It goes something like this: Order coffee. Sniff hot liquid. Sigh at nothing in particular. Dump sugar. Stir cream. Sip. Admire the ring of red lipstick left on the mug. Anticipate the feverish magic of caffeine as it travels hot and slick down my gullet.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- THE MORE YOU KNOW: It takes a keen eye, curious nose, and impeccable palate to roast and blend excellent specialty coffee. Kreuzberg roaster Shawn Clark is more than happy to share his 14 years of knowledge with the public during free coffee education classes held each Saturday within the SLO coffee shop’s onsite roastery.
Yes, I am one of those careless morning zombies who orders a really good cup of joe, only to mindlessly stir in all sorts of unnecessary extras (I wield shakers of cinnamon and vanilla like maracas).
Like coming back to an old song on guitar, it’s half muscle memory, half nostalgia that motivates my hands to betray my taste buds. I always had a feeling I was missing out on something elemental, but old habits die hard.
Kreuzberg coffee roaster Shawn Clark has shown me the light.
It only took one very eye-opening morning coffee class, held at the downtown SLO hotspot, to reform this coffee-killer once and for all.
“If you’re going to spend more money on a higher-end steak, don’t put A1 sauce on it,” Clark said simply. “If you still don’t like it, go ahead and put the sauce on it. But with a higher-end coffee, you should try it several times, and see if your taste buds adjust.”
Clark’s theory as to why so many Americans remain oblivious to “coffee blindness” is pretty on-the-money.
During WWII, coffee was rationed, leaving many producers to cut the mix with chicory.
“Chicory was used as a substitute for a long time, leading people to roast their coffee very dark to cover the taste,” Shawn said. “If you put cream and sugar into very, very dark coffee, it tastes OK. Because of that older generation, there is still a sense of nostalgia for that taste.”
New Orleans’ Cafe Du Monde may be famous for its old-school chicory brew and powdery beignets, but third-wave coffee joints across the country are aiming for a far more hand-crafted, elevated taste experience that honors each bean varietal as one might a wine grape.
“This is about being as transparent with the bean as I can possibly get,” Clark said. “Lighter blends aren’t roasted dark because we’re not trying to cover anything. The barista carries on that sensibility so that you can taste the coffee’s true quality from start to finish.”
Kreuzberg’s beans are certainly high achievers. All have scored 80 points or higher on the 100-point “specialty” scale, and the green, Arabica beans are sourced only from high-quality buyers spanning growing regions from South America to Africa.
Clark roasts each batch with a scientist’s precision and an artist’s heart.
“I make sure we have a very extensive training program here; if we supply coffee to a restaurant, we supply training that goes with it,” Clark said. “Our monthly barista competitions are awesome. It’s part of our aim to raise the bar among the entire coffee community.”
More than 100 spectators and about 20 baristas showed up for the first ever barista competition, held in January—a feat that gives Clark reason to smile. The 14-year veteran bean wrangler lives, breathes, and sweats coffee.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- COFFEE CRAFTSMAN: Part chemist, part coffee guru, Kreuzberg roaster Shawn Clark meticulously roasts batches of specialty beans in the coffee shop’s onsite roastery.
Originally from Texas, Clark, 35, got into coffee in his early 20s.
“I’ve always wanted to get into the deeper side of coffee—it’s always seemed to be such a mysterious trade,” Clark said. “Artists are drawn to coffee, and it helps the creative process. I knew I wanted to be part of that world.”
A multi-instrumentalist and artist in his own right (he created the large flower installation “growing” up the interior of the coffee house), Clark decided to go D.I.Y. with the passion. Note: He’s even created roasting machines with old parts found at Goodwill, but that’s another story you’ll have to ask him about personally.
“The farther you get into it, the farther you go into it,” Clark said.
I learned this fact first-hand during our interview, where I became immersed in the sights, smells, and tastes of the on-site roastery.
I sniffed a rainbow of pungent, hot grounds, and slurped their earthy, nutty, mellow, bright, and bitter goodness with gusto. I watched Clark perform an intricately timed pour-over with a beautiful, Breaking Bad-esque contraption (they’re big in Portland). I watched, stunned, as he plucked a single “bad bean”—almost indistinguishable from the rest—from a handful of its shiny brown cousins.
Although Clark is certainly serious about coffee and so is Kreuzberg (the owners even bought a Probat P12 Roaster, the “Cadillac” of small batch coffee roasters), you won’t find a trace of snootiness here.
Clark’s weekly classes—offered each Saturday at 9 a.m.—are immersive and full of laughter and unpretentious discovery. Clark doesn’t want to show you just why he fell in love with coffee. He wants you to fall in love with coffee too.
In essence, the roaster is the cool teacher who made you think differently about science. Mr. Clark wasted no time introducing me to cupping, lining up a row of small, 7-ounce glasses filled with hot water and about 12 grams of freshly ground beans, each as different as the last.
He then demonstrated how to “break the crust” on each coffee with a spoon, releasing a hot waft of aroma.
“I’ll just take all that in, put my nose almost on the coffee,” Clark said. “I’m thinking about all these flavors and what they are.”
A detailed flavor wheel hangs above the row of cups, emblazoned with robust descriptors. Clark isn’t worried about conjuring up SAT words, however. Life itself is a great reference tool.
“Some scents remind me of my childhood,” Clark said. “I like to ask myself, ‘What part of my life does this remind me of?’”
Next up: Tasting.
After removing the floating grounds and a layer of crema (an oily byproduct of the roasting process that can tweak the coffee’s true flavor) with the quick swipe of a spoon, we prepared our palates.
Clark went first, showing just how to slurp the dark goodness in.
“If you go to professional cuppings, peoples’ slurps go really overboard; some even get competitive about their slurps,” Clark said with a laugh.
His slurp? A middle of the road, “not too flashy” slurp.
Mine? Well, I got so preoccupied with tasting (and picturing what part of my life each flavor reminded me of), that I often forgot to make any noise at all.
After my third or fourth go—and with encouragement from New Times photographer Kaori Funahashi—I mastered the act, even swishing the coffee around my mouth for added panache.
“It really does give you a well-rounded sense of the coffee,” Clark said. “You want to get it on your cheeks; the sides of your tongue.”
My favorite coffee in the lineup also happened to be Clark’s current favorite: the Ethiopia, which smells strongly of blueberry muffin and tastes of dark chocolate and dried cherry.
You dear reader, may be happy to know that I have been enjoying the organic, heirloom variety single-origin sidamo without the clutter of cream or sugar. To do so would be akin to censoring a fabulous work of art.
“I’m taking very-high end beans from very respectable farmers, who have tried to grow the best product he could,” Clark said. “My job is to roast in a way where I am honoring the amount of work put into that process. At the end of the day, I want to show just how beautiful that single bean is.”
Hayley Thomas is slurping her way to the land of the living at firstname.lastname@example.org.