New coffee blends become hot-hot-hot drink of choice


The hot after-dinner drink these days is coffee.

And, whether to avoid booze, overthrow Juan Valdez and El Exigente or respond to those seduce-me-with-caffeine TV ads, a new generation of coffee drinkers is moving away from the same old grind.

At a time when alcohol consumption is down, interest in "gourmet" coffees is up. Sales of these aristocrats of arabica have jumped while the growth in regular coffee consumption is as tepid as the stuff in your plastic foam cup.

"Lately, it's been all Indonesian coffees: heavy, rich, like Sumatra, Java and Celebese," said Ron Bowen, roaster at Schapira-Flavor Cup in New York's Greenwich Village.

To the hearty Indonesian trio, add subtle Jamaican Blue Mountain, the priciest coffee at about $30 a pound and, at a little less than half that, smooth Hawaiian Kona and sweeter Yemen Mocha. Other notable unblended imports include delicate Kenya AA, spicy Costa Rican, light Guatemalan, winey Ethiopian Djimmah and, of course, singular Java. All are priced in single digits per pound.

"Both the Jamaican and Kona have a unique character of their own" and are hard to compare with standard coffees, said Dwayne Walker, manager and vice president of the M. E. Swing Co., which has been roasting and selling coffee in Washington since 1916. "Customers know what they want."

Baby boomers are gradually replacing their devotion to cold soda, although not as quickly as their parents did and that, in part, accounts for the rise in sales of high-end coffees, reports FIND SVP, a business-research firm.

In 1989, about 19 percent of all coffee sold was the producer's specialty or premium brand, as opposed to mass-market blends, according to the company; in 1983, it was 10 percent. By 1994, the category will be 30 percent of all dollars spent on coffee, with 16 percent "gourmet." Americans consume roughly a third of the world's coffee; 52.5 percent drink coffee, averaging 1 3/4 cups a day.

"Most coffees in this country are under-roasted," said George Reynolds, vice president of Starbucks Coffee Co. in Seattle. "It's mainly economic. The more they're roasted, the more moisture is off. It takes more beans to fill a pound."

The prices of unblended gourmet coffees are prodded upward by their comparative rarity. The typical American cup is a blended coffee, usually of Colombian beans. Selective coffee drinkers frequently concoct their own favorite blends.

Coffee folk advise buying the beans unground, just after roasting. They may keep for a couple of months; in six months, they'll be sour or rancid. Ground coffee starts fading within a week. Experts are divided over whether beans ought to be frozen; some prefer an airtight glass container.

Brewing methods, water quality and temperature and the type of grind start debates, too. Using no filter, however, allows more of the flavor to survive, bolstering the French press-plunger method.

Following are among the leading unblended imported coffees, with tasting comments.

Celebes Kalossi -- Gutsy, dark and fragrant coffee; acidic, very rich.

Guatemala Antigua -- Smooth, undertones of spice and smokiness, light.

Jamaican Blue Mountain -- Highly aromatic; mellow flavor, light acidity, distinct sweetness.

Kenya AA -- Mild, pleasingly nutty and rich, with an undertone of acidity.

Kona -- Mild, smooth, very aromatic and earthy, with balance of acidity and sweetness.

Sumatra Mandheling -- Sturdy, deeply flavored, very smooth and rich, low-acid coffee.

Yemen Mocha -- Deep, a bit sweet, with a distinctive aftertaste suggesting chocolate.

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