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).


  1. Arabian Mocha Java is what got me into Peet's!

    Question about green coffee. Is there any real way to tell how good coffee might be from a simple green bean? Or is it a crapshoot until it is actually roasted? Also, many people judge freshness based on the roast date, is there any quality difference from the date of harvest?

  2. Hi Patrick,

    You can certainly tell a few things from careful examination of green coffee, but sample roasting it is essential to knowing its real potential.

    Regarding the harvest date issue, that makes a major difference, though how much you'll notice that difference depends on both the coffee's origin and the degree of roast. With the exception of aged Indonesian coffees no coffee is going to be any better than right after its arrival in the U.S., and its flavor and aroma will fade over 6-12 months depending on how it's stored (again there is an exception: if the green beans are stored in sealed containers in a deep freeze, which to the best of my knowledge is done only by Terroir Coffee Company).

    Skilled roasters will subtly darken the roast of, say, a new crop Guatemala Huehuetenango over its useful single origin life span (say from arrival in June through November or December), after which the faded woodiness make its best use as a French Roast or the like. Now for roasters like Peets that roast everything well into second pop this is much less of an issue, but for the rest of the roasting world it's a significant one.

    Hope this helps.

  3. Kevin,

    I got your email address from one of your recent posts at Coffee Contrarian. For some reason, I was unable to post a comment, so I thought I would shoot you an email. I really appreciate your thoughts and opinions on the blog. I'd like to share a bit about my experience, too.

    Starbucks was crucial in launching my "coffee journey" about seven years ago. During college, a very charismatic friend began working there and would talk passionately about all the new things she was learning about coffee. She even gave me a free pound of a blend called Cafe Cielo, if I remember correctly. At the time, I couldn't afford Starbucks, so I mostly drank whole bean Sam's Choice from Wal-Mart. I cringe to say that now.

    A couple years ago, I won a contest at a local coffee shop in Louisville, KY called Sunergos ( - check them out if you have time. I like to say they're somewhere between 2nd and 3rd wave). The prize included a Hario Skerton, V60, Buono kettle, and a free pound of coffee each month for a year! Now, I know you hate V60s and other by-the-cup pour over methods, but this was a massive improvement from my previous set up: blade grinder, Mr. Coffee machine, and months-old supermarket swill. Truth be told, it took me a very long time to learn to use the V60 correctly, and I find its finicky nature very annoying now. I love the Aeropress and Clever.

    Soon after this, I caught the roasting bug. I started with a popcorn popper, and have progressed to roasting beans from Sweet Maria's in my Behmor. Personally, I prefer lighter roasts in the City or City + area, but sometimes enjoy going to Full City. I used to think that roasting lightly was the only option. See, when one starts out drinking Vienna and French roasts from Starbucks that taste like little else but campfire smoke and chocolate, the first time he has a lighter roast of a great coffee, it really opens his eyes to the world of flavor possibilities that he previously thought impossible!

    That being said, your blog has profoundly broadened my horizons. Your post about Peets on 10/23 made me crave a good Full city or Full City + roast! I've learned about the past thirty years' coffee zeitgeist from your unique insider's perspective. I have been challenged by your thoughts on Third Wave, and enriched by your ideas of what coffee can and should be. Anyway, sorry for the very long email. But thank you so much for what you're doing. Keep it up!


    Cameron Raulston

    Hi Cameron,

    Your kind letter made my day; thank-you!

    Your experimentation to date sounds wonderful. I like the Behmor very much and think for most people it's probably the best home roaster, but as you know it is most definitely not a roaster for dark roasts not does it make it easy to stop lighter roasts on a dime. The problem is the next step up - a Hot Top or the like - costs more than twice as much.

    What has become hard to find is the classic full city roast - NO second pop, but right up to it, which for new crop washed coffees brewed vacuum pot (a Bodum Santos is ideal) or drip is just about perfect. My old company Allegro still does such roasts (you might find them at Whole Foods, and they do mail order) and there are doubtless some others, but what seems to be happening is more ultra-light roasts, as you've observed. City roasts of high-acid coffees are as underdeveloped as Starbucks roasts of mediocre coffees are overdeveloped, and I woulnd't want to choose between them. Water quality and temperature make no small difference as well, and they're factors that are often forgotten. City roasts brewed with hard water are a whole lot more pleasant than the same coffee brewed with NYC or Seattle water, whose softness makes it ideal for Full City or darker.

    Sorry you had trouble with the blog. I will repost your comment there myself.

    Best wishes,


  4. Can you explain the difference between Peet's 'deep' roast compared to just a dark roast?

    I can taste there is a big difference between drinking a Peet's roast against say just a random dark roast from elsewhere. However, I have always just believed that it was because Peets simply bought beans, which could withstand a dark roast.

  5. Thanks for your question.

    Basically you've got it: Peet's buys beans that can not only "withstand," but (they would argue) really "flower" at, their quite dark roast. In general these are very dense, high-altitude coffees (but not always: withness the Indonesians) that are very carefully processed. The same quality of coffees roasted very lightly will have screaming, unbalanced acidity, which is of course exactly what we're seeing at many of today's Third Wave roasters. There is also a huge difference in sourcing expertise and relationships at origin, as you might expect from a company that has been buying the best coffees for over four decades and that was doing "relationship" coffee and direct trade long before most of today's Third Wave roasters were born.

    The Peet's coffees, as I mentioned in my post, really come into their own when viewed through the "lens" of pressurized brewing methods, from the modest pressure of the Aeropress or French Press to commercial espresso, just as light roasts are best in a vacuum pot or it's second-rate cousin, the drip brewer.

  6. Hi Kevin.

    It's good to know that I'm not the only one that simply can't stomach some of the pricey, light roasts from today's popular "specialty" (boutique) roasters.

    A few questions if you don't mind:

    Why roast so lightly if the end result tastes so bad?

    Both Peet's and Starbucks tend to roast on the dark side to put it mildly. What does Peet's do to preserve and enhance the flavor of their "deep roasted" Indonesian coffees for example, that Starbucks does not? Is it the quality of the bean, the roasting technique or something else?

    I recently discovered your blog and have learned so much. Thanks!


  7. Hi Jordan,

    I've asked the same question of every roaster I've seen putting City roasts in espresso doser-grinder hoppers, and the answers I've heard have mostly been along the lines of "we're the anti-Starbucks" or "we can compensate for the roast with our espresso machine settings." The owner-operators of these places are mostly if not entirely folks who emerged from the barista culture, meaning they have espresso "chops" but little or no actual knowledge of green coffee or roasting. There are exceptions of course.

    Another factor is that when you taste "cupping" roasts all the time - which would mean coffees that have just completed first pop, i.e. classic City roasts - your palate naturally tunes into the intense acidity and abundant aroma that coffees have at that stage, and you start to prefer it. But - and this is key - a cupping cup isn't an analogue of any actual brewing method. You have ground coffee in a cup that is allowed to cool over many minutes. Translating from there to real-world conditions means adjusting the roast for your local water, altitude, and the intended brewing method(s). Selling "cupping" roasts because that's what you like to cup, which is mostly what is happening now, just like selling coffees from places you like to travel to (all Central Americans with Cup of Excellence auctions) reflects tremendous narcissism and is a betrayal of both the consumer and, ultimately, the farmer.

    To your other question, what I've noticed with the Indonesians at Peet's is fidelity to the green coffee sourcing standards they and Starbucks used to have in common. They source more carefully, and they roast more carefully. Peet's still uses the classic Probat drum roasters while Starbucks long ago switched to automated Scolari equipment, and their coffees got darker and flatter across the board when that happened. I just tasted some Starbucks Anniversay Blend the other day and though the aged Indonesian component was clearly of good quality the blend as a whole was far too dark for the quality of the green coffees it contained. As with pretty much everything else they do these days, what is promoted as a repository of know-how and tradition should in fact be a source of shame.

  8. Dear Kevin,
    Thanks much for your very informative blog and particularly the post about Pete's. I am the founder of the very unofficial and unsanctioned Peetniks Group on LinkedIn. Your blog found its way to our discussion section. Please feel free to check us out and join us. We are up to 105 members. All potential subscribers to your blog!

  9. I'm just curious why you would put so much emphasis on roasting for body, when body attributes itself mostly to the feel of the coffee and less to flavor or aroma. (In drip coffee). It seems lighter roasted coffee produces well balanced cups, more delicate floral aromas, pleasant body, balanced acidity, and much more complexity and overall highlight the natural sweetness in coffee.

  10. Hi J. Dail -

    As I make clear in the post, the Peet's style is one that showcases body and relegates acidity to a supporting role. Their coffees are certainly flavorful, but especially when brewed drip you certainly aren't going to get the complexity of flavor and aroma of coffee of equivalent quality roasted in the city-to-full city range. The Peet's, however, will be smoother and richer, and as I point out is at its best in pressurized brewing methods that showcase body.

    These days light roasts - many actually far too light for optimum flavor development- are all the rage, and too many conflate what Peet's is capable of with the consistently murky (too dark for the quality of coffee being sourced) coffees of Starbucks.