Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Appreciating Peet's

The approach to roasting that I chose for Allegro Coffee when I first had  carte blanche to do so (in 1993) was a synthesis of the classic full city style pioneered by Freed, Teller & Freeds, Schapira's and Pannikin and brought to perfection by The Coffee Connection, and the deep (misunderstood as merely dark) style I learned during the early days at Starbucks, which of course came from Peet's.

In theintervening years there have of course been many changes, but one thing that has remained constant at Peet's that I want to draw your attention to is a tremendous fidelity to green coffee and roasting standards despite huge growth and some pretty seismic changes in their business, what with going public, going private again, a fitful expansion process mostly in venues in which they have little control of product quality, management changes, etc.

These days to experience Peet's at its best you have be a knowledgeable mail order customer. The in-store experience, while better than Starbucks by a country mile, isn't what it used to be except in very limited areas. Their drip coffee brewing is absolutely state-of-the-art, but what's on offer is just as likely to be a boneheaded choice like French Roast as it is to be something exquisite like Ethopia Super Natural. Godawful milk drinks (what would Mr. Peet have thought of Pumpkin Chai Latte?) are heavily promoted, and you can't buy a brewer worthy of their coffee (other than a plunger pot) or anything worth drinking it out of.

Needless to say, for those like me that remember many years of exquisite handmade cups at Vine Street and the sure knowledge that any non-coffee item on offer, from Richard Donnely dark chocolate laced with Peet's Arabian Mocha Java to June Taylor preserves, would surely meet Jerry Baldwin's product sourcing criteria ("Is it as good as the coffee'?) today's retail experience is but a shadow of former greatness.

On the mail order side though, they still roast your coffee to order, and hey, you get a full pound, properly packaged in a Fresco valve bag, for much less than 12 ounces of stale single origin city roast at your local Third Wave outlet. You also get - again in sharp contrast - a truly representative selection of country-of-origin flavors, from a reliably superb Guatemalan Antigua to deeply fruited Kenya, real Yemen Mocha and perhaps best of all the full range of Indonesian classics, from reference-standard Sumatra to semi-aged and exquisitely complex Sulawesi.

You'll have to buy the Aeropress that best suits these coffees (or your Clever Dripper, Technivorm, Bonavita, and your Baratza grinder, etc.) elsewhere, but you'll have nothing to complain about when you taste the coffees, provided (if all you've been drinking is light roasts) you give your palate a week or more of steady exposure to recalibrate itself to the roast style.

For newcomers I'd recommend sticking to Peet's African and Indonesian selections at first, since the virtues of their roast style are more easily perceived in these dramatic coffees. This is a style that puts body and depth in the foreground and relegates acidity to a supporting role. It's port rather than still wine, so to speak, though when I think of the style I always remember Peet's roastmaster emeritus Jim Reynolds and his admiration of Ridge single-vinyard Zinfindels and 23 year old Guatemalan Ron Zacapa, both of which seem to me like perfect analogues to the Peet's coffee style.

These are coffees that while excellent brewed drip really come into their own through pressurized brewing methods, from Aeropress to French Press to commercial-grade espresso machine. The differences between the coffees are just as vivid as you'll find in lighter roasts of the same beans, albeit with less aromatic complexity (but far deeper body).

For those who can summon some level of appreciation for this roast style but who wonder why all the coffees have traditionally been roasted so thoroughly, I will also offer this fading memory from a former Starbucks insider's perspective (and as the tea buyer for Starbucks back when it was a place for full leaf Hao Ya A Keemun and Namring Darjeeling instead of Tazo teabag swill): remember the importance of tea at Peet's. Mr. Peet was just as serious about tea as he was about coffee, and to this day the company does a superb job with its tea sourcing and devotes resources to tea that far outstrip its position in the overall sales.

What does this have to do with coffee? Well for an employee just as for the most discriminating customers there's usually a progression from the coarse (French Roast vs. Folger's) to the subtle (the sublime balance of a Guatemalan Antigua vs. the wild fruit of a natural Ethiopian Harrar), and tea offers a whole different order of subtlety and a far gentler caffeine "ramp up" than coffee. Another way to put this is that the real connoisseurs among both employees and consumers are most often both coffee and tea drinkers - and you can afford to have all of your coffees be plush and rich when you can so easily get your acidity and aroma "fix" from first flush Darjeelings, lemony Nuwara Eliya Ceylons and so on.

These days I buy my tea from Upton but I've been enjoying an Aeropress of Peet's on many a morning over the past six months. Ethiopian Queen City (a fancy name for what was in fact a classic Harrar), a string of great Kenya auction lots, Arabian Mocha Java that thanks to upgraded Java (and despite so-so Yemen) is better than ever, Sulawesi and Aged Sumatra that are as good as an I've had in 40 years of drinking Peet's. Hat's off to Peet's coffee and tea buyers and roasting team (and with the ever-present faint hope that they take over the place one day and make everything else just as good as the coffee).

I want to live in a world where Sweet Maria's replaces Starbucks

Particularly in light of the bitingly negative tone of my last post, I thought I'd share a bit about what life might look like if America's best retailer of roasters could be magically transformed into America's leading roaster-retailer.

In the 16 years since I published Coffee Basics one of the biggest changes in the U.S. specialty coffee industry from a qualitative and consumer empowerment perspective has been the rise of home roasting specialist Sweet Maria's and its companion business, Coffee Shrub, that caters to retail microroasters.

During my years as a roaster and buyer coffees of the quality that these folks now routinely offer were simply not available in green form to anyone but a select group of roasters, let alone by the pound to individual consumers. Ditto with the level of coffee education available on the Sweet Maria's site, which is so fantastic that it pretty much removes the need for anymore generalist coffee books like the one I wrote.

Beyond the quality of the coffees and great write ups and videos on roasting and brewing, what I really love about Sweet Maria's is their informed catholicity of perspective about roast degrees and brewing methods. SM's main man, Thompson Owen, fully understands what is missed by just about every leading Third Wave roaster: that roasting is an interpretation of green coffee and that multiple interpretations are equally valid, all depending on the intended brewing method and which aspects of a coffee's flavor you want to highlight.  Have a look at these recent coffee offerings to get a sense of what I mean:

We were very excited to receive more great samples from the Chelelektu washing station this year. This lot is made up of several small lots from around the small town of Ch'elelek'tu in the Kochere Woreda of Yirga Cheffe. This lot was prepared to Grade 1 standards, and the altitudes of area farms range from 1800 to 2000 meters, with approximately 600 small holder farmers contributing to this lot.

This is one of those coffees that you feel like you can't throw enough adjectives at - intense, floral, beautiful, bracing...yes, the list is very long, and the coffee is deserving! The cup has amazing sweetness and body.. City to City+ roasts are honeyed, and have sweet citrus juice notes like orange juice and lemonade. Fruited note flourish at City+ roast with apricot, white peach, and Rainier cherry. Roasting closer to full city brings out tropical fruits such as pineapple, dragon fruit, and cherimoya. This coffee's finish is so sweet, and with a clean, hibiscus tea element. It also makes a great as SO espresso.

We have looked at a lot of wet-process coffees from the Southern zones of Sidama and Yirga Cheffe areas this year. There were so many nice coffees that we could be quite selective, and we passed up on some lots that likely, in other years, we would have jumped at. There were some very nice washed coffees from stations like Aricha and Wote Konga (private stations) as well as cooperatives like Beloya and Hama. But this coffee here was a jewel that shone a bit brighter than all. This lot is from a particular region within the Kochere kebele, a part of the Yirga Cheffe region. It comes from the Alemu washing station. We were simply amazed by the clarity of flavors, brightness, and refined finish. It's a competition class coffee. Seriously.

This coffee has a delicate cup profile that shines on the lighter end of the roast spectrum. At City+, there is black tea lightly sweetened with honey sweetness. The acidity is lively and well defined, like essence of lemon. Citrus pervades the cup profile but without any of the harsh or tart aspects that can come along with it. It's very much like a juice called "calamansi" made from fruit of the same name (it's like lime without the harsh acidic snap. It's from the Philippines, and available in the USA too). The finish has a floral element that is like Japanese "Botan" rice candies.

This takes me back to the old days at Allegro Coffee where we offered, for example, two roasts of Kenya and of Guatemala: one a classic full city roast (i.e. no second pop, Agtron number in the high 60's) for drip and vacuum pot brewing, and a darker Vienna roast that corraled these coffee's acidity enough to produce great espresso and opulent plunger pot coffee. George Howell did this at The Coffee Connection and subsequently at Terroir - quite a contrast to what we see going on now, with cinnamon-to-city roasted beans being run through espresso machines!

Getting back to Sweet Maria's, the aforementioned broad-mindedness goes way beyond roasting to include a breadth of green coffee selections which unfortunately has no retail equivalent. They have the great washed Central and South American coffees of course, washed Kenyas, Yergacheffes and Sidamos galore, but are also the premier source for rustic Yemen Mochas, suave-to-rustic Sumatras of both the current crop and aged persuasions and dazzlingly fruity Ethiopian naturals. 

The bottom line for a consumer willing to tie up a few hundred dollars in a Behmor roaster and a modest green bean inventory is that they can easily be enjoying coffee that is as good as - and most likely better than - that sold by any of America's great roasters for less than half the price, fresher, and with total control over the degree of roast and a selection of green coffees that simply blows away the absurdly limited, purportedly "seasonal" offerings of today's leading retailers. I just hope that in time more roasters will take a page from the Sweet Maria's playbook and offer a much broader range of origins and roasts. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Coffee from Fools for Masochists

Okay, the phrasing is a bit harsh, but it's inspired by the great George Howell's equally pointed (and dead-on) characterization of kopi luwak: "coffee from assholes for assholes." My iteration is my broad brush stroke take on a great deal of the coffee (and all of the espresso) I've had in the past couple of years at leading "Third Wave" coffeehouses.

The "from fools" part refers to owner/operators who are typically as passionate about "quality" as they are ignorant about how to actually go about providing it. The disjunctions are gigantic:  the desire to "buy direct" alongside little-to-no cupping and sourcing expertise and commercially meaningless purchasing power. Painstakingly sourced and carefully roasted coffee roast-dated but then packaged in tin tie bags and sitting stale on the shelf, complete with GPS coordinates and farmer photos. $8000 worth of espresso equipment being used to brew utterly undrinkable coffee thanks to roasts too light for drip brewing being extracted through a pressurized brewing method that requires a darker roast in order to corral the acidity (exacerbated of course by massive dosing and ├╝ber-ristretto pours). No sugar or milk on the counter in conjunction with coffee so thin and acid it needs all the doctoring possible in order to render it drinkable.

It doesn't help matters that what little press coffee gets is fluff like this paean to coffee "expert" Oliver Strand and the New York coffee scene. My comment on this particular piece of fine journalism from Facebook:

 "New York's foremost Java expert" has never worked in the coffee business, knows next to nothing about roasting and nothing at all about green coffee but has hung out with a bunch of "expert baristas" (very much equivalent to saying "skilled burger flippers" in terms of the skill level required). And that's expertise in coffee, 2013 style."

Entertaining as watching the Stumptowns, Blue Bottles and Intelligentsias of the world squabble over grossly overpriced microlots grown by this month's "star" farmer may be, there is an actual coffee business out there, and it's growing by leaps and bounds in no small measure due to the lack of excellent, affordable, properly roasted and brewed coffee at retail. It's called the single cup business, and by that I certainly don't mean the papery, tepid and screamingly acid mug of Chemex drip I waited 10 minutes for @ $7 a cup at my local Third Wave outlet. No, I mean Keurig K-cups, Starbucks' Verisimo and Via, Nespresso and the like, which today comprise nearly 25% of the coffee market in the U.S. and are growing by leaps and bounds.

With Keurig's new Vue line we now have mass-market single-cup brewers that are fully capable of achieving the brew temperature and dosage requirements of a truly great cup of coffee. All that's missing is for someone to put a cherry-picked selection of top offerings from today's leading Third Wave roasters into a K-Cup, and that seems inevitable once the absurd focus on bottled cold brew lets up.

We knew when we put the first espresso machine in a Starbucks store some 25 years ago that coffee by the cup, made on the spot, would quickly become the gold standard for coffee, with batch brews relegated to commodity status. What we didn't know was how it would unfold, or that roaster-retailers would simply give up on supplying their customers with the means to brew great coffee at home.

Interesting times. I'm glad I'm not a coffee farmer.