The American Medical Association confirms it: given a generally healthy lifestyle, moderate coffee intake likely has no negative effect on health. Which is really a good thing, if you think about it, because according to the National Coffee Association 54 percent of Americans over age 18 consume an average of 3.1 cups of it daily. I’m certainly a culprit in this, as consuming the elixir of life (read: coffee) is part of my daily routine — without it the rest of my day always feels vaguely dulled, as if it were being regarded from a moderate distance. (I even once kept track of how many cups of elixir I drank in year 2014. Final tally: 1,183 — a copious amount of consumption, I realize, but in my defense, it started as an innocent question posed between myself and a friend before quickly falling into a downward spiral of competition fueled by a playfully adversarial spirit and our mutual dependence on the world’s most prevalent and commercially available psychoactive stimulant. So it’s only half my fault.) Given that, you can imagine my delight upon meeting someone whose love affair with elixir was even more passionate than my own — Ben Foster, an LSA senior.
“My aunt started this coffee catering business when I was about 13,” Foster told me over a steaming beverage last Thursday. “So as soon as we (Foster and his similarly aged relatives) were old enough — probably before we were old enough — we would all be piling in the car … working for this company.”
While many people indulge in recurring recreational activities of a relatively niche nature, Foster has one that is rarer than most. As a coffee roaster, he is a connoisseur of sorts who took his love a step further into the act of creation.
Foster and I met at an establishment called Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room, which is a charming little store about a 15-minute walk northwest of Central Campus. When you enter the bookstore, the first thing you notice is the potent layer of incense in the air. The second thing is probably the sort of new age-y music playing quietly in the background, the kind that has gentle synth strings playing blurry chords at long duration and optionally includes some sort of Asian instrument in a soloistic capacity, with the intent of making a more meditative atmosphere but the effect of being only a rather surface level imitation (this sort of music may also be vaguely described as “zen”). If you look around at the books stocked, you’ll see various volumes of literature on numerous schools of Eastern philosophy, some translations of original texts and others more obviously composed with Western disposable-income-types in mind. Upstairs is a small cafe area, which is filled with amicable chatter and the delicious aroma of assorted teas, as well as that of nectar of the gods from Ann Arbor’s own Mighty Good Coffee.
“This is my third interview at Crazy Wisdom, actually, but two of them were job interviews,” Foster said, laughing. “I love this place.”
Foster didn’t become extremely interested in coffee until he started studying at the University of Michigan, where he is pursuing a degree in computer science and is in the process of adding a minor in Russian.
“I started going to Mighty Good down the street and starting making it a regular thing with my friend — we’d go every single Friday because our classes worked out that way. We’d make the trek, and it was a good way to unwind after the week,” Foster said of the real beginning of his affair with elixir.
“Their (Mighty Good’s) thing is they have a lot of single-origin coffees, which is just coffee that’s sourced from usually one estate in a certain region, so you can just sort of fall back and call them by their country of origin,” Foster said. “I remember one time I had this one coffee; it was a Guatemalan Huehuetenango … I looked at the tasting notes, and I actually tasted hints of peanut butter in that coffee. I thought tasting notes were ridiculous before that, I just sort of brushed them off, and never thought of coffee as something that could be really complex.”
Not long after Foster made a habit of tasting all of Mighty Good’s coffee selection, exploring the various single origin brews and gradually trying his hand at more nuanced home brewing methods.
“I bought an AeroPress, which is basically a tube with a plunger — it’s like a French press, but with a paper filter,” Foster said. “I bought a hand crank grinder, so I’d grind all my beans … so I just started acquiring all this brewing equipment.”
Foster now buys raw green coffee and roasts his own beans. Over the last few years, he’s experimented with various creative roasting methods, with varying success.
“I started doing it with an aluminum popcorn popping stove top thing, like where you crank the thing — it makes the most disgusting noises ever, just screeching noises — so that was short-lived because it was really obnoxious,” Foster said. “Then I started putting a colander full of coffee beans into the oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and then shaking them every minute.”
Partly due to the inconsistencies of the resulting roast from these methods, and partly due to the slow accumulation of mild burns, Foster now uses an air popcorn popper (plus a long cardboard tube) for his elixir production, which he says allows a more consistent roast because of the agitation and airflow resulting in a constant temperature.
“What I think is so cool about it is that anyone can go out and get an air roaster and order coffee online — green coffee is so cheap, it’s great,” Foster said as he pulled out a bag of green coffee to show me. “I guess I probably look a bit like a drug lord with this,” he said, laughing (though referring to him in that manner wouldn’t actually be excessively inaccurate. After all, caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world).
“My big thing is fresh coffee. Pre-ground coffee is always stale. Once you crush the bean down you’ve just exposed all those little pieces of coffee to air, so it just oxygenates,” Foster said. “The thing that I do differently, I think … is fresh, consistent grind, and a better ratio of water to coffee.”
When asked about his goals for and general ideas about coffee, Foster had a simple explanation for his love, one that is certainly relatable to most of our society.
“My perfect state of mind is listening to some music, not having anything to do, and sipping a cup of coffee,” Foster said.
I can dig that.