A Peaberry Coffee Confession

A small confession.

Okay, maybe a big one.

I’m Geoff and … *sigh* … there’s a coffee I like.

To those who know me as a “tea”-totaler, it may come as a shock to you, but I actually started off as a coffee drinker. During my latter years of college, I worked graveyard shift at a hotel. Even then, my young, supple body couldn’t stave off sleepiness for long. The mystical powers of caffeine had to help eventually.

So, naturally, I brewed a pot on shift. For many months, this worked just fine. The coffee wasn’t…great. (Up ‘til now, no coffee had.) On one unfortunate, sleep-deprived night, though, I brewed a batch at double-strength. It led do a three-day “flu”.

That put me off coffee for years.

In the interim, I became a tea guy. To some of my friends, I was THE tea guy. But even in my most snobby of moments, I admitted there was room for coffee’s existence. The occasional dark roast did make it into my cup. Those moments were rare, but they were there. Much to the chagrin of some of my tea brethren and sistren.

Still, there was nothing I truly loved about coffee. It tasted like burnt blackness with a hint of fire-swill. For the most part. Then…I encountered one that changed my palate opinion. And I have this li’l f**ker to blame.

My cousin, Jason, introduced me to peaberry coffee. What is that, you ask? I’ll friggin’ tell you.

It’s crack. Roasted. Crack. But more specifically…

A coffee “cherry” generally only has two beans (or “seeds”) in it at the time of plucking. They are usually ovular (I think?) and flat-facing. Every once in a while, though, only one of the beans is fertilized, but the other doesn’t flatten. Think of it like a normal chicken egg…but without the chick. That is a peaberry or “caracoli” bean. These are oftentimes collected to create a different type of single origin coffee. Many different regions produce and sort peaberry coffee – Hawaii and Tazmania for examples.

I’m not sure what happens between bean plucking and roasting, but whatever it is, voodoo must be involved. To a staunch tea drinker, coffee cannot taste that good. I likened it – in tea-ish terms – to a black tea from Yunnan province, China made up of gold-tipped, fully-oxidized leaf buds. The taste was even similar, if roasted.

Peaberry coffee – at least, the Ehiopian arabica, medium dark roast stuff my cousin fed me – tasted like burnt lotus blossoms by way of a burly Assam tea brewed as a concentrate. Floral, chewy, and painfully addicting. Oddly enough, it wasn’t as jitter-inducing as other coffees I’ve had. Nor was it as offensively astringent. This might be due to the anecdotal claim that the rounder bean roasts more evenly compared to its flatter siblings.

I’m convinced my cousin fed me this stuff so that I’d never ask for an actual wage when we worked together. We hammered out a book outline, and the start of a new comic project. And that was only on one cup of the stuff. Keep in mind, I was already tea-caffeinated for the day.

What can I say, I’m a peaberry whore now.

First cup’s always free.

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Saturday, September 21st, 2013 Beverage Blog 12 Comments

Attack of the Coffee Clones

“Ersatz” is a German word that roughly translates to “substitute or replacement”.  English speakers adopted it to refer to an inferior copy of something else. The original definition, however, does not indicate that the duplicate need be inferior – merely alike. My first exposure to the word arrived in two different ways the same year – one while reading a textbook (and falling asleep), the other used by a very glib and verbose friend of mine (who made me fall asleep). Of all the scholastically snobby traits I’ve developed, the use of “ersatz” never entered my lexicon. (Although, I still use “lexicon” regularly.)

The unique word was recently adopted by an outfit in Bellefonte, PA., called the Coffee Trade Company. In a “charmingly anachronistic” fashion (their words), they developed a coffee substitute that differed from others on the market. Most coffee subs I’ve encountered contain some combination of three ingredients – barley, chicory, and dandelion root. The last of which is often used as the primary.

On an attempt to find a coffee clone I liked, I experimented with a dandelion/chicory blend and straight roasted dandelion root. The results were underwhelming. On a later brew-up, I tried a Japanese barley tisane (mugicha) and found it quite delightful. While I didn’t experiment with blending any further, I readily assumed that those three were the magic ingredients for creating the perfect “coffaux”.

Ersatz went a completely different route, sidestepping the barley and dandelion entirely. They kept the chicory – likely for coloring purposes – but used roasted peas and roasted ri-…wait, did I read that right? Roasted rice?


If it hasn’t been made apparent, I’m not a fan of rice as a tea additive. Genmaicha – the premier rice-blended green tea – is my least favorite. There’s only been one rice-flavored anything I ever favored drinking, a sticky rice pu-erh, and actual rice wasn’t included. In my palate opinion, rice can only be eaten, not steeped. And, yes, I’m fully aware that I’m in the minority.

To Ersatz’s credit, the blend smelled wonderful. It was equal parts toasty, roasty, earthy, woody, and…well…manly. There was a rough, wildernessy feel to the aroma, like coffee on a campground. Rice was not the dominant presence, nor was the tangy chicory. I hoped that carried through in the taste.

Brewing instructions were dead simple. It was a large teabag, and the ingredients were strong herbals. Great care wasn’t necessary. All I had to do was dunk the bag in a cup of boiled water for three-to-five minutes, and I was done. I tested the bag out at a full five minutes.

The result was a cherry-wood-to-dark-brown liquor with a strong “cooked trail mix” aroma. In all honesty, it didn’t smell like coffee. The smell sort of reminded me of barley but with less emphasis on the roasted characteristics. To the taste, it started out well enough, imparting a toasted/herbal profile but quickly translated into something I didn’t favor. There was the rice, I thought to myself. Two-thirds of the blend was wonderful and almost coffee-like, but the rice-reared finish was off-putting.

Not willing to admit defeat, I dared a second brew-up – this time at the three-minute mark. The liquor infused to the same deep brown but slightly lighter. The aroma was just as toasty as the lengthier infusion but a bit gentler on the nose. The flavor was a welcomed relief. All roasty/toasty beverage, no rice; if there was a rice presence, it was thankfully muted. Toasted veggies, smoked herbs, and an urge to go hiking were the only impressions imparted. The real joy came with the inclusion of milk and stevia. Now that was where it reminded me of coffee. Any faint rice-recoil was permanently subdued by the addition of dairy and sweet things.

I would be hard-pressed to call this end-all/say-all substitute for coffee. Having talked to my fair share of goths, hipsters, clock-punchers, and wired hackers, they will never give up their coffee. Ever. The flavor only leaves a faint impression of the blunt-force wake-up bean. That said, I could see a coffee drinker enjoying it as a nightcap. I certainly did.

But now I have a strange desire to write beatnik poetry…about clones. Why is that?

To buy Ersatz Coffee, go HERE.

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Thursday, June 23rd, 2011 Beverage Blog, Steep Stories 2 Comments

Bearing with Boring Ol’ Barley

Sometimes the Asian need to separate themselves – besides by large bodies of water – takes on epically stupid proportions. The worst of which concerns an herbal “tea” that goes by three completely different names. And it’s not even an uncommon infusion. The target of ire is roasted barley.

Koreans call it “boricha”, the Chinese call it “maicha”, and the Japanese know it as “mugicha”. I don’t think I’ve encountered so disparate a naming scheme in my life. Okay, if linguistics is a factor, fine, I’ll accept that. But I don’t think so. After all, the word for “tea” doesn’t deviate much between the three languages. It’s universally referred to as “cha”. So what makes bori-mugi-mai-cha so damn special? I decided to investigate.

Barley is used for many purposes; the most common being culinary. As a drink, it’s sold year-round in Japan, and marketed as a summer season cooler in Korea. Barely mixed with chicory is marketed as a coffee substitute. It is also one of the principle ingredients in beer. Mmmmmm…beer.

What were we talking about? Oh yeah, barley.

I had to try this multitasking grain for myself. On the same Uwajimaya trip where I picked up Mamaki, I ran into scores of barley tea offerings. That settled the “rarity” debate. In typical “poor bastard” fashion, I went with the cheapest and largest I could find; a huge-arse package with at least thirty barley bags in it. Awesomely tacky? You betcha.

The individual bags were a pyramid design, closely resembling the ones put out by PG Tips. (Think British Lipton). Inside the bag were a ton of barley seeds.  On closer inspection of the mesh, they looked like popcorn seeds; smelled like it too. The aroma was roasty like coffee beans but also possessed a buttery quality.

Steeping it was a mild chore. I dunked it into a normal, boring 12oz cup without thinking of the sheer size of the bag. It took up half the mug, easily. I also lacked the foresight to cover the cup initially. This was easily (and stupidly) rectified by putting a tea tin over it. However, I almost spoiled the batch of Lapsang Souchong inside. If one can spoil Lapsang.

The liquor darkened to a woody brown with a roasty aroma that reminded me of coffee/almond ice cream, but without the sweetness factor. Taste-wise, it was something else. I could see why it was marketed as a coffee substitute, for that was the closest thing I compared it to. My brother/roommate had the same opinion.

In short, was it worth the severe name disparity between three major Asian countries?  I don’t think so, but then again, I’m probably making a big deal over nothing. I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to monikers. On the inside, I’m yelling, “Friggin’ pick one!” On the outside, I’m sipping from a cup on a couch.

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Friday, November 26th, 2010 Steep Stories No Comments

Coffaux: Concocting a Fake Coffee (First Phase)

My troubling history with coffee goes back to the Spring of ’03. Why does everything bad happen in the Spring?! I dunno. Digression…segueing back to the point of this entry…

I had just started working the night shift as a way to make ends meet whilst finishing my last semester at college. Financial aid – or as I like to call it, beer money – had dried up; that and I was on academic probation. (See: beer hyphenate.) Working almost-full-time seemed like a “great” way to dig myself out of the antidepressant-fueled hole of academia. Hospitality industry, even better!

However, my delicate (read: outta shape) frame wasn’t up to the task of braving the nocturn. Up to that point, the only poison I put in my body on irregular occasions was bad but affordable beer; Hi-Life, Milwaukie’s “Beast”…Forgive me, I was young and naïve. The logical conclusion was caffeine, yet this was nearly two years before my love affair with tea blossomed. I started off with coffee.

That didn’t last long, I assure you. On a particularly difficult night shift – running on three hours of sleep – I made the mistake of double-brewing the pot. Too much of a good thing is bad. Too much of a mediocre, miasmic tar is worse. I almost vomited twice, nearly crapped my pants once, and felt generally sick for three days after that shift.

From then on, I steered clear of coffee unless I had no other choice. Not that all coffee was bad, just bad for me. Then I tried my hand at chamomile, which definitely wasn’t conducive to a successful night shift. And, thankfully, in ’04, I discovered tea – my caffeinated savior. But I always wondered what I missed out on had I continued down the espresso express way.

By then, it was too late, but rumblings on the Net reached my ears; mentions of a “faux” coffee made of dandelion root. I looked up various blogs on the subject. Apparently, roasted dandelion root was used as a common substitute for coffee. Not only that, but it was also healthy – something to do with liver detox.

I asked my dad, a religious coffee drinker, if he’d ever heard of such a thing. He said he tasted several different coffee substitutes. None of them were worth the effort. “Coffee is coffee. Why would you want to have something ‘like’ coffee?” It was a good question. I didn’t have a good answer for him.

Regardless, I charged forth in my quest unimpeded. In the hippie wilds of Southeast Portland, I found an herbal shop that held my target. Once locating some roasted dandelion root, the cute, short-haired hipster teller also directed me to their “actual” faux-coffee blend called “Herbal Flash”. Simpy put, it was chicory root mixed with dandelion. I smelled the contents; shades of maple, pine, molasses, and…wood came to mind.

I bought both.

When I got home, I pleaded with my brother for the use of his French press. If I was going to brew something like coffee, I might as well do it somewhat right. I figured the culprit to start with was the Herbal Flash “coffaux”. The best bet seemed to be boiling water and a ten-minute steep, like one would treat any strong herb such as ginger.

The liquid blackened, not just colored. Blackened. It looked like coffee, even “blubbed” like it as we pressed the “French” out of it. Ten minutes passed with ease. I gave some to my step-dad, to my brother, and I took the entrails.

It didn’t taste like coffee.

I was more reminded of pungently sweet molasses that’d been roasted in conjunction with a caramel apple well past its prime. Plus, that “wood” smell I detected in the dry root pieces carried through in the taste. I expected to see my tongue covered in maple-lathered splinters. Definitely not coffee or pleasant.

Now it was time to troubleshoot the dandelion. I was convinced it was the source of all the woodsiness in the Herbal Flash blend, but perhaps it wouldn’t be so rough if left to its own devices. The root possessed the fragrance of bark and vanilla shrouded in leaf – dry-seeming but not unpleasant.

Brewing the tisane – and, believe me, it was a tisane – took some trial and error. The first time around, I simply gave it a ten-minute steep. The liquor ended up brass-colored but transparent. Like a root-based tisane would. Definitely not a substitute for coffee.

On the flavor front, it fared only a little better. As expected, it had woodiness in spades, but at least the infusion turned out complimentary – as opposed to its combination with chicory. The root taste was mildly astringent but not overpowering. I didn’t feel like I was licking a rough-hewn tree. Not my favorite but not a sink-tosser.

A fifteen-minute steep yielded similar results. The root darkened a bit more to a rusty brown, the flavor deepened to something more roasty, yet the feeling invoked still wasn’t coffee-esque. And with that, I gave up.

In closing…

I haven’t called it quits completely on this Sisyphean task, merely a union break. There are still a couple of ingredients and approaches I have yet to try. These first two options didn’t live up to the “coffaux” promise, but I think I may know what I did wrong. A return to the herbal shop hasn’t happened yet because…well…I’m lazy. It will happen, though. Tomorrow. Maybe.

Let’s change the subject.

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Monday, November 22nd, 2010 Beverage Blog 2 Comments

I work for tea money.


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