Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Great coffee in Kansas City

I've had an off-and-on correspondence with Jonathan Cates Jr., who runs Broadway Café and Roasting in Kansas City, for a few years now, and he recently sent me four of his coffees to taste. I knew that Jonathan was a very intelligent guy, and noted with pleasure that his place had not only survived but thrived in the face of Starbucks opening up way too close by, but that was it.

Here are pics of the four coffees:

If you look closely you'll see these beans are packaged in plain old paper tin tie bags, carefully roast-dated (they arrived 2 days after roasting). That alone positively disposed me towards the coffees: no taped shut or heat-sealed (with no vacuum drawn nor nitrogen flush) valve bag promising shelf life that it couldn't deliver, but rather an inexpensive package that highlights the fleeting, highly perishable nature of coffee.

The coffees themselves are truly dazzling, reflecting a level of discrimination in green coffee selection and passionate precision in roasting that I haven't seen in many years. More than anything else I was reminded of Boston's The Coffee Connection in its prime, as the roast style here is classic Full City (what George Howell used to call "full flavor") - a "signature less" roast style, to steal wine writer Matt Kramer's characterization of a product that offers as transparent a taste of terroir as possible, with the roaster-cum-winemaker acting as midwife, not artiste. That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't say that Mr. Howell would probably have a heart attack if you put Mr. Cate's dry-processed Yirgacheffe on the cupping table (see below), but that (to my mind most admirable) greater catholicity of taste aside the roasts here are reference-standard Full City.

Where to start? The Guatemala Lake Atitlán San Miguel Tzampetey Co-op is arguably the most impressive coffee of the bunch, with blazing acidity, complex bittersweet chocolate and caramel flavor notes and a very lengthy finish. It has the kind of tightrope tension between acidity and sweetness that you find in grand cru Alsatian rieslings - and in the very best coffees. Given the challenges of wet and dry milling at the Lake (an areas I've spent a great deal of time at over the years) I'd have guessed this was a top estate-processed coffee from Huehuetenango or perhaps an out-of-the-park rarity from an old guard Antigua farm, rather than something from a co-op in one of the most challenging areas of the country.

The Kenya AA Gakuyu-ini was my least favorite of these coffees, which is saying something considering that it is quite lovely. It's a very good auction lot with typical intense acidity and the kind of rindy, tomato-juice style flavors that have pretty much entirely replaced the classic blackcurrant and brambles of 15-20 years ago. Still a great coffee and the roast was excellent, but Kenyas even at the most stratospheric prices simply are not the coffees they used to be. Utterly outrageous as it will sound (even coming from me) I've come to think lately that the best use of even the top lots is probably at Vienna or even somewhat darker roasts through pressurized brewing methods, as that combination of roast and extraction corrals the orange-rind-meets-V8 qualities and develops a plush blackberry-cherry fruit.

On to my personal favorite of the bunch, Ethiopia Natural Yirgacheffe Sun Dried Gr. 4. This is the coffee embodiment of the old Mae West quote: "too much of a good thing can be wonderful." The blueberry and wild strawberry aromatics in the dry grounds fill the room, and it just gets more intense when water hits grounds. My wife thought she'd been imprisoned in a Juicyfruit gum factory! This is seriously the most complex, intense, wild yet dialed-in dry processed Ethiopian I can ever recall having tasted. Thrilling, intoxicating stuff!

Last but not least there's Jonathan's Sumatra Mandheling Old School Grade 1, and if you were expecting (as I kind of was) "old school" in the West Coast moldy oldy we-just-scraped-this-off-the-tarmac style you'd be dead wrong. No, old school here hearkens to the manicured Grade 1 Sumtras of green importer The Supreme Bean, or the rare perfect lot of Pwani's from Erna Knutsen (via Jeremy Woods, of course) "back in the day." This is a tremendous rarity, classically Sumatran but with neither rough edges nor the soulless cleanliness of such washed Indonesians as Sulawesi Toarco. Many people will spend a lifetime in coffee without ever knowing that this kind of Sumatra exists.

With Jonathan doing his thing in Kansas City and arguably the world's greatest chocolatier, Shawn Askinosie just down the road a piece in Springfield I'm thinking that a Midwestern coffee and chocolate pilgrimage needs to be in my plans.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Briggo Brother is here

This article on the new Briggo automated coffee house, together with this fascinating Nespresso/handmade espresso taste-off, make for very worthwhile and timely reading. They're getting a good bit of plain in the mainstream media - as evidenced by the fact that I first read them as links from Andrew Sullivan's The Dish. It's very much worth your while if you're in the coffee business to read all of the articles linked to in the main article. You'll learn, among other things, just how high-caliber the Briggo team is, with several recruits from the heart of the Starbucks green sourcing team and many other serious players.

My old boss, mentor and Seattle espresso pioneer (founder and owner of Café Allegro, the city's first great espresso bar and co-inventor of the Starbucks Espresso Blend, among many other key contributions) bristled at the characterization of the jobs of the roaster or the barista as "art." He pointed out that they are neither art nor science, they are craft, and that the "art" of espresso in the traditional sense (the barista having to know about and monitor a slew of variables ranging from barometric pressure and humidity to grind size, tamping pressure and water temperature) is really just bad Italian engineering.

Coffee sourcing, roasting, packaging and brewing need not be automated but there's absolutely no excuse for them not being informed by deep knowledge of the key variables involved. These articles and the serious money behind not only these inventions but what Illy is doing, Keurig, Nespresso and all the rest speak to the giant gulf between the passionate but utterly uninformed handmade Luddites of the Third Wave and the world of professional coffee that understands that the consumer's notions of appropriate levels of ease, technology and convenience are formed by their interaction with their smartphone or iPad.

Some will argue that the theater of the barista on his or her pedestal are all-important, or will try to make lemonade out of the lemons of inconsistent preparation, attitude and sky-high prices, but those who do so remind me of Bill Gates saying that the iPad was a mere gimmick in the PC universe. We all know how that turned out.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Appreciating Peet's

The approach to roasting that I chose for Allegro Coffee when I first had  carte blanche to do so (in 1993) was a synthesis of the classic full city style pioneered by Freed, Teller & Freeds, Schapira's and Pannikin and brought to perfection by The Coffee Connection, and the deep (misunderstood as merely dark) style I learned during the early days at Starbucks, which of course came from Peet's.

In theintervening years there have of course been many changes, but one thing that has remained constant at Peet's that I want to draw your attention to is a tremendous fidelity to green coffee and roasting standards despite huge growth and some pretty seismic changes in their business, what with going public, going private again, a fitful expansion process mostly in venues in which they have little control of product quality, management changes, etc.

These days to experience Peet's at its best you have be a knowledgeable mail order customer. The in-store experience, while better than Starbucks by a country mile, isn't what it used to be except in very limited areas. Their drip coffee brewing is absolutely state-of-the-art, but what's on offer is just as likely to be a boneheaded choice like French Roast as it is to be something exquisite like Ethopia Super Natural. Godawful milk drinks (what would Mr. Peet have thought of Pumpkin Chai Latte?) are heavily promoted, and you can't buy a brewer worthy of their coffee (other than a plunger pot) or anything worth drinking it out of.

Needless to say, for those like me that remember many years of exquisite handmade cups at Vine Street and the sure knowledge that any non-coffee item on offer, from Richard Donnely dark chocolate laced with Peet's Arabian Mocha Java to June Taylor preserves, would surely meet Jerry Baldwin's product sourcing criteria ("Is it as good as the coffee'?) today's retail experience is but a shadow of former greatness.

On the mail order side though, they still roast your coffee to order, and hey, you get a full pound, properly packaged in a Fresco valve bag, for much less than 12 ounces of stale single origin city roast at your local Third Wave outlet. You also get - again in sharp contrast - a truly representative selection of country-of-origin flavors, from a reliably superb Guatemalan Antigua to deeply fruited Kenya, real Yemen Mocha and perhaps best of all the full range of Indonesian classics, from reference-standard Sumatra to semi-aged and exquisitely complex Sulawesi.

You'll have to buy the Aeropress that best suits these coffees (or your Clever Dripper, Technivorm, Bonavita, and your Baratza grinder, etc.) elsewhere, but you'll have nothing to complain about when you taste the coffees, provided (if all you've been drinking is light roasts) you give your palate a week or more of steady exposure to recalibrate itself to the roast style.

For newcomers I'd recommend sticking to Peet's African and Indonesian selections at first, since the virtues of their roast style are more easily perceived in these dramatic coffees. This is a style that puts body and depth in the foreground and relegates acidity to a supporting role. It's port rather than still wine, so to speak, though when I think of the style I always remember Peet's roastmaster emeritus Jim Reynolds and his admiration of Ridge single-vinyard Zinfindels and 23 year old Guatemalan Ron Zacapa, both of which seem to me like perfect analogues to the Peet's coffee style.

These are coffees that while excellent brewed drip really come into their own through pressurized brewing methods, from Aeropress to French Press to commercial-grade espresso machine. The differences between the coffees are just as vivid as you'll find in lighter roasts of the same beans, albeit with less aromatic complexity (but far deeper body).

For those who can summon some level of appreciation for this roast style but who wonder why all the coffees have traditionally been roasted so thoroughly, I will also offer this fading memory from a former Starbucks insider's perspective (and as the tea buyer for Starbucks back when it was a place for full leaf Hao Ya A Keemun and Namring Darjeeling instead of Tazo teabag swill): remember the importance of tea at Peet's. Mr. Peet was just as serious about tea as he was about coffee, and to this day the company does a superb job with its tea sourcing and devotes resources to tea that far outstrip its position in the overall sales.

What does this have to do with coffee? Well for an employee just as for the most discriminating customers there's usually a progression from the coarse (French Roast vs. Folger's) to the subtle (the sublime balance of a Guatemalan Antigua vs. the wild fruit of a natural Ethiopian Harrar), and tea offers a whole different order of subtlety and a far gentler caffeine "ramp up" than coffee. Another way to put this is that the real connoisseurs among both employees and consumers are most often both coffee and tea drinkers - and you can afford to have all of your coffees be plush and rich when you can so easily get your acidity and aroma "fix" from first flush Darjeelings, lemony Nuwara Eliya Ceylons and so on.

These days I buy my tea from Upton but I've been enjoying an Aeropress of Peet's on many a morning over the past six months. Ethiopian Queen City (a fancy name for what was in fact a classic Harrar), a string of great Kenya auction lots, Arabian Mocha Java that thanks to upgraded Java (and despite so-so Yemen) is better than ever, Sulawesi and Aged Sumatra that are as good as an I've had in 40 years of drinking Peet's. Hat's off to Peet's coffee and tea buyers and roasting team (and with the ever-present faint hope that they take over the place one day and make everything else just as good as the coffee).

I want to live in a world where Sweet Maria's replaces Starbucks

Particularly in light of the bitingly negative tone of my last post, I thought I'd share a bit about what life might look like if America's best retailer of roasters could be magically transformed into America's leading roaster-retailer.

In the 16 years since I published Coffee Basics one of the biggest changes in the U.S. specialty coffee industry from a qualitative and consumer empowerment perspective has been the rise of home roasting specialist Sweet Maria's and its companion business, Coffee Shrub, that caters to retail microroasters.

During my years as a roaster and buyer coffees of the quality that these folks now routinely offer were simply not available in green form to anyone but a select group of roasters, let alone by the pound to individual consumers. Ditto with the level of coffee education available on the Sweet Maria's site, which is so fantastic that it pretty much removes the need for anymore generalist coffee books like the one I wrote.

Beyond the quality of the coffees and great write ups and videos on roasting and brewing, what I really love about Sweet Maria's is their informed catholicity of perspective about roast degrees and brewing methods. SM's main man, Thompson Owen, fully understands what is missed by just about every leading Third Wave roaster: that roasting is an interpretation of green coffee and that multiple interpretations are equally valid, all depending on the intended brewing method and which aspects of a coffee's flavor you want to highlight.  Have a look at these recent coffee offerings to get a sense of what I mean:

We were very excited to receive more great samples from the Chelelektu washing station this year. This lot is made up of several small lots from around the small town of Ch'elelek'tu in the Kochere Woreda of Yirga Cheffe. This lot was prepared to Grade 1 standards, and the altitudes of area farms range from 1800 to 2000 meters, with approximately 600 small holder farmers contributing to this lot.

This is one of those coffees that you feel like you can't throw enough adjectives at - intense, floral, beautiful, bracing...yes, the list is very long, and the coffee is deserving! The cup has amazing sweetness and body.. City to City+ roasts are honeyed, and have sweet citrus juice notes like orange juice and lemonade. Fruited note flourish at City+ roast with apricot, white peach, and Rainier cherry. Roasting closer to full city brings out tropical fruits such as pineapple, dragon fruit, and cherimoya. This coffee's finish is so sweet, and with a clean, hibiscus tea element. It also makes a great as SO espresso.

We have looked at a lot of wet-process coffees from the Southern zones of Sidama and Yirga Cheffe areas this year. There were so many nice coffees that we could be quite selective, and we passed up on some lots that likely, in other years, we would have jumped at. There were some very nice washed coffees from stations like Aricha and Wote Konga (private stations) as well as cooperatives like Beloya and Hama. But this coffee here was a jewel that shone a bit brighter than all. This lot is from a particular region within the Kochere kebele, a part of the Yirga Cheffe region. It comes from the Alemu washing station. We were simply amazed by the clarity of flavors, brightness, and refined finish. It's a competition class coffee. Seriously.

This coffee has a delicate cup profile that shines on the lighter end of the roast spectrum. At City+, there is black tea lightly sweetened with honey sweetness. The acidity is lively and well defined, like essence of lemon. Citrus pervades the cup profile but without any of the harsh or tart aspects that can come along with it. It's very much like a juice called "calamansi" made from fruit of the same name (it's like lime without the harsh acidic snap. It's from the Philippines, and available in the USA too). The finish has a floral element that is like Japanese "Botan" rice candies.

This takes me back to the old days at Allegro Coffee where we offered, for example, two roasts of Kenya and of Guatemala: one a classic full city roast (i.e. no second pop, Agtron number in the high 60's) for drip and vacuum pot brewing, and a darker Vienna roast that corraled these coffee's acidity enough to produce great espresso and opulent plunger pot coffee. George Howell did this at The Coffee Connection and subsequently at Terroir - quite a contrast to what we see going on now, with cinnamon-to-city roasted beans being run through espresso machines!

Getting back to Sweet Maria's, the aforementioned broad-mindedness goes way beyond roasting to include a breadth of green coffee selections which unfortunately has no retail equivalent. They have the great washed Central and South American coffees of course, washed Kenyas, Yergacheffes and Sidamos galore, but are also the premier source for rustic Yemen Mochas, suave-to-rustic Sumatras of both the current crop and aged persuasions and dazzlingly fruity Ethiopian naturals. 

The bottom line for a consumer willing to tie up a few hundred dollars in a Behmor roaster and a modest green bean inventory is that they can easily be enjoying coffee that is as good as - and most likely better than - that sold by any of America's great roasters for less than half the price, fresher, and with total control over the degree of roast and a selection of green coffees that simply blows away the absurdly limited, purportedly "seasonal" offerings of today's leading retailers. I just hope that in time more roasters will take a page from the Sweet Maria's playbook and offer a much broader range of origins and roasts. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Coffee from Fools for Masochists

Okay, the phrasing is a bit harsh, but it's inspired by the great George Howell's equally pointed (and dead-on) characterization of kopi luwak: "coffee from assholes for assholes." My iteration is my broad brush stroke take on a great deal of the coffee (and all of the espresso) I've had in the past couple of years at leading "Third Wave" coffeehouses.

The "from fools" part refers to owner/operators who are typically as passionate about "quality" as they are ignorant about how to actually go about providing it. The disjunctions are gigantic:  the desire to "buy direct" alongside little-to-no cupping and sourcing expertise and commercially meaningless purchasing power. Painstakingly sourced and carefully roasted coffee roast-dated but then packaged in tin tie bags and sitting stale on the shelf, complete with GPS coordinates and farmer photos. $8000 worth of espresso equipment being used to brew utterly undrinkable coffee thanks to roasts too light for drip brewing being extracted through a pressurized brewing method that requires a darker roast in order to corral the acidity (exacerbated of course by massive dosing and über-ristretto pours). No sugar or milk on the counter in conjunction with coffee so thin and acid it needs all the doctoring possible in order to render it drinkable.

It doesn't help matters that what little press coffee gets is fluff like this paean to coffee "expert" Oliver Strand and the New York coffee scene. My comment on this particular piece of fine journalism from Facebook:

 "New York's foremost Java expert" has never worked in the coffee business, knows next to nothing about roasting and nothing at all about green coffee but has hung out with a bunch of "expert baristas" (very much equivalent to saying "skilled burger flippers" in terms of the skill level required). And that's expertise in coffee, 2013 style."

Entertaining as watching the Stumptowns, Blue Bottles and Intelligentsias of the world squabble over grossly overpriced microlots grown by this month's "star" farmer may be, there is an actual coffee business out there, and it's growing by leaps and bounds in no small measure due to the lack of excellent, affordable, properly roasted and brewed coffee at retail. It's called the single cup business, and by that I certainly don't mean the papery, tepid and screamingly acid mug of Chemex drip I waited 10 minutes for @ $7 a cup at my local Third Wave outlet. No, I mean Keurig K-cups, Starbucks' Verisimo and Via, Nespresso and the like, which today comprise nearly 25% of the coffee market in the U.S. and are growing by leaps and bounds.

With Keurig's new Vue line we now have mass-market single-cup brewers that are fully capable of achieving the brew temperature and dosage requirements of a truly great cup of coffee. All that's missing is for someone to put a cherry-picked selection of top offerings from today's leading Third Wave roasters into a K-Cup, and that seems inevitable once the absurd focus on bottled cold brew lets up.

We knew when we put the first espresso machine in a Starbucks store some 25 years ago that coffee by the cup, made on the spot, would quickly become the gold standard for coffee, with batch brews relegated to commodity status. What we didn't know was how it would unfold, or that roaster-retailers would simply give up on supplying their customers with the means to brew great coffee at home.

Interesting times. I'm glad I'm not a coffee farmer.

Friday, September 6, 2013

S.C.A.A., Starbucks and Real Specialty

A couple of days ago the Specialty Coffee Association of America (S.C.A.A.) announced a two year deal for Starbucks to act as host of its annual convention and trade shos (The announcement is here). As a fan of irony (especially when it's unintentional), I especially savored this quote from the press announcement:

“Since opening our first store in Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market in 1971, coffee has been at the core of everything we do “ said Craig Russell, senior vice president, Global Coffee for Starbucks.

This is delicious because coffee has in fact become so secondary to the company's focus and image that it is dropped any reference to it in it's logo:

The only comments I saw on this were on SCAA's Facebook page. A few had a sense of Starbucks' pivotal role in the existence of good coffee in the U.S., but most were along the lines of "how could you?" or "what does such an evil/bad/large company have to do with specialty coffee?"

My comment was this:

Those complaining lack not only a sense of the history of the industry but of SCAA. An organization that advocates for "specialty" coffee by definition needs to not only define "specialty" but exclude that which is not specialty from its membership and activities. Can you imagine a Craft Brewer's Association that allowed members who used cereal grains and chemical additives, or a Slow Food group that asked McDonald's to be their main sponsor and give the keynote. Me neither - but that's SCAA.

The opportunity to stand for something has existed for years and has been betrayed for the sake of commercial gain and perpetuating huge, pointless trade shows and a bloated administrative structure (this goes back to Ted Lingle, in particular). 20 years ago there were plenty of us saying the obvious: specialty means first-rate arabica coffee, sold within a week of roast (and consumed within 2) if whole bean; brewed the day it's ground if ground; at a minimum strength of 60-70 grams per liter, etc. and that a member in good standing of a Specialty Coffee Association would commit in writing to live up to such standards and other equally obvious ones as a condition of membership. "Enforcement" would be by disseminating the standards to the consumers who pay the bills.

Had that been done, Starbucks, Dunkin, the bozos selling flavorings, the idiocy of barista championships, syrup mongers, form fill and seal machines and all the rest would all have been exiled to NCA where they belong and an SCAA show would be the size and feel of a Roaster's Guild retreat and the admin would be 3 or 4 people living on barista-level salaries somewhere very far from Long Beach. AND an SCAA seal or certification would actually mean something.  Maybe it's time for a revolution. Long since....actually. Ironically Starbucks is probably one of the least offensive recent hosts. Hey at least they WERE great once...descending to mediocrity from a great height beats never having soared.

To be clear, I think things at SCAA have actually improved greatly since the nespotism and scandals of the Lingle era. Ric Rhinehart is a brilliant guy, there've been a number of great folks on the board, and Peter Giuliano running the Symposium is wonderful. 

Nevertheless, the systemic problems I touch on in my comment continue, and I think the time is riper than ever for some sort of alternative trade association to emerge. 

Since S.C.A.A., through its systematic lack of clarity about standards, dissemination of them to consumers and so on has rendered the word "specialty" meaningless, let's just talk vaguely for a moment about the "premium" part of the coffee business in the U.S. Starbucks is clearly the dominant player - so much so that they really lack any sort of meaningful competition. They are, in the words of former head of marketing George Reynolds, "McDonald's without a Burger King, without Subway, without even Taco Bell."

Then there's Dunkin and McDonald's, Green Mountain, the big box players like JBR, Peet's, Allegro/Whole Foods and so on. Any of these larger players have substantial in-house investments in process control, QA & QC, and at the upper end massive investments in R & D both at origin and on the manufacturing and retail side. Having worked for a couple of these companies, I can say with certainty that the only reasons for them to be involved with S.C.A.A. are to keep tabs on each other and the smaller players and for positioning/marketing. They're certainly not there to make it easy for the next generation/Third Wave folks to catch up. Really from a strictly business point of view, the trade reality is you're either Starbucks or a member of the "Coffee Also-Rans of America" - that's how lopsided the actual market share situation is, and that deserves to be kept in mind amidst all of the press fawning over the Blue Bottles and Stumptowns of the world.

Personally I think the time may well be ripe for a coffee analogue to the UK's famous Campaign for Real Ale - an organization that has clear and contagiously inspiring standards and that from the beginning realized that educating consumers rather than being an insular trade organization is the key to long-term relevance.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Upton Tea: Alone at the top

The stunning leaf of Ceylon's New Vithanakande Estate

Yes this blog is called Coffee Contrarian, and what could be more contrary to coffee altogether than to post about tea? Really great tea is a lot rarer out there in the retail world than great coffee at this point. Take away the tea that isn't tea, by which I mean anything not made from pure camellia sinensis - i.e. herbal swill; 1000 varieties of flavored crap from Chai to Earl Grey; forget about tea bags which are to full leaf fresh tea what preground coffee in a 3# can is to a just-roasted seasonal microlot, then ditch the ready-to-drink stuff and X out the often years-old whole leaf sitting in jars at your local health food chain and you'll get a sense of just how rare real tea is.

I've been tasting teas comparatively since I was 10 years old (spending my allowance doing blind tastings of Lyons vs Twinning's back before I knew what a blind tasting was, and when those were the extent of premium teas available). Great tea has long vied with coffee for personal consumption, and I was also the tea buyer for Starbucks during what ended up being the last gasp of the whole leaf/real tea business there, before I was told to deep six the program (and long before they decided to buy Tazo).

At Starbucks the tea customers may have been relatively small in number, but they were not only passionate about their Hao Ya A Keemun,  malty Assam and Second Flush Darjeeling, they were also our most discriminating coffee customers. I noticed the same thing among employees, as the serious tasters among them found that tasting and drinking tea, with its lighter body and greater range and subtlety of flavors, was not only wonderful in itself but sharpened their coffee tasting skills. As the incomparable Jim Reynolds (then the buyer for both Starbucks and Peets) once said, "I only wish the customers knew our teas are even more special than our coffees."

When the axe fell on the tea program, Howard Schultz (who in his Il Giornale heyday once said, by way of excusing no teabags in his espresso bars, "if they want tea they can go to China") told me I could choose who to dump the pesky and vocal mail order tea customer base on. I told him I was just going to give the entire list to Peet's since they not only were committed to tea but also had better coffee than we did and that of course drew the response I was hoping for (i.e. a death stare and "no f*&^%ing way") so instead I turned over the list and our proprietary blend recipes to what was then a small mail order company whose quality and service I had come to admire. Their name was Upton Tea, and they were located in suburban Boston, dangerously close to the company that really had the best coffee at the time, George Howell's The Coffee Connection.

While Tazo, Republic of Tea and the other tea bag brands are top-of-mind at retail, Upton has long since become the dominant player in the only category that should matter to serious tea drinkers: fresh, current crop unadulterated teas from the best gardens. Unlike coffee where there's a plethora of good-to-great roasters and quality mail order, in tea Upton, especially since the demise of Special Teas (which was a distant second best even in their glory years) has no real competition in terms of selection, quality, price or service.

When you visit their web site you can peruse the teas by region and sort by most recent arrival, which is a hugely helpful feature. Their descriptions of the teas are reliably accurate, sober and fluff-free - something to treasure at a time when coffee descriptions seem to have been lifted from Wine Spectator and vice versa.

Upton sells only real, whole leaf tea - no tea bags - and they clearly pay a price for being purists. They're only open 4 days a week during the slow summer months and seem to operate with a small staff at all times, but their service is the best you will ever experience from a mail order company, with most orders packed to order and shipped within hours of your online order in packaging so good you'll never buy a tea tin again.

Now while tea stales far more gracefully than coffee I think that even fewer people have tasted fresh, new crop tea than coffee, so by all means try Upton's newest arrivals to get a sense of what fresh really means. My tastes in tea are those of a professional coffee taster, which is to say I generally go for complex, bold black teas with lots of aroma and backbone. Here are a few favorites for current drinking:

TD 45 Puttabong Second Flush Darjeeling, Muscatel: A one-off selection from a reliably superb Darjeeling producer. This particular lot is redolent of ripe peaches in the manner of the exquisite Formosa Oolongs of 20 years ago.

TA60 Assam Nahorhabi Estate GBOP Cl. Spl.: No one comes close to offering the range of top Assams that Upton does. This isn't the most expensive but it's a rip-roaring malty Assam of the highest quality. You may never feel the need for coffee again after tasting this lovely beast of a tea. Milk and sugar pretty much required.

Three Ceylons

While Darjeeling and Assam are, price-wise, the stars of the Indian subcontinent Ceylon is mostly thought of as a source for blending teas if it's thought of at all, but there's a range of impeccably-crafted orthodox production teas there that are second to none in quality while representing outstanding value. Try samples of these three to get a sense of what is possible:

TC57 Aislaby Estate: Classic Uva tea with a (to newcomers) startling natural minty freshness and the kind of tannic grip most people associate only with Assams. Reference-standard breakfast tea, with or without milk and sugar.

TC24 New Vithanakande FBOPF Ex. Spl.: There are two lots from this famous estate at Upton right now so pay attention to the lot number. This is the more expensive of the two, selling for roughly a Second Flush Darjeeling price but cheap for its quality. Open the bag and you'll get a huge hit of honeyed citrus that'll make you think you bought a flavored tea by mistake, but as you drink it there's no mistaking the natural origin of the flavors as they unfold. Magnificent stuff.

TC76 Lumbini FBOPF Ex. Spl.: Another famous estate but this is their "regular" quality (Upton has their top offering as well if you've got money to burn). Priced for everyday consumption this is the kind of "tea tea" that makes Ceylon the grand cru Costa Rican of the tea world: even, clean, balanced, consistent, flawless.

This is just a small sampling of things I'm enjoying at the moment. There are great China blacks (check out the Panyang Congous and Yunnans), the best first flush Darjeelings and much more worth your time, plus the best tea pots and accoutrements at bargain prices.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

More on freshness in response to a reader's comments

Patrick offered this comment and question:

About a year or so ago I went into Stumptown here in New York and they had the Panama Esmeralda Especial Mario San Jose. It was $100 for their standard 12oz. Was I going to shell out that kind of dough for it? You bet, I mean, I was curious. It was packaged in their same tie bags, only the bag itself was plopped into a large stylized ball jar with a cool font on it. I looked at the roast date and lo and behold it was about 10 days old. I asked the barista since it was so old if I could have it for half price (still an insane price). I couldn't have it at half price they told me and I wouldn't be surprised if that coffee ended up in the garbage. Talk about waste. 

The other day I was poking around on the Stumptown website and came across some of their freshness info: http://stumptowncoffee.com/support/faq/
Kevin, do you know what other roasters package their coffee correctly as you mention? I know Gimme uses valve bags, but I am unsure of the process.

The FAQ that Patrick provides the link to on the Stumptown web site is worth reading in its entirety, but here's the most important part:

Fresh coffee will look dry, rather than oily. As coffee ages, the beans naturally secrete oils, losing some of the flavor nuances in the process. So, you want to be sure that coffee you purchase has a nice, dry surface. Also, darker roasted coffees excrete oils more quickly since the integrity of the bean is compromised by a longer roast which also diminishes the potential flavor nuances. Although a vacuum sealed bag will retain aromatics within the bag, as soon as the bag is opened, those aromatics are released into the atmosphere. A sealed bag does not allow natural degassing to occur in a way that helps maintain the integrity of the bean and the balance of the flavor profile over time. We prefer to strive to provide our customers with the freshest coffee possible and encourage our folks while it’s fresh to have the best drinking experience possible.

This text is a mixture of disinformation, obfuscation and outright unintelligibility. Let's break it down:

1. Fresh coffee could look dry or oily, depending on the degree of roast, ambient temperature and what it's packaged in. If the coffee is roasted to second pop the cell walls have been broken and the coffee will eventually bloom oil, but store such coffee at cool room temperatures or in the fridge or freezer and it will assume a matte finish as the oils retreat into the bean. Conversely a lighter roast will "sweat"oils if the coffee is packaged in a tightly sealed bag and shipped or stored in warm temperatures. 

As for "a longer roast which also diminishes the potential flavor nuances," that all depends on what brewing method you're using, which coffee you're roasting and which aspects of the coffee's character you want to showcase. City to Full City roasts of high-altitude washed Central American coffees are great for drip or vacuum pot expression of acidity and aroma, but body is thin and under-developed and such coffees are poor choices for moderately-pressurized brewing methods like Aeropress or French Press and atrocious for espresso, which due to its high pressure extraction elevates the acidity of such coffees to fresh-squeezed lemon juice levels. 
Plus - though you'd never know it from many Third Wave coffee menus - there are great coffees grown on other continents and processed by other methods, and light roasts are terrible for Indonesian coffees or the great naturals from Ethiopia, Yemen, Brazil or anywhere else. 

2. "Although a vacuum sealed bag will retain aromatics within the bag, as soon as the bag is opened, those aromatics are released into the atmosphere."
This is a murky sentence, but it sounds like what they're trying to say is that valve bag coffee somehow mysteriously "catches up" to its chronological age when the bag is opened - the coffee equivalent of Cinderella staying too late at the ball. That's even more of a fairy tale than Cinderella, but meanwhile what we do know for sure is that coffee sitting on the shelf in a tie tie bag is oxidizing by the minute. 

3. "A sealed bag does not allow natural degassing to occur in a way that helps maintain the integrity of the bean and the balance of the flavor profile over time. We prefer to strive to provide our customers with the freshest coffee possible and encourage our folks while it’s fresh to have the best drinking experience possible."

Here we have a first sentence made up of total bullshit followed by one that's actually incomprehensible. The whole point of a properly vacuum-sealed and nitrogen back-flushed Fresco or other one-way valve bag is that is allows natural degassing to occur but slows the rate of staling to a glacial pace, resulting in coffee that is indistinguishable from just-roasted samples of the same coffee for 8-12 weeks from roasting when tasted by a panel of expert tasters. (I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that roasters who claim 6-12 months of shelf life, basing their standards on what they can get away with rather than excellence, are just as far removed from authentic specialty coffee as the tin tie bag Luddites). 

To be clear, I'm no fan of valve bags or pressurized containers a la Illycaffe. The ideal is to to exactly what we did at Starbucks from 1971 through the mid 1980's: roast everyday, deliver to the stores three times a week in reusable cans or bins, allow the stores to order every coffee in 2 pound increments and mandate that every bean be sold or brewed within one week of roast. The advantages of this approach are legion: you avoid the ecologically-disastrous ocean of un-recyclable laminated material used in valve bags, everyone involved in the business is kept keenly aware of coffee's highly perishable nature, you're prevented from successfully engaging in the deal with the devil that is called wholesale since you have no way to sell ground coffee except very locally and - last not least - your brand is effectively limited to a truly local size, keeping it human scale. 

Once you decide to open stores in multiple cities and/or expand aggressively through mail order and wholesale you've eaten much fruit from the tree of knowledge and have long since been exiled from the Garden of Eden into a world where you have to have packaging capable of extending your coffee's shelf life. 

One of the co-founders of Starbucks once famously said (paraphrasing) "ideally we want to be responsible for our coffee from the moment the tree is planted until the moment the customer finishes the last sip." How far we've regressed when being "passionate" about quality means having the GPS coordinates of the farm on a bag that does nothing to protect its contents from staling, and then using New Age nonsense to justify a Luddite approach to packaging, grinding and the like.

As to Patrick's last question about who uses valve bag packaging properly, I can vouch for Peet's, Allegro, Starbucks, Gaviña and any number of other larger companies, but (without naming names) I've been shocked to see many Third Wave places not only just heat sealing pre-made valve bags, but also putting coffee in 'em that has been sitting around in bins for days first, grinding coffee for restaurant accounts not in the water-cooled roller mill grinders used by professionals but in Ditting or Bunn grinders intended for pound-at-a-time retail use that get hot enough to fry an egg (and ruin aroma) when mis-used commercially, blending back in weeks old whole bean coffee pulled from supermarket shelves on and on.

As I've sad before quality is only meaningful when its objective, measurable and includes parameters for every part of the chain of custody of coffee from tree to cup. A myopic focus on one or two aspects of the process combined with willful ignorance of the rest does not constitute progress. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Two points of entry into the original taste of coffee, two generations of roaster-retailers

I just finished spending 4 days in Portland, Oregon and am now visiting family in northern Washington State. While I was in Portland I hung out at Stumptown and at owner Duane Sorenson's wonderful new bakery, called Roman Candle, whose world-class pastries are now found at both the bakery and Stumptown stores.

I tasted a bunch of coffees at Stumptown, and the stand-out among several impressive coffees was this Ethiopia Chelbassa Yergacheffe, a reference-standard coffee of a caliber I haven't tasted in many years. When I got home I had a mail order from Peet's awaiting me that included several pounds of their limited edition Ethiopia Queen City, a full-throttle Harrar that's just as classic as the Yergacheffe, though obviously the processing of the bean and the roast could hardly be more different.

Tasting these two great coffees offers the opportunity for several reflections that feel timely to me, especially given what I've seen going on with roasting, particularly, where I'm seeing more and more production roasts that are actually too light for cupping, let alone sale to consumers, while fully-developed classic full city roasts have become hard to find. To be clear, I'm not talking about Stumptown here, which has sourcing capabilities and precision in their roasting that put them head-and-shoulders above most smaller players.

First, some specifics about these particular coffees. I bought the Chelbassa at the original Stumptown store on SE Division Street. It was roast-dated four days prior to my purchase, in a 12 ounce plain tin tie bag, and it cost $16.50 for 12 ounces, or $21.92 per pound. The Peet's was $15.95 for a full pound, roasted to order, vacuum packaged and nitrogen back-flushed, to order, in a Fresco valve bag, with free shipping due to the promotion going on at the time.

The roast on the Yergacheffe is classic City - probably in the high 70's on the Agtron scale. The Harrar meanwhile is full-on Peet's deep roast....an educated guess would put the Agtron number (all of these are for ground, by the way) in the high 30's to low 40's.

The Peet's, roasted on July 11th and opened on the 23rd, was, unsurprisingly, the fresher of the two coffees, and would of course have remained so unopened for another 8 weeks or so. That might seem irrelevant, but the more sophisticated packaging enabled me to order more of a rare coffee than I otherwise would have been able to use, which certainly benefited both Peet's and me.

The Stumptown Yergacheffe is dazzlingly aromatic, with notes of lemon, jasmine and lavender and mouthwatering acidity. It's at its best in a vacuum pot or perhaps better paper filter drip, to mute the screaming acidity a bit.

The Peet's Queen City is just as aromatic, but we're talking blueberry, chocolate, matured Virginia and Latakia pipe tobacco and a shelf full of Asian spices. The roast calls for Aeropress or French Press, or a commercial espresso machine for the truly daring.

These two coffee types - manicured washed and well-chosen natural - of Ethiopian coffee, together, represent the original taste of coffee altogether, from the Motherland. They deserve a lot of respect - reverence, even - from coffee professionals and connoisseurs alike.

I liked both coffees equally, but I can only think of a handful of coffee professionals I know who are capable of appreciating both of these coffees at their respective degrees of roast. Savvy consumers could certainly appreciate both coffees, but good luck to them finding them, as washed Ethiopians in the style of the Stumptown coffee here (though admittedly not at its quality level) are now commonplace among Third Wave roasters, while great  naturals like the Peet's Harrar are exceedingly hard to find.

As a consumer now rather than a green coffee buyer who gets to take home the best for free, I feel obliged also to draw your attention to the big difference in price, which pertains not just to these two coffees but to coffees in general at top Third Wave roasters vs. all other sources of whole bean coffee. The Stumptown coffee is over 25% more expensive than the Peet's, which in addition to being cheaper is far better  (and much more expensively) packaged, and undergoes 5-7% more shrink during roasting. A Kenya Auction lot from Stumptown from the same visit was $22.50 for 12 ounces - nearly $30 per pound, while a pound of Peet's Kenya Auction Lot bought at the same time as the Ethiopian was $16.95, and the two coffees were of roughly equivalent quality.

To give credit where it's due, the use of Grain Pro packaging and expedited shipment, especially of African coffees, is a very real and tangible improvement in quality that Stumptown and other top Third Wave roasters deserve credit for helping to make happen, and it costs money. Nevertheless, that improvement certainly doesn't mean that the overall quality of coffee being bought at Third Wave places is better than what Peet's, Illy and several other sizable companies have been doing for decades.

More microlots, more marketing, farm travel and the like cost serious  money, but so does packaging coffee so that it stays fresh for months rather than days and brewing it properly in precisely-calibrated drip equipment in-store (as Peet's does and today's Third Wave folks generally don't). Whole bean freshness and precision brewing of all the coffee (not just espresso shots and latte art) are a vital part of getting the quality the farmer worked hard to achieve into the cup of the consumer who pays the bills. Total quality - not just that of incoming green - and value-for-money spent are also decisively important. So, too, is having a reasonable number of coffees to choose from, and there were exactly seven single origin coffees (four washed Centrals, 2 washed East Africans and one Indonesian) at the store I shopped in in Portland, vs. 12 at Peet's representing all three great growing regions and the full range of washed, semi-washed and natural processing methods.

Having bent over backward to give credit where it's due to Peet's I'll end by saying that the overall experience at Stumptown is far more enjoyable and of a piece. Stumptown is asking - and answering - the question "is it as good as the coffee?" - about architecture, brewing equipment, pastry, serve ware, training, education and everything else going on in the store carefully and in the affirmative, which results in a sense of trust in an ongoing commitment to excellence and continuous improvement that Peet's had decades ago and has long since lost in pretty much every area other than buying, roasting and in-store brewing. Here's hoping Stumptown can keep it simple and great as they grow, and that more diversity in origins and roasts come to pass as the Third Wave evolves.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Good article on capsule espresso systems in Coffee Review

Ken Davids has this excellent article comparing capsule-based home espresso systems from Starbucks and Keurig with Nespresso, the market leader. The short summary is there is no comparison - Nespresso remains the gold standard.

Where the article falls short, in my opinion, is in looking realistically at alternatives for the consumer who'd like to enjoy espresso-based drinks at home. Davids mentions a minimum ante of $700 for a home espresso set-up, but clearly a decent doser-grinder and a machine capable of producing the high pressure and precisely controlled temperatures required is going to cost more like 2-3 times that amount, plus of course entailing either previous training on commercial equipment or a lot of trial-and-error.

For the rare consumer who drinks primarily straight espresso it's probably worth it to just buy a small commercial machine and grinder, but for the other 98% who just want a tasty caffe latte or cappuccino in the morning there two time-tested alternatives that work a whole lot better. The first is a stainless steel stovetop espresso maker like this one:
Add a decent conical-burr grinder like Bodum's for around $100 and a stovetop milk frother ($40) and you have a simple, durable way to make very good drinks for under $200 total invested. Most people have no idea just how formidable a cup these stovetop machines can make. It takes attention and skill, but by using a fine (but not commercial espresso) grind, tamping the basket tightly (use a water glass) and above all watching the brewing like a hawk and turning the heat off once the coffee is flowing into the top (and long before it gets overheated) you can, with truly fresh (a week or less from roasting) coffee get results from one of these machines that are far superior to what you'll get out of any capsule machine, and better than a lot of espresso made on commercial machines by less-than-optimally-skilled baristas. 

For less hassle still, more versatility (since it makes superb drip-strength coffee as well) and lower costs, get an Aeropress ($25) and the same stovetop steamer. You can even get by with a blade grinder in this case, though a burr grinder is certainly superior. Using a heaping Aeropress scoop of beans per shot of espresso-strength coffee you can brew a very tasty cappuccino in minutes. 

Better still, take a chunk of the hundreds of dollars you just saved over both a true espresso machine and a lifetime of 70 cent a shot Nespresso mediocrity and invest it in a Behmor roaster and some great green coffee from Sweet Maria's. You'll soon be drinking better, fresher coffee than you can buy from almost any roaster-retailer, and at a fraction of the price. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Criterion Coffee & Tea comes to an end

Thanks to Andrew Barnett for sharing this short article about the closing of San Francisco's legendary Freed, Teller & Freed after 114 years in business.

For those unfamiliar, Freed's had a small but lovely retail store on Polk Street for many years and a much larger wholesale business. Like so many others before me, I went there to buy some coffee and tea and ended up getting an education:  in coffee, tea, brewing, passion, authenticity, value-for-money and understated good taste.

I can't remember who originally told me to make the pilgrimage to Polk Street. It  might have been Mike Spillane from the wonderful tea importer G.S. Haly & Co. The aroma of freshly-roasted coffee was of course captivating, and (this would've been in the early 1980's) it was the first time I'd seen what I would later realize was classic Full City roasted coffee: even chestnut brown with no oils, the peak expression of flavor and aroma. They had real Yemen Mocha, and Mocha Java that was the antithesis of the mucho jiva being purveyed elsewhere, and vacuum pots, and Zassenhaus grinders - and people eager to tell you just how to use all of the above!

Then there was the tea, which I soon learned was the deepest passion of owners Augie and Karen Techeira. Single-garden Assams, painstakingly selected Ceylons and, usually, Hao Ya A (or B when it cupped better) Keemun, the finest Chinese black tea available. It was only much later in my coffee and tea career that I gained enough experience to realize that the selections on offer at Freed's were the product of a level of cupping and sourcing expertise that a newcomer like myself would most likely be unable to approach in a lifetime no matter how hard they were willing to work.

Nowadays the origin of great (I can't bring myself to say "specialty" since the S.C.A.A. has made the word into a guarantee of nothing but inflated price) coffee on the West coast is credited to Peet's, but Mr. Peet learned many of the ropes during his stint as an employee at Freed's, which had been offering great coffee for over half a century at the time. This isn't to take anything away from Alfred Peet, whose passion for excellence and superb palate would have made an impact no matter what, but merely to acknowledge that said passion and the insistence on equal billing for tea and coffee had deep roots.

Over my years at Starbucks and Allegro I'd run into Augie Techeira at trade shows, or talk to him on the phone from time to time (mostly when I was in desperate need of some great tea, or feeling particularly down about the state of the industry). So often I'd be looking at Freed's current price list and would see retail prices for coffee and tea that were roughly on par with what better-known roasters were charging their wholesale customers. I'd order some samples and maybe talk to Augie or Karen on the phone and would invariably discover that because they were buying on cup quality alone they'd rejected expensive and supposedly prestigious coffees and teas their less knowledgeable competitors had happily overpaid for, and were passing on the savings to their customers. In today's environment of $7 cups of under-roasted, often poorly-selected single origin coffee (served with a hefty dose of attitude on the side) it's hard to imagine that there once was a business to be had in selling people great coffee and tea to enjoy at home everyday, but there was.

From the article I opened with there's this explanation of why Freed's is finally closing:

 “they are unable to find suitable business successors that would meet their standards, and the customers’ standards."

Now I still recall being very impressed during my early years at Starbucks when the founders said (and meant) that they'd rather be out of a given coffee than substitute a lesser grade, but here we have a business that's been around for over a century that would rather close than inflict a watered down or corporately co-opted version of itself on its customers. 

How do you build a brand that can last a hundred years? When you say "quality without compromise" do you mean it, and if so do you mean it just for employees and farmers, or do you include customers in the equation to such a degree that you'd rather shutter your doors than bilk them? All worthwhile questions to ponder as we mark the end of the real beginning of great coffee and tea in America. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Traceability, Certification & Elitism

I just finished reading this excellent article in the New York Times. It's inspired by the tragic garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, but the implications are much broader, and of course I naturally thought of coffee when I read this:

"Mysterious origins are a hidden cost of cheap things....To have money today is often to acquire the right to know which person knitted your sweater or which farm bred the pigs in your chorizo. To be without money is to buy from a placeless netherworld and to be told to take it or leave it, no questions asked. 

It's a strange reversal. For most of history, the poor would have eaten the local pigs and known the origin of their socks, and the rich had better access to a global marketplace. But changing elite tastes and the relentless efficiency of supply chains have slowly inverted tastes: In many categories, the poor now buy from the exotic unknown, and the rich insist on what can be traced..."

My friend Tim Castle wrote recently about the sloppy surface-skimming that characterizes media coverage of various coffee certification schemes, but in my view he (uncharacteristically!) doesn't go far enough in the case of the Fair Trade and Organic certifications, which are rife with corruption and abuse. More interestingly still is what, if I'm not misreading it, looks like an unqualified endorsement of the so-called Direct Trade model. 

Returning to the themes raised in the Times article, here's a representative single origin offering from a highly-touted Third Wave roaster. The asking price - nearly $28.00 per pound* is quite typical of their offerings. 

Now considering that many estimable specialty coffee companies are profitably selling stellar single-origin coffee for $14.00 or less per pound, one wonders what the pie chart disclosing exactly who gets what from the $28 (which presumably any self-respecting Direct Trade roaster would be happy to share as part of their much-touted transparency and fairness ethos) would look like. It certainly doesn't have to do with "direct" trade per se as larger companies like Starbucks, Peets, Illycaffe and the like trade much more directly (that is to say, with fewer intermediaries needed and no need for exporters to act as tour guides and educators or importers to act as banks and shipping facilitators) than do smaller players who aren't buying all of their coffees in full containers. Maybe it's the cost of amortizing all of those farm visits, glossy web sites and Cup of Excellence bids over so few pounds that accounts for the doubling of costs to the consumer.....

More to the point though, this kind of pricing drives home with a vengeance the idea that artfully-roasted coffee is a luxury item for special-occasion consumption only - unless you are rich. And while the Times piece focuses primarily on clothing, the effects of a luxury pricing strategy on an extremely pershisable product tend to be more disastrous, in that the odds of it being sold stale are greatly increased. I still vividly recall being struck at the modest prices, quick turnover and shared sensibility about ripeness and quality I saw at cheese mongers all over France, followed by the jarring contrast of seeing the same cheese at triple or quadruple the price at my local Whole Foods, often in sorry condition, and of course not selling because at the price, and with no sampling or educational effort, a vital everyday foodstuff had been turned into a luxury buy. 

At the end of the day, I think there's more to be learned and emulated from the truly vertically-integrated approach of Brazil's Café Bom Dia than from any of the current crop of elitist roaster-retailers. Perhaps the "Fourth Wave," when and if it occurs, will be based on farmers deciding what constitutes fair and/or direct trade and taking the means of production and adding of value into their own hands. 

* They've chosen to set retail prices in grams [coffee worldwide is bought by pound] - which is at least more original than the dominant Third Wave pricing strategy of charging a usurious full pound price for a 12 ounce valve bag. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Have it our way

I'm dating myself by even remembering the old Burger King "have it your way" ad campaign, but it's clear that the title of this post is what seems to excite Oliver Strand, the New York Times coffee columnist who like the Third Wave retailers he gushes over is usually long on style and short on substance. 

Today's fluff piece celebrates the opening of two very expensive coffee shops in New York (the epicenter of the culinary and caffeinated universe in case you're unfortunate enough to live in one of the flyover States): 

Some comments interspersed between quotes from the article: 

When Starbucks installed its first espresso bar in downtown Seattle, in 1984, it effectively reordered the hierarchy of coffee in this country: brewed coffee might be nice, but nothing beats the theater of a latte.

Superb drip coffee was an integral part of this presentation, along with espresso, cappuccino and caffe latte (sans caffe you're ordering plain milk). Moreover, Il Giornale, the Italian-inspired espresso bar that Howard Schultz started using Starbucks coffee, cared so much about getting the actual taste of coffee to its customers that it had a proprietary coffee-on-tap system that allowed the brewing of three varieties of drip coffee simultaneously during the morning rush, with two different single-origin coffees on offer every day. 

Today, many coffee nerds feel differently. Espressos are tasty, and a cappuccino is a pleasurable indulgence, but the real magic is found in a cup of black coffee prepared to order with beans from the latest harvest: the new crop of Central American coffees that is arriving now, and East African coffees that will be here come summer. When members of this generation of fanatics step up to a brew bar, it’s not to look for something familiar and comforting; it’s to try something new.
This is narcissism at its finest, which it to say its most unwitting and unselfconscious. The top new crop coffees from Central America are typically shipped (but not drunk) from April through June, but the same is true of the best Kenyans and Ethiopians. "Seasonality" is really code for "coffees from places we like to hang out."

More to the point though, who are these "coffee nerds who feel differently?" Oh, I get it: they're the nerds behind the bar, since the hapless customer supporting all of this narcissistic snobbery just wants their espresso drink or excellent cup of drip coffee so they can go about their lives. The "fanatics" are behind the bar and in the office,  busily jotting down the GPS coordinates of farms they've visited and writing coffee descriptions so over-the-top that one would think that psychedelic drugs must be incorporated into the brew water in the cupping room. 

The brew bar is as much a workshop as it is a place to get a coffee and buy some gear. There will be demonstrations, free cuppings and an easy flow of jargon-laced conversation. If you want to learn how grind size affects extraction, here’s your chance.

Wow how exciting. You know jargon-laced conversation and a bunch of snobs discussing how grind size affects extraction is just what I'm looking to pay top dollar for at 8 in the morning. 

“When the morning shift comes in at 5:30 a.m., they’ll cup the coffees,” said Mr. Morrissey, who won the prestigious World Barista Championship when he was working for Square Mile Coffee Roasters. “Then they’ll pick how to make it. It’s not that one brewer is better than another brewer. It’s that they might decide, ‘I’m loving the toffee notes in this, I bet it’ll be awesome in a Cafe Solo,’ ” he said, referring to a kind of brewer.
Not all brew methods are created equal. Some use thick paper filters that create a cleaner cup, others perforated metal filters that let through the oils and fine sediment that create a richer texture. A dripper might be shaped like a cone (the V60) or a wedge (the Bee House) or a cup (the Wave). The details can make a difference. Even if there’s no one right way to prepare coffee, different methods lead to distinctive flavors

That's a Venti of narcissistic drivel for sure, but hey a world-champion slinger of caffe lattes is the same thing as an actual coffee expert these days anyway, so who are we to question? 
What's far more important than the arcane differences between a bunch of single-cup drip brewers that are meant for home use and yield commercially meaningless amounts of tepid, papery drip coffee is that a properly calibrated satellite brewer or urn, using the same coffee, will yield a hotter, better-extracted and far more flavorful cup of coffee in quantities that meet the demands of the morning rush and that can be sold profitably at the kind of reasonable price that makes great coffee an everyday event rather than something that's reserved for the rich or for special occasions. 

The thoroughness of the disconnect between dicking around for a living behind the counter and the folks trying to make one who support the whole sorry show is that brewing methods that actually do translate to the home are not even in play here: no Bonavita or Brazen drip brewers, Aeropresses or French Press brewers. 

Maybe this is a sign that all that's old truly does become new again. Clearly Manhattan is in need of a chain of stores that offers a locally-tailored equivalent to Peet's Vine Street circa 1966, with fabulous 8 ounce cups of drip coffee being poured from the 3 gallon urn at 50 cents (adjusted for inflation - say $1, or $1.50 for those stuck paying New York rent) a pop. That's a concept I'd actually invest in. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Replaces both your Hario and your Linea.....

Well this is exciting: a time-honored single-cup brewing method that surely has the ability to replace both espresso and tortuously slow yet breathtakingly overpriced single cup drip brewing in just about every Third Wave coffee venue. Make sure to check out the groovy instructional video:


My only complaint is they're not using the ideal soundtrack song:


Thursday, April 25, 2013

And why Keurig and Nespresso are winning the battle.....

This article from Imbibe magazine showed up just after the Peet's single-cup announcement:


The good news, I guess, is that at least they don't ask you to weigh your water before brewing or use a special gooseneck kettle, but this is a ton of hassle for a single (12 oz.) mug of coffee that is still brewed incorrectly (2.5 minutes of contact time between grounds and water when the minimum for drip brewing is 4 minutes).

Geez, why not brew a pot of coffee? Is the assumption that every consumer lives alone or drinks but a single cup of coffee in them morning?

Fill a Bodum or Krups burr grinder with beans, grind for about 20 seconds, dump into a #6 filter cone sitting atop a good 1 quart thermos and pour a quart of just-boiled water through it. Easier still, put said batch of ground coffee into the filter atop a Bonavita, Behmor or Technivorm brewer and push the button.

And if a single cup is required, for heaven's sake use an infusion method like the Aeropress or Clever Dripper that actually works.

K Cups arrive at Peet's

As further proof that marketing departments even in good companies have an unerring inverse Midas Touch, in my email in-box today (while I was enjoying a quite lovely cup of Peet's Kenya, as irony would have it), was a missive announcing the advent of Peet's Single Cup Coffee:


Not only is Peet's very late to a really boring (Keurig K Cup) party, but look at the coffees being offered:

House Bland (I mean Blend)
French Roast ("tastes like burnt toast" - Jim Reynolds)
Café Domingo (a "medium roast" that is the antithesis of everything Peet's used to stand for)
Decaf House Blend (yawn)
Major Dickason's (the one selection that might actually be worth drinking)

For those who haven't read it, Ken Davids has an excellent overview of the Keurig K Cup scene on Coffee Review:


Towards the end of this article Davids points out that only the new Keurig Vue system gets the water hot enough to brew a cup that meets professional standards. Getting the temperature right is important for any coffee, but the darker the roast the higher the temperature needed for optimum extraction. The introductory letter for the Peet's K Cups makes it clear that a heavier dose and a filter designed to let some sediment through are part of their package, but water that's ~20 degrees too cold is certainly not going to yield optimum results.

Imagine if the initial offerings had at least been coffees a Peet's fan could actually get excited about: Sumatra, Guatemala, Ethiopian Fancy, Arabian Mocha Sanani (or even Mocha Java), Ethiopian Super Natural (the best Peet's coffee of all time, IMHO), etc. Instead you have a lineup that is guaranteed to yield no coffees that rate any higher than the dark-roasted Green Mountain Sumatra and Starbucks Tribute Blend in the Coffee Review tastings.

I had hoped that Peet's reverting to private ownership after their disastrously un-strategic expansion during their years as a public company might mean a renewed focus on quality and a clearly articulated leadership position in the marketplace. It's really a shame because the green coffee buying, roasting and in-store brewing at Peet's are still first rate. How sad then that now one can buy Peet's in K Cups but you still can't purchase an electric drip brewer that meets standards or even a fricking Aeropress or Clever Dripper in their stores. If Starbucks is the Hertz (market leader) and Green Mountain is Avis (trying harder), what is Peet's position ("we imitate the rest after long after the ship has sailed?"). That's a sad role for the company that started the specialty coffee revolution.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Mea culpa

A friend in the coffee business (hard though it may be to believe that I have any remaining) was kind enough to point out just how arrogant my original description of my intention in doing this blog came off. When I said that I hoped the site would be a place "for informed, critical writing about coffee" it made it sound like I thought there weren't any places on the web for such writing - which wasn't at all the case,  but that's sure how it sounded.

There's a lot of great writing about coffee on the web, but what doesn't seem to exist is any sort of magazine, journal or column, either in print or online, that offers the kind of critical writing about coffee that I enjoy reading about food in general, wine, beer and so on. We have trade journals that are, understandably, leery of offending roaster or retailer advertisers, and then we have uncritical, often fawning articles in newspapers and occasionally in magazines like Saveur or online news sources such as Huffington Post.

In retrospect I should have shelved most of the posts on this blog and put energy into trying to find a venue for this kind of writing. Better still, I ought to have networked with others in the trade to see if there might be interest in creating a web site where a wide range of folks with industry experience and an insider's perspective could post their writing.

I'm going to leave Coffee Contrarian up and running simply because there have been some interesting discussions that have taken place as a result of the posts. It's not the Wine-Advocate-meets-Art-of-Eating venue I dream of, but it's a start. If I had it to do over perhaps I'd have named it A Dinosaur's Diary as truth-in-advertising.

I've included links to a few blogs and web sites whose writing on coffee I consistently enjoy. There's Tim Castle's Coffee Curmudgeon (any similarity in the names of ourblogs being due purely to my desire to only imitate the best);  Sweet Maria's, which surely must be the most amazing coffee info source on the web; and Coffee Review, featuring  Kenneth Davids, whose consumer-oriented writing about coffee has been an inspiration and tough act to follow for decades.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Some thoughts on degrees of roast

Today I received this comment from a reader on one of my earlier posts:

I'm enjoying your post Kevin. I don't mean to move the topic away from drip brew but since you were talking about roasting profiles I thought I would chime in.

I started out at Starbucks and then moved into the "third wave" coffee movement as a roaster. I have found it extremely challenging to grow my knowledge when most of the "respected" roasters are roasting just into first crack and I still insist on taking the roast to the brink of, (or right into), second crack. That means to the rest of the coffee world I roast "dark" and that this style of roasting is completely disregarded as a way of presenting coffee. Just wanted to say thanks for providing some wisdom and giving roasters like me a different influence to turn to.

Thank you!

I appreciate Landon's comments and it prompts me to share a few thoughts. 

One of the basic tasting exercises I've found useful over the past 30 years is what I call tasting a progressive roast of almost every coffee you have. This means roasting on either a sample or production roaster and pulling out samples of a coffee at every degree of roast from City to French. In a production roasting context (I'm assuming a drum roaster with a tryer) you can pull several tryer's worth of City, Full City, Vienna, Italian and French - enough not just to cup, but to brew, laying them out in the the cooling tray or on a cookie sheet. Obviously it's not a useful (or safe!) exercise with soft, low-grown coffees like Brazils or Hawaiians, but otherwise it's something very worthwhile to experience with as many coffee origins as possible. 

It should be fairly obvious that the degree of roast chosen for a coffee ought ideally to be correlated to the potential of the particular green coffee, where that coffee is in its life span, and the brewing method to be used, but equally important and less obvious is what the local water supply is like. Some specifics on all of these, in order:

1. Green coffee: hard, dense, high-altitude coffees of the highest quality are delicious at a wide range of roasts. Classic examples would include top Guatemalans from Huehuetenango or Antigua, Kenya auction lots, and on the natural side of things Yemen Mochas and excellent dry-processed Ethiopians. These coffees are way too acid to be palatable below a classic City roast, come into their own at Full City (chestnut brown, no second pop, no oils on the bean surface) and have a Port-like richness and depth without taking on a burnt character well into the Vienna roast range and all the way up to what in Starbucks or Peet's terms we'd call an espresso roast (Agtron in the 30's, still well shy of Italian or West Coast French). These kinds of coffees are becoming harder and harder to find, and what's happened at Starbucks over the years is the heavy roast lives on while the quality of the coffees it is being applied to has declined dramatically, resulting in an ocean of flat, carbonized coffee fit only for burying in syrups and milk froth. Peet's has done a far better job of buying green coffee that can handle deep roasting with a lot of varietal character expression, but I suspect that global warming will force some lightening of roast intonation even there, as coffees grown at 5500 feet are starting to cup like they were grown at 4000. 

2. Seasonality: by this I emphatically do not mean the bogus "seasonality" of many third wave roasters who use the term to justify offering a ridiculously small selection of washed single origin coffees. Instead what I'm referring to is that from a roasting perspective there should be a range of roast intonations applied to a coffee over its useful lifespan.

Taking a top new crop Guatemalan as an example, it'll arrive and clear customs in, say, May or June, and the coffee will never be better than it is at that point (assuming proper harvesting, drying and reposo). Acidity and aroma are at their peak, and its optimum use (assuming the roaster has a range of roast profiles and end users) would be moderately (City to Full City) roasted, ideally unblended or otherwise combined with coffees of the same caliber, in a blend intended for drip or (better still, however unlikely) vacuum-pot brewing. 

Assuming one is tasting one's production roasts on a daily basis, by October or so (depending on warehouse conditions) this coffee will have faded enough to have acquired a slight woody note, which can and should be "roasted out" by taking the coffee a few degrees darker. Depending on the broader coffee lineup, maybe it's relegated to blends and replaced by fresher single-origins, or perhaps used judiciously to add chocolate notes and some acid snap to a Northern Italian espresso blend that's otherwise composed of softer coffees such as dry-processed Brazils and the like. 

By January or thereabouts this coffee is tasting seriously past crop, and finds its best use in seriously dark Italian or French Roasts, while one eagerly awaits new crop. 

Semi-washed and dry-processed coffees are another animal entirely. Softer ones like Brazils are generally best suited to espresso brewing at roasts in a fairly narrow range that starts at Full City and goes not much past Vienna. Sumatras and other classic Indonesians are tricky to roast and have a tan or blond cast even when objectively quite far along in roast, but they need Full City+ to begin to blossom and earthier examples can go quite far into second pop. Dry-processed Harrars and Yirgacheffees and the rare great lot of Yemen Mocha are among the most forgiving of coffees, needing at least Full City to begin to show their best but also making for remarkable espresso late into second pop. 

3. Brewing method: the paper filters used in drip brewing mute the perceived acidity of a coffee, so the ideal roast for this method will taste a bit shrill in a cupping cup but just right when brewed in a commercial drip brewer. I should also point out that regardless of whether you rinse your paper filters or not the ratio of paper to coffee matters, which is why you'll never get the kind of stellar flavor of a just-brewed batch in a 1-3 gallon commercial brewer from a single-cup pour-over unit, no matter how much weighing of water, pouring through tiny spouts or other such geekery is involved. 

The vacuum pot remains, as Corby Kummer once put it, "the CD player of coffee makers - because all you taste is the coffee," offering a transparent experience of aroma and flavor that's a clear notch better than even the best drip units. Sadly there's been no rival of the sturdy, stainless-steel vacuum pots fit for commercial use from many decades ago and Bodum killed off their promising electric vacuum pots just when they were starting to get the hang of making them, so it's a fragile and arcane relic of a brewing method at this point. 

In general the best roasts for drip for washed coffees are in the City to Full City range, but there are certainly some exquisite exceptions for those who prefer body and lushness to varietal nuance. Some of the most memorable cups of drip coffee I've ever had have been out of 3 gallon urns at Peet's, Starbucks (back in the day) and Spinellli's (R.I.P.), with oceanic body, surprisingly high supporting (rather than leading) acidity and great aroma. 

Pressurized brewing methods increase the perceived acidity of coffee. The obvious case is espresso, where any coffee used needs to be custom-roasted for the purpose. Clearly there are a wide range of palatable roasts, but they begin with the coffee well established in second pop (Vienna roast territory) and end well before Italian roast no matter how hard and acid the bean. 

The French Press and the Aeropress are also pressurized brewing methods, albeit at trivial levels of pressurization relative to espresso. Nonetheless, there's enough pressure here to call for full city roasts at a minimum, and to make these methods particularly good showcases for coffees such as semi-washed Indonesians (Sumatra, Sulawesi) or full city+ dry-processed African coffees for whom body and depth are more significant calling cards than refined acidity. 

During my years at Starbucks the only brewing method used at the roasting plant besides espresso was the plunger pot. Meanwhile a senior executive at Peet's who was deeply involved with their coffee once told me he'd spent an entire year drinking their coffee only as straight shots of espresso - in consequence of which he might have been the only person in Peet's history to complain that the coffees were a bit too acidic!

 A steady diet of nothing but pressurized brewing methods trains the palate to value body over other aspects of a coffee, while the increase in perceived acidity afforded by the pressure makes a coffee that would taste flat brewed drip taste fairly lively. I argued unsuccessfully for years at Starbucks that our roasts ought to be lightened up to suit the drip brewing method that they were being used for in our stores and in most customer's homes - or, alternatively, that if we believed in the plunger pot so much we owed it to our customers to only brew coffee in-store using that method. "Roastmasters" (whatever that means) and buyers in newer shops today who taste nothing but cupping room roasts and then inflict them on their customers are living in the same kind of coffee bubble, and in either case the coffee and the customer (and ultimately the farmer) pays the price. 

4. Water: I don't think it's any accident that the places where the classic Full City roast flourished in the early days of good coffee in the U.S. were locales with naturally-soft [low mineral content] water that was generally free from off tastes and odors. On the East Coast Manhattan was (and still is) legendary for its soft water, while in Chicago or Milwaukee the high mineral content dictated much lighter roasts that would still show some life after being blunted by the water. On the West coast Peet's had good soft water in Berkeley, and the same held true in Seattle and Portland.

When we at Starbucks started expanding beyond these favored areas it was either change our roast or change the water, and I ended up specifying water filtration and treatment systems for places like L.A. and San Diego that cost a small fortune, taking rock-hard water with sulfur and salt water intrusion and running it through softeners, reverse osmosis and remineralization treatments to effectively duplicate the neutral ~3 grain hardness water needed for the coffee to taste the way it should. 

Cupping room roasts at retail and other modern phenomena

Getting back to the note from Landon that provoked this post, what I would call a cupping room roast - light City, first pop just ending - is indeed on offer for both retail consumption and, unbelievably enough, in more than a few espresso doser-grinders, in some of today's Third Wave cafés. Considering that most of these establishments are run by people with no actual coffee training perhaps it's not surprising that the range of pejorative terms that apply to such roasts (underdeveloped, cereal-like, green, bland and so on) are unknown to them, but such roasts represent an extreme over-reaction to Starbucks and its many imitators. 

What would be nice to see in coffee is the kind of stylistic diversity one sees in craft beers, with one roaster specializing in the coffee equivalent of Belgian lambics (which I guess would be nothing but edgy, wildly-aromatic Ethiopian naturals!) and another into Porters and Stouts (the Peet's universe) and many other options in between, but a lot of what I see at retail, at least in the Pacific Northwest, are roast-alike and taste-alike clones of Intelligentsia and Stumptown with the same half-dozen origin countries all represented at a very narrow range of roasts from light City to light Full City. 30 years ago we had Peet's and Starbucks pushing the limits on the dark side while Pannikin in San Diego, Kobos in Portland, Schapira's in upstate New York, Freed, Teller & Freed in San Francisco and (best of all, IMHO) The Coffee Connection in Boston offered superb true Full City roasts. Many of us hoped that that level of choice was a harbinger of a greater range of good choices to come, but it looks like we were overly optimistic.