We had a good chat this morning on KFRU on Columbia’s coffee scene. It largely followed my Tribune column from this week, so if you missed the radio show you can get my take below. Essentially, I’ve come around to really respect what Kaldi’s is doing. The people care, the coffee is both high quality and interesting – a combination I always dig. It’s worthy of discussion, something we don’t normally associate with coffee. Anyway, read on and let me know what you think.
Couple of questions:
- What do people think of Dunn Brothers? I wasn’t impressed with their espresso, but can’t say I’ve tried much else.
- How do you brew at home? We’re almost exclusively French press nowadays, but I have been experimenting with the Clever coffee dripper. So far it’s been turning out bold, press-esque coffee instead of the soft, lighter brew I was expecting. I have, however, been using Lakota’s October Blend, which is fairly dark…and where the Panama beans I bought this morning come in. More to come on this.
- Mark Farnen asked a couple of good questions on air this morning. Are there any non-downtown coffee destinations? Or diners serving quality Joe? I came up blank on both fronts.
Anyway, onto the column.
Learning to savor a good cup of Joe
I’ll always remember my first “cappuccino.” It was 1993 and I was 16. The movie “Singles” had opened my eyes to the burgeoning coffee shop scene, albeit in Seattle. With impeccable timing, Lakota Coffee Company had opened on Ninth Street in downtown Columbia the year before and offered an accessible place for a newbie to dip a toe into the water. I walked in that first time confident with my movie-fueled coolness and, truth be told, typical teenage arrogance. In retrospect I know I envisioned sipping something drinkable, an entry-level coffee. Maybe a cappuccino or latte. But I didn’t know those words, so what arrived was a tot-sized cup of hydrochloric acid. I was horrified. Confusion and shame ensued. I had, of course, ordered an espresso. It was years before I tried it again, and years more before I began to enjoy espresso — but when I did, I was hooked.
Twenty years later, high-end coffee has long since gone mainstream and Columbia has plenty of options. The good news is that no two places are doing it the same way. Lakota is still going strong and as far as I’m concerned remains the best place to buy whole bean coffee for grinding and brewing at home. They roast beans constantly and it shows — they’re simply fresher than anything else you can buy. I go in at least twice a month to restock on their Espresso or Fireside blends.
Sticking with Ninth Street, Coffee Zone’s “Rocket Fuel” is my favorite traditional drip coffee in town. It’s full-bodied without being overwhelming, strong without totally blowing the coffee’s nuance out of the water (though just barely).
Uprise Bakery and Café Berlin are very worthy breakfast/coffee destinations in their own right. Each offer solid drip coffees (Z-Best and Lakota brews, respectively) and an array of specialty espresso drinks for those looking for a bit more punch.
But my current crush is on Kaldi’s. I initially viewed the St. Louis-based chain as an interloper, a threat to my old sentimental favorite. But given an open mind and some truly next-level coffee, I’ve come around.
It started with a cup of hot chocolate. One chilly morning recently, my son was in the mood for something warming and we were downtown. We ordered a hot chocolate and said “Yes” to whipped cream on top. To my surprise, not only did they set about foaming actual whipping cream, they went through the process twice when the first batch hadn’t yielded enough for their own standards. I was impressed.
My go-to espresso drink is the Americano — essentially a milder version of espresso — and Kaldi’s version was solid, if unspectacular. For that, I had to delve into their somewhat dizzying array of specialty brewing techniques.
The first of these I tried was Kaldi’s “Trifecta” brewing method, which uses a machine to aerate the coffee grounds as they steep and then suctions out the coffee, leaving the grounds behind. You might think it sounds a lot like a French press, but the resulting coffee is startlingly different — much softer and lighter-bodied. You know those frilly descriptions of the coffee beans (“velvet raspberry, orange peel, almond, etc.”) you run into? You can actually taste them with the Trifecta. It’s an eye-opener.
But don’t stop there. There’s the “Chemex” method, which uses a beaker, gram scale and timer. And while it looks like something out of “Breaking Bad,” it produces a coffee every bit as refined and pure as Walter White’s celebrated product (with far fewer side effects).