My journey into coffee began in high school, with a styrofoam cup and copious amounts of milk and sugar.
I would snag some each morning during my first-period study hall, usually from one of those brown-rimmed glass pots. The addiction became full-blown in college, and when I entered the world of work, like many, I continued to depend on my morning cup as a necessary comfort.
Though I would often buy brewed coffee from local shops, I also made my own coffee at home to take on my commute. I began to learn bits and pieces about different coffee origins — how, for example, a Latin American coffee could taste lighter and nuttier than an earthy Indonesian — but you’d still be hard-pressed to find me drinking anything black. Though I’d heard that, brewed properly, coffee should have enough sweetness and body to render milk and sugar unnecessary, to me, it was still just too bitter to be enjoyed straight-up.
It was only when I started working at Formaggio Kitchen that I began to take my daily morning ritual more seriously. We carry beans from several talented roasters, and brew coffee from George Howell’s Terroir Coffee Company for our customers every day. George made his mark as the founder of the Coffee Connection, a small chain of Boston-area coffee shops that thrived in the 1980s and early-90s. He was one of the first to promote single-origin coffees and has done work with the United Nations to recognize and support coffee farmers worldwide. After selling the Coffee Connection, he has returned to the industry with his own Acton-based roastery, which imports some of the finest coffees in the world.
We’re lucky to be able to work with someone so knowledgeable, and on a visit to George’s Acton headquarters, I started to learn more about how coffee is grown and processed, how it is roasted, what countries it comes from and how all of those countries can offer different flavor profiles. We tasted coffees from Ethiopia, Costa Rica and Brazil — the Ethiopian had floral and berry flavors, the Costa Rican was acidic with tea-like qualities, and the Brazilian was chocolatey and nutty.
Not long after, I went to Italy, where smooth, sweet (though sugarless) espressos can be found anywhere. When I came back, I somehow no longer wanted to put milk and sugar in my daily cup. I wanted to be able to taste what made each cup of coffee unique. If a cup didn’t taste good to me, for whatever reason, I at least wanted to be able to acknowledge that before automatically doctoring it. What I discovered is that, with a little know-how, it’s not too difficult to find or brew coffee that tastes wonderful with nothing added.
Not difficult for the consumer, that is. The farmers, roasters and baristas I’ve met since becoming Formaggio Kitchen’s coffee buyer are working extremely hard to produce quality coffee. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit Ethiopia and take a brief trip to Yirgacheffe, a region that produces some of the world’s finest, most complex and delicate coffees. We visited one of the region’s 22 coffee cooperatives, a consortia of farmers who work together to increase their bargaining power and improve standards of living. Many of these coops are organic and fair-trade certified. We met farmers who told us about the grueling coffee harvests, which span several months and are done almost entirely by hand.
We like to work with roasters who respect origin and roast coffee beans lightly in order to showcase their best qualities. Some of our new favorites include Barismo, based in Arlington, Stumptown, based in Portland, Oregon, and roasting in Brooklyn, and Matt’s Coffee, which is based in Waterville, Maine, and roasts in a beautiful wood-fired Italian roaster.
Last week, I visited Barrington Coffee in the Berkshires to check in with the folks there. We cupped a few coffees, including a gorgeous new Ethiopian that had come to Barrington from a small off-the-beaten-path village in the country’s southern coffee region. Brewed in a vacuum pot, it had amazing, lively flavors of strawberries and a sweet peanutty finish without a hint of bitterness. I realized how much I would have missed if my first instinct had been to add milk and sugar.
Emily Shartin is a coffee and chocolate buyer at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.