“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”
-T. S. Eliot
They’re tearing up the asphalt to lay new pipe where Gravier Street intersects with Picayune Place, which is little more than a service alley in the CBD.
One of the workers reaches down and comes up with a Styrofoam cup, and in two gulps he polishes off the coffee left in it. He wipes off his chin with his sleeve, and without missing a beat, he jumps back up onto the heavy equipment he’s been operating.
Henry Hastak is standing a few feet away in the doorway of his former employer, Westfeldt Brothers Inc. coffee importers. A smile crosses Hastak’s face. He knows that somewhere in the past, he just may have played a role in the hot liquid respite enjoyed by that worker outside the office where Hastak sniffed, inhaled and slurped his way to caffeinated greatness as a coffee taster for over 41 years.
In truth, Hastak, who retired last year as executive vice president of Westfeldt, says it seems like only yesterday when, fed up with working a dead-end night job, he signed on with Westfeldt — the oldest green coffee importer in the United States.
“I grew up in the St. Roch neighborhood … and that’s as New Orleans as you can get,” Hastak says. “And when you live in New Orleans, you drink coffee — lots of it. That’s just a part of the city. In fact, I read at one time that per capita, people in New Orleans drink more coffee than in any other city in the world. So I guess you could say this was my destiny.”
Though he usually limits his coffee drinking these days to the kitchen table in his home in Metairie, Hastak sometimes gets the urge to head downtown and ease his way behind that lazy-Susan table that coffee tasters know so well.
It’s in a tiny room in the narrow building on Gravier Street, the building right around the corner from the Board of Trade Plaza, where coffee was king and names like J. Aaron and Company and Leon Israel and Westfeldt held court for so many years. It’s around the corner from the Bon Ton Restaurant on Magazine and Natchez, where traders and brokers and tasters and the shakers and movers of the coffee world got together to hold forth and talk about … what else? The world coffee scene.
Founded in 1851, Westfeldt is still owned and operated by the same family. But of the other great New Orleans coffee companies, “A lot of them are gone,” Hastak says. “In many cases there was just nobody there to take the reins. No sons or daughters coming up. Then, too, you had companies being bought out, huge conglomerates coming in.”
Hastak moves himself onto a tiny stool at the round table in the little building on Gravier. Glenn Walle, a longtime employee and a man Hastak says “has coffee in his blood,” takes a massive pot of boiling water from an antique brass stove and pours it over cups of coffee beans that have been shredded into grounds and set up in a circle on the table.
Hastak and Westfeld employee Stephen Murphy, one of four current tasters at the company, get ready to “cup,” or taste, the coffee. Murphy loves the work and the coffee scene so much that although his wife lives in New Jersey, he stayed behind in New Orleans, flying north to visit her every other weekend.
“This has been going on for the past 16 years,” Hastak says, nodding toward Murphy. The two men laugh at Murphy’s dedication, then get down to the serious business of determining which of the chops, or sacks of coffee they’re sampling, will get a passing grade.
The tasters lower their heads and inhale the aroma steaming upward from the cups. They use their spoons to ladle out a mouthful to run over tongue and palate before spitting it into a massive spittoon at their feet. After each cup is tasted, the spoon is cleaned off.
Each man has his style. Hasak quietly spits with a sound something like “Ptew!” while Murphy makes more of a “splat.”
“First thing in the morning is the best time for cupping,” Hastak says. “At that time, your palate is clean and fresh and you haven’t eaten anything spicy or that would interfere with your work. You have to notice the subtleties and the slight differences that separate the cups. That comes with training and with years and years of experience.”
“There’s no doubt about it,” Hastak says. “The 1960s and ’70s were horrible for the coffee industry. The media had coffee right up there with cigarettes for heart attacks and cancer. Coffee took a real beating. And then it goes full circle: (Now) you have the scientific community saying coffee fights cancer, stimulates brain cells and helps people with Alzheimer’s. So now we have coffee being consumed almost for medicinal purposes.”
Mention “decaffeinated,” and Hastak rolls his eyes.
“If you knew what coffee goes through to be decaffeinated,” he says. It’s clear that to Hastak, it almost means “mortal sin.”
Between spitting, Hastak tells of the joys of coffee from Mexico and how beans must be blended, and about the roasters up on the third floor of the building. He points out the different sacks from Latin American coffee growers, stretched and hanging on the walls, and the countless bags and cans of differing brands lining the room.
In his personal cup, Hastak goes for dark, full roast, full bodied coffee. “Something PJ’s would put out,” he says. “The right blend of full body, good balance of flavor with some acidity” make for a good cup of coffee, he says. A smooth finish is important, and too much acidity can ruin coffee, he says.
All good things come to an end, even things like coming out of retirement for a day to recall all those wonderful caffeinated memories of inhaling and allowing the subtleties and aroma and full body of really great coffee, once-in-a-lifetime coffee, to roll gently over your tongue and through your nostrils and forever into your senses.