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:

Lakkr√≠s 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.