“For some reason I’m wired that way. I want to learn and I want to understand what I’m doing and try to control the variables, not just guess. Maybe that was why I became a professional. Now that means trying to make the best coffee I can.”
The wind blows through the narrow streets of Girona as the first twilight of a cold January morning fills the deep blue sky. Locals hurry off to work with scarves wrapped around their necks, marching past two beacons of pure white light beaming out from under two arches in the old town.
Inside, a man delicately prepares himself a coffee, tipping the coffee beans precisely into a paper cup placed on some scales, carefully pouring the hot water.
This is coffee making at its most precise. He takes the cup and sits at a desk with a computer screen.
Welcome to Christian Meier’s place, Espresso Mafia: part espresso bar, part laboratory, part sanctuary, part man cave.
Espresso Mafia is Meier’s own roastery. Having opened his flagship café, La Fabrica, with his wife Amber in 2015, the Canadian has risen to the position of caffeine don in the Catalan town.
Now retired from racing for GreenEdge, he cut the ribbon on the Service Course, a facility offering exclusive bike hire, washing facilities, massage and mechanics service in the heart of the old town, but ‘Mafia’ remains the embodiment of his passion for coffee in its purest form.
It’s also where discerning cyclists in the town come to buy their beans, and with good reason. Cheap coffee, Meier explains, is often shipped in hessian bags, allowing fermentation and mould to set in while roasters, particularly in Spain, add sugar and burn the beans to get that dark, bitter taste.
If you’ve ever ordered a coffee in the departure lounge of an airport in Southern Europe, you’ll know exactly what we mean.
Regrettably, both processes introducing carcinogens into the coffee. Meier takes a sip from his cup. “Drinking bad coffee doesn’t just taste bad, it’s bad for your health,” he says.
There’s a lot to learn. Meier, mostly self-taught, explains the variables of bean density (beans grown at higher altitude are more dense), washing (washed coffees produce purer, less complex tasting notes), temperature, origins and final use.
Any fears that he’d miss the world of lactate thresholds, normalised power output and periodisation can be put aside; the world of coffee demands just as much technical knowhow and obsession as cycling.
And coffee, like riders, eventually cracks. The ‘first crack’, Meier adds, is when the moisture inside the heart of the bean bursts out, cooling the machine.
Just as the best riders know when their adversaries are about to disintegrate under pressure, so any roaster worth his salt keeps a careful ear open to listen for a popcorn like sound emanating from the roasting drum. They both mean the same thing: it’s time to turn up the heat.
What this means that in order to get the very best out of the bean, you need some very specialist equipment and knowledge. Meier’s 3kg roaster (“we’ve got a bigger one coming soon”) costs €20,000 and it comes with enough sensors and software to make Tim Kerrison blush. This is Training Peaks for the consummate coffee professional.
“Roasting like this is like training on a power meter. Without it is like training on feel,” Meier says.
“And nowadays you can’t win the Tour de France without a power meter.”