Café D'Ignorance 

So many coffees, so much confusion

So many coffees, so much confusion

It’s not easy being a card-carrying, conspicuously-consuming, yuppified, certified baby boomer. So many things, so little time. Soooo much to learn.

Consider wine. A generation ago, all you had to know was red or white, cork, or screw top. Now it’s chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, burgundy, pinot noir, beaujolais, sauternes, and on and on.

Then there’s beer. Used to be, you went to a bar and ordered a bottle or a draft. That was it. Now, you go to a bar and the bartender hands you a beer list of 115 choices. On tap. 200 more in a bottle. How mortifying to have to ask for a Coors Light because you don’t know an Old Jock from a Samiclaus.

What could be simpler than coffee? Decaf or regular? Those were the days. The days before Seattle. And Starbucks. And latté. And espresso. And café au lait. It’s almost enough to make you hope for the Y2K crisis.

If you don’t know jack about Joe, Bob Bernstein feels your pain. He owns two of Nashville’s most successful coffee shops in Bongo Java and Fido, as well as a coffee bean roasting company to supply them. He thinks things in the coffee world have gotten a little out of hand.

Bongo Java, on Belmont Boulevard, is Nashville’s oldest coffeehouse—and no doubt its most notorious, getting far more than its 15 minutes of fame from the discovery of the infamous Nunbun. Though Bernstein spent a great deal of his formative years drinking coffee, he didn’t make his first cup of espresso until two days before the opening of Bongo Java in March 1993.

“I had spent a lot of time drinking cappucino in coffee bars, but I didn’t know anything about it. It just seemed the time was right for one in Nashville. I wasn’t really keen on the location because I really wanted Hillsboro Village.” Then the lower floor in architect Manuel Zeitlin’s building became available. In 1996, space opened up in the heart of Hillsboro Village. After an extensive renovation of what used to be a pet store and a beauty salon, Bernstein and partner Kate Sage opened Fido and Bongo Java Roasting Company (BJRC) in October 1996.

“I don’t know that Fido really had its act together at first. But then Kim (chef Kim Totzke) came on board in September 1997 and really turned us into a restaurant.” Totzke admits that though she liked caffeine as much as the next 14-hour-a-day worker, she was a coffee ignoramus when she arrived at Fido.

Bernstein tried to pass along the knowledge he had culled from reading, seminars, and the hands-on experience of the past few years. It was frustrating.

Finally, after a conversation with Bosco’s brewmaster Chuck Skypeck, he had an epiphany. “I was trying to explain the difference between full-bodied and light-bodied coffees, and all I was getting were blank stares. Finally, I said, ‘A full-bodied Sumatra is like a Guinness where a light-bodied Columbia is more like a Budweiser.’ The lights went on.”

Thus was born The Beer Lover’s Guide to Coffee: Java 101 from Bud to Joe. The brochure, written by Bernstein (who describes himself as a reformed journalist) is his way of bringing coffee knowledge to the masses. In the brochure, Bernstein describes the three most recognized coffee growing areas. Central and South American coffees are light-bodied and tangy, like domestic, commercial beers. African coffees are more like American microbrewed beers, offering lots of variety. They tend towards a medium body with medium acidity. Indonesian coffees are like European beers, full-bodied with a low tang.

The Beer Lovers Guide to Coffee goes on to compare BJRC’s beans to beers of the world. For instance, Bernstein says that it took multiple beer sampling sessions conducted by Bernstein, John LaRosa, and BJRC roaster Sean Ray to settle on one to compare to Jamaica Blue Mountain, generally regarded as the world’s finest coffee. That beer is Chimay, made by Trappist monks in Belgium. “Chimay (the gold label version) is our definition of the perfect beer: rich, round, and oh so smooth. Jamaica Blue Mountain has the perfect balance of acidity, body, and flavor.”

Another helpful brochure published by Bernstein—perhaps not such a reformed journalist after all—is the Coffee Buyer’s Guide. It describes several coffees available, from American to African, blends to dark roasts. The brochure also expands on BJRC’s roasting philosophy. Bernstein says that the West Coast tends to roast coffee dark and the East Coast light; BJRC hits somewhere in the middle, roasting most coffee between medium and medium well. They do not add flavors to their beans, as they found the odor of the syrups to be overwhelming. Flavored syrups can be added when ordering a cup at the counter.

Bernstein recently returned from a month-long trip to Central and South America that combined a vacation in Guatemala, a volunteer stint with Habitat for Humanity’s international program helping families build their own houses, and an educational tour with the Speciality Coffee Association of America.

The philosophy behind BJRC’s buying has always been to purchase from farms which are small and environmentally friendly. On the trip, he wanted to learn more about how coffee is grown and processed and to develop a criteria for what coffees he buys. Developing the criteria was, according to Bernstein, more difficult than he thought it would be. He wanted to avoid farms that clear-cut old growth forest and ones that refuse to install conveyer systems that reduce the back-breaking work of carrying 150-pound coffee bags. Problematically, what he found was that there were many good people who use pesticides to grow and process coffee, and many who cut down some trees in the process. By the end of the trip, Bernstein had decided that his criteria for buying coffees was to feel good about where it came from. That included buying because it is organic, buying because it is shade-grown, and buying because the beans are grown by small farmer cooperatives.

BJRC now buys three coffees from beneficios (processing facilities) he visited or from farmers he met in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. A good cup of joe, and politically correct to boot. What more could a member of the card-carrying, conspicuously consuming, yuppified, certified, left-wing faction of the baby boomer generation ask for?


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