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 CafĂ© 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.