James Freeman's new book, The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee, covers every way to get every nuance out of the coffee bean.
Freeman founded Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco, but the place he learned these coffee techniques was Japan, which is more commonly known for its tea.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: How did coffee become so important in Japan?
James Freeman: It started in the mid-1800s when Dutch traders brought coffee from Java into the port of Nagasaki. This was when Japan was a very closed society, but they were interested in learning about the outside world. They were interested in western goods. A culture of artisanship and connoisseurship took root.
The big push was with the Brazilian abolishment of slavery around 1870. Brazil was targeting Japan as both a consumer of coffee and an exporter of labor. Japanese people started coming to Brazil to work in the coffee fields, and there was a big importation of coffee -- especially Brazilian coffee -- into Japan. To this day, Brazil has a very large Japanese population.
LRK: You write in the book about a particular coffee house you go to, as though you were visiting a shrine.
JF: Cafe Chatei Hatou. It's near the Shibuyu station in Tokyo. Shibuyu is very frenetic and modern, but this is a few blocks away from the train station. It's this island of calm; it's perfect. It's not a fashionable cafe. It's been around for about 25 years and its clientele is older than I am. It's quiet, it's calm, and it's got a kind of grandma-style furniture in it.
But you come in, you get seated, and there's this moment in which they're looking at you and they're thinking about what you've ordered. They look at the wall of cups that's behind them, which is a couple hundred different China cups. You can see the wheels turning. It's like, "What is the correct cup for this moment for this customer for this coffee?"
LRK: How do they actually make the coffee?
JF: The way that I enjoy is called Nel drip. It's this old-fashioned way of making coffee. There's a cotton flannel sack in a wire hoop, about 4-5 inches long. The coffee grind is quite coarse, and they use a lot of it -- maybe 40 or 50 grams for a 3 1/2-ounce demitasse. They carefully manage the grind particle size, the temperature and how they're pouring. It's all very much a structured experience; it involves a lot of training and repetition.
Then they'll take this small-neck kettle, which looks a lot like an olive oil cruet with a tight spout, and they'll pour in a very leisurely, methodical way for anywhere from 5 to 7 minutes. It's hypnotic to watch. They're concentrating very precisely and very, very fiercely on exactly how they're pouring this water through this hoop. They care so much about it that they are willing to spend the time to do this technique in what they feel is the best way possible.
[Ed: The video below neither features James Freeman nor is endorsed by him. But it's the best example we could find of the Nel method.]
LRK: And what do you get out of this?
JF: I get this incredible density. The water temperature is quite low, and that's why the coffee doesn't taste burnt or over-extracted or harsh. There's sweetness and there's velvety thickness. There's a certain kind of thickness that you get from a really, really dark rose. But it's not that kind. It's this beautiful, cashmere scarf of coffee. The texture is what appeals to me the most. It's extraordinary. As it cools slightly, you get different layers of flavors, one upon the other. So every sip is quite different.
LRK: And we can do this at home. I realize it takes practice, but we can. Is the Nel expensive?
JF: No. That's the lovely thing. We sell them for $26, or you can find them elsewhere on the Internet. It's really quite an easy, cheap way of making incredible coffee.