Listen to the coffee bean: Spanish culinary giant Chef Ferran Adria on making the perfect brew
In his new book, Coffee Sapiens: Innovation through Understanding, the chef offers the ultimate guide to the world’s most popular hot beverage.
Twenty years in the making, the book was put together by experts at the elBullifoundation in collaboration with Lavazza, offering insights into the business of running a café, Chef Adrià’s many experiments with coffee, and his latest innovations.
We got to chat with the chef at length about his favourite subject, and we were sure to lead in with the Indian idea of a piping hot tumbler of coffee.
Greetings from South India! We have to say, South India is highly regarded for its coffee culture, with many generations of expertise going into every cup or tumbler of the brew. Incredibly resourceful as this book is, how do you hope to change deeply rooted ideas about taste, consumption and the quality of coffee?
Chef Ferran Adrià: I hope it will change the way we understand coffee. As far as we know, there is no such exhaustive and neat work on the realm of coffee. There are wonderful and detailed treaties, historic books, etc, but I believe this is the first that offers a general knowledge on all the elements around coffee, all connected together, in order to globally understand its complexity.
It’s the business aspect of making a coffee bar that’s most interesting to us, given that we’re surrounded by thousands of local mom-and-dad outlets, and even restaurants that have thriving businesses based on basic hand-operated or mechanised setups for coffee production. This is, of course, apart from the international chains of baristas and coffee shops. In this context, how do you hope to improve or modify existing business models working with coffee?
CFA: The beauty of Indian culture is just that you get to meet, and get in touch with the small business models in which one can still breathe the tradition and culture of this wonderful country. Indeed, major coffee players such as Lavazza will continue to evolve their production to respond to these new business targets, and offer a product that encounters any consumers’ habits.
In a broader context, looking across India — we’re given a mix of tea and coffee cultures. For many people, the coffee bar culture already stands saturated — disregarding the number of new outlets that have cropped up lately. The matter of personal taste is something every Indian household prides itself over. Now, with people moving away from coffee bars, do you foresee a return-to-roots movement — all for a good cup of coffee?
CFA: In our social context, the proliferation of multinational chains is unavoidable, not only based on the coffee product, but on a wide series of gastronomic concepts too. It is the consequence of globalisation, and it’s better to accept it is just like that. Nevertheless, given this global paradigma, it should be possible to access coffee, and — more in general — gastronomic offers that are more anchored in the traditions of each country.
In order to do so, we should bet on two fundamental aspects: coffee quality and a great gastronomic education, an essential element when it comes to appreciate such quality. In other words, to be able to appreciate a good coffee goes along with demanding the existence of a high-quality product. This market shall never vanish; I am in fact convinced it is going to evolve, living side by side with the other trends that you mentioned.
There’s an important aspect of artistry in the Lavazza concept — instilling a sense of aesthetic delight in the pouring of cream and serving a hot cup. For many of us, we don’t even have the time to smell the coffee in our schedules. Does a lot of this have to do with slowing downtime, to make the effort to relax and enjoy a good brew?
CFA: Drinking coffee is a ritual in which — mainly Italians — one fully enjoys the flavours, aromas, density, and aftertaste in the mouth, really appreciating the ‘character’ of the beverage. In Italy, the day is defined by coffee rituals: a cappuccino with breakfast, a caffè macchiato — or two — as an afternoon pick-me-up, and espresso after dinner.
If we look back to the past, in fact, the history of coffee rituals around the world is a direct view into the lives of coffee drinkers who came before us.
For example, at the origin of coffee, in Ethiopia, the beverage was prepared as part of a ritual ceremony, which included herbs and spices that conferred energy to its drinker. There’s nothing in common with nowadays’ fast daily rhythms.
As a category leader, Lavazza seeks a high standard in quality and innovation that allows the company to pour the best of Italian tradition into coffee and, over the years, Lavazza has carried the aroma of authentic Italian coffee all over the world, keeping up with changing trends and constantly exploring new ways of experimenting with coffee, even in the world of gastronomy.
The question comes down to mass production versus limited, small-scale production of high-quality coffee. How would you strike a balance? Are there any compromises to be made, for
selling good coffee to a larger market?
CFA: Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages worldwide. There are thousands of independent coffee bars in the streets, serving different elaborations with coffee.
At a first glance, the industry might seem highly diversified, but large players are in a rush to rapidly consolidate. It appears to me that medium-size companies have been striving to become more relevant on an international level.
Lavazza, for instance, has recently acquired international brands in an effort to go from a predominantly Italian brand to a global one. Lavazza, which is now in its fourth generation of family leadership, is driven by more than 120 years of tradition and history, combining a desire to bring its authentic coffee experience around the globe with a strong commitment to innovation, research and sustainability.
All with the overall goal of ensuring future growth and reconfirming the company’s position as a leading global player, without compromising on the quality of its products, working to create coffee blends and make them unique, perfectly combining body, aromas and flavours.
Tell us about the research that goes into the aspect of cultural adaptation. How differently would things work for opening outlets across India — in the North, the South, or in the heartland? How does one adapt to deeply rooted traditions?
CFA: If a company or a professional wants to establish a service or a product in a specific area, the least they should do is try to get to know its idiosyncrasy. I’m talking about something that goes way beyond a simple market study: It is mandatory to understand what are the habits and characteristics of consumption of coffee in each region.
In fact, India is such a vast and varied territory, that it would be naïve to think about it as a sole entity. Following this perspective, it is necessary to analyse each region to adapt to each client’s taste.
There’s a lot to be said about the concept of blending different types of coffee, something Lavazza has pioneered. How does this work with purists, who insist on pure strains of taste? Tell us about perceptions around blended coffee from different geographic areas — do you find more takers for blends in cosmopolitan markets rather than traditionally inclined societies?
CFA: Surely, in those ‘melting pot’ societies where cultural interchange is not unusual, we can experience a certain open-mindedness towards new flavours, even when they come from ingredients that are not indigenous.
Everything that doesn’t align with a taste we are used to perceive can lead to a sensation of extraneousness.
For that, as usual, a more wide-spread gastronomic culture will contribute into judging a coffee that we are tasting not for its relatedness to the culture, but instead for its organoleptic qualities.
That being said, there are for sure supporters of single-origin coffee, but also consumers who prefer blends, which can be valid opportunities to try new flavours.
Coffee drinking is often accompanied by a sort of ceremonial arrangement — quite like tea-drinking ceremonies. But here, we’re talking about a more contemporary manner — tending towards jet-setting lifestyles. What is the ideal coffee drinking lifestyle ceremony for you?
CFA: In the Western world, coffee consumption is defined by the absence of a ritual ceremony, as it is a — more or less — quick and occasional activity. Luckily, not everyone consumes it this way. I personally savour every sip of coffee with my five senses, prepared always black and with no sugar.
Lastly, give us your idea of an ideal conversation surrounding a pot of freshly brewed coffee. It could be an imaginary chat, or something from memory — we’re looking for the best subjects of discussion to go with your best pot of coffee.
CFA: To me, like with every other excellent product, a good conversation around a cup of coffee is the one that brings people together, that enriches the experience, that helps understand the unknown and that sparkles joy.
Coffee Sapiens: Innovation through Understanding, Phaidon Press (import), $130. Read the complete interview online at www.indulgexpress.com.
— Jaideep Sen