I do as she does. The smell is sweet and chocolaty; the grains run over my tongue, tasting bitter (I'm a cream-and-sugar man), though the caramelized effect, the sugary bite of a just-roasted bean, is potent. The best part is the lingering; it sticks in my mouth that day and well into the wide-awake, work-filled evening. What does she like about our brew? "Low acidity, smooth body, long-lingering aftertaste that's sweet; it's a well-balanced and a well-roasted coffee." (A bad bean would produce coffee with no character. It would be "hollow," or absent of flavor. Worst would be to brew tainted coffee, although you'd smell its bagginess or hidiness in the roasting or grinding stages.)
Jesse Fox has been the master roaster at Caffé Calabria for nearly four years. Fox is dressed in black, wears rectangle glasses (2000's style), and sports sideburns that look like combs. One arm is covered with multicolored tattoos. He's quite animated, but not in a coffee-wired way. Rather, he's skin-wired, it seems, from plunging his hands into plastic-lined garbage cans full of roasted beans and cupping handfuls to his nose. "For the olfactory," he tells me, "I'd say the Colombian is our most aromatic coffee. As soon as the lid comes off, you can smell it. Coffee tends to get a little brighter three, four days after it's roasted."
Fox says that roasting breaks down "the surface tension on the bean. The oils come out, and the aroma comes out even more." We stand beside one of two giant batch dryers, or barrels, that turn and roast the coffee at an even 500 degrees. As in the sample roasting process, the beans change color from green to yellow to tan to darker tones (mahogany, chestnut) and, about two-thirds through the 16-minute roast, begin to pop. When the 20-pound lot is done, Fox tilts the barrel up and releases the beans -- a long sliding cheeeee -- into a cooling tray. This afternoon, he's just roasted a decaf blend. The tray's mechanical cooling arms stir the fresh-roasted coffee beans. Fox grabs a few, cracks one under his nose, and inhales. I crack a bean too, and we nod at each other: a nice aroma. It's not, of course, as potent as the odor from a freshly ground bean.
"At the end of the roast, those lipids and starches eventually turn into sugars, what we're trying to caramelize in the end. It produces that uniquely homogenized coffee smell." A coffee roasted about 12 minutes, an Italian roast, turns dark and oily; roasted to 15 minutes, it's a French roast, when the caramelized parts burn a bit and the bean is smoky flavored. Fox says that Starbucks is known for its "burnt taste," what he calls a "charred coffee. It has a smoky aroma, a smoky taste; there's no flavor, no varietal characteristic." He says that Starbucks and Peet's (known for its "syrupy" coffee that's twice-brewed) rush the process with their automated roasting systems. "If you force it, you end up not developing the coffee on the inside, on the molecular level. It's like putting a steak on a grill that's 500 degrees; you'll sear it on the outside, while the inside is still red."
Fox calls what he does at Calabria "an Old World operation. We use sight, smell, and sound as we go." During roasting, he pulls out a "tryer" from the barrel, a long sampling arm in which he can see and smell the beans' evolving constitution.
I have always thought of coffee as bitter; to roasters, it's sweet. Fox says the sweet is "not like milk chocolate but baker's cocoa, the unsweetened sort." The taste-aroma comes from the variety's locale, one that combines temperature and altitude: hot and moist Sumatra or the drier regions of Africa that produce lemony-tasting and puckery-smelling coffee. Fox hopes that the Calabria cup of joe possesses "flavor over robustness," which the many local restaurants that feature their blends also want. "We're going for that full city roast: more flavor, more body, more caffeine."
One recent afternoon I meet up with spice chef Don Robinson of Pacific Beach's San Diego Coffee, Tea and Spice Company. He lays out a dozen spice packs for us to smell. At 54, Robinson has a face from a Jimmy Cagney movie -- a boxer's face, a tad pressed-in, a tad roughed-up but angelically so. His nose, at least outwardly, seems worn from years of inhalation. He wants me to try his blend, Desert Blackberry Rub. Its main ingredient, roasted garlic, is blended with sea salt, basil, oregano, lemon oil, citric acid, hot chili powder from New Mexico, and blackberry extract. Robinson opens the Ziploc plastic bag, the size of a shirt pocket, then plunges his nose in and whiffs with fervor. He calls the blend "kind of tart, a mellow, garlicky flavor with herbs in the background. I'd sprinkle this on salmon or pork, and the flavor will permeate the fish as you cook it -- for an hour or so."
Robinson's Kona Supreme has coffee, rosemary, cocoa, orange, onion, minced garlic, and canola oil to blend the flavors. "It's got a great taste, and the smell" -- he cracks the pack open and inhales deeply -- "is a rosemary murky flavor with coffee and orange in the background." How did he create this blend? He walked into a restaurant in Seattle (a wolf in another wolf's lair), caught a whiff of a coffee seasoning, and started imagining his new concoction. "I've been thinking -- wondering -- about it for six months. I wanted to make a coffee-flavored seasoning, not to put in coffee, but for salmon or chicken. It's not really the taste of coffee; that sits off to the side. The coffee flavor helps accentuate the other spices. I know what the spices and flavors do when they integrate with each other." The different flavors, he says, taken together "create a new experience, as they tantalize different parts of your tongue."