound of them raining down into a pile, and the deep, sensual smell of coffee.
Before we left, Rosco wanted to take Mark’s portrait in front of the roaster.
We thanked him for his time and generosity, for showing us every step of the coffee process, and for the endless pots of French press we enjoyed. Then we packed up the car, and drove back to Lexington.
What? Oooohhhh. You thought I meant Paris, France.
Right. Like we could afford to go to Paris, France. And who needs to with such an amazing coffee shop in Paris, Kentucky, just a thirty minute drive from home?
So excuse my pretense, my trickery. It seems somehow unfair, though, that we might think all of the above so romantic, so wonderfully inaccessible, when it’s part of another culture. When it’s so far removed. But this kind of magic is happening in our own state, in our own backyards, and we shrug our shoulders. But everything is true; from Mark’s background in wines, to the coffee smoked streets of Paris, Kentucky. It’d be worth flying to France to see it, but we don’t have to.
We can make friends and meet the wonderful people who work so hard to change the climate of cuisine in Kentucky. At Caffe Marco, in a fit of dramatic coincidence and/or conspiracy, I met legendary Bluegrass food blogger Rona Roberts. She had come to see Mark on the same day, to write her own blog post on the topic.
It was our pleasure to meet her. Check out her fabulous post on Mark and his shop on her incredible blog, Savoring Kentucky. She had the foresight to photograph each of the unique burlap bags in which the raw coffee arrives. Every country, every region, has its own unique weave and design for their bag. Please check it out!
If I’ve piqued your curiosity even a little, visit Mark Newberry, owner of Caffe Marco; either online or enjoy the incredibly scenic drive to Paris, Kentucky and visit in person. Think of how much money you’ll save not flying to France!
27 comments and counting
Nov 05, 2010 · 6:35 PM
Everything about that day had magic in it, and Rosco captures the magic in the smoke-rising and beans-falling photos – awesome. Thank you for having the patience, taking the time, and having the awesome skills to tell this whole story. And also for the Savoring Kentucky mention! So appreciated. You two are wonderful.
· Rona Roberts · http://www.savoringkentucky.com
Nov 06, 2010 · 1:07 PM
Wow, are you lucky! I think I can almost smell those roasting beans. What a treat!
· heather · http://squirrelbread.wordpress.com
Nov 06, 2010 · 3:47 PM
I think it’s rather neat that coffee, like wine, can have such radical differences in flavor when it’s just the same general plant growing in a different area.
Did Mark have a particular region that he favored over the others? I really love Colombian, but it’s nice to hear what other people are drinking.
Nov 06, 2010 · 6:06 PM
Kelly came to mind quite a bit during our tour- Mark speaks with the language of a sommelier. It also reminded me of chocolate, too, because cocoa beans go through a very similar process of harvesting, drying, roasting, etc before “chocolate” as we know it emerges.
Mark said he prefers to drink blends, instead of single origin beans, because of the interplay between the flavors and textures. Some having a thinner body, other being more acidic, etc. He seemed quite fond of Sumatran, which have very small beans. Again, as with wine (the similarities seem endless) smaller coffee beans have a superior flavor. Dry, arid, mountainous climates stress the plants and the berries have a more complex flavor, as a result. Or so I understood it from his explanation. Peruvian coffee also seemed high on his list, according to the scribbles I took down during our visit.
Oh man, I’m gonna go start a pot of coffee…
Nov 07, 2010 · 5:35 PM
Fantastic – I love the smell of coffee roasting. How did you keep the camera still after the endless pots of french press?! I would have been a mess, with or without a tripod!
· Michelle (Jelly Shot Test Kitchen) · http://jelly-shot-test-kitchen.blogspot.com/
Nov 11, 2010 · 8:44 PM
Great post. You had me going. Really could have been Paris, France (except for the fact that the coffee in France almost always sucks — glad to see we’re doing SOMETHING better in KY!).
· Michelle · http://gourmandistan.com/
Nov 11, 2010 · 10:27 PM
Thanks, Michelle and Michelle! Haha. I would never have guessed the coffee in Paris sucks , I'm shocked! I’ve never been... I was bouncing off the walls, but Rosco's immune to caffine, I think; he kept it cool.
Nov 15, 2010 · 11:13 AM
Wow, you two are really producing some amazing stuff. Both the writing and photography are so impressive. I can’t even come up with the appropriate 25 cent words to indicate how good it is. I particularly loved the two close-up roaster photos (steam and falling beans). Bravo to you both!
Nov 15, 2010 · 10:15 PM
K, coming from you, that means the world. Thanks so much!! I am obsessed with those falling bean photos, I want to photoshop in little comic book style voice bubbles saying things like, “wheee” and “yippe!”
Feb 23, 2011 · 12:02 AM
It’s despicable that none of you seem to realize that roasting coffee as dark as appears in the photos is the equivalent of taking a piece of grass-fed, dry-aged beautiful beef and frying it in a dry pan until extra well done. Coffee is culinary, nuanced and complex and no one with even half a year of legitimate specialty coffee training would ever accept what is depicted above as anything resembling special. You people make me sick.
Feb 23, 2011 · 10:25 AM
Hey Coffee Roaster. The photos Rosco took were of Mark’s darkest roast (which is too dark for my tastes). I can only tell you that standing there, I did not perceive any harsh or burned aromas and visually, the color of the coffee seemed on par with what I’ve seen on French roast beans in other establishments. I am happy to admit I know next to nothing about coffee and have never studied it at all.
So while I don’t have any sort of qualification to declare whether or not he’s on the top of his game, or even whether or not he is doing it right, I am thrilled he’s trying. Lexington, Kentucky has no coffee culture, so here this is, in fact, special. Our coffee scene is dominated by Starbucks or, even worse, generic Sysco coffee from an orange handled carafe.
I would rather spend my money to support Mark, so he can continue his business, learn more about coffee, and hone his craft, than have my coffee shipped in from elsewhere. I want him to succeed so that others will try too, and so that Kentucky’s culinary scene will continue to grow instead of standing stagnant.
I would love to hear more about your thoughts on the matter though. For example, what should someone with an untrained eye (like myself) look for when selecting coffee? What does make coffee special? What aspects of coffee should one take for granted, and what constitutes going the extra mile?
Feb 28, 2011 · 11:36 AM
Absolutely. Just consider this post a forum for Coffee Roasters Anonymous.
Sep 03, 2011 · 10:01 AM
@Jimmy, I’m so sorry about your job. Truly, this economy is making us all downgrade our daily luxuries. I hope you’re able to find something soon.
Sep 07, 2011 · 5:28 PM
Jimmy, I feel your pain. I am a struggling small business owner. I run a little cafe in Lexington. Obama is killing small businesses. Three years of Obamanomics has wrecked havoc with this nation. It’s trickle up poverty. I hope you can find a new job soon Jimmy.
Sep 08, 2011 · 10:11 PM
@Nathaniel, I’m sorry to hear you’re hurting for business. Be sure to let me know where your cafe is, I’d love to visit sometime!
Sep 26, 2011 · 1:47 PM
Hey folks, thanks for the well wishes on the job hunt. I did find some part time work in construction. It is increasingly apparent that the US economy is heading for complete and total disaster. Financial apocalypse. My wife and I live very simply though so we are planning on surviving. I bought a pound of Dunkin Donuts coffee for 7.79. I must admit it’s darn good coffee for the price. My friends had been telling me to try it for months so I finally did. Take care all.
Sep 27, 2011 · 12:02 AM
@Jimmy, thanks for the update!! Cheers.
Nov 14, 2011 · 2:55 PM
Coffee Roaster: TRY this guy’s dark roast, and you will see how wrong you are.
Nov 16, 2011 · 7:42 PM
@Unwit, thanks for jumping in! Always glad to see another Marco fan.
Oct 04, 2012 · 5:51 PM
Good coffee. My wife and I went to his store on four occasions. However on two of the four times we went to his store to purcahse coffee, we encountered two different very rude female employees. We can’t deal with that. So now my wife and I go to Lexington and we buy from a different coffee company. We do enjoy our fresh roast in the morning though.
Oct 05, 2012 · 8:58 AM
Hi James. Aw, that’s too bad. You can buy the coffee without the attitude at a few shops in Lexington;the Good Foods Coop and Wine + Market both sell Caffe Marco’s full line.
Oct 11, 2012 · 3:27 PM
Hello, Stella. You are right, we don’t need the attitude! Thanks for your suggestion but lately my wife and I have been buying coffee from Red Hot Roasters. We also sometimes roast our own raw coffee beans from home in a hot air popcorn popper. It works really well and is fun to do. Makes our house smells like a coffee roastery. Thanks again.
Oct 11, 2012 · 6:58 PM
James and Janet, that’s so cool! I fell in love with DIY roasting in Japan, there’s all sorts of cool coffee shops there that just have barrels of green beans and you can go through and choose which ones you want, just like you’d shop for dried goods in the bulk aisle. I haven’t tried RRR, but next time I’m in Louisville, I’ll look them up!