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On Beans

Today I'm going to talk about beans. The past few days I've been to several coffee shops that do their own roasting and take pride in that fact--it's their kodawari. This is not an easy concept to translate. The dictionary translates it as "obsession" but it's less like unhealthily obsessing over something about more like a meticulous example of dedication to the craft and consideration to the customer. I'll illustrate with some examples about coffee beans.

The first shop I went to is one I went to frequently last year, both for their affordable lunches and calming atmosphere. Blanket Cafe is nearly my perfect shop: open, quaint, filled with plants, and the owners (a young married couple) are amazingly friendly. I hadn't given them any advance warning of my return, so when I walked in their door shortly after they opened, they were quite surprised! But after I explained why I was back in Kanazawa, they were happy to answer all my questions, particularly the ones I had about coffee beans.

This is a sack of beans before roasting. They're the color of murky jade, slightly waxy to the touch, and smell like green wood after you've accidentally broken a branch off a tree.

Before these beans are roasted, they're combed through by hand for imperfections. Black spots (from insect damage), misshapen beans, or those that are too small are discarded.

In small portions, the beans are panned out onto a tray and divided into lines. Once the lines have been gone through, the beans are re "shuffled" and gone through again--three or more times per small portion of the previous sack.

There's an example of a bad bean.

Then the beans are roasted (more on that later). And then they're combed through again. Once isn't enough. Even AFTER roasting, beans that aren't the right color, or burnt,  or again misshapen (if the bean warps during roasting it means that it was overripe) are again thrown out. All this is to make sure that nothing corrupting the taste of the coffee makes its way into the customer's cup.

The day after, I went to a different shop called Transit Beans. It's a small, four-seat coffee shop that's actually in the Master's house--he converted a small room once he opened it. He was also kind enough to explain in detail (detail that I'm SURE I missed a lot of) how coffee beans are roasted. Though he strongly emphasized how individual everything is: the same bean roasted in three different shops will have three different tastes, because even thirty second's different in roasting time changes the flavor. The temperature of the roasting room and air flow changes the flavor. The terroir of the bean changes the flavor. The literal personality of the master affects the flavor.

After going through the same bean sorting process, the beans are placed in the rotating drum of the roaster. Temperature is meticulously controlled for the type of bean and desired strength of the roast: higher temperature/ longer roasting time both affect if it's a light or dark roast. If you can see in the little hole, the beans are still green.

About six minutes later the beans start to turn toasty as they roast from the inside-out. As the gas inside them expands, little popping sounds can be heard--literally like popcorn. It's also incredibly fragrant.

This particular roast was done after exactly thirteen minutes and twenty seconds. Then the beans are cooled on a spinning rack so they don't over roast because of any residual heat. Based on years of data, the Master of Transit Beans can adapt his roasting technique based on the season and the current crop of beans so he can maintain consistency in the taste of his coffee, because inconsistency is a sure way to drive away customers. Even without meaning to, without keeping track of how the coffee turns out after a roasting, the taste of the coffee can change. This drive towards a consistent taste that is unique to that particular Master is also an example of kodawari and passion for the craft and the customer. The Master of Transit Beans said that a good server of coffee should be able to tell from the customer's face how they're feeling--if they don't feel well, or are more tired than usual--and change how they make that day's cup of coffee to maximize its impact. Kodawari is always keeping the other person in mind.

Someone asked me if I would put any of my research theories on the blog in addition to factual stuff like this. Once a week or so I'm going to review all my field notes and maybe then put some preliminary thoughts and observations up, just in case anyone is interested. Also it'll be a good summary and re-focusing task for me.


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