This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
If your coffee education has been anything like mine, you were probably introduced to the centuries-old beverage that’s been studied and practiced and thought about deeply by way of the Just Add Sugar method. You know what I’m talking about. Your dad might have taught it to you and maybe still practices it to this day. He tears those little pink packets open and pours their contents into his steaming cup, and you see a look of satisfaction on his face after that first sip. Years later, the smell of that good ole Folgers takes you back to a time of sneaking cups as a kid and adding more sugar because that’s how your dad did it. But as we’ve grown older, we began to realize things are not quite as simple as they once seemed, and we rejoice in this newfound complexity—a lesson learned by one of Jackson’s very own coffee roasters. If you’ve enjoyed a cup of coffee from Union University’s coffee shop Barefoots Joe recently, then you’ve had a taste of this education. Junior mechanical engineering major Levi Hartsfield has been roasting coffee for Barefoots since 2013 and has been learning the art behind a good cup of coffee since.
“I’ve always loved coffee,” Levi said. “…[but] not at the same place as now—it was different. It was just whatever I could do to get what I had to taste good to me, and it was simple and nice. . . . My dad started drinking Starbucks several years before, just to brew in the morning. He used a French press, and so that’s what I did, and that’s what I liked coming to [Union].”
Since then, Levi’s taste has evolved as he’s not only been exposed to more coffee, but has also had the challenge of learning how to roast coffee well. He says he can still enjoy a cup from home, but it’s the nostalgia that tastes good. What then does good coffee taste like?
“It tastes so smooth,” he said. “It’s so sweet. It’s so creamy. It’s so easy to drink. It’s got so many different things happening, but it’s still comfortable coffee that’s deliciously lathery in the mouth.”
I asked him to describe a perfect cup of coffee.
There are a number of variables, he said, that must be perfect in order to achieve the perfect cup: how the coffee is harvested, processed, stored, roasted, ground, brewed, etc. But what does that feel like when the cup is in your hand? His answer: it ultimately comes down to the coffee itself.
“I can have a perfect cup that I don’t necessarily like, and that’s something I had to swallow because there are coffees that are different. I would say if it’s perfect, though, I will enjoy it. It may not be my favorite because of the flavors that are in it, but it should be enjoyable. It should be sweet. There are some coffees that are smooth. Some coffees just aren’t, and they aren’t supposed to be. Some coffees are delicate, others are hearty; some are mild and some are earthy; and some are herbaceous, some are floral; but they all should have the sweet taste because that sweetness is already in the coffee. It depends on what you do to it—whether or not you let it come out.”
Levi set out to do exactly that—to learn how to roast the beans in a way that the coffee can best represent itself. In the beginning, fearing over-roasting, Levi erred on the side of under-roasting, resulting in a grassy flavor. He eventually had to start taking chances to bring the coffee to its fullest potential.
“If it’s supposed to be toasted almonds and dark chocolate with slight lemon, I want it to have a smooth, sweet base, and then I want it to have those flavors. If I can get it to that, then I know that mostly I’ve stayed out of the way enough to let the coffee shine. We get great coffees, and as much as I can stay out of the way and give it nudges, that is the perfect cup.”
A lot of time goes into deciding which coffees Barefoots serves. Levi receives a four- to five-page list of coffee beans from their distributor and spends hours studying the list. He takes notes, researches what the coffee community has to say, looks at variety, and takes note of varieties he knows will be good.
Most recently, Barefoots received fourteen coffees to try out before placing an order. Levi roasted the beans and then he and his colleagues sampled them in the cupping process. From small, porcelain cupping bowls, they smelled the dry grounds of each variety, added water, smelled as they broke the crust, and tasted the coffee with a cupping spoon, taking detailed notes along every step of the process.
“The biggest difference between drinking coffee and cupping coffee is, whenever cupping, the roast is a little bit lighter than whenever you’re drinking it. It shouldn’t be too much lighter than what we have here, but it may be a little bit lighter because you don’t want to cover anything up with the roast flavor. . . . So after tasting and taking notes, there will be some that we cross out, but hopefully there won’t be many of those, and it comes down to balancing price and how it tastes.”
With each new order of coffee, it can take some time to get the roasting just right.
“Sometimes it’s just maddening, but it can be an enjoyable thing. It demands a lot of attention.” He watches the roasters carefully and logs the process in detail: roast time, temperature, how much gas is allowed inside the roasting drum, among other things. But the factors determining the final product aren’t as formulaic as one might think.
“I was in a rut a while ago, probably not noticeable to anybody except me, but I was not getting what I wanted from the coffee. At the end of the summer, the beginning of the school year, I knew I was doing great things; great things were coming out of here, and then all of the sudden it changed. All of the sudden everything I was doing was wrong.’”
After relaying this to a friend who works at a coffee shop in Texas, she mentioned that their coffee roaster always gets frustrated during the winter.
“And I thought, ‘Oh, of course, of course. So I started trying to combat that. . . . I knew it was the cold, and I was getting better things because of that. . . . I’ve changed the parameters, and so I’m not getting any defects like I was before.”
“You talked about the nostalgia of the coffee you had growing up,” I said. “Tell me about some of your favorite coffee drinking experiences.”
“…My dad’s enjoyment of coffee every single morning in a French press in exactly the same way, somehow that created a desire for and an enjoyment of coffee. So some of the best cups ever, maybe the best experiences ever, were getting it exactly right in high school. You know, making the cup of frozen ground Starbucks coffee, but getting it exactly how I wanted it and pouring that cup and having all the foam be on top and drinking that with a piece of carrot cake and kicking back in the evening…. At first it’s nostalgia and then it fades into a harsh, harsh taste that I don’t enjoy anymore. Really one of the great cups I’ve had lately was Columbian…. The sweetest, the creamiest, very simple. Some peach and cream, caramel, sugar. It was just really in its stride. I went kayaking with my father-in-law on the river and we went from one point to the other…. I had brought my scale, my hand grinder, my AeroPress, and a pot, and we built a fire and sat there. I brewed a couple of cups of that coffee, and we just sat there and drank it, and it was all around great.”
I asked Levi what he wanted for Barefoots customers—what he hoped their experience would be when they get a cup of coffee and take it with them into their day.
“I do everything I can to preserve the coffee and give the patrons that drink this coffee an experience of drinking an exotic, beautiful beverage prepared in such a way that they will be predisposed to enjoy it. . . . I want them to come in and get their coffee and walk out having that cup that tastes like everything it should but sweet and to some degree creamy, always smooth. I want them to have a cup that they can be sad when it’s all gone, you know? I want them to all of the sudden be at the bottom of the cup and think, ‘Man, where did that go?’”
“I love that. It sounds like you’re trying to break your customers’ hearts one cup at a time.”
“Yeah, that’s what I want. I want them to feel a little bit whenever they get to the end.”
Josh Garcia is a commercial photographer who landed in Jackson in 2008. With a B.A. in English from Union University in his back pocket, he’s abandoned other adjectives for “home” when describing this city. He enjoys reading, writing, photography, and cultivating community around the dinner table. #INFJ