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Secrets of the Perfect Cup

Terroir Coffee’s George Howell shares tips on Feb. 20

Find out how to how to make the perfect brew at a talk and tasting on February 20.

George Howell describes a good cup of coffee much as a sommelier talks about a favorite wine — the flavor can be brilliant, crisp, fruity, or harsh and insipid. And he should know. Howell founded the Coffee Connection, a chain of Boston area coffee shops that was sold to Starbucks, and he is now the owner of Terroir Coffee, which selects and sells beans from individual farmers, rather than blends of beans from many farms.

Passionate about the steps it takes to make good coffee, from the place it’s grown to the temperature at which it’s brewed, Howell will share the secrets of the perfect cup of coffee on Tuesday, February 20, at 6 p.m. at 808 Commonwealth Ave., part of Boston University’s spring Seminars in Food, Wine, and the Arts. Attendees will learn about the process of coffee cultivation, roasting, and brewing, and they will sample the difference between ripe and unripe beans and old crop and new crop beans. Howell spoke with BU Today about how to brew the best coffee.
BU Today: What makes a good cup of coffee?
It’s a lot of things. It’s place, the variety of the plants, the actual farming practice, how it’s harvested, if it’s hand-picked, and then the processing, which means removal of the coffee from the fruit. Then there is the drying of that seed to stabilization, then storage, roasting, the freshness factor, how long after roasting you have it, proper grinding, and brewing. The one factor the consumer has influence over is making sure the coffee is fresh, which means grinding the coffee right before brewing. You should definitely have your own grinder — it makes a big difference.

How can people make better coffee at home?
Much of the taste depends on how long hot water is in contact with coffee, if it’s very short — 20 to 30 seconds like espresso — or several minutes like drip or French press. If the water is in contact longer, you need a much coarser grind, because a fine grind produces a much harsher taste. If you’re using a French press, you should experiment with coarser grind or adding in more coffee to compensate.

What about temperature? Is there an ideal temperature for the water used to brew coffee?
It should be no lower than 195 degrees, and 200 degrees is ideal. The problem is that most automatic coffeemakers are too weak and on average they don’t bring it up to 195. Instead it’s usually well below, which makes the coffee more insipid and reduces its brightness.

What’s the best method of making coffee?

Drip really expresses the ideal. It produces a wine-clear coffee. The paper filter cuts out all sediments, and if brewed properly, the cooler it gets, the more powerful the flavor because our taste buds with hot liquids are at best at 50 percent. People shouldn’t expect a strong flavor in drip when it’s hot. French press is more demitasse style. It’s stronger and you probably need a slightly darker roast. French press gives you a cocoa-rich texture, and it has a very different appeal. In the morning I’m a drip man.
People spend all day at the office. How can we make better office coffee?
That’s a problem. What’s really taking the market by storm is encapsulated ground coffee. Keurig is the main manufacturer of small pods, and you can pick from several flavors. This is basically a mediocre to fair quality improvement, but no great shakes compared with real coffee, in my opinion.

For better coffee, you should go the way it was made before, but without the glass pot on the burner. You don’t want to keep coffee on the heat once it’s brewed. It would be better to microwave a cup than keep it on the heat. Really a thermos is the best method. You can make coffee and pour it into a thermos or have a machine with a built-in thermos.

What is the difference between unripe and ripe beans and old crop and new crop beans?
The difference between ripe and unripe beans is very much like with fruit. One is round, rich, and full, and the other is thin, very ungiving, and somewhat astringent. Grassy might be a good description. The industry as a whole keeps coffee in open lace jute bags. Green coffee is commonly subject to temperature fluctuations, from temperate mountains to tropical ports. This is akin to putting wine in open barrels. Green coffee ages over about a year and acquires much grosser, generic flavors, and loses its sweetness and aromatics. You can’t tell the difference in the store because the bag is totally airtight.

What are you doing with coffee that other merchants are not doing?

The revolution I’m trying to put through right now is freezing raw coffee. We’re working with coffee growers in the country of origin. At the event, we’ll do a triple taste: coffee that’s been frozen a year and half at the country of origin, then frozen coffee that was ground five days ago and left out, and then coffee that’s fresh roasted and fresh ground and brewed, but had been left in a jute bag. The most radical taste difference is between the first and the last coffees. Freezing adds to the cost, but if there’s ever going to be a really segmented, quality market, as in tea and wine, that’s the way it has to go.

What about Fair Trade coffee? Is it really helping the small farmers?
Fair Trade is not doing enough, because it still maintains farmers as anonymous and the coffee goes into blends. Fair Trade doesn’t really pay more per pound; the lowest price we pay is for Fair Trade coffee. One woman I buy from grows just 2,000 pounds of coffee on 15 acres of land. Fair Trade pays her $1.26 a pound and I’m paying her $2.85. Fair Trade only relates to tiny farmers in coops and excludes farmers who are not in coops. There are huge waiting lists of farmers who are in coops, but who don’t sell enough, and Fair Trade doesn’t incorporate the somewhat larger farmers who can still be very small. That’s why Terroir doesn’t do any blending. On every single coffee we name the origin of the farmer, and that creates a name for the farmer.

Sponsored by Boston University’s Programs in Food and Wine, The Perfect Cup of Coffee will be held on February 20 at 6 p.m., at 808 Commonwealth Ave., Room 117. Registration is $15 for faculty and staff and $20 for students and the public. To register, go to the program Web site.

Catherine Santore can be reached at csantore@bu.edu.