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Stephanie Keller

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Coffee 101 -- Ask The Expert

Posted: 07/31/11 01:21 PM ET

Coffee is one of my favorite simple pleasures. I have been drinking it since I was 10 years old and what may have begun as an affinity for something that resembled coffee ice cream more than anything else eventually turned me into a proud addict and lover of the finer bean. I adore everything about it -- the ritual, flavor, wine-like nuances and complexity, smell, energizing and calming effects. The prospect of wake-up-to-consumption in five minutes gets me out of bed in the morning.

Recently, I had the chance to indulge my coffee obsession further with a visit to Cuvee Coffee, a Texas coffee roasting company that supplies beans to some of the best coffee houses in Austin, like Caffé Medici, with a product so good Owner Mike McKim was recently offered seven figures to hand it over (which he respectfully declined). The Cuvee method uses Direct Trade to carefully select high quality beans from all over the world and the result is a smooth, rich, almost desert-like deliciousness.

Visiting the roasting site was both an educational experience and wonderland of brewing, grinding and roasting demos and gadgets. And after the cupping experience that left me completely high on caffeine, Mike let me give him a high-level Third Degree to glean some tips from his expertise:

What do you think makes a really great cup of coffee?
It all starts with the quality of the coffee. Then it is the grind, coffee to water ratio, water temp and contact time. But the coffee is key. You can't make bad coffee taste better, no matter how you brew it.

What should people look for when buying coffee to help ensure it's high quality?
Stick with a roaster that you know sources high quality coffee. Then be sure to buy fresh, note the roast date on the bag.

How important is a good grinder?
The grinder is paramount. The quality and consistency of the grind will have a huge impact on the cup. The consistency of the particle size is important and one should always grind only what they plan to brew immediately before brewing. All grinders will have some variation, but the better grinders make more consistent particle sizes.

How do you prepare your coffee everyday/at home?
I mostly drink espresso, but also brew in the Chemex.

There are lots of schools of thought on where to keep coffee -- many put it in the fridge or freezer for preservation but others say that's the last place it should be. Where and how should we be keeping it?
Freezing coffee slows staling. That is a scientific fact. Light, heat and air are enemies of fresh coffee so I usually tell people to buy only what they will consume in a week. I think that is more important than freezing the coffee.

What are your thoughts on Direct Trade vs. Fair Trade coffee?
For my business, Direct Trade is a better model. The perception and reality of Fair Trade are often very different. And the foundation of direct trade is quality where fair trade does not consider quality.

(Note: For those of us that didn't really know the difference before, Fair Trade is a standard set and guaranteed by each country's Fair Trade Certification body that ensures fair wages and ostensibly, quality; Direct Trade deals directly with the coffee farmers without a middleman to test quality themselves and negotiate pricing.)

Cuvee is delicious coffee. Do you have a secret for roasting such a great cup?
We definitely have a roasting style that works well for us, but the reality is that it all starts with the coffee we source. It is a true labor of love and takes a huge commitment to do what we do.

If you're in the Austin area and curious to learn more directly from the source, Cuvee offers day-long barista classes. For more details on all things Cuvee and some serious coffee gear, visit http://www.cuveecoffee.com.