Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Batdorf & Bronson Part 2: A Walk on the Wild Side


Today's morning cup couldn't be more different from yesterday's Costa Rica La Minita del Sol Tarrazu, yet both coffees are outstanding exemplars of their particular styles. One of my heroes, wine importer Kermit Lynch, would probably say they both "reek with typicité," while most professional cuppers would say the Ethiopian just reeks - period - of exactly the kind of funky, fruity ferment they go to such lengths to avoid in their buying.

During my nearly three decades in the coffee trade I took advantage of every opportunity that came my way to taste coffee with consumers and whenever I included a choice lot of either Ethiopian Harrar or Yemen Mocha it was the overwhelming favorite of most tasters - even alongside top Kenya auction lots, the best Guatemalans and clean but perfumed Ethiopia Yirgacheffes. The winy complexity and room-filling aroma of these coffees really is incomparable.

To be clear, there is a decisive difference between "fruity" and "rank ferment" and this lot of Ethiopia Gedeb is stunningly fruity but not fermented. That said, a fastidious fan of washed coffees (of whom there are many in the coffee trade) would say that due to the nature of dry-processed coffees one is playing with fire here, as it only takes one bad bean for a pot (or ground pound) of coffee to be thoroughly ruined.

Among my many mentors who abhorred natural-processed coffees two in particular come to mind: George Howell and Bill McAlpin. Just about the first thing George did when he got a large sample of Erna Knutsen's beloved Yemen Mocha Mattari was to roast it up, sort all of the quakers (unripe, light-colored beans) out and brew the sound beans and the quakers separately, pronouncing the former uninteresting and the latter undrinkable. As for Mr. McAlpin, I'd wager there wouldn't be a printable word in his description of a dry-processed Ethiopian like the one I'm drinking this morning, considering his answer to New York Times writer Florence Fabricant many years ago when she asked him about the then new-to-market dry-processed specialty coffees from Brazil. The exchange (all via phone) went like this:

"Mr. McAlpin, what do you think of the unwashed Brazilians?"

"I think they're great - as long as you're not talking about coffee."

Twisted humor aside, this particular Ethiopian, which (like yesterday's La Minita) I'd rate in the mid-90's on a cupping form, is an outstanding example of a truly dramatic improvement in coffee quality from that country for which leading specialty coffee importers and passionate buyers at leading Third Wave roasters deserve tbe credit. The use of Grain Pro bags, improved sorting of cherry, use of Kenya-style raised drying beds and expedited shipping from origin have pretty much done away with the all-too-common situation from years past where a pre-shipment sample FedExed from origin tasted fantastic while the same coffee on arrival at its U.S. port was a baggy, woody shadow of its former self. For at least the past 5-7 years, thanks to roasters like Batdorf & Bronson and home roasting supplier Sweet Maria's I've been consistently able to drink dry-processed Ethiopian coffees that are far better than anything from Ethiopia or Yemen in past decades. That's not true, by the way, of washed coffees from either Ethiopia or Kenya, which despite being beautifully processed and full of citric acidity are almost invariably lacking in the particular kind of fruit (lemony Apricot and jasmine in the case of Yirgacheffe, blackcurrant for Kenya) that used to be their signature.


Ethiopia Gedeb, Full City+ roast
It's not every coffee company who had the "bandwidth" to source a washed coffee as refined and subtle as the La Minita while also offering a natural coffee as funky and outrageous as Ethiopia Gedeb, which surely is a direct link to the taste of coffee as Kaldi the goatherder and his peers first experienced it thousands of years ago in coffee's motherland.


Monday, June 26, 2017

La Minita del Sol at Batdorf & Bronson: Old School at its Finest


This morning I'm drinking a cup of Costa Rica La Minita del Sol Tarrazu from Batdorf & Bronson. The first word out of my mouth after the first sip was "magnificent," and my wife Erin remarked "I haven't heard you use that word to describe coffee in a long time. Come to think of it, I've never heard you describe a coffee using that word."

As usual with La Minita, the greatness comes from perfect balance and ripeness, not show-stopping weirdness or intensity. The cup is the very definition of sweetness - as professional tasters use the word mind you (a perfect symmetry of acidity, flavor and body) rather than the popular meaning of simple sugariness.

If memory serves La Minita was first introduced to the market in 1987, meaning that this year marks three decades of consistent excellence. This is something that really deserves to be celebrated and appreciated in the specialty coffee trade. Perhaps it has been (at least among La Minita's many loyal customers) but I haven't seen any fanfare in the coffee press.

I was working at Starbucks when this coffee made its debut, and I think it was Tim Castle who sent us samples of it to cup. At the time our gold standard for Costa Rican coffee was Finca Bella Vista, and we bought a considerable amount of their production (Starbucks later went on to tie up the whole crop, much to the annoyance of Jim Reynolds at Peet's and many others), along with several other screamingly acidic Costa Ricans offered by our Hamburg-based green coffee brokers.

It fell on Mr. Castle and Bill McAlpin, the brilliant and often delightfully cantankerous owner of La Minita, to re-educate my palate to the virtues of fully ripe coffee cherries, as it turned out that in most cases the blazing, unbalanced acidity so doted upon in the Starbucks and Peet's world was due to picking cherry that was slightly unripe. No surprise that green coffee with acidity to burn would be doted upon when that's what you're going to do to the coffee in the roaster, but letting fully ripe coffee express itself through gentle, precise roasting was a lesson I had to learn from Mssrs. McAlpin and Castle, aided and abetted in no small measure by George Howell.

Enough time has elapsed that I'm quite sure I don't remember more than a small number of the ways that La Minita blazed the trail for what was to come, but here are a few:

1. The coffee was offered at an outright price (if memory serves it was $3.00 a pound - and remember this was 30 years ago!)  reflecting the work that went into it. What a novelty this was in a world where most top coffees sold for a differential (premium) of 20-50 cents over "C."

2. It was the original specialty coffee because its asking price and position in the marketplace was based on  doing everything required to achieve perfect cup quality, rather than on extraneous factors like rarity, exclusivity or country of origin (think Kona and Jamaican Blue Mountain: rare, expensive and utterly forgettable in the cup). Mr. McAlpin's sales pitch, whether at the farm or when offering you a sample of La Minita espresso at a trade show (no milk or sugar in sight) was invariably the same: "here, taste this."

3. Like Bill McAlpin himself, La Minita was fanatical about quality while also being about as un-PC and iconoclastic as is humanly possible. From the outset the farm was a showcase for the obvious fact that quality and quantity aren't mutually exclusive, producing considerable quantities of flawless coffee through attention to detail and clear standards. No "heirloom" varietals here but rather the caturra and catuai types that had already proven to be ideal for La Minita's Tarrazu terroir. Sustainably produced to be sure, with worker welfare and state-of-the-art agricultural practices, but without the slightest interest in certifications like organic or fair-trade which are as unsustainable as they are irrelevant (not to mention being a distraction from the pursuit of quality) in a Costa Rican context.


In today's specialty coffee market novelty and weirdness - think $100 a pound microlots made from oddball cultivars like Gesha whose flavor characteristics are more reminiscent of flavored tea than coffee - the only thing you're less likely to find than a coffee like La Minita that slays with subtlety and balance is the classic full city roast. As you can see from the photo of La Minita above that, too, is alive and well at Batdorf & Bronson, who've had a particularly close and fruitful relationship with this coffee for nearly thirty years.

A friend currently working there who like me has spent perhaps too long in the business reminded me that back when I was at Starbucks Batdorf was made fun of for roasting too light, while today many of their Third Wave competitors say they roast far too dark - when the reality is the default roast there - classic chestnut brown with no second pop and no oil (i.e. Full City) has remained the same for decades. For this particular coffee - at least for drip or Aeropress preparation - I'd describe full city as being truly "signature-less" roasting, using that term in exactly the way it's used in the wine trade: a degree of process that simply tries to let the terroir and the grower's work speak for itself without adding any style notes from the roaster-cum-winemaker.



Saturday, May 21, 2016

Mocha Memory Lane






Mocha Harazi coffee, Yemen

This lovely post by my old green coffee importer friend and mentor Bob Fullmer of Royal Coffee was great fun to read over my morning cup of dry-processed Yirgacheffe (thank-you Sweet Maria's). Bob, among his many talents, is the original coffee origin travel blogger - dating back to when such missives had to be handwritten on legal pads or typed and mimeographed.

Bob does a great job of talking about the realities of importing coffee from a place as difficult as Yemen. On the consumer end, I will certainly never forget walking into Starbucks Pike Place in 1977 - years before you could buy a brewed cup of anything in their stores - and being captivated by an aroma that seemed to be a combination of blueberry, wild strawberry, chocolate and wine, then seeing the employees behind the counter furtively sipping coffee from a plunger pot.   It was newly-arrived Arabian Mocha Sanani, and the sip they offered me changed my life and started me on the path to working in coffee.

Fast-forward to the early 80's and Starbucks, thanks to the marketing genius of co-founder Gordon Bowker, was offering educational marketing to its wholesale customers in the form of pieces like these:


As Mr. Fullmer points out, the availability of Yemen Mocha, due to trade embargoes, political strife and demand from Saudi Arabia, has always been iffy, forcing American fans to often do without for years at a time. Starbucks, as you can see from the pieces posted above, did its utmost to offer Mocha when available, and when it wasn't there was the inimitably-named Revolutionary Mocca-Java (RevMo in roaster speak), which combined carefully-chosen lots of Ethiopia Harrar (most often the Horse Harrar from another legendary Royal Coffee supplier, the late and much-missed Mohammed Ogsaday) with Estate Java.

The name for this blend might seem to be some sort of celebration of socialism to those unfamiliar with the nefarious ways of the coffee trade, but as Jerry Baldwin pointedly said "what's revolutionary is that [unlike just about any other roaster at the time] we tell you what's in it." Contrast that kind of painstaking authenticity with what my old boss at Allegro Coffee, Roger Cohn (whose grandfather founded Superior Coffee in Chicago) told me about their Mocha Java blend: "we did buy some Yemen Mocha once in awhile and I think we put 5 pounds in a 500 pound batch just so we could show Accounting there was some usage." Things weren't much better at Allegro itself at that time, which supplied an ersatz Mocha Java blend to supermarkets that was comprised of some particularly bad lots of Ethiopia Djimma and non-Estate Java that tasted like petroleum. All we roasters could do was write our own truth-in-advertising name for the blend on the roast log to piss off the boss: Mucho Jiva. Sadly there is still a lot of that blend available in many a supermarket.

While I stand by my characterization of much if not most of what leading Third Wave roasters have done as regressive rather than innovative, one area where they and the network of wonderful green coffee importers all of them - especially those who crow loudest about "direct trade"- depend upon have made huge leaps forward over the past 20 years is in the packaging and shipment of green coffee, and nowhere has this made a more pronounced difference than in deliveries from Ethiopia and Yemen. Gone are the days when buyers like myself, heartbroken at tasting dazzling preshipment samples of coffees that became baggy, musty shadows of their former selves on arrival, refused to buy coffees from these countries until they'd arrived in the U.S.

GrainPro bags and faster shipment with better temperature control are one aspect of this improvement in quality, but the other is certainly much better processing of dry-processed coffees in particular in Ethiopia. Yemen, meanwhile, is as troubled as ever and its coffees just as rustic and inconsistent as they were 35 years ago - meaning that for the better part of the past decade or more anyone who wanted to buy a really stellar stand-alone coffee in this style, or to assemble the best possible Mocha Java blend, would have been better-advised 9 times out of 10 to go with a choice dry-processed Ethiopia Yirgacheffe or (less frequently) Harrar.

The superiority of these coffees has not gone entirely unnoticed at Peet's, which has offered choice lots of Queen City Harrar and/or dry-processed Yirgacheffes under the Ethiopia Super Natural moniker in recent years, but while they've seen fit to use that coffee to turbocharge their recently introduced Big Bang Blend, their Arabian Mocha Java reflects some sort of fall-on-your-sword dedication to authenticity, combining baggy Yemen Mocha (also on offer straight) with Estate Java when far better (and cheaper) options for both the African and Indonesian components are available. Starbucks, meanwhile, recently offered a 21st century version of the old RevMo blend briefly in stores in 3 states, but otherwise the only chance to connect with that company's roast style and green coffee sourcing standards as they were "back in the day" is to pay double or triple Third Wave prices for the occasional choice lot at the Reserve roastery in Seattle or online.



Monday, May 16, 2016

In Praise of Plushness



We recently moved to Tucson, Arizona after contemplating doing so for several years. It's great to be back in a real city after too much time spent in small towns both here and in Mexico.

I'm hoping to do something with coffee retail here and have been looking into the local scene in more depth than has been possible on previous reconnaissance visits, and while Tucson would never be confused with Portland or San Francisco when it comes to coffee sophistication the bandwidth of what's available at retail isn't all that different.

Starbucks of course is everywhere and very successful. There's an old-line roaster who roasts about the same as they do but enjoys a strong following mostly because Tucson, much to its credit, is fanatically strong (even more so, I'd say, than the aforementioned West coast cities) about supporting local businesses. And then there are the Third Wave places, immediately identifiable by hipster airs, stale light roasts sitting on the shelves at high prices, and (above all) by roasts sitting in their espresso grinder doser-hoppers that are too light for the cupping table, let alone pressurized brewing.

Nowhere to be found, it would appear (except chez nous) are coffees in what not long ago was considered mainstream specialty coffee territory: full city to full city+ roasts. From Pannikin to Kobos, The Coffee Connection to Schapira's, these are the kind of fully ripe, balanced roast expressions that gave rise to appreciation of great coffee in America in the first place, and they've now become rarer than hen's teeth as what's available at retail is either Folger's-sour or Charbucks burnt. As with our politics, the middle seems to have disappeared almost entirely.

This is particularly unfortunate because over the past few years brewing methods that showcase coffee that has its flavor and body as fully developed as possible without sacrificing acidity and aroma (that's the definition of Full City) have done nothing but improve. First was the Aeropress, which I've praised extensively elsewhere, and more recently the Espro Press has thoroughly redeemed and revitalized the much-maligned (in Third Wave circles anyway) French Press, offering all of the body of plunger pot coffee with none of the grit.

For those unfamiliar, here are a couple of photos of the Espro (both 1 liter and 10 oz. travel mug size):

1 liter double-wall stainless Espro


As for coffees, photos of roasted beans are notoriously difficult to pull off even with a good camera and I have only the one on my phone to rely on, but here are three home roasts of great green coffees from Sweet Maria's. The very imperfect photography gives them a somewhat darker cast than they should have. None of these coffees entered second pop.

Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Dry Process

Kenya Auction Lot

Sumatra Lintong

Many years ago at Starbucks a few of us in the roasting department (who were wisely prohibited from getting anywhere near the marketing folks) cut-and-pasted a parody of an ad by our arch-rival Stewart Brothers (aka Seattle's Best Coffee and now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Green Menace Herself) showing one of their roasts but with the caption "There's No Such Thing As A Healthy Tan." Looks like it's time to bring the slogan back.


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Consolidation: Peet's Buys Stumptown



While the illustration above pretty well sums up what many in the trade think Stumptown has done, the only thing that surprises me about this news (you can read more here) is that it's taken this long. 

Dare we hope that Portland and environs finally gets some coffee that's actually seen the inside of a drum roaster past first pop? Probably not, but joking aside Peet's scale and tremendous sourcing expertise, access to capital and infrastructure will be huge plusses for Stumptown. 

Of course cold brew is the main reason given for the buy, but what one wishes Peet's would get out of this, in carefully reviewing Stumptown's marketing of its coffee, is a reminder of the focused, product-driven and passionate company it itself once was and could be again. Unfortunately the legendary Berkeley-based firm has utterly and totally lost its way, going from a product-driven purist of the highest order to a faltering, unfocused marketing-driven machine with said marketing reflecting no discernible strategy or position. In selling their souls they didn't even get a good price and went out with a whimper not a bang. 

The procession of boneheaded moves in recent years at Peet's is beyond counting, but includes acknowledging third wave farm-to-cup positioning by disclosing the name of exactly one farm (San Sebastian in Antigua) on its menu board; halfheartedly offering a couple of medium roasts and exactly one light one after three decades of "deep" roasting; utterly abandoning even the pretense of having the quality of the non-coffee items sold match that of the coffee;  and most recently trashing one of the best whole leaf tea brands in American retail history in favor of flavored crap under the Mighty Leaf label. 

Here's hoping they do indeed leave Stumptown alone as they've said they'd do (of course Starbucks said the same thing about The Coffee Connection and we all know how that turned out). 

Stay tuned for further mergers and acquisitions. 

Caffè Terzi, Bologna



One of the producers of the video below sent it along to me and I thought it was worth posting for several reasons - not the least being that if your only exposure to espresso in the U.S. is either the mega-chains or Third Wave places you'd have no idea of the sensibility that underlies espresso in its native land. 

The gentleman featured in this clip unquestionably knows his coffee and his art, and how refreshing to see beans in the doser-grinder hoppers that are neither oily and incinerated or (a la Stumptown, Water Street and the sorry rest) a Folgers shade of sickly tan, but instead optimally developed for the brewing method in use. 

The next thing you'll notice if you pay close attention is that the ~7 gram dose for a single shot going into the portafilter looks like nothing compared to the overfilled triple baskets in use stateside, and after you're done being shocked (or in my case delighted) by that you can see the master barista brewing shots into demitasses already containing the proper amount of sugar, which is actually required (as Dr. Illy taught us long ago) to bring the coffee into balance and reveal all of the flavors present. 

Most of the trade in the U.S. looks down on Italian espresso as something it has long since transcended, when the reality is the most knowledgeable practitioners of blending, roasting and brewing there have forgotten more about excellence in coffee and cuisine altogether than the self-styled leading lights in the U.S. will ever know. 

Caffè Terzi

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Tale of Two Coffee Makers





















Fresh off the presses from Sprudge, the coffee hipster's National Enquirer, come two posts in succession about coffee makers. Far be it from these guys to notice any irony about the juxtaposition, so allow me...

The first is an interview with the creator of the Ratio, an admittedly beautiful appliance that for a mere $580 (or $640 equipped as shown with its de rigeur Able filter) brews almost as good a cup of coffee as you can with a hot water kettle and a Chemex.

The second is a lovely Vimeo profile of Alan Adler, inventor of the Aeropress, which costs $29.95 on Amazon. It brews a much better cup of coffee than any drip brewer, electric or manual, makes extra-strength coffee that while it's not espresso is certainly delicious in a cappuccino or caffe latte, and is the ideal travel coffee maker. Plus you can buy twenty of them and still have enough money left over to buy a bag of obscenely overpriced Third Wave beans to brew in it. 

I highly recommend checking out the Ratio coffee site and its videos, reading the interview with the inventor if you're a glutton for punishment, and then contrasting the lifetime supply of precious pretentiousness you just ingested with the humble warmth of Mr. Adler. Derivative drip dreck for $600 or versatile originality for $30....geez, I just can't decide. 

If the Ratio videos and website style seem eerily familiar, it's because they're clearly using the same PR firm as The Timmy Brothers, whose priceless video can be seen at the link.