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. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

"Is anyone in line waiting for just drip coffee?"

Within months of the merger of Howard Schultz's Italian-inspired Il Giornale espresso bars and the retail stores of Starbucks, the question I've used to title this post was frequently asked by harried cashiers trying to move the espresso bar queue along. 

Among the many unintended consequences of opening the espresso Pandora's box in the midst of what was formerly a retail coffee store was the immediate demotion of coffee not made fresh, to order, and expressly for you (the best definition of espresso I know of) to a much lower status. 

The drip coffee in question, at that time (from the mid 80's to the early 90's) was pretty awesome stuff, too - think Guatemala Antigua San Sebastian, top Kenya auction lots, Sigri Estate Papua New Guinea - brewed strong and fresh on the best commercial equipment and sold within minutes of brewing. 

It was immediately obvious to me that the worst part of the perceived higher value of "espresso" - which of course really means "espresso-flavored milk drinks" was that it was the lowly drip coffee that was the real connoisseur's choice, as it was the only option for those interested in the actual taste of coffee rather than coffee as an ingredient. Denigration of drip coffee and its customer base might have seemed savvy given the higher profit margins for espresso drinks, but catering to the caffe latte trade also meant kissing the whole bean coffee business goodbye, and with it any consumer base capable of appreciating the farmer and roaster's hard work. 

The question even back then was how to upgrade the perceived value of coffee-by-the-cup to that of the milk drinks, and the obvious answer was and still is that said coffee needs to also be brewed fresh to order each time. Even back then the technology to deliver excellent coffee by the cup quickly existed (WMF, Wittenborg and other hi-tech brewers, as well as lowly but functional units like the FilterFresh machine that were clear precursors to today's K-Cups and the like), but it was held captive to awful brands of roasted coffee or franchise operations. 

The Bunn Trifecta

Today's single-cup market

From what I can tell the commercial marketplace, at least in the U.S., is very limited. There are machines that require you to purchase coffee from exclusive suppliers (Nespresso, Keurig, Filterfresh and the like), but the only "open source" machines that I know of are Curtis's Gold Cup brewer, which I haven't had any experience with and the Bunn Trifecta. The Trifecta is an excellent brewer, and I love the fact that it's available in both a $3000 commercial version and a $550 home brewer that makes all the sense in the world for those who can afford it. 

On the consumer side it's a fragmented market, with Keurig the clear volume leader. Ken Davids at Coffee Review has an excellent review of current options for the Keurig:

He's only testing the standard K-Cup machine here, and Keurig's new Vue unit seems to have addressed the major drawbacks of the older unit, increasing brew temperature to up to 197 degrees F and coffee dosage and consequent cup size to 12-18 ounces from the standard Keurig's 6, as well as offering recyclable plastic capsules. All that seems to be missing at this point is a craft roaster (or consortium of craft roasters) willing to put some truly great origin coffees into this format in order to have push-button coffee that rivals the best conventionally-brewed cups.

On the other hand, as Davids points out in his article, for less than the cost of a typical Keurig or Nespresso brewer you can own an Aeropress (my first choice) or Clever Dripper, decent burr grinder and a scale and brew great locally-roasted (better still, home-roasted) coffee with complete control of the variables and total freedom of choice with regard to coffee, degree of roast and freshness.

The daily cup: ritual or convenience?

Taking the long view, the rapid penetration of espresso into the mass market over the past 25 years has been a total game-changer in terms of consumer expectations of freshness, speed of preparation and ability to customize what one drinks. There's no going back.

The ideal cup of coffee would be ultra-fresh, ground and brewed to order in seconds, perfectly balanced in flavor and aroma, with plenty of variety of choices, consistent in quality - and affordable to drink and enjoy on a daily basis. At this point I think it behooves any medium-sized or larger roaster-retailer to have in their cupping room a Keurig, a Nespresso machine and both home and commercial models of the Trifecta and to regulary test their preferred in-store drip-strength options against these brewers not only for flavor but for speed and ease of preparation, consistency, throughput, user-friendliness and - last not least - suitability for consumer use to replicate the in-store coffee at home easily and affordably.

The Aeropress - the best single-cup home brewer - being used commercially

P.S. a nice late entrant to the home single-cup brewer world is what is essentially a porcelain Clever Dripper from Bonavita:

It'll be heavy and brekable compared to the Clever, but by preheating the porcelain extraction and finished cup temperature ought to be much better. These kind of work-arounds are necessary standard operating procedure anytime one attempts to downsize drip brewing, which really needs at least a quart-sized batch (but a gallon or two is so much better) for best results. This is pretty darn impressive for what it is, but I think most two-or-more person households would be better served by a Bonavita or Brazen electric brewer, or a Bodum Santos for the truly fanatical.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Captivating photos of the Motherland

Thanks go to Peter Giuliano for sharing the link to this gorgeous set of photos of coffee growing, roasting, processing and brewing in Ethiopia:

I was only able to visit Ethiopia once during my coffee buying days and have wanted to return there more than to any other country ever since. The people, coffee, cuisine, music, sights, sounds, smells, culture and history are just mind-blowing.

Really there's no excuse in 2013 for any conscientious roaster-retailer to not be offering well-chosen examples of the two classic Ethiopian flavor profiles (bright, clean washed and wild, berry/chocolate infused naturals) at all times. Not only do these two together represent the original taste of coffee, but the great natural coffees in particular - the Harrars, dry-processed Sidamos, Mochas from nearby Yemen - are invariably the first overall choice of consumer groups I've sampled on them over the years. How interesting the "disconnect" is here between professional cuppers, who usually abhor them due to being well-trained in avoiding the slightest trace of the defect called "ferment" in washed coffees, and food-and-wine savvy consumers, who relish naturally-occuring fruit flavors (and are delighted to find them in something other than a $160 a pound Gesha grown by white folks).

I think if I had the money to open a retail store today I might well choose to feature only African and Indonesian coffees, as a gustatory and cultural necessary corrective to the Latin American focus of today's retail scene, and I'd make coffees from Ethiopia the centerpiece.