Seduced by a Guatamalan Beauty
Finding a decent coffee in Korea is not difficult, but finding one where coffee’s sophistication isn’t assaulted by tasteless music, is. Most of the large coffee franchises and restaurants pump out shite music which has a broad appeal but I don’t particularly want to drink a coffee or eat lunch to the same music I’ve also been forced to listen to in the gym or by those teenagers zig-zagging down the road on their noisy hairdryer-powered mopeds. I suppose it could be worse; it could be muzak!
I used to love a good cup of English tea, preferably Earl Grey though Lady Grey is also a favourite. Tea is one of the most refreshing beverages but I’ve learnt that there is something amiss with tea in Korea as there is something amiss with soju in the UK or Pimm’s No. 1 consumed indoors, in winter. My local Home Plus was selling boxes of Twinning’s Earl Grey last year at the amazing price of 2500 Won (£1.25) for 50 bags. However, whether it was the water or the milk, I could never brew a cup that was decent, let alone one the experience of which was sublime. And now I’ve become a coffee head!
If you follow the correct procedure you can guarantee a decent coffee with every brew but the perfect cup of tea is elusive and the method not as quick to reveal the full potential as is coffee. No matter how many cups of coffee I make, or which procedure I follow, every cup is simply okay and certainly coffee’s reliability to produce a good brew is its failing because in the randomness and unpredictability of tea, lies its greatest strength. And no matter how many different types of coffee I sample, they all seem to taste the same which I suppose is a reflection of my ignorance. Teas however, are much more distinct and their flavours and subtleties don’t require learning to be appreciated – and least not if your British.
The perfect ‘cuppa’, worthy of a lengthy, ‘shi-won-hada’ (시원하다) which in this sense approximates, ‘oh, heavenly,’ is dependent upon something beyond the brewing method and even the closest adherence to brewing principles fails to guarantee its attainment. With tea, you accept that while most cups will be good, perfection is elusive. Yesterday, I decided to have an Earl Grey in Mr Big; it was a disappointment, the tea was served in a glass mug and I had to ask for milk. Earl Grey with milk never looks appealing in a glass cup as it is so pale and insipid and though it had a perfumed bouquet, as you would expect, and seemed to contain fresh tea leaves, though they could just as easily have come from a tea bag, there was something missing. So, until I’m back on British shores I guess I’ll have to be content with coffee.
My favourite coffee shop is the ‘Coffee and Bun’ near Migwang and almost directly next to the new football stadium sized coffee shop, (Korea’s most popular), ‘Coffee Bene.’ ‘Coffee and Bun’ is run by a young man who is totally obsessed with coffee and who has almost taken me under his wing as an acolyte. I can no longer venture here without being shown the latest coffee brewing paraphernalia or being asked to compare some beans. I don’t particularly mind, the café has an intimate atmosphere and usually the music is gentle and in the background and certainly has more sophistication than the pop-pap which is universally pumped out. If you thought coffee tasting was simple, let me assure you it is every bit as complex as wine tasting and among connoisseurs is known as ‘coffee cupping.’
Unlike tea tasting, which is a fairly cheap hobby, coffee cupping can be expensive. Over several sessions Chong-min has paraded his entire range of coffee brewing utensils. Two pots in which boiled water is allowed to cool before pouring, one stainless steel, the other copper, cost 140.000 Won (£70) and 180.000 Won (£90), respectively. As the water needs to be poured at 195-205 degrees Celsius, a suitable thermometer is needed. Next, he has a collection of 5 coffee drippers in differing designs one of which is made with a fabric, while another, at 50.000 Won (£25) is copper. You would think coffee drippers a fairly standard item but in several of the books from the growing coffee library in a corner of his café, I can research their various designs and their pros and cons. Even the cheapest dripper (5000 Won) is cataloged in his books. Another glass utensil combines a coffee pot and dripper and the paper filters, almost the size of A4 paper which Chong-min folds with the dexterity of an origami master, are bought from the USA and cost around 200 Won each. In my ignorance, I’ve always used a food processor or blender to grind my coffee and now I learn this is vastly inferior to the conical burr grinder which guarantees consistency of grain. ‘Blade grinders’ simply smash the beans about producing an inconsistent ground of both powder and more sandy grains.
When the water reaches the magical temperature of around 92 degrees Fahrenheit, I am required to drip the water over the grounds in a spiraling motion after which we wait for several minutes. Naturally, we have scrutinised the beans, feeling them, smelling their aroma, assessing their oiliness, observing their colour and the grounds we have sniffed and sifted between fingers. We eagerly wait to sample the brew but as usual, the taste is not much different to the coffee I produce in my cheap coffee press using fairly regular beans smashed up in a blender.
I was beginning to perceive a good cup of coffee, more like an okay cup of coffee and in much the same light as I perceive a glass of Coca Cola, ie, as simply a fizzy drink with no greater potential to satisfy than any other fizzy drink, but the mediocrity of which is inflated beyond the realms of reason. I was beginning to think I’d been hoodwinked into searching for something that did not exist and learning a language, a jargon, that made something out of nothing. That was, until Chong-min presented me a cup of Guatemala (COE – cup of excellence). It wasn’t even brewed by means of his epicurean paraphernalia all of which I was beginning to suspect were the implements of an international coffee conspiracy. Even if I had not been aware of the superiority of this particular coffee, it would have made an impression. It’s announcement lay somewhere between an oral orgasm and a sledge hammer. I have no idea what was fantastic about it any more than I can really tell you what constitutes that elusive cup of sublime tea. To have deconstructed its superiority with descriptors like, ‘rancid/rotten’ and ‘rubber-like’ would have destroyed the moment. Like tea, once perfection is presented, it’s potential lasts only a few minutes. The ‘moment’ becomes even more appreciated when Chong-min tells me the beans cost 40.000 Won (£20) for 100 grammes. That’s a staggering 8 times the price of the most expensive supermarket coffee where 100 grammes costs around 5000 Won (£2.50). To the ignorant at least, and in the eyes of coffee cupping connoisseurs, I’m ignorant, no descriptor bolsters the taste of coffee more than ‘cost’ and I’m glad I was hit by the oral orgasm before I learned its price because price often has the capacity to turn shit into gold. Monk fish, in Korea for example, is prolific and cheap but in Britain, where at one time it was a poor man’s substitute for scampi, a massive hitch in price has reinvented it as an exotic, expensive delicacy patronized by the numerous celebrity chefs who entertain the nation while they sit down to TV dinners and food largely the product of factory systems. Monk fish is now the gentry of the sea, infinitively superior to that former bulwark, the salmon and vastly more sophisticated than the old scampi it used to mimic. Nothing inflates taste more, or subjects it to more scrutiny, or provides for it a jargon which only erudition can elicit, than cost.
I am pleased I appreciated the Guatemala (COE) before being made aware of its price and had considered giving up the pursuit of the perfect cup of coffee, which in effect really entails the acceptance of my ignorance. Now I can dispense with trying to learn perfection and in this case treat myself to the experience when I feel the need. Sadly, at 40.000 for a 100 grammes, my average weekly consumption, I’ll drastically have to reduce the number of cups I drink.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.