How to really enjoy that morning cup of Joe

| Associate Editor
Matt Mitgang | Student Life

A Kaldi’s roaster supervises the roasting of a batch of coffee. Each roaster takes notes on the color, smell and consistency of the beans during the roasting process.

I started drinking coffee this semester after the lifestyle of a premed biology major and a senior editor of Student Life finally caught up with me. I began buying the foul beverage for the caffeine, but last week, I discovered that great coffee not only provides the caffeine I desire but also can grace the palette much like a fine wine.

Following up the March 17 article in Student Life about the acquisition of Kayak’s Café by Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Co., photographer Matt Mitgang and I toured the Kaldi’s roasting facility in downtown St. Louis. While touring, we learned to appreciate premium coffees that are hand-roasted by individuals heavily invested in producing a great cup of Joe.

Kaldi’s has grown from a lone café in DeMun equipped with a 12 kilogram coffee bean roaster to a city-wide brand that processes 8,000 pounds of coffee a week. Yet, as owner Josh Ferguson and his brother-in-law and Director of Coffee Tyler Zimmer explained, the family-owned business continues to buy premium coffee beans from small farmers and roast coffee in small batches to ensure high quality.

“People are starting to understand that coffee is not coffee is not coffee,” Ferguson said. “People are becoming more sophisticated.”

“We cannot take bad coffee and make it taste better,” Zimmer added.

After we were served a free cup of wonderful Brazilian light roasted coffee, the tour began. Immediately, two things stood out.

Kaldi’s used no computerized equipment to roast its coffee. The factory floor converged on a 75 kilogram roaster made in 1937, and the employee working the machine continuously smelled the coffee, taking notes on the smell and bean appearance.

The roasted beans themselves were also puzzling. I had seen black roasted coffee beans while touring a coffee plantation in Costa Rica, yet the finished beans from the Kaldi’s light roasted coffees were yellow. Zimmer explained this difference to me and also guaranteed that I will never buy a cup of dark roasted coffee again.

In a light roast, the beans crackle once to release their sugars and natural flavor. In a dark roast such as a French or Italian roast, the beans are then charred to add a carbonized flavor, which produces the caffeinated beverage I initially drank.

“In our opinion, it [the darker roast] is not the best,” Zimmer said while drinking the same light roast coffee I was served earlier. “I want to taste the coffee where it is coming from and what it takes like that.”

After watching another employee weigh the coffee into bags, I entered the tasting room, which would change my coffee-drinking experience forever. Ferguson and Zimmer set up a cupping, or tasting, for Matt and me so that we could taste the coffee along with them before distributing it to vendors. They ground four cups each of six different coffees on the spot and taught us how to remove the crust on top of each hand-made cup, slurp the coffee to stimulate our senses of taste and smell and spit out the coffee into a cup so as not to ingest too much caffeine while tasting the 24 cups of coffee in front of us.

“They say that 70 percent of the taste is actually smell,” Zimmer said.

I first sampled the Fair Trade Organic Ethiopia Aleta Wondo coffee, and my taste buds exploded with the fruity taste of the single origin light roast. I had a similar experience with the Brazil FAF roast that I had been drinking since I arrived.

Next came the Colombia Monserrate light roast, a coffee hand-picked by Zimmer. The winning beans are bought directly from the farmer in Colombia as part of the Kaldi’s Relationship Coffee progra, where the roaster and farmer work together to assure that the beans meet the roaster’s liking, and the farmer receives fair compensation for his beans.

“It was pretty amazing,” Zimmer said. “It’s a village in the middle of nowhere. They are probably 300 people…It’s a big deal to have the people who buy their coffee come and visit them. It doesn’t happen very often, especially in Colombia. We cupped in the school. People were looking in through the doors and the windows to see what was going on. It was a pretty unique experience.”

While the full flavor of the Colombian roast left me satisfied, I enjoyed the Brazilian and Ethiopian coffees much more.

I then drifted to the other end of the table, where the dark roasts were waiting. The Sumatran coffee and Nicaraguan dark roast both left a charred taste in my mouth, and after contrasting the dark and light roasts, I felt ready to sample the Fair Trade Organic Natural High, the blend of coffee served on campus. The light/dark blend left a bit of a charred taste in my mouth.

“You’re trying to create coffees that complement each other,” Zimmer said of the blended varieties. “The blend is plain coffee. It’s what they’re [the customers are] used to.”

Seeking to restore order to my senses, I rushed back to the Brazil FAF coffee for its hint of pineapple. I ended my tasting with the Aleta Wondo coffee, my favorite, with its full taste and hint of berry.

Now a coffee snob, I had to ask Zimmer to compare the Kaldi’s coffees to Folgers and even Starbucks.

“I can’t even imagine what that tastes like,” Zimmer said. “Seriously, you might want to barf.”

Kaldi’s offers free cuppings for the public every Friday at 2 p.m. The roasting facility is located at 700 St. Bernard’s Lane in St. Louis.