Recently, upon landing in San Francisco after a flight where a woman literally changed a baby's soiled diaper in front of me, I was running on around four hours of sleep and, frankly, in a little bit of pain. At times like these, one cannot rely on simple coffee to rise you from your walking grave.
Furthermore, San Francisco does not have Stumptown, so what am I meant to do?
Why, talk to a Berkeley-based scientist and sample his opaque, vacuum-formed pulp of the very bean itself -- The Black Blood of the Earth.
Black as my soul and twice as thick, I poured it into a shot-glass and stared at it. It was completely opaque -- I could not see anything except my vaguely worried-looking expression reflected in the glass. I swigged it.
Chocolate, syrup, cigars, wood, and all kinds of other tastes conformed upon me like a hurricane in my mouth and brain. In a good way. I felt like I'd just jumped in a bath (through my mouth?), and blinked a few times.
Phillip Broughton, the main behind the curtain, encourages you to drink at first no more than 100ml (about 4 shot glasses) in a day. I tried it next in a cup of hot water, and watched in awe as the liquid darkened it. Tasting it, it was far easier to drink -- like a really, really good cup of coffee. The "how" and "why" is mostly behind the process -- cold vacuuming and science which is far too hard for my brain to take in.
What I can say is this stuff is tasty and packs a punch. I equate it to a strong glass of scotch's effect on the brain -- replacing that muffled cotton-wool feeling with a remarkable clarity, like said wool being ripped off your soul. Diluted, it tastes like a really good cup of coffee.
The only slight touchpoint is that it's expensive, costing $55 for a 1-3 month supply. One can't argue, as this is an amazing concoction. And, yes, I paid for it.
For some more background, I talked to Phillip Broughton, Funranium's founder and Herr Direktor, about the process, last week.
Why did you decide to make the BBOTE?
The Black Blood of the Earth came out of the misfortune of being diagnosed with Type II diabetes last June. You see, I have a vicious sweet tooth and this is more or less the worst thing that could have befallen me. I also was commuting 45min to an hour each way, every day, in nasty traffic to get in to work at the university. This means I was chronically underslept and in need of caffeine just to function. Since my job involves making sure people work with X-ray machines and radioactive materials, caffeine is a life or death matter. Unfortunately, the coffee from the shops near my office required an awful lot of adulteration with sugar & cream to make them even close to palatable.
Suddenly being unable to drink coffee in a way that made it tolerable was a very serious matter. I went through all kinds of sweeteners and substitutes; nothing did the trick and I didn't really feel like destroying my tastebuds to the point that burnt Army-grade coffee tasted just fine to me. So I resurrected an experiment I began in 2008 to recreate the "Viennese Triple Cold Extraction Coffee" an acquaintance had run across in Japan.
How do you make it?
In its simplest terms, which doesn't give away the actual process, BBotE is cold steeped, vacuum extracted coffee concentrate. When I started experimenting back in 2008, I began with something similar to the Toddy coffee process but several things stood out to me that just didn't make sense from a physics/engineering point of view. I had enough virgin laboratory glassware that I use for science party bartending that I knew that I had to be able to do something awesome with it. So, I started systematically tinkering with time, temperature, grind, roast, etc. to optimize a smooth, rich flavor that wasn't bitter and thus didn't need to be sweetened. I made the choice to do single geographic varietal as a controlled factor for reproducibility of the resulting BBotE. When I'm done with the vacuum extraction, the grounds are nearly as dry as when I started; why would I want to leave any of the deliciousness behind? As an amusing side-effect, the process seems to also concentrate the caffeine.
The other neat observation has been how long BBotE lasts. Kept refrigerated, the flavor holds for roughly three months. You can't keep a cup of perc coffee on your desk from moldering overnight, much less three months. After that point, the oils start breaking down and it all goes a bit tannic, tasting a bit like mother-of-vinegar.
Learning the pharmacopoeia of coffee, the metabolic processes involved, has all been a fantastically fun. Every batch I make, I learn something new about coffee, chemistry, biology, neuroscience... what started as personal tragedy has become a fantastic adventure.
How do you suggest people drink the BBOTE?
Back of the envelope calculation suggests that there is quite a bit more caffeine in BBotE than conventional coffee, so drink with care. I recommend not exceeding 100ml (about two shot glasses) in any one go. And, for the record, women are generally more caffeine sensitive than men.
I tell people to do my quality control taste test: always take one sip straight and cold first just to really get the coating richness of the oils and flavor, then mix it 3 parts BBotE to 1 part straight vodka (Hangar One being my personal preference). BBotE is not sweet, vodka is not sweet, but combined they strangely are and each of the BBotE varietals have a different sweet sensation. Chocolates are popular flavor declarations, but I've had honey, toffee, and amaretto declared as well.
The weirdest way, but a very tasty one pioneered by the St. George Spirits tasting room, was BBotE, absinthe, chipotle vodka, in equal 1 oz. portions over ice in a pint glass and topped with chocolate soy milk. I believe it was dubbed "Andie's Good Morning." Had a very interesting Mexican hot chocolate feel to it with the creaminess of the absinthe and the slight heat of the chipotle vodka.
Others have used it for cooking. I've been told of BBotE strudel and cheesecake. I can also warn that recipes that call for coffee also make you add additional sugar to cover the normal hot coffee bitterness. If you keep that sugar proportionality it will be way too sweet, but figuring out how to alter the recipe to account for that (and thus make it more diabetic friendly) will take some tinkering as several pudding like cakes of mine can attest. One gentleman in Norway did BBotE glazed roast suckling pig. Caffeinated pork, how can you beat that?
How do you drink yours?
BBotE is a concentrate and most people want the satisfaction of drinking a large volume of fluid than a shot. I start my morning with my BBotE mixed with three parts boiling water. Don't heat the BBotE directly though, you'll breakdown all those tasty oils I've worked so hard to extract... especially if you microwave it.
Do you make any other things?
I am also responsible for the Steins of Science. They grew out of another misfortune: the UC furloughs. On my first furlough day, almost a year ago in fact, I found myself puttering around at home with nothing much to do. I started looking for my stoneware stein since it was Oktoberfest at the Tyrolean Inn that weekend but couldn't find it. I did, however, find my 1.9L liquid nitrogen dewar (originally purchased on the principle of "I don't know why I need a dewar, but why wouldn't I need a dewar") and was seized by the idea to turn it into a beer stein. Nine hours and quite a bit of bleeding later, I had built my first one which made quite an impression that weekend.
The Steins of Science have been almost as much fun as the Black Blood of the Earth. Dewars are scientific grade Thermoses, made of silvered glass and intended to hold liquid nitrogen. If they can hold liquid nitrogen for days, I figured that keeping beer cold in them would be a cinch and boy was I right. A Steinwielder at the Oregon State Research Hospital actually hooked her process analytical equipment to her stein full of soda and declared that her drink was only rising in temperature at a rate of .3 degrees per hour.
My favorite time I was asked "what's the point" was by a bartender at the Triple Rock Brewery. I told him that beer, in general, was meant to be consumed at the temperature that it comes off the tap. He grabbed a tasting glass, poured a sip, drank it, and said "Damn right." I then pointed out that we, the customers, generally aren't allowed to put our heads under the taps and do what he just did. This, he said, was the reason he was a bartender. That, I said, is why I have a Stein of Science.
I've also noticed some interesting behavioral effects of the steins, namely, you drink more slowly. If your beer isn't heating up, and thus going flat more quickly, you are in no hurry to rush through your beer. You get a chance to savor it and really enjoy the flavor. In turn, this leads you to consume less, which is good on the liver, waist and wallet. For the duration of that first Oktoberfest with the original Stein of Science, I only had one; my compatriots tossed back four or so through the evening
Sure, the Steins of Science are not the purpose for which liquid nitrogen dewars were made. Yes, this is misuse of scientific apparatus. But it is a very, very nifty looking one.
Tell me about you...
Let's see...originally from Florida but grew up in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Physics major from UC Santa Cruz with a master's in health physics from Oregon State. I do my best to visit a new active volcano a year ever since my undergrad thesis work doing isotope geochemistry on volcanic samples. Spent a year working at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station as the cryogenic/science technician (it was my job to keep things cold in Antarctica) and its bartender. Former Lawrence Livermore National Lab employee who is very proud of the fact that I saw all the places that were used in the original Tron, never mind the secret squirrel fun. Quite fond of Urban Exploring and finding the hidden and beautiful places in cities, especially derelict buildings, before they pass away with time (for example, why is there fantastic art deco on top of the NYC sewage treatment plant... no one ever sees it but still it is there). If I had my druthers, I'd be working for IAEA doing nuclear arms control and reduction work, but give me time for I am still early in my career. Right now, working as a radiation protection professional at UC Berkeley and teaching at Las Positas Community College are quite enough fun.