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Confessions of a Coffee Fiend

A newcomer to town goes in search of the perfect cup (and pound) of java.

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I'm a coffee snob.

It's not really my fault. I started slinging lattes at 20 for a joint in Jackson, Miss., and seven years later, I can't shake my three-times-a-day addiction to quality brew.

Upon moving to New Orleans a month ago, I started looking for a place. For most people, that means a place to live. For me, it means a place to buy coffee. Coffee houses focus on different things. Some of them have wicked cool vibes, others have terrific espresso. But what I wanted was a place that would sell me a pound that would taste good coming out of my French press.

A friend of mine, also a coffee fiend, visited New Orleans about a month ago and recommended Rue de la Course. She knows what she's talking about, so I made its Carrollton Avenue location my first stop. While Rue seemed like a great hangout, I was catching signs pointing toward bad coffee. Rue only has three or four coffees available to take home, bothers to serve a medium-roast and in my opinion has shoddy coffee grinders.

Against my better judgment, I bought a cup and a pound anyway. The cup -- made with Colombian -- was weak for my taste and shallow swill. The pound I brought home was slightly better because I made it much stronger. But even then, the grind was too coarse to extract the flavors properly and I wound up with a sharp, bitter cup. My wife reminded me that our friend had recommended Rue's espresso, so I have to hang this on my faulty memory and not my fellow coffee aficionado.

My brother-in-law drinks Community Coffee's Private Reserve at home and suggested I try it, calling it, "not bad." I hesitantly picked up a pound at the grocery store, knowing that quality coffee is not sold in grocery stores because it suffers in distribution plants, stockrooms and on shelves for months before being sold.

I brewed a cup immediately upon getting home. If you use just the right amount of coffee, it's strongish and kind of rich, but a little bit more and the brew comes out sharp and sour, like drinking coffee-flavored soap. The pound I bought aspired to be "not bad." But it certainly wasn't good, and I insist on SUPERB.

Finally, I turned to people I've never met for help. I wrote a post on Chowhound (www.chowhound.com), an excellent Internet message board devoted to food. A day later, someone using the name "foodmuse" sent me to Orleans Coffee Exchange (OCE) (1001 Industry Drive, Kenner, 800-737-5464, www.orleanscoffee.com). I don't know who foodmuse is, but I owe her one.

The Exchange isn't a coffee house; it's a wholesale operation that sells two-thirds of its coffee to hotels and restaurants. The other third is purchased by people like me, most of whom have their coffee mailed to them. That struck me as impersonal, so I called and asked if I could pick up my coffee in person.

Because it isn't a retail business, Orleans' dozens of coffees aren't always available. Customers should call ahead to find out when their preferred selection will be roasted. In my experience, I've been able to get what I want in a matter of hours or the next day, at the latest.

Located in Kenner, south of the airport, the Exchange won't be a convenient drive for lots of people. But if you do make the trip, you can purchase coffee at a discount. My pound of French-roasted Ethiopian Harrar, a rich coffee with blueberry notes, sells for $9, plus shipping, but was only $6 in person. (The Exchange only accepts cash in person. It doesn't have a register and the last time I was there, the guy who sold me my coffee changed my $20 with money out of his wallet.)

That first pound of Harrar went quickly. I invited people over, saying, "You simply must try this coffee I found. It's amazing." I've also tried Sulawesi, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and a Sumatra that a friend accurately said tasted like caramel and nuts. While popular, Sumatra isn't my favorite. But this one, like the Harrar, is unwashed, which means that that the plantation didn't pressure-wash the coffee fruit pulp off the seeds. Instead, the pulp is left to dry on the beans in the sun and goes through the roaster with them. Few plantations do this, but the pulp gives the brew wild, yet delicate, flavors.

If you still aren't sure whether OCE's coffee is as good as I say it is, try a cup at Z'Otz (8210 Oak St., 861-2224) or The Bean Gallery (637 N. Carrollton Ave., 324-8176). Both serve the Exchange's coffee and do a good job brewing it. I'd prefer it stronger, but I'm unusual.

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