The first coffee connoisseurs were some members of an Ethiopian tribe who got an energy boost when they bit into berries off a certain type of flowering shrub.

It took another couple thousand years before some Arabs figured out how to cultivate the plants and create a stimulating brew called qahwa - which, literally, means prevents sleep.

Since then, coffee has attracted a contingent of devotees. In the late 1400s, Turkish law made it legal for a woman to divorce her husband if he failed to provide daily coffee. In 1511, a governor in Mecca was executed after attempting to ban coffee consumption.

Things got crazy in the United States when Starbucks open its first store in 1971. Coffee houses sprang up liberally on the streets of America and, today, Starbucks alone has more than 9,000 stores in this country. A whole glossary of coffee lingo has dripped into common American usage - words like barista and cappuccino.

Legions of coffee aficionados are willing to pay a premium for espressos, lattes, breves or straight joe as long as the beans are freshly-roasted and ground. Some connoisseurs can't help expressing distaste for lower-priced coffee found at fast-food establishments and on grocery shelves.

Carla Thorgersen is one of them. She sat at the Great Pacific Wine & Coffee Company with a couple friends recently, sipping a caramel latte. Freshness is the key, she said, even at home.

"We grind our own coffee beans - we have for 30 years." Thorgersen said. "A fresh cup of coffee has better flavor."

Patrick McDonough stops into Obie's in Hermiston almost every morning. As he nursed an Almond Joy latte, he said, while he enjoys the coffee, he likes the camaraderie even more.

"Conversations go from weather to the latest news on Oprah," he said, taking a sip. "I see a cross-section of Hermiston."

Carol Hanks, who co-owns Great Pacific with Ken Schulberg, said many of their customers stop in multiple times each day for both an aromatic cup of brew and the ambiance.

"Coffee is a necessity along with chocolate," said Hanks, only half joking. "Some people come in three times a day - we love it."

Hanks said Great Pacific brews its way through at least 50 pounds of coffee beans each week.

Hanks said making a good cup of coffee depends on, first of all, the right bean. She recommends Arabica beans over the more-bitter Robusta bean.

"The Arabica bean has a lot more flavor - it's smoother and richer," she said. "The Robusta beans are a lot more acidic and less flavorful."

Robusta is a lower-grade coffee, she said, usually grown at lower elevations. It is more acidic and contains more caffeine. Arabica coffee has about half the caffeine, is more aromatic and has richer taste.

Local coffee experts questioned, agreed freshness is the most critical factor.

Marla Ciesiel, owner of Obie's in Hermiston, said she orders directly from a coffee roaster who ships express. Even so, she said, her baristas don't let the coffee sit around in a pot.

"We make ours per order while they are sitting in the drive-through," she said.

At the Pendleton Coffee Bean, owner Paula Dirks roasts coffee beans on-site two or three times a week in her Deidrich drum roaster. Dirks learned the roasting process from Kathy Zollman, the previous owner of the Pendleton Coffee Bean.

"I came in every day for a month and roasted with her," Dirks said.

The process is complex. She puts the green unroasted beans into the roaster where they tumble on a rotating drum. The beans change color as they roast, turning yellow and then brown.

She monitors the beans by watching the clock, looking at them and noticing changes in smell. She adjusts the temperature upward as they darken, sometimes as high as 450 degrees.

How long the beans roast depends on what type of bean and the effect Dirks wants. Some are removed at first crack; others stay in longer.

"You can over-roast," she said. "You can take it too high, too fast."

As the beans darken, oil is released.

After the beans are roasted, they must "rest" for a day or so before they are packaged.

"If you were to bag them without a gas valve," Dirks said, "it would literally explode."

Not everybody thinks coffee is worth the fuss or the money.

Bobby Archer, of Pendleton, said he doesn't notice much difference between snobbier brews and those he finds at other restaurants. His wife, Marilyn, nodded beside him.

"We'll drink anything as long as its not over $7 a can," he said, laughing.

He searched his memory for a study he heard about where a common brew beat out Starbucks in a blind taste test.

Archer might have been thinking of a test conducted by Canadian Business Magazine in 2006 where Toronto coffee drinkers ranked McDonald's coffee over Starbucks, Tim Hortons and a coffee introduced by Coca-Cola. The McDonald's coffee in the test was its premium Arabica blend called CafeeRoast.

Some folks might just want to stay home and brew their own. For those people, Hanks offered a few suggestions.

"Use fresh cold water and beans that are freshly-roasted and freshly-ground," she said.

Also, she said, buy only as many beans as you can use in a short period and the ideal brewing temperature is 190 degrees.

In the first stage of roasting, beans resemble green pebbles and slowly absorb heat as they tumble on a rotating drum. The beans turn yellow, then light brown, then dark. The roaster adjusts the temperature upward during the process, paying attention to the beans' appearance and smell. The beans increase in size by 50 percent and lose weight as they roast.


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