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Uncommon Grounds 

It's coffee week in Charlotte

No other beverage seems to fit the fast-paced American lifestyle better than coffee. We rely on coffee's stimulating properties first thing in the morning and many end the night with a heady cup of espresso. Stained teeth? A thing of the past with teeth brightening agents. Addicting? Yeah, so what? Once you finally learn how to ask the barista for a 12-ounce half-caf, extra-hot, wet latte do you really want to give it up? Besides, 70 percent of Americans (according to Starbucks, who may be just slightly biased) take a daily coffee break.

If you are a coffee lover you will be in excellent company this week. From April 7 through April 10, the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) will host its 18th Annual Conference and Exhibition at the Charlotte Convention Center. The conference attracts more than 8,000 coffee professionals from more than 40 countries. SCAA members include retailers, roasters, roaster/retailers/producers, exporters, importers, and manufacturers of coffee processing-roasting-brewing equipment and other allied products.

Charlotte has been home to S&D Coffee, Inc. since its establishment in 1927. S&D is a current member of SCAA. During the SCAA convention, held in different cities each year, participants will be provided with extensive educational and networking opportunities -- and lots of coffee breaks. The keynote speaker is Wade Davis, a Harvard Ph.D. in ethnobotany, author of The Lost Amazon (2004), and the Explorer in Residence (talk about a great job title) at the National Geographic Society. Other events include seminars and workshops on comparative cupping, roasting using two styles of equipment, beginning and intermediate espresso, "La Nez du Café" using the aroma vial kit created by Jean Lenoir, and brewing fundamentals. "Cupping" refers to the process that professional tasters have developed to assess beans.

Another event, hosted by the Roasters Guild, is the final part of an international competition to determine the best regional and global coffees. Sixty finalists will be on display in the roasting pavilion. On April 10, the winner will be selected.

Does your local barista get the job done in nanoseconds? He or she may be competing in the 2006 United States Barista Championship (USBC). Competitors will prepare and service 12 coffee beverages, including one espresso, one cappuccino and one signature drink of their own creation, for four judges in 15 minutes. The winner will represent the United States at the 7th Annual World Barista Championship, held in conjunction with the SCAE's World Specialty Coffee Conference, Exhibition & Workshops, May 19 through 21, 2006, in Berne, Switzerland.

If you prefer tea, the Specialty Tea Institute is holding their 9th symposium during the SCAA show. They will offer three levels of tea certification courses for their members.

If you are confused by the term specialty coffee -- or tea -- you are not alone. Specialty coffee has come to mean espresso, flavored coffees, mochas and lattes. But, in fact, specialty coffee, as defined by the SCAA, is "a coffee that has no defects and has a distinctive flavor in the cup". So a specialty coffee is not defined by the brewing method -- espresso or drip -- nor a favor. A specialty coffee is one that contains the best green coffee beans roasted to their flavor potential and properly brewed.

Counter Culture Coffee, a Durham-based company that markets the Sanctuary brand of shade-grown coffees from countries including Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico, has 30 accounts in Charlotte. Last May, CCC opened a regional center here featuring customer training as well as public cuppings (tastings) Fridays at 10am.

CCC president Brett Smith is gearing up for the influx of coffee lovers for the SCAA conference. "People assume the South is full of sweet-tea drinkers, but this conference is said to be the second highest conference (in attendance) behind last year's in Seattle," says Smith. "This shows that Charlotte, and the region, is positioned for growth -- not just in population, but in coffee drinkers. More and more people here are becoming educated about coffee."

Coffee is grown throughout the world but the majority (70 percent) is grown at high altitudes, called Arabica beans. Although many believe Juan Valdez cultivated the first coffee trees in Colombia, coffee's actual birthplace is Ethiopia. To attend an original coffee ceremony stop in at Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant at 601 South Kings St. (Call for reservations: 704-335-1197).

But does it really matter which kind of coffee you buy? Yes, says coffee expert Corby Kummer, senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly and author of the award winning The Joy of Coffee: The Essential Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying (Houghton Mifflin, $16; 2004). He writes that Arabica beans are the highest quality and that Robusta beans should remain in a can, where they are typically found.

Kummer further argues that coffee merchants should not use descriptive terms such as "excelso" and "supreme," since these confusingly refer to the size of the bean and not the quality. However, coffee beans, like wine, bear a distinct flavor based on the place they are grown and should be labeled to identify at least one of the three main coffee-growing regions: Africa, Indonesia or Latin America. The altitude also should be listed, because the higher the altitude the more "delicate the flavor and crisper the acidity."

How the beans are prepared for shipment is another important label. Generally, coffee beans are prepared in two ways: washed or natural. Washing is an expensive processing technique that leaves the bean looking and tasting clean, but many connoisseurs prefer the coffee "cherries" to dry in the sun, allowing the bean to develop a wilder flavor.

To taste some locally roasted beans, try Dilworth Coffeehouse, 1235-B East Blvd., Charlotte's original independent coffeehouse founded in 1989. All the locations of the Dilworth Coffeehouse receive freshly roasted coffees within hours of roasting since the Roastery is located near Center City Charlotte.

Eaters' Digest

Are you Charlotte's Top Home Chef? Interested home chefs should submit a signature recipe as well as a 250-word maximum essay on why they are Charlotte's best home chef. The winning chef receives $5,000 in Jenn-Air appliances and CUTCO cutlery, valued at $600. Two finalists will be chosen to compete in a cook off at Taste of the Nation, May 17th in the Wachovia Atrium. Interested participants can visit www.tasteofthenation.org/charlotte to enter the contest.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need notice of events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via e-mail: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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