Sunday, July 29, 2018
I don't have much reason to post on this blog anymore, and blogs themselves have arguably become the eight track cassettes of the internet in our age of Twitter-attenuated attention spans, but I didn't want this remarkable (for being 30 years overdue!) tribute to an old friend and mentor to go unacknowledged. If it ends up being the last post on this rancorous blog I'll be very happy.
This article in today's Washington Post captures a little of the visionary approach to coffee of my old friend and mentor Kent Bakke, but it honestly only scratches the surface. What I love about the piece is that it does capture in its own modest way the pure bhakti (to use the Hindu yoga term) energy of Kent's relationship with coffee. That he has had success in the business almost seems like a happy accident given the palpably obvious fact that for him coffee is a devotional practice, a form of service and a source of joy.
When I rejoined Starbucks in 1987, having previously worked there in the pre-Howard Schultz era (1984-1985), one of my responsibilities as the company's Coffee Specialist was to choose commercial brewing equipment for our impending rapid growth. I'd seen Mr. Bakke here and there at the old wooden aircraft hangars of the original Starbucks roastery at 2010 Airport Way South where I myself roasted coffee but never had the pleasure of spending extended time with him.
All of that changed in 1989 when Kent was my guide during my first trip to Italy, during which I visited not just the La Marzocco factory but the far larger one of arch-rival Rancilio as I did a deep dive into espresso technology, culture and lore. These were the heady early days of espresso being offered in the 12 extant Starbucks stores, and I vividly remember taking a prototype 16 oz, paper cup with me to reluctantly show to La Marzocco founder Pierro Bambi in order to explain to him that we needed not only unprecedented (by Italian standards) milk-steaming capability but also to be able to fit one of these obscenely gigantic paper cups under the espresso machine's portafilter. To my amazement instead of having me thrown into an Italian jail Mr. Bambi only asked me to promise that we would use at least 5 shots of espresso in that gigantic cup so that customers could still taste the coffee.
Far more important than the education in coffee Kent and Mr. Bambi provided was the education in its cultural context, and here the memorable lessons are beyond counting. Among those that come to mind: a "typical" two hour business lunch in the hills of Tuscany at a restaurant that used to be Leonardo da Vinci's grandmother's house. Tasting homemade prosciutto, olive oil made within sight of us and Brunello de Montalcino made with zero regard for the tastes of international critics - a crash course in terroir that would inform everything I did in coffee. Visiting the craft roaster Piansa in Florence, hearing how they buy and blend and realizing we Seattle upstarts still had everything to learn about Italian coffee. I could write a book about this, but Kent is the one who ought to.
During those heady early days of the Starbucks expansion Kent and La Marzocco not only moved heaven and earth in order to accommodate our growth but also served, increasingly, as a reality check for and sorely-needed reminder of the prototypically Italian values and passions that had made most of us fall in love with coffee in the first place.
I knew several people at Starbucks in the late 80's and early 90's who went literally years without a day off in order to get stores built. 90 hour weeks were not uncommon. "We exist to provide a retail experience for our customers which is the exact opposite of the lives we ourselves lead in order to make it possible" became an in-house middle-management ironic lament.
My frequent visits to see Kent, John Blackwell, Brenna Worthen, Pat Loraas and other members of La Marzocco's astonishingly talented crew provided me with healing (and indeed probably life-saving) reconnection with the values I had learned from Kent on our first trip to Italy together. What became clear then was that greatness in coffee comes from taking the time to relish it with one's senses fully engaged - that the world of the coffee roaster and barista are not far removed at all from those of the great chefs, painters and sculptors whose creativity is so emblematic of Italy. A great espresso, like one's first taste of real Genovese pesto in its native context in Genoa, or first spoonful of hazelnut gelato at Vivoli in Florence, should simply stop discursive mind in its tracks and leave one awash in gratitude for just that moment of being alive. Kent Bakke has provided me (and so many others) with more such moments than I ever believed possible.
Saturday, May 26, 2018
I try to keep up with the coffee and coffee maker selection at mainstream retailers now that we're back in the U.S. and while in Wal Mart today I picked up this Bodum 1 liter pour-over for $20. I'd seen the smaller pint size version at a Starbucks display but wouldn't have touched it since [the bane of all attempts at single cup/small batch drip brewing] the contact time between grounds and water would've fallen far short of the required 4-6 minute range.
This brewer comes with a stoutly-made, ultra fine-mesh permanent nylon filter. The pot I just brewed using a liter of water and 61 grams of coffee took exactly 5:30 to brew using standard drip grind.
Here's a photo of the unit with the included Bodum 7 gram scoop (which I recommend replacing with a CBC 2 Tablespoon scoop, or better yet a gram scale) and a nifty top to keep in warmth and aroma and help with pouring.
Personally I think the Bodum looks much nicer than the clunky unit below with its Depends-size paper filter. Note that the Bodum uses a cork (or in some models neoprene) collar to avoid contact with hot coffee, whereas Chemex, knowing full well there's no chance your coffee will be anything more than tepid after the mega-filter strips out most of its flavor, goes with wood (which has the added "benefit" of ensuring a retail price with serious snob appeal).
I'm not really wild about brewing into glass given its fragility and so-so heat retention, but at $20 this Bodum brewer costs less than half of my preferred manual setup (see photo). Plus no paper filters to buy with the Bodum, vs. ten cents a pop for the obscure #6 size the Nissan thermos brewer requires.
Throw in a $25 best-in-class Bodum blade grinder (also at Wal Mart) and a $5.88 Bosch-valved can of the rather excellent coffee below and you've got a world-class home brewing set-up - including the coffee - for less than the price of one 8 oz. bag of cinnamon-roasted Panama Gesha at your local third wave roastery. Pretty darn cool.
As a p.s. I also noted with delight that at the opposite end of the price spectrum Bodum has finally introduced an electric vacuum pot that gets the grounds and water contact time right, with a full four minutes once grounds and water have mixed before the vacuuming begins. Looks like a pretty good value at $200, though the Behmor Brazen (see last photo) has come down in price to $169 now and is certainly far more practical on a day-to-day basis. Still, that's the price of 10 Bodum pour-overs, so I'd probably ultimately rather keep it simple and spend the other $180 on coffee.
|EPEBO VACUUM BREWER|
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
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|
Monday, June 26, 2017
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 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
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|
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
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.