SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
I have measured out my life in coffee spoons,” Thomas Stearns Eliot once wrote.
It wakes you up in the morning, calms you down in the afternoon and finishes the evening with the taste of cream and bitterness.
It’s coffee, and it’s a warm respite from Durango’s bone-chilling days, packing the town’s varied coffee shops with refugees merely from the outdoors. Sometimes, all you want is to hold the cup.
Coffee and its purveyors have become more than the morning ritual of our parents, more than the art-house meeting places of our youth, more than the caffeine addiction of our working days. It has become a treat, a sweet, a tiny gap of pleasure to get us through.
Brando Donahue, gallery manager of Open Shutter, slips two blocks away to Eno, that open-all-day, coffee-tapas-wine bar hipster spot for what he considers the tastiest cup in town.
Karen Barger, co-owner of Seasons Rotisserie & Grill, concedes that on a long day, “I sneak down the street for a cup and a cookie,” referring to Durango Coffee Co. half a block away. “It’s a break.”
Ah, if only things were so simple.
Coffee, much like wine, has become a science, with roasters trained to achieve the perfect temperature for each and every varietal of green bean – Ethiopian, Guatemalan, Sumatran, et al. – and blend them to an ultimate of smoothness, boldness and acidity.
Baristas aim for the summit of coffee tastiness as determined by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, exactly 24 grams of coffee per 300 grams of water at 195 F for two-and-a-half minutes (four minutes if you use a French press, because the grind is bigger.)
“Each bean has different tolerances for heat, roast development, how sugar enzymes develop in the bean and the flavor in the cup,” said Zach Ray, chief roaster at local Desert Sun Coffee Roasters Inc. “If everything is perfect, a perfect bean, a perfect roast, a perfect product, you can ruin it by brewing it poorly at the very end.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Can I just have my cup of decaf mocha, 2-percent milk, heavy on the whipped cream, please?
After all, about half of the drinks sold at Durango coffee shops are made not of brewed coffee but of espresso, sometimes straight, but more often with additions of coconut and chocolate syrups or peppermint extract and pumpkin spices, among others, to say nothing of milk.
But even there, science and specificity reign over the simple comfort and happiness of a warm frou-frou beverage taken at midday, the busiest time at local coffee shops.
“What makes good espresso is a whole different set of factors,” Ray said. “Not all coffees produce good flavors when extracted at a fine grind at a fast rate,” as espresso is.
I give in, if only to discover the secret blend of the espresso roast Desert Sun creates for Guido’s Favorite Foods, my husband’s favorite. Ray reveals that it’s made from Ethiopian, Nicaraguan and Sumatran beans, each roasted separately and blended together at the end. The Nicaraguan, because it’s grown at low altitude, provides the caramel-y smoothness, the Sumatran, the boldness and the Ethiopian, the fruity brightness.
So glad I asked. Tea, anyone?
It’s good to know that tea-drinkers are welcome at local coffee shops, too, with varieties of green, black, white and herbal abounding on the blackboards and often served with extra hot water, if you ask nicely. Hot milk drinks are available for the caffeine averse, as well, from the standard hot chocolate to soy and almond milk creations laced with flavored syrups.
Durango has enough coffee shops to meet your mood of the moment. Want a bustling, lined-up-at-the-counter, super-cheery staff experience? Try Starbucks, packed with visitors and locals alike, proffering all manner of mocha soy lattes and frozen caramel drinks and even drip coffee.
Need a break from work and want to mellow out with a cup and surf the web on your laptop? Stop by the Steaming Bean, with its beat-up wood floors, welcoming window-front tables and more in the back where students, executives and fatigued parents pull out their portable devices and use the free Wi-Fi. They offer teas, caffeinated and herbal, straight-up coffee and yes, those sweet espresso drinks. The “jail time,” which comprises coffee, espresso, milk and chocolate, is the best-seller.
Feeling artsy and dark and craving a hit of urban edginess? Magpies Newsstand Café serves Italian espresso made from LaVassa beans and brewed coffee provided by artisanal roaster Dazbog out of Denver. The front room is lined with tables where you can sip and read one of the many arts, music and news magazines owner Tom Mulligan offers in the main part of the store.
Not in a mood at all but just need your daily fix before you’re required to speak intelligibly? Scoot in to any of Durango Joe’s four locations for a plain coffee and a snack. The shop in Town Plaza has big windows, comfortable couches and killer pastries.
You can sit and sip on one of Durango Coffee Co.’s specialty drinks such as the Almond Joy latte or fulfill your sweet tooth with cakes and pastries, many of them gluten-free, but you can also hold a meeting in the downstairs room to organize a petition drive or meet clients. Owner Tim Wheeler wants his busy coffee-and-cookware shop to promote not just commerce, but community.
“How do we best make this a community we want to live and thrive in?” he asked. “The shop is a vehicle for me and my spouse to give back to the community.”
So he buys his sandwiches from Bread, his goodies from a local baker and his coffee exclusively from local roaster Carl Rand who owns the wholesale side of Durango Coffee Co.
When Wheeler describes what makes a perfect cup of coffee, we return to science, this time botany. He likes to taste the flavor of the particular bean, and so, like the best wines, chooses a single varietal from a particular place. He also eschews a dark roast, saying you lose a lot of the flavor. And of course, like any food, the fresher the beans are, the better your coffee will taste.
But for some coffee drinkers, even the freshest commercially roasted beans are not fresh enough, spurring the nationwide mini-trend of folks who actually go to the trouble to roast their own.
There’s another benefit to doing it yourself, says Jim Powers, a recently retired Forest Service employee. It’s cheaper, with raw beans selling for $6.50 a pound and roasted beans costing about $12 a pound.
Right now, he’s concentrating his efforts on roasting beans from Costa Rica, typically a lighter varietal with good balance and plenty of body with no bitter aftertaste. He roasts his until the beans are a medium brown but stops before they become shiny, a sign that flavor-packed oils are exiting.
For him, it’s worth the bother.
“I get better quality coffee for cheaper and it’s a fun hobby,” he said.
Me, I’m grateful to Durango’s coffee shops for keeping me in decaf mochas until the ice melts.