Asking Hard Questions of Teresa Von Fuchs, The Coffee Woman

This week, as a service to Rachael readers, many of whom drink coffee, I interviewed coffee expert Teresa von Fuchs, who in spite of her formidable-sounding name, is actually a great gal and easily relatable. Teresa is the director of wholesale at Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, one of the city’s elite coffee operations.

Theresa, when I go to buy coffee, every kind has a million varieties from places I never heard of. How the hell am I supposed to figure out what to get?

There’s a lot of meats and cheeses most people aren’t familiar with, either. All you need to do is ask about them, the way you would at a butcher or a cheesemonger.

Listen you. Don’t get wise. There is never anybody around at a supermarket to ask. That’s why I am interviewing you!

Fair enough. Well, there are traditional flavor profiles that people traditionally associate with various regions. Indonesian coffees tend to be big and earthy, Central American coffees are clean and chocolately, and African coffees range from tea-like and winey to fruity and acidic – generally wilder than the other regions.

That makes sense. But what the hell am I supposed to make of all these ridiculous descriptions like “notes of honeydew, marzipan, and a hint of tobacco on the back of the palate?” I mean, what is that even supposed to mean? Plus there’s all this stuff about the elevation, the soil, “organic,” “shade-grown,” and a million other buzzwords.

Most of that is just to show off. But some of it is actually relevant. The altitude tells you something about the coffee, because the higher it is grown the more complex the taste and often the greater the acidity. Cooler temperatures means it takes longer for the fruit to fully develop. The region matters, because the place something grows makes it taste the way it does. And then there are other aspects, like varietials and proccesses, that take longer to figure out and then sometimes there’s stuff that only hardcore coffee nerds get into. Probably the most important thing is that, no matter where it’s from, it comes from one particular farm or plantation.

How come?

Because when beans from dozens of producers are all thrown together, there’s no real incentive for any one of them to really take extra care. And coffee-growing is super labor-intensive. The beans are hand-picked. It takes multiple passes during a harvest to pick only the ripe cherries. And how the beans are stored is as important as how they are picked. Nobody is going to take that extra trouble if their beans are all bought in bulk for a rock-bottom price, which is how most of the big coffee brands get their beans.

I know, but….the good coffee is so expensive now! How the hell am I supposed to pay $16 for a pound of coffee I’ll go through in three days? I mean, really!

Look dude. Coffee comes from far away and people hand-pick every bean. Those beans have to be cleaned and carried and stored – coffee is very volatile – and then shipped halfway across the world to be carefully roasted – every one has to be cooked the right way, just like any other kind of food – and then brought to you at the store before it gets stale. None of the top coffee roasters are getting rich at this. This is a labor of love. It costs what it costs.

Well. OK.

I’m just saying. You get what you pay for.

So what do I look for? If I’m going to pay that much, I want to make sure I get the really good stuff. So I can put evaporated milk and Sweet n Low in it!

(Pause) OK, well – make sure there is a roasting date. If there isn’t, that means it’s likely to be old and / or stale. Look where it’s roasted. You want it to be somewhere close to where you are buying it. There are a lot of roasters and importers that you can rely on to sell good coffee. I’m a fan of Irving Farm, obviously, but there’s the big guys: Stumptown, Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, and a bunch of small roasters around the country like Madcap and Four Barrell, Dallis Bros, Square One, Cuvee and if none of those are near you there are a bunch of us that have subscriptions by mail and web shops.

And they send it, how? As beans? Or as ground up coffee?

No, it gets stale if it’s ground ahead of time. Get a coffee grinder. The best kind is a burr grinder, which does the best job of grinding evenly; but even the little propeller-style grinders, that have a little blade that spins at the bottom, are better than buying it ground. Just make sure that it’s a different machine; those combo grinders are hard to clean. We like to stay away from the plug in Mr. Coffee-style machines. They never get the water hot enough, and they’re also hard to clean. Go to a simple method like a french press or a simple pour-over. They’re easy to use and the generally make the best coffee.

OK, some last quick questions. Then I will let you go. If you had to buy one of the regular supermarket brands, which one would it be? I personally like Chock Full O’ Nuts, “that heavenly coffee.”

I drank some Bustelo at somebody’s house recently, which is a canned ground cofffee like that. And well, I drank it. So guess I’d say Bustelo.

Can I nuke the coffee when it gets cold?

You can, but it’s going to taste different than it did when you first made it. The acids are going to concentrate, which makes for an unpleasant taste. Nuking it changes the flavor. Just make more fresh cups.

How do you drink your coffee?

I drink my coffee black.

Do you use Sweet n’ Low?

We’re done here, I think.

What's Fresh from @RachaelRay

Rachael Ray