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:
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, GaviƱa 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 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.