Chock full o' caffeine
April 23, 2009 - Bill Ackerbauer
There's almost always a pot of java on the burner here on the third floor at The Leader-Herald. Today around 6 a.m. I brewed up a pot of Chock full o' Nuts, which happened to be the brand du jour. (We more frequently stock the place with the slightly-less-mediocre Maxwell House or Folgers, but a little variety from time to time is appreciated.)
As I waited anxiously for the coffee to brew, I occupied myself by studying the label of the signature yellow, black and red Chock full o' Nuts can, which read, in part: "No, there are no nuts in here (it's a long story) ..."
As I am a lover of both caffeinated beverages and long stories, this of course piqued my interest. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the story is neither long nor terribly interesting: The man who founded the brand, William Black, owned a chain of nut shops in Depression-era New York City before he went into the coffee shop business. You can read the entire scintillating history and other trivia at www.chockfullonuts.com. (I recommend this reading for any who have consumed too much of the product and need help falling asleep.)
Besides the tacky taxicab motif of its packaging, Chock full o' Nuts also is remembered for its classic ad jingle, which was sung on TV by the founder's cabaret-singer wife, Page Morton Black: "Chock full o' Nuts is that heavenly coffee ... better coffee a millionaire's money can't buy."
Turns out that, too, is far from true. Earlier this week, I bought two varieties of really excellent whole-bean coffee (I grind my own beans at home, as any true joe aficionado must), one from Kenya and one from Tierra del Sol, Mexico. On sale at about $6 and $7 a pound, respectively, these single-origin coffees are more expensive than the late Mr. Black's brew but make it taste like something a Saint Bernard has bathed in by comparison.
The Mexican coffee I picked up Monday is classified as "fair-trade," which means the farmers and others in the supply chain were paid a fare wage for their labors. NPR broadcast a story the other day about the fair trade movement. One of the details in the report that shocked me was that apparently there are people in developing nations who have grown coffee for a living their whole lives without knowing what the little green-and-red beans are used for. Some coffee farmers in Uganda apparently suspected they had been growing bullets -- not the makings of an after-dinner beverage, but ammunition -- before a businessman set up a fair-trade roasting operation in that African country. You can hear the NPR report here: 'Fair Trade' Markets Growing Quickly
Don't hate me because I'm a coffee snob. Join me. Over the years, I've picked up a couple of secrets to preparing excellent coffee:
1. Don't wash the pot with soap too frequently. I rinse mine out with hot water, and about once a week I'll swish a teaspoon of salt around in it to remove any unpleasant buildup. About once every two months, I break down and run it through the dishwasher, aware that it might take two or three brews to "prime" the pot again.
2. Grind beans yourself rather than buying ready-ground coffee. And make sure the beans are as fresh as possible. One way to judge how long it's been since a particular package of coffee was roasted is to scan the label for the place it was roasted. If was roasted close to home, it's probably fresher than something roasted overseas or even in Seattle. (Price Chopper sells inexpensive, decent whole-bean coffee under its Central Market brand, and it's roasted in Schenectady.)
3. Freshly roasted coffee beans are dark brown, slightly oily and shiny. If the beans have no luster, they're too dried out. I've read at this site and elsewhere that oils are released as the beans are roasted, and darker roasts produce oilier beans. I like a medium roast (robust without full-on Starbucksy bitterness), so for me, the indicator of perfection is the "sheen on the bean." Perhaps I ought to copyright the phrase. When I used to work at another newspaper "down the line," one of my fellow editors there was an equally discerning consumer of good coffee. At the start of every shift, we'd consult with one another to learn if either of us was carrying a stash of black gold (or if we'd have to settle for run-of-the-mill stuff). It was cause for jubilation when one of us would shout across the newsroom, "I've got oily beans!!!"
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