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Gallery: A Coffee Buzz For Your Inner Nerd

By Chris Bentley in Food on Feb 11, 2013 4:10PM

Pour-over, slow-drip, aeropress — coffee can seem complicated these days, more fit for sommeliers or scientists than the casual sipper. The fine folks over at Halfwit Coffee Roasters are thrilled that coffee culture is maturing along the lines of the craft beer craze of late, and their tongue-in-cheek “science fair” Sunday captured the self-aware geekiness of high-brow baristas.

Along with Fritz Pastry, they served up some welcome sustenance on a drizzly Sunday evening.

Educational posters stationed throughout Gaslight Coffee Roasters elucidated the science of coffee roasting, brewing and tasting, mimicking the presentation of a middle school science fair down to the colored construction paper decorations.

We love coffee, but have to confess some ignorance of its finer gustatory points. So, to play out the doting teacher’s debrief, what did we learn?

Probably the most important elements of brewing a perfect cup of joe are heat retention and total saturation — you don’t want fluctuations in the temperature of your brew, and you want to give the water enough time to fully mine the flavors of the ground coffee beans. That will help give you the right “extraction,” meaning you’ve pulled out the coffee’s richness without making it too bitter. True coffee nerds can even quantify the drink’s extraction using a refractometer, which measures the movement of light through the liquid, indicating its density and total dissolved solids.

But first you need good beans, ground evenly and roasted to perfection. Like much of the brewing process, roasting is as much art as science — brown the beans too much and you char out whatever subtleties you gain from sourcing a good product; under-roast them and you’ll have a comparatively bland cup. And getting a good bean is crucial.

“I don’t do any magic in the roasting room,” said Halfwit’s Christopher Oppenhuis. “I’m just highlighting the process that came before this.”

Coffee connoisseurs are enjoying a bit of a renaissance right now in Chicago. Food Republic named Intelligentsia an industry leader in 2011, and the homegrown coffee cognoscente just announced four new Chicago locations, as well as one in New York and one in San Francisco.

With more independent stores percolating every day, brewers like Passion House, Dark Matter, and Bow Truss are part of a rapidly developing cadre of coffee geeks. Specialty-grade vendors still make up only 3 percent of the market, Oppenhuis said, but their growth isn’t limited to sagely gourmands — a quality cup can bring out the nerd in anyone.