Jake Casella, twenty-eight, is Spot Coffee’s head barista and manager of its Elmwood location. He holds bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and literature, and was at work on a biology degree when he fell in love with coffee. He is now level-two-certified with the Barista Guild of America, a member of the Specialty Coffee Association, and a player on the regional scene. He blogs at www.buffalobrewing.blogspot.com.
Peter Fremming, fifty-four, head roaster for the Premier Gourmet, is a walking, talking encyclopedia of coffee knowledge. He didn’t start out that way, taking his first job at Premier sixteen years ago in the beer department as a part-time, temporary gig while he finished up his master’s degree.
Mary Ann Greer, fifty-seven, and Jim Greer, sixty-two, are owner and manager, respectively, of Blue Mountain Coffees. The store’s been an Elmwood staple since 1981. They flavor all their own coffees and, as well as selling through their flagship store, have shipped their product all over the world, including the American University in Cairo.
Scott Wisz, thirty-eight, is co-owner with his wife Jaclyn of Chow Chocolat, which specializes in artisanal chocolates and also features baked goods and beverages. They are both graduates of the French Culinary Institute in New York City; they make all the chocolates and pastries in-house at their downtown Buffalo location.
What have you seen change in Buffalo with regard to coffee?
Jake Casella: Buffalo is becoming more of a coffee town. It’s cool to see Spot, and also Aroma, Sweet_ness 7, and franchises and chains all expanding. That is a sign of a good city: People want to come together.
Buffalo is not a super-strong espresso culture. I’m interested to see what happens when Spot opens on Hertel; we will see if the Italian neighborhood has more of an espresso culture.
Peter Fremming: Coffee has exploded in Buffalo. When I started out, our top sellers were Columbian Supremo and “French roast.” Most customers, faced with the exotic places that beans came from, like Sumatra, Ethiopia, or Panama, had no idea. They’d stick with what seemed to be good coffee. TV would tell you Juan Valdez, or “French roast.” No one really knows what that is, but it’s supposed to be good.
Now customers are more sophisticated, and they’re willing to try new coffees. They’re also aware of social and environmental implications of their coffee.
Mary Ann Greer: Coffee was just becoming popular when we started. In the early years, we did a lot of educating; talking to people about why it was better to buy one pound of gourmet coffee for $3.99 than to buy a three-pound can of Maxwell House for the same price.
Scott Wisz: Buffalo is expanding its attitudes. With all the publicity, people are starting to appreciate their food and drinks; they aren’t settling for less. If you want an average cup of coffee, go to a gas station. If you want a good cup of coffee, go to a coffee house or a café. When people realize that there’s something [better] out there, they’ll flock to it.
What makes a great cup of coffee?
Casella: Great beans make great coffee. It’s got to be fresh, and roasted right. Grind it fresh and brew it correctly—I’d like to see more places doing it. Bad coffee can’t be made good.
As a barista, I’m trying to preserve the quality in the beans that people have already cared about at the farm level. Coffee has come to be perceived as a “daily” product, like flour, wheat, or rice. It’s not; the difference between Ethiopian and Sumatran coffee is as big as the difference between kinds of wine.
Fremming: Freshness, above everything else. After you roast them, oxygen attacks the beans, burning off aromatics and flavor. The grade of coffee is important, as is the purity. You have to have cold, preferably filtered water; water that’s been heated doesn’t work. It’s also very important to have the most efficient grind.
Jim Greer: The rule of thumb for the proper grind is, the quicker the brewing method, the finer the grind. If you use a French press, you want medium grind; if you are making espresso, grind it very fine. You need a clean coffee maker—many people never clean theirs. If possible, use filtered water. The proportion of grounds to water is generally a tablespoon of grounds per 6 ounces of water; that can be adjusted to taste.
Wisz: The whole process makes the coffee; the beans, the way it’s roasted, the way it’s made, the temperature that it’s served. At Chow Chocolat, we use a French press; it maintains the oils, which give a smooth mouth feel and texture.
Why do you think coffee is such a large part of life for so many?
Casella: It’s outstanding! It’s a pick-me-up and it’s a ritual. People love that, and the result is this nice little thing. You have it with friends and friendly faces. And, it’s delicious.
Fremming: There is a school of opinion that says coffee is addictive. At least one scholar has claimed coffee is a prime driver of civilization. Back when sanitation was nearly nonexistent, and drinking water often dangerous, coffee, brewed and heated (and thus sterilized), was both safe and stimulating. Coffee has also been a social lubricant throughout history. In Ethiopia, the original coffee source, a coffee ceremony is still practiced.
Finally, most coffee lovers grew up with the intoxicating aroma of fresh brewed coffee every morning. Coffee is ubiquitous, overlooked, taken for granted, and yet so ingrained in society. Me? I get paid for it.
Jim Greer: It’s a social beverage; it’s also the first thing most people have when they get up.
Mary Ann Greer: It gets everyone going in the morning. I drink decaf, but it is still something warm and tasty.
Wisz: Caffeine. Also, the taste. It’s become a social thing, similar to alcohol.
Where are trends heading for Buffalo, and for coffee?
Casella: When people aren’t in a rush, they’ll taste different coffees, and if they like one, they’ll start to ask for it, like they do for a favorite beer or cheese.
I would love to see restaurants doing coffee well. That is a bummer, when you go out for a nice meal, and you finish with a cup of “commodity coffee,” as opposed to gourmet.
Fremming: In the Midwest, lighter roasts are more popular; in the industry, they call darker roasts “coast roasts,” because of their prevalence in the East and West. I incorporate the full range of roasts at Premier. Lighter roasts have been a while in coming to Buffalo.
Jim Greer: I think we are looking at custom caffeine levels. If a person doesn’t want the full shot, they can order their preference of caffeine percentage.
Wisz: People and trends are leaning away from sweet drinks, and towards local and raw or unprocessed foods.