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 über-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.


  1. This has, in fact, begun to happen: Keurig released a limited-edition Cerro Azul Geisha k-cup last year (http://www.keurig.com/coffee/special-reserve-colombia-geisha-coffee-k-cup-gmc), and there are 100% Kona and JBM k-cups as well. Nespresso's dipped its feet into these waters, too.

  2. Once again, thank you! Some people turn their noses up at it for some reason (peer pressure?), but here in New York the best cups of coffee you will have are at Starbucks locations that have Clover brewed Reserves. Are they worth $4? I'd rather pay the $7 for the Clover Reserve cup of coffee than the vinegar I get at some of the other places.

    What ever happened to Indonesia? Have third wave joints heard of Indonesia? IMO, Starbucks has always been a star at them, and their Reserve Sumatra is amazing.

    Oh btw, I found out there is a Peet's in NYC, you can see it from the street, but it is nestled in an NYU academic and dorm building and you need to be a student to access it...

    I have also tried some La Colombe recently. You are able to find some darker blends that I find very good. Of course blends aren't very hip at the moment though... Certainly more drinkable using pressurized methods of brewing, and the packaging is top-notch. They have begun hermetically sealing and nitrogen backflushing their bags.

  3. Thanks to you both for your comments.

    I continue to follow the Starbucks Reserve program with interest. So far the prices are excessive, even by Third Wave standards: they're asking the 3rd wave 12 ounce price for half-pounds of coffees that in all honesty are about at the quality level of the "normal" single origins when I worked there. I mean the whole point of offering single origins of any sort is that the Sumatra, Guatemala, Kenya, etc. you offer straight is THE BEST representative of that coffee you can find. The secondary stuff goes in the blends and dark roasts! Still I do agree that at least these coffees are properly roasted, and of course the Clever is great technology.

    Thanks jvviau for the head's up on the Green Mountain Gesha. I hope Peet's will realize the error they made in doing regular K Cups when they ought to have done ones for the Keurig Vue and featured their best coffees rather than their best-sellers. I'm not holding my breath though given that clearly marketing minions rather than coffee folks are running the show there.

    To your other comments Patrick, the coffee selection at Third Wave places seems to be driven by where they buyers like to visit and party and not much more. The consumer's interests, be they in reasonable choice or realistic price, have nothing to do with their businesses. If they did, Indonesians and dry-processed Ethiopians would be readily available - not to mention Central American coffees that are actually roasted.

  4. I call my coffee "proudly Second Wave". I learned under some of the greats during the 80s and 90s, and I'm roasting accordingly. There was nothing at all wrong about the best of coffee from early Starbucks to pre-dotcom Bay Area coffee. Meh -- passion is for the young and foolish. Making great coffee is mostly hard work and dogged determination. As is anything worth doing well. If refurbing a "vintage" Probat, installing a Slayer, playing "ironic" oldies on vinyl, wearing a second-hand plaid vest, and making pilgrimages to "origin" makes you a coffee expert, then I'm just a sorry anachronism.

  5. I'm glad you're out there Robert.

  6. http://chicagolandbeverage.com/display.php?product=IntelligentsiaCoffeeBlackCatPods

    1. Thanks for this Jeff. It's a perfect illustration of the business reality behind the Third Wave marketing hype. What's promoted are tiny lots of single origins at high prices. What pays the bills are blends made from high-quality commercial coffees bought and sold at real-world prices.

    2. Didn't try this yet. Inteligentsia, Stumptown, Blue bottle have recently had financial backing to grow, they will franchise or expand and sell more, hence them branching out to new markets.. smart.

    3. Still it's good to taste the small lots at high prices, a lot of them are worth it. I don't beleve that they're all that high, at least at home you can make liters of coffee with that 200 gram you buy. there's a good chance that you can reward a farm, or a group of farmers with a good price (I know that feedback loop can be long, still their name is out there). All beans will be consumed somehow, and there's a price for everything. There's a more and more diverse group of consumers out there and needs will be satisfied.

  7. Really interesting blog post. Thanks for taking the time to write it. It's really great to get an industry experienced persons take on all the new trends in coffee.

    A couple things I am interested in your thoughts on. In nearly every facet of human consumption there are numerous styles and choices for customers to tailor their purchases to their own style and tastes. e.g. automobiles, utility or economy, for weekend getaways or for suburban commuting, etc. Or beer, dark and roasted or light and acidic. What I don't really understand about the coffee industry is why there must be a dualistic paradigm regarding roasting. I think there is space for what you call "tepid and screamingly acidic" (I happen to love coffees with pronounced acidity, fruit forward character, and very little roast notes) and french/italian/spanish roasts.

    Also, why do you think single cup automatic brewers are the answer to the home brewing question? For me they don't offer the control or quality that I get from my manual brew setup, not to mention the excessive waste and cost of individually packaging coffee. And there is absolutely no question that pre-ground coffee, even if it is hermetically sealed and nitrogen flushed, becomes stale and significantly loses flavor potential.

  8. Hi spb -

    Thanks for your comments.

    I, too, love diversity of flavor, be it in beer, wine or coffee, and that's precisely why I've commented negatively on the lemming-like rush off the light-roast cliff that is happening among leading Third Wave roasters. Diversity in sourcing and in roast style is exactly what is so sorely missing among the "leading lights" (pun intended) of this group, who all seem to be going after the same small group of microlots and competing to see who can roast them the lightest. I like very bright coffees myself, but I also love deep-roasted Indonesians and Africans, superb Northern Italian espresso and much else.

    As for single cup brewers, I certainly don't think they're "the answer" but rather pointed out that the utter lack of roaster in offering customers easy, fun and affordable ways to brew great coffee at home just adds fuel to the Keurig, Nespresso and Verissimo fire. Drip coffee is a batch, not by-the-cup, brewing method, but the full-immersion tweaks thereof (i.e. the Clever and the Aeropress) are wonderful. So, for that matter, is a #6 filter cone atop at 1 quart Nissan thermos, or of course a Bonavita, Brazen or Technivorm drip brewer. What isn't wonderful are the truly stupid ways of brewing drip coffee that are so popular in Third Wave land: Hario V60s and Chemexes complete with weighing water on scales, gooseneck kettles, $200+ conical burr grinders being sold as "essential," etc. That is the kind of idiocy that creates a new Keurig drinker every day.

    Lastly I do agree with you about ground coffee, but I can tell you for sure that a Nespresso capsule or for that matter a properly vacuumed, nitrogen back-flushed Fresco valve bag has an infinitely longer shelf life than roast dated whole beans from a local roaster sitting in a tie tie bag on a shelf, or placed into a valve bag that is just heat-sealed because the roaster won't spend the money on proper packaging machinery. Easily 75% of the coffee I have seen on the shelves of leading boutique roasters in Seattle and Portland is stale - at asking prices of over $20 a pound.

  9. Kevin, just as you would like to blame the "third wave" for the K-Cup upswing you must then also give credit to the market for embracing the Blue Bottles and Stumptowns of the world. The public has embraced them in a big way.

    I too run a “third wave” coffee shop, right across a street from a “2nd wave” coffee shop and I too have been rewarded for my coffee philosophy.

    I believe the coffee you extol like Peet’s, Starbucks et al. is just plain horrible. Your insistence that certain brew methods require darker roasts exemplify the great divide that your era and the new era are at. Get used to it and get over it. You have your followers and we have our own. We believe we have found a better way and our customers are rewarding us for it.

    Kevin says,

    "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. "


    "$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 über-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.”

    Kevin, we are as passionate about our brew methods as are you are. I cannot tolerate the coffee you like. Perhaps science has an answer for the divide:

    "The sense of smell is often taken for granted, that is until it deteriorates. As we get older, our olfactory function declines. Not only do we lose our sense of smell, we lose our ability to discriminate between smells." http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2579627/

    Think about it.


  10. Hi Al-

    I'll address your comments in order:

    1. The press has embraced Blue Bottle and Stumptown in a big way. The public is drinking lattes at Starbucks, K-Cups at home and buying coffee at Costco - by which I mean, the market share of boutique Third Wave places is miniscule.

    2. Clearly you haven't read my posts about Starbucks and Peets. I am harshly critical of both companies - Starbucks more than Peet's simply because they are so much more mediocre and so much more influential in shaping the market. When I point out the things that those huge companies do well (sourcing, packaging, brewing technology) is it in hopes of inspiring Third Wave folks to learn from them, rather than thinking they already know when in fact most Third Wave folks (and clearly you would be inclluded in this) have almost no knowledge of coffee beyond pulling a shot of espresso. "To transcend is to know and to see with open eyes," and if Third Wave folks aspire to truly be not just different from but better than what has come before really knowing and understanding best practices in coffee and then improving upon them is vital. That iis NOT what is happening, for the most part, but when it does (e.g. with Grain Pro bags, better separation of lots, etc.) I am happy to acknowledge and celebrate real Third Wave innovation.

    Regarding brewng methods and degree of roast, that's another instarnce of me pointing out that understanding best practices ought to proceed innovation. To engage in formulating espresso blends and roasts and using that technology with no knowledge of nor respect for the Italians who invented and perfected it is absurd, and to a large degree that is what's going on in Third Wave places. Putting Cinnamon to City roasts of high-acid coffees through an espresso machine results in coffee that even someone as untrained in tasting as yourself can probably tell tastes like lemon juice. Fortunately for you and others in the Third Wave world, customers are still mostly drinking coffee adultereated with steamed milk and the like. Using it to mask under-roasting and over-extraction rather than to cover up over-roasting as at Starbucks does not strike me as progress.

    As to your last comment, at age 57 I'd be happy to put my cupping abilities up against yours - or anyone else's - anytime.

  11. CFL is a place worth checking out for buying K-cups and coffee supplies.