Photography by Jeremiah Taylor

Looking at it now, it’s difficult to imagine that at one time black pepper was worthy of risking someone’s life over, of killing over. But it happened. Wars were waged and an entire country occupied – India – for not only this condiment but for cinnamon and nutmeg and other exotic treasures that are now not-so-exotic with their generic labels and origins down the baking aisle. Jack Turner’s Spice: The History of Temptation details the spicy history behind the now docile spices we are so accustomed to. While things have tamed somewhat concerning spices – after all, the spice trade and all its dirty yet-uncovered secrets will be around as long as we’re passing the pepper – another tempest of sorts brews over something just as dark and pleasingly aromatic: coffee.

Tim Taylor, owner of Ipsento Coffee Shop and Roaster, is no Christopher Columbus, Dutch trader or other iconic spice merchant. And yet, he travels as they did to distant lands for his trade of choice, coffee. Besides wardrobe – if anyone has seen Tim sporting a doublet, nether-hose, and a jerkin, let me know – Tim’s capacity as trade merchant differs in a very important way from his predecessors.

Recently, he visited Panama to take part in “The Best of Panama” as a judge. He’s also taken part in the Honduras “Cup of Excellence” as well as working with Honduran coffee farmers outside of competitions. While this might evoke images of “The Judgment of Paris,” things are not yet that developed.

“The Cup of Excellence is in 9 countries. This year I did The Best of Panama. [Last year was Honduras.] Thousands of farmers will submit their coffees – initially – to be judged by a panel of national judges. If they pass that panel, an international panel comes in,” explains Tim.

Eventually there’s an auction. “A farmer who may have been getting as low as $.40/lb the previous year has the opportunity to get $22/lb [the highest price this year].” Tim later informs me that last year the winner took in $170/lb. I’m still regretting not asking Tim for the flavor profile of what I imagine to have been one of the best tasting coffees to have ever existed on the face of the earth. And it would be easy to do that, to loft such a coffee and even the auction itself into the rafters of the exotic and money-infested.

Not so, argues Tim. “We had a pep talk from the director before the final round that, ‘You’ve got to understand that what you’re doing now is literally changing someone’s life forever with your results.’” We all pause a moment to chew on this bitter reality that something so seemingly benign as a cup of coffee might begin with a poor farmer being taken advantage of.

Jeremiah (who goes by simple “J”) Taylor, CIO of Ipsento and brother to Tim, gives me some background on just how complicated such a reality is. “Our brother, Nathan, passed away about four years ago. His college degree was in international business, and he was trying to promote industry in the Third World, and in particular, Ghana, with their chocolate production. And so, we carry their chocolate in the shop and use it in our mochas. We get it from Omanhene which is out of Milwaukee. They source it from Ghana.” In addition, much of the work Ipsento does is done in concert with Coffee Ambassadors, another way the Taylor’s are changing the way we think and drink coffee.

None of this would be possible, however, if it wasn’t for something just as serious: coffee brewing.

Having just won the inaugural “SCAA Brewer’s Cup” regional competition this past February, Ipsento roaster Jonathan Jarrow has helped ensure that the beans Tim brings in are roasted and served in a way honoring all the efforts that have brought them so far.

J. elaborates: “Jonathan’s favorite author is Scott Rao who advocates for a brew ratio of 1:17 – 17 parts water to one part coffee. A lot of people will toy with that and take it different ways to get different flavors out of the cup.  [But] that’s what Jonathan swears by, and I respect his research there.”

Along with Jonathan, Ipsento manager, Chad, also plays an important role in brewing. Again, J. explained: “Chad actually retrofitted and customized our espresso machine to pre-infuse and have a temperature control – a PID unit is what it’s called. It gives us much more control out of what we’re getting out of a shot of espresso.” At this point, I had to fess up and admit I had no idea what J. was talking about.

A couple questions later, J delved deep into a realm of espresso preparation that made my head spin and my mouth salivate: “When you tamp down espresso, load it in and lock it into the portafilter, we have a switch that soaks the puck at three bars of pressure. That way when the nine bars hits the puck, it won’t disperse anything or create any cracks; it creates a more solid puck. So we do a five-second pre-infusion right now.”

In terms of home brewing, the guys at Ipsento advocate for something that’s not nearly as complicated and yet mimics one of the most expensive coffee brewers ever created, The Clever. And not only do they sell such devices on premise for about $15 each, they teach classes on how to brew coffee using the Clever. In addition, Ipsento offers a free cupping Tuesday nights at 6pm.

Never before have things tasted so good. MSG enhances the savory. HFCS and aspartame surreptitiously sweeten. Natural flavoring? Not sure what it does, but it’s even in vitamin water. With so many chemicals and flavoring agents readily available for cheap, why is Ipsento coffee tricking out their espresso machine with nothing short than a flux capacitor – all in the name of a better cup of coffee? Why are they flying around the world searching for a better bean? Of course, you’ll have to stop by and taste for yourself.

Ipsento Coffee 2035 N Western Ave, Chicago, 773-904-8177

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