Thursday, November 22, 2012

Café Aficionado: Todd Carmichael of Dangerous Grounds

Todd Carmichael travels the entire world to find the best coffee as evidenced on his new Travel Channel series, “Dangerous Grounds.”

But still he claims the epicenter of coffee is Manhattan.

He said, “The reason is that it’s a city where people pay attention to things — especially what they put in their mouths.”

Right before jetting off to Colombia to continue filming for his new TV series,  Mr. Carmichael took The New York Post on a tour of Manhattan's hot coffee spots and explained how every bean tells a story.

1385 Sixth Ave.

Don’t blink, or you’ll walk by this tiny Italian espresso bar. Two impeccably dressed barristas serve up what Carmich-ael calls “the espresso your mama used to make.”

This classic taste is created by a base of Brazilian coffee beans (“Brazilian beans are like olive oil for the Italians. They are in all of their coffee.”) and a sprinkle of robusta (the strongest variety of coffee), which adds a peppery kick.

Start with a classic Italian to “form an appreciation for the classic and establish a horizon of what you like,” Carmichael says.

Blue Bottle Coffee
1 Rockefeller Plaza, concourse level

Blue Bottle is for the hardcore.

Most places use 7 grams of coffee beans for a shot of espresso. But Carmichael says that this Oakland-based company prides itself on using 21 grams per shot.

The result of that amped-up serving is a very acidic taste.

“If we’re talking music notes, this is a high-pitched soprano,” Carmichael, never at a loss for coffee metaphors, says.

“It screams for attention.”

Saturdays Surf NYC
31 Crosby St.

This surf/coffee shop feels thousands of miles away from Midtown. Carmichael, an avid surfer, says he loves to go to Saturdays to “pretend I’m near a wave and have a coffee.”

The laid-back shop sells surfboards, wax and wet suits but has a coffee bar that serves a blend that is “smoky with some minerality and cocoa” from Carmichael’s own La Colombe coffee company. Customers park their bikes on the huge back patio (right) and bundle up with their coffees.

“A coffee shop can be more than a fueling station,” he says. “It’s the personality of the neighborhood. And Saturdays has that ‘Yo, dude’ thing going on.”

La Colombe
400 Lafayette St.

Carmichael started La Colombe in Philadelphia 15 years ago and has shops around the world. But he calls his NoHo shop his “crown jewel.” The barrista working behind the counter of the packed shop greets him with a big hug.

“I don’t like written words in my shops,” he says, “no merchandising, no menu, no bulls - - t.”  Carmichael describes his own coffee as “elegant-tasting, smooth, round, balanced.

“It’s like how some guitarists like to show off with a bunch of crazy riffs, and others like to work with the band. I’m the echo guy. I want to make beautiful music, and the beauty is in how you hold back.”


by J. Rentilly 
Men's Health Magazine

Todd Carmichael drank his first cup of coffee at the age of 15. Today, the 49-year-old is known as “the Indiana Jones of the coffee world,” traveling through dangerous regions of the world to search for the very best coffee beans on Earth.

Travel Channel begins airing Dangerous Grounds, which finds Carmichael globetrotting, zip-lining, and dodging machine gun-toting adversaries in third world countries, all in the name of finding the perfect cuppa Joe.

The following is an interview with this modern-day Indiana Jones conducted by Men’s Health Magazine:

Men’s Health: Talk about that first cup of coffee.

Todd Carmichael: I was a crazy kid who fell in love with distance running. I love endurance. I was obsessed by it. At that time, Runner’s World magazine had just come out. I read it cover to cover, like The Bible. My hero, Bill Rogers, wrote a piece about coffee and how he was using it to improve his times in the Boston Marathon. So I said, “Dude, if he’s doing it, I’m doing it.” Next day, I drank my first pot. I’ve been doing that ever since. (Carmichael was on to something—learn why caffeine is The Supplement That Boosts Your Bench.)

Men’s Health: Now you’re the Indiana Jones of the coffee bean.

Todd Carmichael: I recently had a look at Indiana Jones, and he’s really old looking, so I think that’s what they’re talking about. [Laughs] There are 80 coffee countries across the world, and each one is very, very different from the other, and they’re all very, very different from where I live. Whether adventure unfolds or not, and often it does, I just feel that intrinsic drive to find great coffee, no matter where it takes me, no matter what it takes. I guess that’s the Indiana Jones thing. I think I’m more like Forrest Gump, but with slightly better SAT scores: I’m a very lucky guy who gets to keep on running around the world.

Men’s Health: What are the origins of coffee hunting for you?

Todd Carmichael: I started a company, La Colombe, in 1993. Back then, the kind of bean we were looking for just wasn’t available from brokers. The only way to get what you wanted—certain grade qualities, certain high-altitude coffees, different regions, different varieties— was to go get it yourself. Coffee back then was just all pooled together; for example, everything from Kenya—the best beans and the worst—all ended up in the same bag, so there was really no difference between your coffee and mine and that other guy’s. But what if you were able to go there and separate the best stuff and take coffee to this whole other level? So I put on my boots and my backpack and set out to get the good stuff. (You want a challenge? We’re here to help. Click here to Find Your Next Outdoor Adventure!)

Men’s Health: As we see on Dangerous Grounds, it can be a harrowing process.

Todd Carmichael: A lot of the best coffee countries are countries that are newly formed or in some sort of governmental tumult, so you’re very often going in right after an armed conflict. It just seems coffee countries are constantly rising and then imploding. That has a whole set of challenges for a guy like me. Every time I go to Colombia, it’s just factions within factions, people being driven from the farms, people being killed. It’s a very liquid situation. You just try to avoid the guy with the AK. I can tell you what they look like when they fire at night, and it’s very unsettling. Without a sane government, the shit starts hitting the fan really fast in a lot of these countries. The funny thing is, I never really noticed a lot of the dangers until I started traveling with a cameraman. He’ll turn to me sometimes and go, “So, uh, are we gonna be okay?” And I’ll actually take notice of the situation, and sometimes the answer is, “Uh, well, we might be f**ked.” I exploded my appendix in a third-world country, and I’ve now got a scar running from my sternum to my groin. Little things like that.

Men’s Health: What’s the gold standard coffee bean right now?

Todd Carmichael: It’s kind of like asking me what my favorite kid is. There is some extraordinary Yirgecheffe out of Ethiopia, but that’s really on the radar. People who really love coffee already know about that. For me, some of the lesser-known coffees that are right on par with that are some of the coffees from way down, down in Bolivia. Around the big body of a coffee’s flavor, you get these fruit and acidic nuances, these halos, and they can be crazy. Some of these coffees from Bolivia have this caramelized apple nuance, and you have that in your double espresso and it’s, like, “My God, I’ve just had something that’s important.” (Meanwhile, here are our favorite coffee picks from Guy Gourmet.)


How to Brew Better Java

When asked how the average guy can craft a better cup of coffee, Carmichael says there’s a big caveat: “You don’t drink coffee with my mouth; you drink it with your mouth,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s about what you like. Respect your palette. A lot of coffee snobs will take you what you should like. What they should be doing is finding what you love.”

Here are Carmichael’s 3 go-to tips:

1. Own your coffee. “If you like cream and sugar, then you should put that in there. Sugar is a luxury. Sugar is beautiful. I don’t use it in my coffee, but if you do, continue to do that. Most coffee guys will stand up and walk out of a room when I say that, but you need to own your coffee.”

2. French Press. “It’s super easy. It’s super fast. If you’re looking to move away from your Mr. Coffee, French Press is the way to go. It’s what I use. There are two types: a thermal type, which I recommend if you’re a New York Times reader and you want your coffee to stay hot from page one through the funnies, and there’s a glass kind, which is good for one great cup of hot coffee at a time.

3. Experiment. “Always keep the water volume the same, then experiment with the dose. Your first cup is going to be like some dark, gritty, sludgy space shuttle fuel fluid, so work down from there. Eventually, you’ll find exactly what you love, and that’s what’s most important in coffee. That’s all you need to know.” 

Todd Carmichael  at La Colombe (photo by The New York Post)

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