This series of articles has been a search for something inimitable, matchless and superlative. Coffee contains more than 800 flavor and aroma compounds.* That’s more things to taste and perceive than in wine, which is thought to be a rather complex beverage. To get things consistently right, it takes a person with a mind for chemistry and engineering.
Clay Eiland, owner of Coffee Eiland, won’t tell you he’s a scientist, but since 1998 he’s kept up with technological innovations and helped direct his industry to offering fairer prices to farmers. You can tell that Coffee Eiland is serious about their coffee when their wholesale customers have won three D Magazine“Best of” awards. Clay is no arcane philosopher, keeping his secrets locked away; instead, he is an educator. His shop in Richardson is part roastery, part laboratory and part classroom.
“What we try to build our business on is quality coffee first and foremost, and then making sure that that coffee is extracted [well], making sure that our customers are trained. It’s not just selling the coffee to wholesale customers. And even retail customers come in and we try to teach them to do certain things to make their coffee better at home. A lot of times once they know what to do or once they see it, they can duplicate it. But if they’ve never really seen it it’s hard for them to do it. Sometimes it’s just one simple thing and they come back the next week and they’re like, ‘My coffee tastes sweeter and it doesn’t need sugar!’”
Coffee Eiland isn’t a sit-down coffeehouse, but if you want to taste what they have to offer before you buy, Clay, Connor North or Corey Adams are happy to brew a few to help make a choice. Between the three they’ve built up 32 years of experience, building up an extensive ken of coffee knowledge. Twenty-six-year-old Connor alone has 10 years experience of being a barista and a manager, and now roasts coffee; Corey has been a barista, manager and has started a shop. Taking coffee education to a new level, Clay invites people to try their hand at pulling their own shot on his machine.
Inside the shop there’s a cupping table and a few chairs surrounded by some of the best brewing equipment available. Unlike depressing graduate school labs, there’s vibrancy in the décor and mood of this small space. This space is for learning, making mistakes and educating the curious who come in and ask to buy a few bags of coffee. Digital scales, reverse osmosis filters, precise grinders and glassware that spirals, curves and bows share counter space with a three-headed Cerebrus of an espresso machine.
“Espresso” is Italian for express, and it is just that brevity that creates dozens of factors that must be precisely controlled. Throughout the history of espresso, various technological advances have helped make the drink more consistent and tastier. Coffee Eiland’s Synesso hybrid, considered the “holy grail” of espresso machines and the first in Texas, helps isolate and precisely control variables like pressure through a four-stage pressure-profiling technique.
“PID” systems digitally control the temperature of water in each boiler of the Synesso, allowing baristas to find a temperature “sweet spot” for the espressos they brew. In addition to temperature control through PID, the Synesso’s computer can change pressure in such a way that it follows a sort of bell curve throughout the pulled shot—starting with little pressure to pre-infuse the espresso with water before ramping pressure up, then dropping it down again to finish the shot. A major advantage that the Synesso was first to offer is that each head has a dedicated boiler and pump system, which allows baristas to calibrate temperature and pressure to suit various espressos. For all of this and more the Synesso will be used at a new concept called Ascension Coffee—owned by Russell Hayward and opening within a month in the Design District—and is gaining favorability in Texas as it already enjoys in Portland and Seattle.
Next to the laboratory is the roastery, where a vintage 1969 cast-iron Probat UG-22 (22 kilogram capacity) roaster sits commanding like an ancient locomotive. Cast-iron is the envy of coffee roasters for its even heating and rarity. The UG-22 stopped being manufactured in 1972, making it rare and well sought after as it considered one of the best roasters ever made.
Clay’s philosophy to roasting coffee is to create a perfect synergy between acidity, sweetness, body and overall balance. A few other roasters have begun roasting their coffees lighter and lighter, but Clay tends to roast to a “peak roast.”
“What we do is a peak roast. It’s almost like what they do in Seattle. They take it to where everything is perfectly balanced in the cup—that there’s not too much acidity, it’s tamed, it’s just the right amount of acidity for the sweetness and the body and the overall roundness…We want to do great coffee, so we’re going to roast it where we think it’s going to taste the best…[Roasting that light] is interesting, which is why I think a lot of people might be doing it that way, but my question is ‘Is it a great cup of coffee? Would you have another cup and then another cup?’ And really the answer to that is no.”
Part of being a roaster is sourcing beans and making sure that farmers are being taken care of. Clay says his mission is not to focus on labels or regions, but to find good coffee and pay the fairest price for it, adding that this is a moving target that roasters and shop owners have to keep their eyes trained on.
“One of the things that I think you’re going to see with Ascension Coffee is that it’s going to go way beyond that. The fair trade coffee mark is good, and it’s good for certain reasons, but it’s not what is the future. I think the specialty coffee industry has been getting better at making sure that everything’s taken care of at the farm level. You can take care of the farm level, but outside that farm level things may be falling apart. Schools might be falling apart. So the key is to help out at the farm level but also help out the community at the same time, not just the farmers. I think that’s the key that Russell brought with Ascension. He doesn’t want to just sell coffee, he doesn’t want to just be direct trade, he wants to make a difference. And that’s what our philosophy is too, so it’s a lot of synergy. I think that’s probably the next level of coffee for us and that kind of thing on that level has never been done in Dallas.”
Throughout the past few years the proliferation of specialty coffee shops in Dallas has proved that brewing coffee is as much of a science as it is an art form, demanding attention on details that are commonly overlooked but create noticeable differences in taste. Yet we haven’t even scratched the surface of what coffee can be in Dallas. The exacting standards for brewing coffee are the shared responsibility of the barista and the roaster. The end product of all of this effort and coordination is a drink that will make stay in the back of one’s mind throughout the day.
* From Mhyrvold & Bilet, Modernist Cuisine, Volume 4