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:

FRESHNESS AND OILS
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. 


2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the excellent follow-up! Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the follow-up, I think the freshness issue is the biggest amount of garbage/misinformation/hyprocricy with third wave coffee.

    It just doesn't make sense, you say you care about freshness yet you package your coffee horribly? I believe what they are truly more concerned with is their brand and it that sense they might as well be Starbucks.

    To further the issue, if they sell their coffee in this piss poor packaging why do they sell to grocery stores and let their product sit there for months? Can't they buy back the unused product or replace at their loss? Or just refuse to sell?

    It's just garbage.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.