Like I always say, you can’t live without it and … well, you can’t live without it.
After nearly 40 years as a newspaper writer, I know what a really, really, bad cup of coffee tastes like. And that’s 40 years straight-up black – no cream, no sugar. Don’t soften the bad news for this guy’s taste buds, buddy.
There’s nothing like coming back from vacation to find the bottom of your favorite mug paved over with a shiny black, diamond-hard residue. Your first thought is, “Well, should I just pour in fresh coffee over the top of it? Or should I try to scrub it out?”
The answer to that one will be lost to the ages.
For we are not here to talk about the horrors of coffees past but some damned good cups of coffee in the present.
One thing about drinking so much bad coffee is that your whole being comes into focus when a good cup of java hits your lips. The eyes grow wide. The ears perk up. The little hairs on the scruff of your neck stand up and do a little dance.
One sip and you start to notice things, like, not having brushed your teeth this morning.
Two sips and the dim world-view you’ve been carrying in a burlap sack over your left shoulder grows lighter and brighter.
Three sips and you greet your wife with a too-enthusiastic “Good morning!” which may scare her the first time but, believe me, she will come to appreciate it over the alternative.
By the time you reach the bottom of that cup the answers to life’s really big questions are very close to being answered. Just one more cup of that coffee first …..
So, I can’t begin to tell you how happy I was when Paul DuVille e-mailed to say he and Marci would be roasting a fresh batch of their Caye Coffee on Saturday morning.
Not brewing a pot.
Roasting. Turning those little green Guatemalan arabica beans into shiny black and robust COFFEE beans, the kind we love to grind and press piping hot water through, until the cup beneath practically vibrates from all the released energy and flavor.
Already a big fan of Caye Coffee Roasting Company’s most robust brew, Back Street, naturally I said “Heck-yes-I’ll-be-right-over!”
Except that this was, like, Thursday.
Caye Coffee has been around since 2004 but only came into Paul and Marci’s hands last October when they moved to Ambergris Caye from Canada.
They researched the coffee business well, but one thing they didn’t anticipate was having a principle in the old Caye Coffee take the names of the coffee products with her to the mainland.
In retrospect, they say, this was a blessing. They could rename the products, signaling their new ownership. And from a marketing standpoint, the renaming was brilliant: Front Street, Middle Street and Back Street.
Those ae the traditional, and still popular names of the three parallel arteries through San Pedro Town, now called Barrier Reef Drive, Pescador Drive and Angel Coral Drive, respectively.
The coffees calibrate to the names, too. Front Street is a light, breakfast coffee. Back Street is a dark roast, robust brew. And Middle Street is the happy medium between the two.
See? Brilliant. All the information you need is right there in the name of the grind.
As I pulled up to the Caye Coffee roast room on Saturday morning, the brew crew was already well into a batch of Back Street. But I knew that almost immediately after turning on to Sailfish Street just south of town. The scent of roasting bean quickly supplanted that of ripe seaweed on the beach.
Inside the large white roasting room Marci was preparing the one-pound bags for loading while Paul hovered over the rotating cylinder of the hulking Diedrich IR-12 roaster, as the twirling beans slowly expanded and turned from green to black.
Paul would eye he beans through the glass, occasionally extract a few for examination and generally pace the floor like an expectant father.
Meanwhile, hovering over a pedestal with clipboard in hand and her eyes fixed to a digital screen that read out temperatures, time and a series of key data points in the production of coffee was the midwife, Amarilis Polanco.
Atop her pedestal was a fluorescent reading lamp under which the extracted beans were placed. The only magic in the light is its consistency. It provides the baseline against which gradations of color can be eyeballed.
While there is science in coffee bean roasting, there is also an intuitive sense of when the beans are done. Paul talked about a proper size, color and sheen to the finished bean – all of which help determine its flavor.
It is the same bean, you see, in Front, Middle and Back — but its flavor is markedly affected by temperature and length of roasting, among other things.
When the batch is ready, Paul opens the hatch and the 30-pound batch of hot beans – now reduced to 23.5 pounds during the roasting process — drop into a rotating bin where they are constantly stirred and air cooled. (By comparison, a 30-pound batch of Front Street loses five pounds, mostly moisture, during the roasting process.)
When properly cooled, the beans will be dropped swiftly through an industrial grinder which can turn 30 pounds of beans to a medium fine grind in two minutes. The coffee sits for about a day before packaging to ensure that excess gasses are expelled.
What goes into the one-pound bags is dry, consumer-ready coffee that will stay fresh as long as you keep the bag sealed and the coffee dry. You may have noticed a little “button” on the front of every Caye Coffee bag. That is a one-way vent to release extraneous gases and air.
Marci said that it matters not whether you store your coffee in a cabinet, a freezer or a refrigerator. “The important thing is the degassing and keeping the coffee sealed,” she said. Further, a poorly sealed bag of coffee will absorb smells and flavors floating round in your fridge. Garlic grind, anyone?
Caye Coffee roasting is usually a Saturday operation and Paul, Marci and Amarilis will produce on average, 300 pounds of coffee. Middle Street is their best-selling brand, but Back Street draws the most compliments, they say.
The coffees are found in most major grocery stores on the island and some gift shops here and on the mainland carry it as well. Some restaurants use Caye Coffee although how many is hard to tell. Some, like the newly opened Rum +Bean south of town use Caye exclusively and market that preference as well.
The seven Sandy Point resorts to the north use Caye Coffee exclusively in their rooms. Marci showed a display of small packets and half-pound bags that were designed for resort use. Unlike the consumer one-pound bags, the resort packaging has unique color coding stripes for each product, something she says they would like to incorporate into future consumer packaging.
Coffee is also for sale at the roasting shop but don’t look for bargain prices. Paul and Marci say they are not in the retail business and they don’t wish to compete with the stores that carry their coffee.
However, if you ever want a quick lesson in the art of roasting, drop on by. Paul and Marci love to show off the roaster and talk coffee with customers.
They are generally in from noon-2 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays. But as Paul said, “If the golf cart is here, just knock on the door and come on in.”
Paul and Marci are just that kind of people.
Next up on Doing stuff we haven’t done before: Poker run