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Caffeine Buzz/Is It Coffee Season Yet?

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Metropolis Coffee Company

1039 W. Granville

773-764-0400

Intelligentsia

3123 N. Broadway

773-348-8058

Over the past few years, the concept of seasonality--eating what's fresh--has gotten so hot that farmers' markets are now pickup spots. But there are still a few things that seem to be seasonless. Coffee, say. Who looks at a bag of coffee and wonders, When were these beans picked?

In fact, a few people wonder just that, and they think we'd have better coffee if more people did. Intelligentsia, a Chicago roaster that buys direct from growers, is about to open an LA cafe where the list of in-season coffees will change regularly, a program it hopes to then bring back to its locations in Chicago. And Metropolis Coffee, an Edgewater microroaster and cafe, already advertises that "coffee is seasonal, just like produce."

Marketing coffee this way is new, says Connie Blumhardt, publisher of the trade magazine Roast. Until recently she'd never heard anyone explicitly sell coffee as seasonal. (She knows both local roasters well: Roast named Intelligentsia its 2007 large roaster of the year and gave Metropolis the award in the microroaster category.) "Historically the way coffee's been sold has been more like cereal," says Doug Zell, Intelligentsia's founder. But if the idea of its seasonality catches on, coffee options may soon be very different: more diverse, fresher, and--if you believe the hype--better.

In Chicago, you buy tomatoes in August, asparagus in April, and coffee whenever you run out. Coffee beans aren't fresh, after all--they're dried. But even after they're dried they retain a percentage of moisture and acid, key flavor components that dissipate with time. Estimates I got ranged from six to nine months; higher growing elevations mean a thicker shell and a longer life. Of course, you can still drink an older coffee. But it'll taste like a January tomato.

At least that's the metaphor Metropolis uses on its Web site. But when I met Tony Dreyfuss, who co-owns the business with his father, Jeff, he backed off the claim a little. "I had a Roma tomato last night and it was really bad," he said. "But the Costa Rican," a coffee that's a little less than a year old, "doesn't taste like shit right now. It's just flat."

We tried the Costa Rican at the daily Metropolis "cupping," the coffee industry's equivalent of a wine tasting. Boiling water is poured over a few grounds, which form a crust on the top. You break the crust with a spoon, breathe in the aroma from the oils trapped beneath, then slurp the coffee with a spoon, which maximizes the taste--professionals do this loudly and vigorously, like someone snorting a line. Coffees from Brazil and Bolivia, relatively new arrivals, were terrific: the Bolivian floral and honeylike, the Brazilian creamy and rich. But the year-old Costa Rican really did taste flat: the country's known for bright coffees, but this was dull and monochromatic.

The coffees we tried were all roasted lightly: with a darker roast, differences are eroded, and for a cupping the roast is particularly light, so the bean is exposed instead of the roast. Starbucks (aka Charbucks) uses a notoriously dark roast, which inevitably makes freshness and geographic distinctions less apparent, and now that dark roast is often associated with good coffee. That drives the specialty roasters crazy. A darker roast, says Zell, masks coffee's natural acidity; at Metropolis the daily brew is never a dark roast like French or Italian. Another problem is that the roasters supplying cafes carry too many coffees, Jeff Dreyfuss says. "Many roasters will try to keep all those coffees in stock," he says. "That leads to a situation in which over half your coffees are well beyond their prime."

Coffee is already seasonal, both Zell and the Dreyfusses say--they're simply letting people know about it. At Metropolis there are customers who say, "'Oh, I love Costa Rican--only Costa Rican will do,'" says Jeff Dreyfuss. "But six months out of the year that's a disservice." --Nicholas Day

For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Intelligentsia head roaster Caleb Mayhall; Jeff and Tony Dreyfuss at Metropolis/ photos by Rob Warner.

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