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.


  1. I'm down to my last cupfuls of Queen City. It's been a great bean, and more than a worthy consolation for not having the Supernatural this year (so far). I tend to buy the beans at the store where they pour the beans into their paper bags from the silver bags they come in, but it sounds like mail order might be the way to go if you want to order more beans than you can finish in a couple of weeks?

    I also ordered a bag of the Stumptown: thanks for writing about it!

  2. For a long while now Peet's has been "funneling" the connoisseur segment of its customer base to mail order, offering some small lots only through that venue. Since you can get your coffee in one pound bags roasted to order and Flavorlocked and they have frequent free shipping promotions and excellent flat-rate shipping at all times I don't see any downside to mail order vs. going to the stores.

    I emailed the buyer at Peet's with the suggestion that they carry a natural Ethiopian rather than a washed one as their staple "Ethiopian Fancy" since it's a much better match for their roast style, but I never heard back. Really what they ought to be doing is switching between the best Ethiopian natural they can find and Yemen Mocha for both straight offerings and Arabian Mocha Java/Ethiopia Mocca Java, in which case the washed Ethiopian as a separate offering would continue to make sense. No complaints though - I'm just thrilled to have a coffee company offering the full range of origin flavors.

  3. Stumptown also roasts here in New York, and while I can appreciate their selection of beans it is hard to not throw a rock and not hit some restaurant, cafe, theater etc. that doesn't serve Stumptown coffee. Of course not all of these places have fresh beans, or are brewing it correctly, but nonetheless the lighter roast style is getting old to me. We also have Gimme, which has some great beans, however over the last 5 years have lightened things up as well. I hear all of the time cafe customers bashing "over-roasted" beans. I can't recall a time I have ever had "over-roasted" beans, I think it is all but backlash against big corporations. I am curious to know your opinion on two articles that while have some interesting tidbits, and not all bologna, but some certainly eye-roll worthy diction and assertions...

  4. Hi Patrick,

    I thought the second article ("Roasting 101") had some useful content, while the Willem Boot piece was pure fluff.

    What has been lost, which is especially ironic given that New York City is the home of "full city" roasting, is fully developed lighter roasting, which is of course called full city. We're talking light to full chestnut brown (depending on the bean), NO second pop - the kind of roasting that Schapira's in upstate NY made famous, and that Freed, Teller & Freed (San Francisco), Pannikin (San Diego), Kobos (Portland) and The Coffee Connection (Boston) used to specialize in.

    What we are seeing now are roasts in the institutional (i.e. still going through first pop) to light City or American roast range being applied to very dense, high-grown and therefore blazingly acidic Central American and/or washed East African coffees. Roasters with no education in roast intonation are "slapping on" the lightest possible roast without any thought of brewing method, what their local water is like, etc. etc.

    The "ideal" roast is 100% dependent on local water, brewing method(s), altitude and personal taste, and most great coffees deserve to be presented at at least two degrees of roast (one for drip/vacuum and another for pressurized brewing methods). Knowledge of roast intonation and matching roast to brewing method is just not out there for the most part in Third Wave land, which makes sense when you consider that the principals in almost all of these firms are baristas with no actual training in coffee beyond pulling shots.

  5. What is proper packaging? I believe there are a lot of third wave roasters that package their coffee in foil lined bags and are sealed. However, they are not nitrogen flushed. Is the expelling of the fresh coffee enough?

    Even if it isn't enough to compare the results with Peets packaging after 90 days, is it better than Stumptown's packaging?

    I don't tend to buy Peets, I mainly buy third wave coffee from the San Francisco Bay Area and either buy my coffee very fresh a day or two if it's in bags like Stumptown's or within a week in sealed bags. It seems to work well for me.

    However, it really upsets me to no end to see packaging like Stumptown's because I really enjoy their coffee so much and hate to see it get bad within a week of sitting on a self. I have had the coffee you speak of and it's good, but cannot bring myself to order a bag online with the chance it gets held up over a weekend and my 20 dollar bag of coffee is not what it should be.

    To summarize my questions; Is it really that expensive for a largish roaster like Stumptown to properly package their coffee given their size? Would just putting them in a sealed bag be better than their current model?

  6. Thanks for the comments and questions.

    There's a wide range of packaging being used for retail whole bean coffee these days. Plain tin tie bags like Stumptown uses, roast dated, are quite common. There are also way too many roasters who are buying pre-made valve bags and just heat-sealing them, without drawing a vacuum and back-flushing with nitrogen (you need to do both steps to both remove residual oxygen and create a package that isn't a hard "brick" that will easily be nicked and pierced during shipping and handling.

    If you're going to use Fresco or other good one-way valve bags you have the responsibility to vacuum-pack and use nitrogen, and also to buy and use an oxygen headspace meter to make sure residual oxygen is below 2% (below 1% is better still). The equipment to do this isn't cheap: say around 30K for a basic set-up, much more to do some volume, but if you're a big enough roaster to be shipping out of your local area or doing a lot of wholesale you're more than big enough to package your coffee properly.

    Without a doubt putting the coffee into a valve bag and just heat-sealing it does offer better shelf life than just sticking in in a tin tie bag, but because there's 21% oxygen in the bag when sealed the rate of staling is much higher than vacuum-packed coffee. The problem it the bag looks the same, and clearly the customer has the right to expect the shelf-life that the package is intended to provide.

    In my opinion if you are quality-driven you either roast locally, package in tin ties and make 100% sure all of your retail coffee, whether you sell it in your own stores or allow others to sell it, is sold within 5 days of roast date, or you invest in proper Fresco packaging or look into pressurized cans a la Illy. Charging $20 to $30 a pound an more for roast-dated, unprotected coffee that's a week or more (often much more) old is insulting to your coffee and your customers. Roasters owe it to all concerned to take the same kind of care with packaging that they do with sourcing and roasting.

  7. 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 low 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.

  8. Hi Patrick -

    Thanks for the excellent comments and questions. I'm going to do a follow-up post in reply. Much appreciated!

  9. Hi Kevin, I got my Stumptown yesterday, and it is a truly excellent coffee, and represents, for my tastes, what the 3rd wavers do best. The acidity is not very prominent in my preparation (Clever Coffee Dripper), and the coffee actually has a substantial body, which is unusual in my experience for the 3rd wave style.

    One amusing thing is that I thought the slit cut in the middle of my bag was caused by my clumsiness in cutting the box open, but looking at your picture above, I realize, it's for their card! I guess they have pretty much given up any effort at preserving the coffee. I just hope it doesn't spill onto my countertop!

    Thanks again for the recommendation!

  10. Hi Andre. I'm glad you got a chance to try that lot of Yergacheffe. It really is spectacular. I've been alternating pots of that with the Peet's Queen City for the past week.

    I actually like the look of the Stumptown tin tie packaging a lot and it would all be of a piece and make sense if they had stuck to being a local hero in Portland and been content to live out the life of the brand there, but with roasteries in 4 disparate cities they are long past the point of needing better packaging. For mail order it should have been the case from day one, as the best part of the coffee's shelf life is currently enjoyed only by the UPS trucks.