Two chrome-clad espresso machines sit commandingly at Pearl Cup—the same brand that the last two cafes in this series used. The La Marzocco brand’s reputation has begun to precede these machines, but are these expensive espresso-makers full of hot steam? The devil is in the chemistry as Pearl Cup on Henderson’s store manager and lead barista, Mike Mettendorf, would have you believe.
To demonstrate his point, Mettendorf pulled a shot of espresso split into three parts that came out in ten second intervals–heart, body and crema. Separately, the heart is very bitter and contains most of the shot’s caffeine content, the body is sweet but thin and lacking in…body and the crema contains oils and aromatic components that can drag the most haggard man out of bed. A perfectly tamped puck of espresso, perfectly pressurized jet of hot water and perfectly timed pull on the machine’s paddle brings out the best of each layer. It’s all for one and one for all.
Tasting is believing and in order to find out if the three part shot was much different than the competition I had to compare specialty coffee to Starbucks. Machine battled machine and I found that La Marzocco produced a shot crowned with crema while Starbucks’ fool-proof machine made a shot lacking this important layer.
Much of the difference can be accounted for by the machine, but factors such as how much coffee is used or how long the barrage of hot water hits the beans can affect the result. Each factor plays a part in the quick chemical reaction that goes on inside the espresso machine. About 30 percent of the weight of a roasted coffee bean is organic material that can end up in your cup of coffee. Pearl Cup aims for a 21-22 percent extraction.
“When you’re extracting, the softest stuff comes out first—it’s the first third of your extraction. When you get into over extraction you’ve gone past that 21 or 22 percent I was talking about and if you’re trying to squeeze out that last 79 percent you’re getting a lot of the carbon and fiber, the actual physical building blocks of that bean, that husk, that you don’t want to taste. If you’ve ever taken a whole bean that’s been roasted and chewed up in your mouth, it’s not very tasty. It tastes just like charcoal because most of what you’re getting is just carbon and fiber which doesn’t texture well, it doesn’t taste nice…You need a little bit of that carbon and fiber. You need some of that tougher material that comes out at the end of the extraction to balance out the early stuff.”
The three parts of the shot are a Holy Trinity, but no one said they ought to be perfectly balanced. The relative absence of one component could yield a cup drastically different than the next, depending on how a customer asks for their coffee. At every Pearl Cup there is bar-style seating with a view of the espresso machines. This offers a chance for baristas to profile their patrons’ palates.
“Kind of like what [a sommelier’s] job is what I like to do for consumers. [It’s] having them come in and say, ‘Hey, what tastes do you enjoy? What kind of foods do you enjoy? Do you tend toward enzymatic flavors, toward sugar-browning flavors or toward charred flavors?’ We can find the right coffee for you. We have a pretty good selection. We’ll find something you might really enjoy to take home and brew there or to get when you come in and see us. We really want to focus on community involvement and educating the community and creating that expectation of us to be a specialty shop and not just an independent Starbucks.”
To educate the community, Pearl Cup holds regular cuppings where locals can come try new roasts with a dignified sniff, slurp and (optional) spit. Mettendorf finds himself educated making visits to Pearl Cup’s Tulsa-based roaster, Topéca. The roaster owns their own land in El Salvador, allowing them to watch over the coffee from “seed to cup.” On one visit Mettendorf found himself using a TDS meter, which measures the total dissolved solids in brewed coffee. The meter helps find the sweet spot between over and underextraction.
“We push the envelope. We’re not just doing specialty coffee, but we’re pushing the edge of specialty coffee. That’s what you can expect to get here—the latest standards, the latest practices, the best practices for coffee.”
I’m no latte art reader, but the future looks promising for Pearl Cup. A third location is set to open in early 2013 on the intersection of Sylvan Avenue and I-30 and a fourth location was just announced in Richardson on Custer Parkway between Campbell and Renner Roads. Topéca may start a location in Dallas, which could help drive the price of coffee down. Finally, Mettendorf won a latte art competition as well as prizes such as a $2,900 Vitamix blender in this past weekend’s Ultimate Barista Challenge in Dallas. If coffee is chemistry, Pearl Cup caters to Dallas’ reaction. Specialty coffee is what many in Dallas’ suburbs have been yearning for and it seems they may finally have their way.