Chasing the perfect cup
There’s a reason coffee costs more than it used to. It’s better than at any other time in history, says Redondo Beach coffee brewer Jeff Melodia
If Jeff Melodia’s caddy had preferred tea, he would be in a different business right now. Melodia had finished playing golf in Hawaii and started chatting with the caddy cleaning his clubs, a friendly fellow named Lee. The conversation was sufficiently interesting that they decided to continue it over a cup of coffee, and the first sip was a pivotal moment in Jeff Melodia’s life.
“Lee had grown the coffee himself, ground it just before serving, and prepared it with care. It was amazing, and ever since then I’ve been chasing that same feeling of the perfect cup.”
Fifteen years later, Melodia is helping other people find their perfect cup with a line of fair-trade organic coffees that he roasts in small batches. It is available at the Riviera Village farmers market and by mail to members of his coffee-of-the-month club.
When the Santa Clarita Valley native went to Hawaii it was a vacation from his job at NBC, where he worked as a special effects man for Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. After that show ended he freelanced, but that career came to a sudden end due to an on-the-job accident.
“A truss fell on my foot and they considered amputating it. They saved it, but it took a year or two for me to learn to walk again. During that time I thought, hey, it would be nice to open a coffee shop. That’s what brought me to Redondo Beach. There was a place for sale down by the pier but I decided against it, both because I thought they’d be renovating the area soon and because I decided I had a lot more to learn.”
Melodia enrolled in classes sponsored by the elite Specialty Coffee Association of America and learned roasting and preparation techniques, and also became fascinated with coffee production and its history. He realized we are living in a golden age of coffee, because both shipping techniques and preparation skills have improved so much in the last few decades.
“Coffee in America is probably better than it used to be because in the days before bulk cargo containers, the raw beans were exposed to moist sea air that degraded them. The first things to go are the brighter, fresher flavors that are often compared to cherries or berries. People got in the habit of deep roasting everything to make that strong, bitter coffee that was all most of our parents ever knew. Shipping containers and better packaging allowed better quality control, and made the coffee revolution possible. This happened at the same time farmers started getting a premium for growing their beans properly. Before that they picked everything whether or not it was fully ripe because they were paid by the pound and nobody checked the quality. In the last decades coffee shippers became willing to pay more for beans that had been harvested with care.”
One of the places that was affected by this revolution was the island where Melodia had that first perfect cup.
“Hawaii was one of the first areas where growers took that individual care of their beans, because a lot of growers were hobbyists who were driven by passion and because what coffee they sold brought a lot of money. Those hobbyist growers had small plots of land, so they had to pick every berry when it was at its peak and take care of it properly so they could get that premium price.”
Most growers aren’t lucky enough to live in a tranquil place like Hawaii. Coffee countries countries such as Colombia and Guatemala have been riven with conflict. The recovery in those places has been slowed by the dominance of large coffee companies that care more about volume than quality. Melodia said buying fair trade coffee, which gives the majority of the profit to the growers rather than the shippers, improves the crop at the same time that it distributes the profits more fairly.
“The coffee I buy is organic and fair trade, and much of it is from women growers who use the income to support their families. A lot of coffee grows in places like Rwanda that have been ravaged by war, with a lot of the men killed, and this is the way their families survive.
“Coffee has been undervalued for a very long time, going back to the colonial era, and the people who do the work are just now getting the benefits. The result to us as consumers is that we pay a few cents more for a cup of coffee. Okay, maybe more than a few cents more, but you’re drinking a much better product and you appreciate it more.”
It’s worth noting that your perfect cup of coffee might be someone else’s brewing disaster, because people savor different aromas and flavors. The amount of sugar and types of oils in the beans will vary depending on the ecology and soil where they were grown. The processing makes a difference, too. Roasters can bring out fruity, chocolaty, earthy, and nutty tones from the beans, depending on how they are handled. Once the roaster has done his or her job it’s time for you to do yours.
“The most important thing is that you grind it fresh. Get a bevel grinder where you adjust the number of cups and the type of grind. You need that to get a consistent product. Then you pick the method. I prefer drip coffee. In most European cultures they like espresso. Drip gives you the lighter flavors and is less bitter. It takes more beans because the water isn’t sitting there as long. I don’t use an automatic maker. I pour it one cup at a time. Some people prefer French press, which is the best way to get the unique flavors you like, because you have control once you figure out how to use it. You decide how long the coffee and water are going to interact. The longer you let it sit, the more you bring out the bitter and acid flavors of the bean.”
Melodia lectures on how to make coffee, and plans to open a coffeehouse soon. Until then he relies on feedback from the customers who receive a bag a month in the mail.
“My coffee club is a way to learn about my customers as well as reach economies of scale. Once a month I release batches of different coffees. Right now I have Bali Blue Moon. I want to hear from people, not just do everything based on my own sense of flavor. That’s helping me narrow down what is popular in this area.”
One coffee Jeff is not likely to be mailing out any time soon is the one that set his career in motion.
“A while ago I wrote to Lee, the Hawaiian guy who started me down this path and I thanked him. I tried to buy some of his coffee too, but he won’t sell it. He has a small farm, only an acre or two, and he sells just about everything he grows to the Four Seasons resort down the road from him.” B
by Richard Foss