They know joe
‘Cupping’ in the Berkshires with a pair of fanatics
By T. Susan Chang, Globe Correspondent
GREAT BARRINGTON – Whether they’re reaching for a cup of joe to jolt themselves out of a bleary-eyed funk on Monday morning or joining the savants at Starbucks in a half-caf triple-grande vanilla nonfat latte, Americans – 80 percent of them – cleave to their coffee with the pride of fierce addiction.
But when it comes to sheer coffee obsession, Gregg Charbonneau and Barth Anderson of Barrington Coffee Roasting Company, leave most java junkies in the dust. Self-described ”fanatics,” Anderson and Charbonneau met at Simon’s Rock College of Bard in Great Barrington, and in 1993 founded Barrington Coffee Roasting Company. Monomaniacs, they began roasting green coffee beans a pound at a time, pursuing ever more exotic and obscure beans from coffee-growing nations.
Many Berkshire aficionados are loyal Barrington coffee drinkers. Seiji Ozawa’s driver, for instance, who is Italian-born, feels compelled to bring all of the visiting Tanglewood maestros a cup of Barrington espresso to refuel them during intermission.
In the industry, the term for where coffee is grown is called ”origins.” This is where Anderson and Charbonneau show their expertise. With their eyes closed, they can tell brewed Guatemala from Costa Rica. They’ll describe as ”lemony” or ”floral” a brew most of us are satisfied with calling ”hot.” Though they may not be the first to be seduced by the mystique of the tropical bean, with its mind-altering chemistry and heady aroma, their compulsion to seek out infinite complexities is in a class of its own. This connoisseurship – what cynics see as one of the more refined hoaxes of our time, designed to make impressionable buyers shell out $13 a pound for roasted beans – is what draws coffee lovers.
For the uninitiated, describing the taste of coffee – like describing perfume or wine – is an inexact science. Coffees in the Barrington brochure are cryptically labeled ”lively and dynamic” or ”exotic and bold,” as if to mystify neophytes. But as Charbonneau and Anderson lead me through a ”cupping,” or coffee tasting, their descriptions begin to make sense. I taste the hint of nutmeg in the ”delicate and refined” Kauai. In Ethiopian Harar, I can, eventually, detect the note of blueberry that causes such a frenzy in Charbonneau and Anderson. Charbonneau accidentally mixes up his three cups. Faster than a shell game in Vegas, he tastes and sets them straight again.
Specialty coffees today owe much to the ascendancy of Seattle-based coffee roasters, who made good coffees into sought-after drinks. Starbucks, with chains throughout the East Coast, is reviled by many for its ubiquity. But Charbonneau and Anderson credit the Seattle giant with introducing the public to gourmet coffees and promoting interest in different origins.
Unlike the big chains, however, the Barrington roasters are extreme purists: no flavored coffees, no frozen cappuccino drinks, no high-octane power coffees meant to buzz you through the roof. They take their coffee black, though they won’t hold it against you if you ask for milk or sugar.
They further distinguish themselves with their roasting methods, different for each type of bean and a lighter roast than the chains currently favor. As beans roast, they lose their acidity and develop a bittersweet tang. Charbonneau and Anderson have an aversion toward what Anderson describes as ”carbony, dark, sharp notes. ”Why buy these great coffees,” he asks, ”and then roast them so dark they all taste the same?”
Many Boston-area coffee aficionados remember the fabled Coffee Connection, founded by George Howell, whom specialty coffee roasters speak of with an almost cultlike reverence. Howell pioneered the lighter ”East Coast” roasting style, which aims to highlight the characteristic flavors of different origins. Charbonneau and Anderson regard Howell as a mentor, and were sorry when he sold his stores to Starbucks in 1994, prompting widespread lamentation among Hub-based coffee connoisseurs.
Production at Barrington starts at about 9 a.m. (after the first pot of coffee). The five employees have the bounce in their step typical in establishments fueled by caffeine – an unlimited supply, of course. During the 12- to 15-minute roasting process, the brass-trimmed drum of the great red roasting machine revolves and hums, looking like the Little Engine That Could. With a tiny scoop inserted into the drum, Anderson (the ”Roastmaster”) inspects the beans as they turn from green to beige to tan, and then the first crucial degrees of brown.
Making minute adjustments in temperature as the beans begin to retain and build heat, Anderson tenses, one hand poised on the lever of the machine. Then he releases the hatch and a cascade of still-roasting beans, hazy with scent, clatters violently into the cooling tray, dropping a few hundred degrees as they hit the metal.
In the lighter degrees of roast, ”10 seconds can make or break the coffee,” says Anderson. While computerized roasting is normal in the big companies, the Barrington team believes that the complex natural aromatics and flavors of the beans require personal attention.
This type of handcrafting, with its emphasis on high-end consumption, has its entrepreneurial drawbacks. Charbonneau and Anderson can’t count on having the same beans two seasons in a row. They roast and taste hundreds of coffees every year. (Both do this in their own kitchens in Great Barrington, where they control the water supply and preparation.) They send beans that are to be decaffeinated to a special carbon-dioxide facility in Bremen, Germany, whose process is said to preserve the flavor better than traditional chemical or water decaf methods. One-tenth of one percent of the caffeine remains in the beans. Since the beans must travel nearly twice around the world, it presents customers with the paradox of paying extra for what has been removed.
When they began in business – and for the next two years – Charbonneau and Anderson could not afford to hire any staff or advertise. Internet sales and word of mouth allowed the company to grow. Their Barrington Gold espresso blend (the combination of beans is shrouded in secrecy) inspires particular loyalty.
Berkshire-based Benjamin Zucker, the author of ”Blue,” says ”I wrote `Blue’ on it. I wanted to be like Balzac, who drank espresso constantly. So I had to find the perfect espresso: Destiny put it in my way.”
Ozawa’s driver, Peppino Natale, regularly speeds from Tanglewood to Lenox Cafe, which Charbonneau owns, to procure coffee for dignitaries. ”I come from Napoli, where we have very good taste in these things. The Barrington espresso …Â fantastico. ”Maintaining such stringent standards requires balance, since the coffee industry is in crisis. Coffee has fallen to an all-time low of 42 cents a pound. Some blame Brazil, which had two bumper crops in a row; some Vietnam, a new origin but already the second-largest producer after Brazil.
Coffee growers the world over are struggling or abandoning farms. The burden has largely fallen on the small growers, while mass marketers of preground canned coffee like Folger’s have greatly benefited. Anderson and Charbonneau acknowledge that they must be cognizant of the growers’ crisis, since quality and variety suffer in crunch times. ”Two, three years down the line, the coffee will suffer,” says Anderson, as trees are neglected and growers are driven out.
”Fair-trade” coffee, offered by some specialty roasters, guarantees that a price was paid to the grower that makes production sustainable. Other coffees are labeled ”shade-grown” (grown under the rain-forest canopy, for minimum environmental impact) or ”organic.” Charbonneau and Anderson were slow to offer these ”cause coffees.” But as industry giants like Starbucks began to adopt them, quality increased. Now Barrington has taken up the cause with a triple-certified (organic, shade-grown, and fair-trade) Mexican roast.
It’s time for midmorning coffee. Charbonneau prepares a latte with a look of extreme concentration. He scrutinizes the steaming milk as if it holds the secret of the universe and pours it carefully down the side of the cup into the espresso, gently flicking his wrist. As he presents it, the smooth surface of the latte shows an intricate fern pattern rising from a heart-shaped base. Charbonneau says that at his cafe, it takes baristas (people who make coffee) anywhere from a week to a month to learn the trick – ”and that’s making hundreds of lattes a day.”
Half in jest, I ask which side I should drink it from. Charbonneau nods and points to the base of the fern. ”Drink it from this side. The pattern will last till the end of the cup.” It does. He adds, quite seriously: ”I made you a right-handed one.”
Barrington Roasting Co. coffee is sold at 1369 Coffee House, 1369 Cambridge St. and at 757 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge and at A Matter of Taste, 150 Front St., Scituate; call 800-528-0998 or visit barringtoncoffee.com.This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 1/16/2002.
©Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.