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Photograph by Pablo C. Leites

Bean and Nothingness: Trish Skeie greens to roast.

Queen of Cups

Taylor Maid Farms' Trish Skeie makes some damn fine coffee

By R. V. Scheide

Now that there's a Starbucks or similar chain store on virtually every corner of every city in the United States, it's tempting to think that Americans know a thing or two about coffee. The truth is, from bean to cup, most of us know very little about the world's favorite caffeinated beverage. That, however, is changing--thanks to specialty coffee companies like Sebastopol's Taylor Maid Farms.

"One of the best-kept secrets about coffee is that it's a lot like wine," says Trish Skeie, Taylor Maid's official "roastmaster." As roastmaster, Skeie's in charge of roasting and blending the many different varieties of organic, fair trade coffee beans that Taylor Maid founder, president and "green buyer" Mark Inman imports from small farmers around the globe.

Like winemaking, selecting and roasting coffee beans is a complex art with its own rich language for describing aroma and flavor, from "floral" to "ashy," "delicate" to "acrid," "bland" to "pungent." Also as in winemaking, microclimates play an important role in determining the flavor of the coffee beans.

One major difference between winemaking and the specialty coffee trade, Skeie says, is that the latter, from growing the beans to roasting them, is much more labor-intensive. Another is that while anyone can learn about viticulture at the local community college, there is presently no equivalent for becoming a roastmaster or green buyer. Just about the only way to learn the trade is to go out in the real world and do them.

"There is no school for coffee," she says. "That's why it's important to hang out with other coffee people."

Skeie's real-world training began after moving to Norway in the late 1980s. While specialty coffee is relatively new in the United States--Inman founded Taylor Maid just 11 years ago in 1993--the Scandinavian countries have a long history of being persnickety about quality coffee. An art major with a successful painting career, Skeie began working on the side as a barista in Oslo's famed coffee houses. She soon discovered that coffee was her calling, and rose to the position of roastmaster at the prestigious Mocca Kaffebar og Brenneri before being recruited by Taylor Maid last year.

"You've probably never had a real cappuccino," she says, drawing freshly brewed espresso from the chrome machine in a corner of Taylor Maid's Sebastopol warehouse. The espresso must be warm, not piping hot like most American coffee houses serve it. Instead of whipping the milk into a huge head of white foam, she gently steams it, creating creamy microbubbles that blend better with the coffee's flavor. "Open your mouth when you drink it, that way you taste the coffee and the milk," she says.

It's a damn fine cup of coffee, with Taylor Maid's sweet and nutty Espresso-a-Go-Go blend and thick, creamy milk.

Tasting the coffee is of primary importance, and Skeie says that popular drinks such as lattes are, in the U.S., nothing more than tall glasses of milk. "It's a great marriage, milk and coffee, but we in the coffee business see that the taste of the coffee is losing out," she says.

In the same corner of the warehouse, Taylor Maid has set up a retail outlet featuring a score of its different coffee varieties, as well as teas from around the world, which are also wholesaled to local restaurants and cafes. The coffees are separated into three groups: premium blends, espresso and single origin. Blends are just that: mixtures of two or more bean varieties; espressos are also blends. Single origin coffees feature beans that come from one specific crop and are valued for their consistency in flavor.

The raw beans arrive in 130- to 150-pound gunny sacks from locations as disparate as Nicaragua, Ethiopia and Sumatra. As green buyer, Inman seeks out certified organic beans that are grown using the most sustainable methods possible. Ensuring that farmers are paid a fair price for their crops is built in to the company's credo "that a business can be environmentally and socially progressive while remaining profitable."

"If we can commit to a farmer in Nicaragua, we can do a lot of good," Skeie says. "If he knows he can sell to us every year, he can send his children to school."

In fact, the demand for specialty coffee is helping making small farms across the Third World more viable. Because of Inman's willingness to journey to remote and sometimes dangerous locations to seek out small farmers, he's gained a reputation as the "Indiana Jones of green buyers." Small farmers are generally more open to organic and sustainable methods, such as "shade grown" coffee, which retains as much of the natural vegetation as possible.

But specialty coffee consumers demand the best, and the only way to ensure that is to test each year's crop with a process known as "cupping."

Here again, the similarities to winemaking are striking, right down to the swirling and spitting. In Taylor Maid's upstairs office, Skeie places nine white ceramic cups, three sets of three, on a circular granite table that rotates like a Lazy-Suzan. Using a nearby coffee grinder, she grinds three varieties of fresh-roasted, single-origin Guatemalan beans, one variety for each set of cups. Testing each sample three times ensures that the beans are uniform, that there are no defects.

She fills each cup with about three tablespoons of ground coffee. Covering the top of a cup with both hands, she inhales deeply to sense the aroma. She repeats the process on the two cups remaining in the sample, then rotates the table to bring the next sample around.

That's step one. Next she fills each cup to the brim with hot water. As the coffee brews, the grounds sink to the bottom and a thick crust forms across the top. With a soup spoon, she breaks through the crust, sticking her nose right down to the cup again and inhaling deeply, repeating the process until the table comes around to the first set of cups again.

For the final step of the cupping, Skeie scrapes off the remaining crust of each cup. Using a clean spoon, she sips the fresh brew through her teeth with a hissing sound, so that it sprays across her palate. She swirls it around in her mouth then spits it out into a nearby tin can reserved for the purpose.

Throughout the entire process, Skeie records the fragrance, acidity, flavor, body, aftertaste and balance for each variety on a cupping form. When it's all said and done, the overall score determines which variety is the best. The main difference between the demonstration Skeie performed in the office and cupping in the field is that in the field, the beans are only lightly roasted, in order to give the cupper a better reading of the coffee's enzymatic properties.

"There are enough small farmers and enough of a specialty movement to keep it going," Skeie says.

After the beans are purchased and shipped to Taylor Maid, Skeie supervises the roasting processl. On average, beans are roasted for 16 to 20 minutes at temperatures reaching more than 450 degrees, turning from a light grayish-green color to the familiar chocolate brown hue and filling the warehouse with the rich smell of freshly roasted premium-grade coffee.

Skeie is confident that the specialty coffee market will continue to thrive. Prices between the more commercial coffee brands and organic, fair trade coffee such as Taylor Maid's are already fairly comparable, particularly when taste is factored into the equation.

"We hope that people will see that specialty coffee is an everyday thing that's affordable," she says. "If the average consumer picks a good coffee off the shelf, that's what's going to turn it around for everybody in the industry."

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From the July 28-August 3, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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