Thursday, November 6, 2014

Seasonal Teas for Coffee Lovers

Panyang Golden Tribute

I've been really appreciating being back in the U.S. full-time after several years spent living mostly in México - not least because of the easy availability of truly great coffee and tea.

On the coffee front, Sweet Maria's continues to be a reliable source of good-to-great green coffee for me to roast at home (pretty much the only choice as far as I can tell for anyone who wants classic full-city roasts), but as has been the case for decades now I still drink tea every other morning, both because I love it and because the more subtle and varied nature of tea helps to keep my tasting chops sharp for everything else.

While "seasonality" in the Third Wave coffee world is mostly an excuse for selling what you like rather than offering consumers a reasonable range of choices, in tea it really does mean something, and this is the time of year when most of the really exciting winter-weight teas arrive in the U.S.

There's so much emphasis in the press on green and white teas for their antioxidant content and health benefits that the kinds of teas that work well with Western cuisine - and that would appeal to coffee drinkers looking for a change of pace - are hardly mentioned. In doing tastings for consumers over the years I've consistently found that coffee drinkers who are - or who aspire to be - tea drinkers as well are usually most impressed with teas that have enough heft and density to be an easy transition from coffee. Here's a brief sketch of some top value current seasonal offerings from Upton Tea, far and away the best overall source for full leaf (which is to say real, not tea bag or instant) tea in the U.S.


Teas from Sri Lanka remain under-appreciated (and thus undervalued) in the U.S. There's a tremendous diversity of styles, with most of my favorites coming from lower elevations and from districts such as Rahuna that produce teas with heavier body, though there are plenty of exceptions.

TC42 Idulgashinna BOP: From one of the best (and oldest) organic producers in Sri Lanka this value-priced tea offers classic Uva district briskness with plenty of body to stand up to milk and sugar. A classic "tea tea" to get started with.

TC70 New Vithanakande FBOPF: Always one of the country's very best producers, offering teas with a complex aromatic and flavor profile that offers flavor notes of orange, maple and sweet spice complemented with intense, almost Assam-level tannins for a stout cup. This particular lot is priced for regular consumption, but to see what they are capable of (and just how great Ceylon tea can be) do spring for a small packet at least of the sister lot TC87.

TC07 Season's Pick FBOPF: This is an outstanding, dirt cheap tea that's part of an estimable series ("Season's Pick") of very high-value teas Upton originally started sourcing for its restaurant customers. For literally pennies per cup you get a deep, round, honeyed tea that's perfect for the coming shorter days.

China Blacks

Almost invariably when I've taught "Tea 101" classes to groups of coffee drinkers the great black teas of China have been the crowd favorites. There's an autumnal, foresty complexity to the aromas of these teas not found in any others.

ZY82 Yunnan Golden Tips Imperial: my favorite of a bunch of good-to-great Yunnans on Upton's list, this not-cheap tea offers the classic complex Yunnan flavors of apricot and peach offset with peppery spice, butter caramel sweetness and a wild mushroomy earthiness. A bit of sugar brings out the flavors, and it can certainly handle milk if need be.

ZP60 Panyang Golden Tribute: this just-arrived high end tea is one of my all-time favorites, with enough depth of flavor and opulence of body to please a dyed-in-the-wool Sumatra coffee drinker. It's as good as black tea gets.

ZP22 Panyang Select is a junior sibling to the Golden Tribute, priced for everyday consumption and much simpler in flavor, but far better than many Keemuns costing twice as much or more. There's a definite smoky note, good body and plenty of sweetness. In between this lot and the top end Tribute is another stunning tea, ZP91 Panyang Congou Supreme, which offers room-filling aroma and tremendous complexity of flavor, including a lovely note of fresh apple I find partiuclarly appealing at this time of year.


Teas from the Assam district are the classic winter-weight teas, traditionally used as the backbone for Irish and Scottish Breakfast blends. Teas from the top estates really deserve to be drunk unblended, and in recent decades have begun to fetch stratospheric prices, especially from tea-crazy Germany and other sophisticated markets.

While the original Assam cultivars came from Yunnan (the motherland of tea), several sophisticated producers have long since developed gorgeous, golden-tipped varieties that offer an intensity and complexity of flavor that make their teas well worth the relatively high prices they often command.

These are the Peet's Sulawesi (or Aged Sumatra) of teas, virtually requiring the addition of milk and sugar for most drinkers, at least at first. I have fond memories of cupping several tables of new crop Assams with Jim Reynolds, the original coffee buyer for Starbucks (and then Peets for many years) in the mid 1980's. We just used the standard 2.25 grams per cup but even for us, hard-core coffee tasters used to dark roasts, the tannins in a couple of tables full of Assams had us feel like our tongues had sprouted fur coats. Still, on a February morning with snow falling outside there's nothing I'd rather drink than one of these dark beauties.

TA21 Mokalbari East GFBOP: A high-value tea from an estate that has been producing teas with a particularly ferocious malty intensity for decades. The value-for-money here is off the charts.

TA51 Mangalam FTFFOP1: One of the most famous Assam estates, and certainly one of the most consistent. If you've never tasted a classic Assam, this is the place to start. Strength and smoothness are balanced here, and the leaf is so pretty it almost seems a shame to brew it.

TA57 Harmutty TGFOP: This new arrival has plenty of malty intensity but with more balance than the Mokalbari plus an enchanting note of wild cherry, or perhaps Amarone wine. Excellent value, too.

TA97 Halmari TGFBOP1: It's well-known among professional tea tasters that BOP grade Assams often out-cup the larger leaf sizes, and this is a perfect example. Over-the-top aromatic intensity but classic Assam through and through, and living proof of the wisdom of the old Mae West adage that "too much of a good thing can be wonderful.

Mangalam Estate Assam

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Science of Crema at Nestlé

Peter Giuliano was very kind to share this article and linked video from last year's SCAA Symposium (the video is 16 minutes long and worth every minute you spend watching it):

Brita Folmer on Crema

Dr. Folmer's talk is a rare and really wonderful glimpse into defining, measuring and achieving high quality in coffee using the full complement of scientific and technological tools available. Sadly I doubt this talk will be viewed by those who most need to see it: specialty coffee folks who think that having a "passion" for quality, or over-paying for small lots of green coffee from farms you've visited, has something to do with actual quality, when it does not.

Think about all the theories about espresso and crema you've heard: it's the sign of truly fresh coffee; you need robusta in the blend in order for it to really last; it protects the aroma of your shot while drinking it; it needs to pour towards the rim of the demitasse and stay intact to be a good one - on and on. Then look at this video, which looks at what crema actually is, what consumers and expert tasters expect and perceive it to be, and how good crema can be part of not only straight shots of espresso but the drip-strength caffe lungo that dominates the market in much of Europe (and which deserves a much wider audience here).

There's so much to learn from, and to be impressed by, in this excellent presentation, but for me the most important aspect of all is how seamlessly this company integrates the technical aspect of coffee chemistry and the perspective of expert tasters with the needs, wants and preconceptions of its customers. The consumer hardly factors in to most discussions I hear among American microroasters: instead it's talk about how much we (behind the counter) like such-and-such microlot, how much we spent on the latest Rube Goldberg brewing contraption, or how we roast the coffee to our ideal profile based on what we find at the cupping table. That's coffee-as-hobby; this talk is about the coffee business. 

A retro rejoinder in Seattle

Nicaragua (left) and Guatemala from Fundamental Coffee

Two old hands in coffee - one of whom I had the pleasure of working with during my Starbucks years - have just opened a microroastery in Seattle called Fundamental Coffee. It's very early days yet for them, but I must say I'm delighted to see fresh, deep-roasted coffee in Seattle again.

The situation in Seattle over the past decade or more has truly become a case of "coffee everywhere, but nothing fit to drink." I can think of only two exceptions: Lighthouse Roasters up on Phinney Ridge, along with the rightly legendary Joe Kittay at The Good Coffee Company down on Post Alley (no web site, of course). Other than these guys, there's a veritable ocean of cinnamon-to-city roasted, screamingly acid, scandalously over-priced AND very frequently stale coffee from a bevy of Third Wave know-nothings, offset by a Starbucks on every street corner selling stale, incinerated beans from nowhere in particular if you can even find the whole bean coffee amidst the milk, flavorings and foods.

I tasted three of the six coffees currently on offer from Fundamental: their Humbucker Blend and a Guatemala Antigua Acate Estate,  and a Nicaragua Matagalpa. The Humbucker is seriously darkly roasted - think Peet's rather than Starbucks in its prime, but there's a whole lot more going on in the cup than roasty power, with deep dark chocolate, great balance and body that's nothing short of oceanic. It reminds me a bit of Peet's Top and Garuda Blends and even more of Starbucks Gold Coast Blend when we invented in in the late 80's.  It would make magnificent espresso.

The roast on the Guatemala was also quite Peetsian, and I didn't think the coffee quite handled it, but I was drinking it through the Aeropress and as drip and I have no doubt it would've shown me a lot more in a La Marzocco. My favorite of the bunch was the Nicaragua, roasted one significant notch lighter (putting it in the Starbucks-of-old [pre Scolari roasters]) range and offering luscious body supported by crisp acidity and considerable complexity of flavors.

While the coffees here and the roasts are clearly in the Peets and Starbucks lineage, what really took me on a trip to memory lane was freshness. When I first started working at Starbucks in 1984 we roasted coffee three days a week and delivered it to the stores the next day - in increments as small as two pounds - in order to guarantee every bean was sold within a week of roasting. The aroma in my house when I opened the bags from Fundamental was exactly that of every Starbucks store (or Peet's Vine Street for that matter) during the many years before a commercial espresso machine made its way into the stores.

Close-ups of the two degrees of roast

Check out Fundamental's web site - their blog in particular - and you'll get a very clear sense of their focus and the great depth of experience, product knowledge and passion supporting their perspective and product offerings. Note also their concern about delivering value-for-money from the outset, and their eagerness to engage their customers as partners in the business. These are coffees meant for the naturally soft water, grey days and pressurized brewing methods (from French Press to espresso) that were perfected in Seattle long ago, when the Starbucks mermaid was brown and had breasts, the coffee beans were fresh, and the scale of the business was human. It's my kind of retro.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Mandatory Third Wave coffee bar equipment

There's a great video out that shows the classic Balance Vacuum Coffee Maker in action. It's meant to look old-timey and fun and succeeds on both counts, but the first thing that struck me in watching it is that the brewing process shown is actually less tedious than watching your local barista brew a Hario pourover and the result is ever-so-much better: an actual pot of coffee, not a mere cup, that's hot instead of tepid.

Now the last time I was in an Intelligentsia store Doug Zell facetiously apologized for not having a Fetco installed (and of course the coffee would've been much better - and the wait in line infinitely shorter - if he had), but I think, in penance for the innumerable cups of under-extracted, papery and obscenely overpriced coffee made while you wait wait wait that all of the groovy Third Wave chains ought to brew on nothing but these ever-so-retro vacuum brewers.

That way - finally - I'd be able to get a cup of coffee that doesn't suck, from a brewer that does.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

You've gotta be sh$%!*ng me

Thanks to long-time reader of this blog Patrick Booth for sharing this story from NPR, about an entrepreneur who's decided that the way to improve Kopi Luwak (the notorious "recycled" coffee made by collecting beans that have been eaten and shat out by the palm civet) is to supersize things by feeding coffee to elephants and collecting what comes out the other end.

Kopi Luwak was perhaps excusable when it was a rare novelty made from beans found in the forests of Indonesia, but it has long since morphed into a hideous (on many levels) enterprise involving keeping the hapless civets in captivity. It was - and is - in George Howell's incomparably precise and concise summation, "coffee from assholes for assholes."

I wish I could come up with an equally witty summary for this new project, but "Enema & Ivory" sung to the old Michael Jackson tune just doesn't cut it. Perhaps what's needed is an insistence from consumers that, in the interests of animal welfare, they'll only buy elephant shit coffee from free range pachyderms. Then at least there's a fair chance of these noble beasts flattening their handlers-cum-bean-collectors into the ground, thereby putting an end to the enterprise and vindicating Darwin once again.

Friday, August 1, 2014

"The Future of Iced Coffee" leaves me cold

If this be coffee, give

This well-written article in The Atlantic has been recommended enthusiastically by a couple of people (Peter Giuliano and Mark Inman) I have a lot of respect and affection for, but I think their enthusiasm is either misplaced entirely or a result of greatly diminished expectations for specialty coffee altogether. 

Sprudge entitled their link to this article "Can the Next Starbucks Actually Sell Good Coffee?," which speaks volumes about the level of ignorance of specialty coffee history that prevails on the internet. The product the Atlantic article is about is a coffee-and-chicory based milk-and-sugar drink in a milk carton, produced by a marketing-driven company (Blue Bottle) that is to coffee retailing what Patron Tequila (a brand started by hair stylist John Paul Mitchell) is to authentic small-producer tequila. 

Starbucks on the other hand was a superb roaster-retailer from 1971 through 1984, during which time it sold not just good but often truly great coffee. It was a product (not marketing) driven company from top to bottom, which of course made it ideal for the masterful job of co-optation and prostitution done by Howard Schultz from 1987 onwards. Blue Bottle, on the other hand, was marketing-driving from the beginning - it has no soul to lose. 

The appropriate frame of reference for discussing Blue Bottle's milk carton coffee would be a comparative tasting of that product with bottled and canned iced products from Starbucks, Illycaffe and the like. 

Fresh brewed iced coffee prepared Japanese style, as championed by the aforementioned Mr. Giuliano, is the only iced coffee beverage I know of that captures, to a considerable degree, the aroma and flavor of excellent origin coffees. As a summer complement to core offerings of hot, freshly-brewed coffee it makes all kinds of sense. 

Blue Bottle New Orleans Iced Coffee on the other hand, is in the same category as the other aforementioned bottled coffee products, and only one small step away from Nescafé flavored coffee creamers, Irish Creme flavored beans and other such swill that are all still very much part of the (meaningless but measured) "specialty" coffee category. 

Traditional New Orleans coffee, to begin with, starts with mediocre to out-and-out defective coffee beans incinerated (French Roasted) to mask their defects. The loveliness of that starting point is then compounded by adding roasted chicory root, a foul-tasting coffee extender, after which copious amounts of milk and sugar are added in order to make the brew drinkable. Apparently Mr. Freeman is hoping that "New Orleans style" will evoke just the right happy associations in the consumer's mind, but that particular kind of coffee marketing is the province of somewhat larger companies (surely we haven't forgotten that the best part of waking up is Folger's in your cup?). 

Over twenty years ago, during the heady early days of explosive growth at Howard Schultz era Starbucks, I had the pleasure of hosting the superb food writer Corby Kummer (of The Atlantic) at the Starbucks roasting plant in Seattle for tasting and lengthy discussion. Even then (this was the early 90's) I could see substantial erosion in the level of knowledge of, and passion for, the taste of unadulterated origin coffees among both our customer and employee bases, and when Corby said "but surely Seattle has the highest level of coffee connoisseurship in the country" I replied that that was equivalent to seeing a table full of women at a cocktail party drinking daiquiris and assuming they were all Vodka connoisseurs. The current Atlantic article is about exactly that kind of "connoisseurship," despite the fact that the quality of the coffee required for the product in question is utterly mediocre and the taste for sugary, milky coffee it both satiates and cultivates is anathema to the appreciation of the flavor of real coffee. 

If we have gotten to the point where industry leaders enthusiastically embrace "premium" coffee-based beverages that directly undermine the cultivation of a consumer base capable of appreciating (and paying for) the subtle aromas and flavors of great single origin coffee there's no hope. 

At the very least, I shouldn't be the only one with an industry background pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes - or rather, that there's (almost) no coffee in this "coffee." 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

"Doing for Tea What They Did for Coffee:" Threat or Promise?

In this post from awhile back I gave a bit of the back story of tea at Starbucks, which went from fabulous whole leaf single origins and blends to discontinued category during my time there. 

Only a few years later the company, after toying with acquiring Republic of Tea, instead bought Tazo out of Portland, largely on the strength of the creative brilliance of Steve Smith - someone I greatly admire. The back story for that can in part be found in this article.

The good old days: no espresso, great coffee, Hao Ya Keemun and Namring Darjeeling, and saffron for your paella

Fast forward to today and we have stories all over the press, including this piece in today's Forbes, about the joining of Starbuck's more recent tea acquisition, the Teavana chain, with the substantially more formidable brand that is Oprah Winfrey. Today both Starbucks and Teavana stores are awash with Oprah Chai Lattes and gift sets, and anyone who knows Howard's tastes can easily imagine some of the additional products and co-branding opportunities surely waiting in the wings. Chopra Oprah chai incense? The Color Purple Lavender Earl Grey? 

Bad jokes aside, those who care about the actual taste and aroma of origin tea probably ought to take very seriously Teavana/Starbucks promise (or threat), to "do for tea what they did for coffee." We already have a "specialty" tea business that, even more than specialty coffee, has almost no representation of the actual taste of the unadulterated thing itself, and is instead awash in chemical flavorings ("natural" or otherwise) and scents. 

Appropriately the core product in the Oprah Teavana line is Teavana Oprah Chai. Now the transformation of Indian chai - the lowest-grade of non-exportable tea heavily doused with spices and sugar for local consumption - into a "gourmet" beverage for wealthy white folks (sorry, Oprah) is itself the perfect example of what Agehananda Bharati called "the pizza effect" in which a humble product accorded no particular status in one country is exported to another, re visioned as an upscale or special thing, and then re-exported to its host country which then proudly claims to have invented it in its new and prestigious guise. 

Bharati himself cited the Hare Krishnas, Transcendental Meditation and yoga as perfect examples of the pizza effect, and Oprah with her enthusiasm for the likes of Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra has clearly been a masterful modern exponent, albeit unwittingly. 

Less amusing, and more to the point, is the simple fact that any sound, strong black tea will do as the base for this premium-priced tea product, just as any sound, dark-roasted arabica coffee will suffice as the base for the upscale beverages going out the door at your neighborhood Starbucks. In both cases there is a pervasive training or conditioning of the palates and perceptions of millions of consumers to associate premium pricing and value with products that are in fact mediocre in quality, and whose consumption over time almost guarantees that, in the unlikely event a great cup of actual origin coffee or tea crossed the customer's palate they'd spit it out. 

Third Wave Tea anybody?

Friday, April 4, 2014

The seasonality fail

I was just in Seattle for a week and spent much of my time tasting coffee at leading roaster-retailers in the area.

One of the most striking things I noticed (this being late winter/early spring) at (to be specific) Zoka,  Stumptown and Millstead, was that the only single origins promoted and brewed were Central American coffees. Given the time of year, this means these coffees were all approaching past-crop status: close to a year old. Adding insult to injury, much of the pre-bagged roasted coffee on offer was not only past crop but stale, with roast dates on some bags three weeks or more in the past

"Seasonal" offerings would have included October-November shipment Colombias from Huila, perhaps an outstanding Peru, and maybe dry-processed Ethiopians and Yemens or late-season Sumatras where acidity and freshness aren't the most important flavor elements.

As far as I know the only roaster in America who who can claim that old green coffees are still "seasonal" is George Howell's Terroir Coffee in Boston, since he freezes green beans in hermetically sealed bags to extend their shelf life.  The fact that there's zero correlation between actual seasonality and what's on offer in theoretically coffee mad Seattle just underlines the "all hat, no cattle" reality of much Third Wave coffee marketing.

In the interests of not making this into yet another purely critical post, I'll share a bit about ways to make good use of high-quality Central American coffees over their life cycle, since it would seem that this knowledge is not being passed on to newer roasters in any systematic way.

Using an excellent high-altitude regional Guatemalan coffee from Huehuetenango as an example, we'll figure March/April shipment and thus May/June arrival in the U.S. The coffee will be at its peak of aroma and flavor at that time and will be delicious at any number of roasts, from city+ through espresso, but peak flavor expression for drip or vacuum pot brewing will be in the city+ to full city range.

Assuming regular daily tasting of one's production roasts, some fading of acidity will likely be noticeable by September/October, which calls for a very slight darkening of the roast to optimize what remains (more body, fewer top notes). By November or so it will be time to stop offering the coffee as a single origin, which should be fine as new crop coffees from places like Papua New Guinea, Colombia and Peru can replace it. It'll still offer much pleasure and deep flavors of bittersweet chocolate and peppery spice when used in an espresso blend, whether that blend is in the Italian style (Vienna+ roast) or taken darker still in the deep-roast tradition of Peet's and Starbucks.

This progression of use over time: pure and unblended and lightly-roasted when at its peak, blended when past-crop woodiness sets in, and incinerated in dark roasts at the end of its life cycle, works well for pretty much all washed Central and South American coffees. The ideal of course is to plan one's buying so that new crop coffees from other regions can replace fading ones from another, but this also requires deep and ongoing efforts to educate one's employees and customers about the true nature of seasonality, which as I pointed out at the outset of this post isn't going to happen when those who tout seasonality and freshness are in fact offering the exact opposite.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Monday, March 31, 2014

Peter Guiliano Was Right, Part 2

I just can't resist sharing this bit of breathless excitement from Sprudge. It really does go to show the kind of progress the Third Wave has made since the bad old days when all anybody cared about was making a buck by adulterating coffee.

No doubt coffee farmers worldwide are rejoicing at this kind of dialed-in focus on coffee flavor nuances.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Simply excelent coffee

I just returned from a whirlwind week of touring coffee places in Seattle, and hope to post more about that trip. Meanwhile a couple of articles came my way this week that dovetail nicely with the purpose of that visit: looking at ways to deliver great coffee-by-the-cup both in-store and at home that are much simpler and more integrated from bean to cup than current practices.

This piece on a start-up called Perfect Coffee is interesting to me because it's so novel to see anyone trying to make coffee easier and less arcane for the consumer. Now obviously there's nothing really innovative going on here, but apparently precision grinding and packaging of coffee for long shelf life are okay if done in partnership with Blue Bottle but evil if done (better) in a Nespresso Capsule.

Of much greater interest, it seems to me, is this cool experiment done by a scientist whose interest in brewing a great cup of coffee with the lowest reasonable investment of time and money certainly is representative of the consumers I've dealt with at retail. His blade vs. burr grinder test is certainly at odds with industry preaching, while his Aeropress vs. pourover drip results shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's done such taste tests themselves. I'd love to see his experiment replicated at a venue like the SCAA trade show.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Not-So-Green Mountain

More than one green coffee importer (don't worry, you shall remain nameless) privately refers to Green Mountain Coffee (now renamed Keurig Green Mountain) as "Greenwash Mountain," and that's certainly a succinct and accurate description of the company's long-standing marketing strategy, using  its sizable Fair Trade and organic volume to deflect attention from its actual main business: selling commercial coffee, much of it artificially flavored, in ecologically disastrous K Cups, to convenience stores and the like.

The graphic above comes from this Mother Jones article, one of many over the years to highlight the high price the planet pays for consumer convenience.

Now while it looks like Green Mountain has plans to address this issue by the end of the decade, I found it interesting that the Rodgers Family Company has already done so:

97% compostable K-Cup style capsule

If you haven't heard of JBR you really ought to check out not just this article and video but their whole web site. They do a ton of business with Costco and other big box stores, own the Organic Coffee Company and other brands and in general have their fingers on the concerns and values of U.S. consumers who brew good coffee at home on a daily basis.

They're a family-run company with very little media presence, but they roast a huge volume of coffee, own 6 coffee farms and counting, and have been doing great things at origin for a long time. They probably roast more coffee in a month than all of today's Third Wave players put together do in a year, and have infinitely greater positive impact at origin. It's a big world out there in coffee, and other than their web site (which you'd have to work to find as a consumer) these guys seem to have no budget for promoting their good works through the kind of self-congratulatory marketing that we see so much of these days. Sounds like when it comes to walking the talk on being green rather than just having the word as part of your name they could teach both Green Mountain and The Green Menace (Gary Talboy's immortal nickname for Starbucks) some lessons.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Keurig by pot & cup

A couple of blog readers kindly directed my attention to this article about the new Keurig 2.0:

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Obviously a large part of this story has to do with them trying to put an end to any possibility of non-Keurig capsules being usable in their machines:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Nespresso moving into single origins, drip-strength cups

Thanks to a reader for passing along the news that not only has Nespresso been offering a single-origin Ethiopia for some months now, but also this story about them introducing a larger capsule and proprietary brewer that's capable of making an 8 oz. cup as well as espresso.

I found it interesting to see just how tiny their market share is in the U.S., compared to their leading (albeit diminishing) share in Europe, and how intense the competition is worldwide in a market segment that has only existed for about half a decade.

Surely there's plenty of room for truly high-end, single-origin coffees in this form, which has huge freshness/shelf life advantages over K Cups and the like. Of course what I'd prefer is to see an "open source" brewer that can use great, locally-roasted (better still, home-roasted) coffee while providing close to the same level of ease and convenience. Come to think of it, I had Peet's Ethiopia Super Natural in my Aeropress this morning, and it was fabulous.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Peter Giuliano was right

Those who've been reading the rather lively comments section of my post Good Coffee Writing on Serious Eats will have noticed a disagreement between me and SCAA Symposium head (and all around good guy - seriously!) Peter Giuliano about the usefulness of a barista background for coffee buyers.

In light of this most entertaining video shared by another friend, perhaps it's time for me to revise my opinion.

And back in the real world.....

Take a look at some of the numbers in the article below (I've put them in bold):

Starbucks’ Keurig exclusivity ends as Keurig signs deal with Peet’s

SEATTLE Starbucks Corp. agreed to give up its right to be the exclusive purveyor of "super premium" coffee to Keurig Green Mountain Inc., as the maker of the Keurig K-cup brewing system devises new strategies to fend off a recent surge in competitors in the burgeoning market for single-serve coffee pods.
Keurig saw important intellectual property licenses protecting the K-cup expire in 2012. Since then, rival coffee producers have been manufacturing pods compatible with the best-selling brewing system without paying license fees to Keurig.
Starbucks has been an important partner for Keurig, launching licensed K-cups in late 2011, and last year signed a five-year agreement that allowed Starbucks to add more brands to its K-cup line. Through the end of last year, Starbucks had shipped more than 2 billion K-cup pods.
The companies announced Friday that the deal was amended to end Starbucks' exclusivity at the top of the line of K-cup's products, in exchange for "improved business terms" and the opportunity to market a wider variety of pods.
Also on Friday, Keurig announced it struck a new deal with Starbucks rival Peet's Coffee & Tea Inc., which broke into the single-cup pod market seven months ago. Financial terms were not disclosed, but Keurig will distribute licensed K-cup packs for coffee and tea.
Sales of coffee made in single-serve brewing systems barely existed five years ago but now account for more than a quarter of every dollar Americans spend on coffee to drink at home. The category, led by Keurig, is growing quickly, even as others challenge its dominance.
Keurig executives have said that unlicensed K-cups have taken 14 per cent of the market. To counter the growth of these often-cheaper rivals, Keurig is launching a new version of its brewing system and also seeking to lure unlicensed K-cup makers into becoming licensed partners.

It's now been 30 years since the first espresso machine was installed in a Starbucks store, and it was obvious to me in short order, simply by observing employee and customer behavior, that once coffee made on the spot, from freshly-roasted and just-ground beans, was "in the air" all other means of brewing coffee would be relegated to, at best, second-class status. The problem was - and is - that the espresso machine even without the uniquely American problem of obscene sizes and far too much milk, is an ill-suited vehicle for brewing coffee that clearly and acccurately reflects country-of-origin flavors, as opposed to those that are the result of extreme concentration of the beverage and degree of roast. 
The Clover has come and gone, joining The Coffee Connection in the list of things Starbucks purchased only in order to keep them from flourishing. The Steampunk is no Clover replacement, ditto with the Blossom, and while I love the Aeropress and Clever dripper I don't think there are enough decimals at my disposal to measure how small their current as well as potential future market share might be. We really need someone from outside of coffee to invent the iPhone of single cup brewers, for both commercial and home use (the Trifecta seems to be the only noble failure along these lines, suffering from excess complexity and, sadly, guilt by association with a now-innovative company that historically was one of the worst laggards when it came to addressing specialty coffee needs). 
There's room for many approaches, but I hope one of the take-aways is that if those of us who really love and care about great origin coffee don't make it easy, convenient and affordable for the consumer to brew it - and instead work hard at making the simple seem esoteric and what should be inexpensive and easily repeatable into something only the rich can afford - we will be pushed further to the margins of the marketplace. Already (as I pointed out in my previous piece on the Sprudge article) the supposed cutting-edge of specialty coffee is talking only amongst itself, while the roasters mentioned in this article just go on making money hand over fist meeting actual consumer needs. 
Now because Starbucks and Peets roast dark and Green Mountain never pursued excellence even in its pre-Keurig days it may be easy to see the current state of affairs as pod-based mediocrity, but how long before someone comes along and puts the best of today's leading Third Wave offerings into K Cup or Nespresso form? These are companies that have already taken on major venture capital money and whose supposed brightest prospects are in ready-to-drink bottled beverages. Put their top 3 blends and  seasonal single origins in K Cups and you can probably stop building all those expensive retail stores. The newer Keurig brewers solve the dosage and water temperature issues of the first generation, and as for Nespresso, their technology is at a whole different level, as shown by the (much lamented by some) fact that they are the dominant force in 3 Star restaurants in Europe. And heck, all the coffee really needs to be is better (as judged by the consumer) than a tepid $3-5 cup brewed excruciatingly slowly in a Hario by a barista who wants to educate rather than please them. Not a high bar, I'd say. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Solipsistic Narcissism

Here's a post from Sprudge that perfectly captures the kind of reportage (if you can call it that) about specialty coffee I see everywhere today.

It's a riff on a New York Daily News piece that questions the value of a $10 caffe latte. The drink in question is called the Lakkris Latte, and it's described in a link from the main article above:

Lakkrís Latte, a very sweet concoction made with licorice syrup and licorice salt on a base of Tim Wendelboe coffee from Finca Tamana, Colombia.

The balance of the short piece is a bunch of muddled snark about how different coffees are of course worth different prices, about how coffee "expert" Oliver Strand (who's never worked in the coffee industry but apparently qualifies by writing about it and kissing sufficient Third Wave ass) is looking forward to a latte worth $10, and so on. Nowhere in this article, or in any of the writing I see on Sprudge - or by Strand and his ilk, for that matter, does customer perception of value and quality even enter the discussion. The opinion of the folks footing the bill for all of this doesn't even enter the equation. That is what I mean by solipsistic (focused solely on one's own experience) narcissism (smug self-love) having become the main mode of discourse in what passes for coffee journalism these days. 

Do I even need to mention that cinnamon-roasted Colombian coffee doused in licorice syrup, salt and milk is just the kind of terroir-driven, transparent experience of taste of place that coffee farmers everywhere ought to be delighting in? And what a great way to build a consumer base willing to pay for the flavor subtleties inherent in great unadulterated single-origin coffee (the milk and licorice surely just enhance the transparency). 

But as we know, any pricey coffee experience is worth its asking price - as long as it's proffered by a company who "partners" with Sprudge. No wonder they won the S.C.A.A.'s distinguished author award; that kind of integrity just can't be bought. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Good coffee writing on Serious Eats

I have to give credit where it's due here: a silly article on an even sillier competition (Man vs. Machine on Sprudge) led me to this excellent article (and quite a few more) on the online magazine Serious Eats. 

While I've never met Nick Cho I've invariably enjoyed his writing, and certainly on the brewing side of things he's one of the better-informed folks out there. That makes some of his comments and perspectives, both in the article I've linked to and in others on the site, all the more interesting.

In another article on the site (on "nanoroasting"), Cho offers this characterization of specialty coffee history:

I usually summarize the three waves of coffee like this: The first wave is about coffee consumption (Gimme a regular coffee), second wave is about coffee enjoyment (Make it yummy. Make it a latte. In fact, make it a vanilla latte...), and the third wave is about coffee appreciation (like wine appreciation, or music appreciation). 

Perhaps it's just a product of his relative youth and, more decisively,  not having apprenticed at any established specialty roasting companies where he could've learned more about the history of the business beyond pulling shots,  but this is also the general characterization I see in the press of specialty coffee history, and it's far removed from the truth. 

In no particular order, Freed, Teller & Freed's, Peet's, Starbucks and The Coffee Connection were, at their inception and in the case of the latter 3 firms well into the 1980's, product-driven roaster-retailers of a very high order, though it must be said that none of them (unlike today's better-known Third Wave places) saw coffee appreciation and coffee enjoyment as mutually antithetic. 

What happened - and Howard Schultz-era Starbucks deserves the lion's share of the blame here - is that ersatz Italian espresso bars were inserted into what had previously been retail stores, with no serious effort made to fund and maintain the coffee side of what quickly became a steamed-milk-with coffee slinging, fast food business. But it's rewriting history to leave out, in the case of Starbucks, the years from 1971-1984 where there was no espresso and generally no brewed coffee of any kind, and where consumers and employees alike passionately discussed the finer points of new crop Kenyas vs. Guatemalas, or whether a vacuum pot was really worth the trouble. 

Cho and many less articulate, less knowledgeable others come from the barista culture spawned by Starbucks and its imitators, which is a fast-food culture, not a coffee culture. The skills required to be an excellent barista in a busy bar really don't overlap with those required to cup coffee, brew it at home, or explain its nuances to consumers. Clearly what has happened in the past fifteen or so years especially is that Third Wave folks have confused their own discovery of and interest in the actual taste of coffee and its provenance with that of a specialty industry whose peak of consumer and employee coffee knowledge and appreciation occurred well before most of them even took their first jobs. 

If you take the time to read the article in Serious Eats you'll see the rest of what I have to say about that particular article in the comments section. At the end of the day, the saddest thing to me is that even the best and brightest of the Third Wave folks seem to have little or no interest in making it easy, simple and cost-effective for customers to brew great origin coffees at home. The barista culture background has blinded them to retail basics, and the consumer and the coffee farmer pay the price, while the likes of Keurig and Nespresso reap the benefits. 

That said, I see a lot of hopeful signs, and as I mention in my comments there the very existence of machines like the Steampunk, Blossom and Trifecta that seek to elevate drip-strength coffee to espresso-like value status seems to me to be quite positive. We shouldn't forget though that their existence is  essentially a consequence of the Clover machine being taken away from the likes of Stumptown and Intelligentsia by Starbucks, and that, in the case of Stumptown, the reaction to that reality,  rather than working with the Trifecta or another piece of tech, was to revert to Plunger Pots, then Chemexes and Harios, and now Fetco commercial drip brewers.

If I continue to be critical of Third Wave stuff it's because I really do see the potential on the part of many folks involved in the business to truly do coffee at a level that is a quantum leap forward from the best Second Wave practices. The biggest thing holding folks back is the delusion that they're already doing so. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

She drank the Kool Aid but realized it was over-priced Lemonade

Well file this one under the very rare "the Third Wave Emperor has no clothes" department, but this article, shared by an alert reader, is the first in memory to dare to point out that drinking excruciatingly acidic coffee is more penance than pleasure.

We'll probably have to wade through 50 or 100 pieces of drivel from the likes of Oliver Strand and other hip know-nothings before we see another piece like this, so savor it.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Peet's K Cups redux

As if French Roast and House Bland in expensive, fast-staling and completely un-recyclable packaging weren't exciting enough, here's the newest  Peet's "single serve"  offering:

The product description is here.

Bill McAlpin of La Minita pretty much said it all about this kind of coffee years ago, in a comment to Florence Fabricant of the New York Times: "I love the unwashed long as you're not talking about coffee."