About discovering you are a coffee roaster and travelling around the world in search of the perfect coffee
Serendipity: the skill, or luck, to make unexpected and great discoveries by chance. We could use this word to define the history of Hippolyte Courty - you do not like coffee, you drink no more than a cappuccino every now and then and one day, by chance, you discover such a great passion for it that you make it your profession.
Now acknowledged as an authority on the Parisian stage of coffee roasters, Hippolyte has come a long way. Back in 2008 Hippolyte was a professor of medieval history in the university of Paris. A great lover of gastronomy, he sold wine in his free time, wrote about wine and organised food and wine tasting tours around Paris for curious tourists. “At first I only perceived flaws in the cups of coffee I drank - taste of burnt coffee, very acidic, flavours that were always different and never pleasant. The ritual is certainly nice but I could really have done without the product itself. One day, at the end of the shift in a restaurant, a chef friend of mine said ‘Try this’ and a new world opened up to me.”
This is how Hippolyte discovered the true taste of coffee, falling in love with the product and becoming a coffee roaster overnight. His new career began with a trip to the fazenda of a biodynamic coffee producer in Brazil, from whom he bought raw coffee, shipped it to Paris and, renting a roaster on day-to-day basis, he started experimenting with roasting, studying the secrets of the trade. His L’Arbre à Café brand soon became one of the most innovative on the Parisian stage.
It is innovative because his enology training gives him an atypical approach to coffee - Hyppolite looks for complexity and precision in a cup of coffee, just as he would in a glass of wine. He obtains it according a very precise selection criterion: one variety of coffee, one coffee plantation, one batch. Numerous trips to coffee-producing countries and a meticulous search for the right roasting point allow him to find a perfect combination of flavours, balance and acidity in coffee.
Coffee then becomes a product of excellence - it restores depth to the act of tasting and most importantly it re-establishes a strong bond with the territory of origin. Coffee has a very long supply chain, which penalises producers, gives them a very low margin of profit and affects the product’s organoleptic quality. L’Arbre à Café limits the supply chain to three elements, i.e. the (biodynamic) producer, the roaster, the consumer. “Currently 80% of our coffees reach us via direct trade, there are only a few steps and it is more controlled.” In this way producers earn more and, at long last, consumers know what is in their cup. “You are not drinking L’Arbre à Café coffee, you are drinking coffee that comes directly from the producer”.
“What do I like about coffee? Variety”. Every terroir has a unique specific feature, which affects the coffee. Everything changes from one coffee to another - texture, acidity, the palette of flavours. “There are great organoleptic families that depend on the origin of the coffee, but I like to talk about terroir. ‘Origin’ refers to a vast area, whereas terroir can also be applied to an individual production batch. This really makes a difference.” In Colombia for example coffee has a thick, balanced texture, whereas Peruvian coffee has chocolate notes and is less complex.
In Hawaii coffee is spicy, with wood and cinnamon notes. In Kenya, coffee is very acidic, with blueberry and blackcurrant notes. The worldwide mapping of coffee is currently work in progress and it is interesting to note that the same producers develop flavour profiles for each region, similarly to what happened here in Europe for the PGI certification of gastronomy products. “Then here I come, going on site and choosing coffee directly from plots of land. Very few of us worldwide work like this, but for me there is no other way to find a precise product, that is good in the mouth but is also good socially and environmentally.”
Raw material is not all. Roasting can really alter coffee - acidity, bitterness, cocoa and roasting notes depend on roasting. “It is important to have the taste, aesthetics, technique and the tools to carry out your idea on the product. It should also not be forgotten that for us - coffee roasters - baristas also play a crucial role. I bring a good coffee to Paris, but after that?” Poor preparation can ruin everything, which is why Hyppolyte himself trains the people who will prepare his coffee.
In addition to espresso there are more popular preparation methods such as the press, syphon or infusion, which allow to appreciate the quality and complexity of coffee. “I am a great espresso fan - I just love it - but I also like cold infusion,” the so-called slow coffee, which takes 24 hours to prepare, drop by drop, requires a sort of glass alembic still and expresses all the peculiarities of the product at the highest levels. High quality coffees are suitable for different times of the day and every occasion can be a good time to try them. Even in the evening, with “meditation coffees, as I call them, such as Bourbon Pointu by La Reunion, not much caffeine and incredibly complex”.
“Being a barista is now a trend, but I think this is good because it teaches people to treat coffee in the right way. The people who are learning more about the culture of coffee today are between 20 and 30 years old - this generation is more aware and is acquiring a good habit that they will follow and spread all their lives.” At last it is beginning to be a dynamic world, with innovation and collaboration. The people who work with coffee are young, travel a lot and create healthy competition, which is constructive for a sector that needs a very big push to renew and survive. Out of the 70 million estimated coffee producers worldwide, a large majority are selling their plantations because they cannot earn enough to survive from them. “We are at the end of a cycle, to come out of it there are different solutions and biodynamics is one of them. As a producer you make innovation, literally, and in the end you can access the market of specialty coffees.”
The rediscovery of coffee is not just a fashion.
In the meantime Hippolyte is ahead of the times - between one book and the next he is opening a school on coffee, which trains not just to be a barista but gives a global vision of the product. “In a broad sense, coffee is a vehicle for messaging and reflects a world that is evolving,” says Hyppolyte with conviction, now that he is an authority on the subject - no longer medieval history, but coffee.