Local coffee bean buyer travels far for the right roast

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 30, 2011 - 8:36 PM

Long before the rise of Starbucks, Minnesotans were a coffee-drinking tribe. It was always a joy to take a visiting Manhattanite to lunch at Perkins, and watch their expression when the waitress left the pot. In some New York diners, you have to send up maritime distress flares to get a refill. Welcome to the land of the bottomless cup.

Now we value quality as much as quantity, and we're used to different roasts and varieties. Assisting us in our quest to wake up and stay frisky: Tim Chapdelaine, a coffee buyer for local bean merchants Cafe Imports. He just got back from South America -- long flight, but as you might expect from someone in this particular industry, he didn't sound tired at all. First things first: local, or Minnesotan by choice?

"I was born and raised in Eagan, and my family goes way back to original homestead. The French-Canadian parts were part of a group that spread from Fort Snelling in 1800s."

C'est bon. Just as they made the trek, so does Tim. Just this month he was sweltering in a Minneapolis summer one day, enjoying a Brazilian winter the next. Something of a culture shock. What makes Brazil different from Minnesota? Besides the beaches and the scantily dressed Carnival participants.

"Brazil grows grass-fed beef and veggies on small farms and has a short supply chain from farmer to consumer. We're very far down the path away from eating locally produced foods here. We have this great farm culture all around us, and I would love to see us move back to eating closer to home. 

"We spent one night eating and talking with 20 farmers under a full moon, taking our turn at the barbecue for four hours.  None of us spoke great Portuguese, so the eating was our communication. The connection of food is very strong between people."

But it's always good to go home. "The first thing I notice about Minnesota when I come back? It's really clean -- and a bit reserved. But we're also very solid and reliable. The lack of corruption and short lines due to efficiently run businesses and government in Minnesota is refreshing.  A trip to the bank in many places is a long, drawn-out process."

Minnesota coffee has long been associated with the Lutheran variety -- made with eggshells, served in church basements. Well, served in cups, in church basements. Have our coffee tastes changed since consumers got exposed to something other than institutional roasts?

"Minnesotans tend to like drip coffee and like it strong. Weak coffee has never done very well here. Now the coffee scene here is really growing, particularly the small-batch brewing, where you make one cup at a time using a cone or press and grind fresh coffee and use good water.  People don't need $200 coffee makers or $1,000 espresso machines to make great coffee."

But if you're paying $4.59 for a venti low-fat Hipsterchino drizzled with sugar-free caramel and infused with a double shot of class-status reassurance, you'll spend $1,000 eventually. Or are we all cutting back?

"It's surprising how vibrant the high-end coffee market is in spite of the economic situation. It's really based on hard-working, committed individuals who pay close attention to every detail of the coffee from roasting through brewing and preparation."

No one wants to fall asleep in hard times. You might miss an opportunity.

JAMES LILEKS

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