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. 


  1. Kevin, many well intentioned coffee people make the same mistake you have made, which is to characterize Trish's "Wave" idea too narrowly. It is a historical analogy, meant to describe generations and movements in coffee. Of course there were people appreciating coffee in the 1970s,as indeed there were enthusiasts in the early 1900s appreciating terroir, variety, single origins, and other hallmarks of the current coffee culture. No matter how much Coffee Connection, Starbucks and Freed, Teller, and Freed (or indeed other historical connoisseurs from a generation or two before) incorporated these ideas, the popularity was not widespread. In fact, I give credit for my generation's enthusiasm for these things to people like you and George, who preached the gospel through writing and works, and who made these ideas available to dozens of coffee people all over America, Europe and Asia.

    Alas, I never got to personally experience the amazing coffee culture of Freed, or Coffee Connection, or early Starbucks. My generation, after reading about these businesses, had to construct our own companies and cultures, and we wound up having a distinct generational character. That's what the Third Wave idea is about. We didn't invent these ideas, and neither did the Second Wave. We just interpreted them into manifestations like Direct Trade, single origin espresso, pourover bars, public cupping, etc etc. All of these things existed in past years, but they are actually commonplace among companies that were established in the late 90s until now. Does that make sense?

    On a different subject, I think you know that I started as a barista and I continue to self-identify as one. My formative years behind the bar did not inculcate me with a fast-food mentality, not at all. Instead, it taught me how to communicate with a variety people about coffee in their own terms, and to understand what people- the people who were my regular customers in the 80s and 90s- loved about the coffee I was serving them. This experience made me a better roaster, cupper and buyer. Many of the greats of my generation and younger- Watts, Trewick, Rothgeb, etc etc. got our start behind the bar, which I see as a distinct advantage, not a handicap.

    However, I could not agree more with your final paragraph. Self-satisfaction and complacency are always to be fought against, and smugness has been a disease rampant in all coffee generations.

  2. I have yet to taste an espresso at a Third wave style coffee bar that even came close to what I can get out of my ancient E-91 and a bag of Essse or Lavazza or Mr. Espresso. Every one of these places, serving Stumptown, Counter Culture, Heart, Tandem, etc, has without exception, been sour and bitter at the same time. If I purchase a filter brew, it is invariably thin, and again, acidic. Forget about the "Waves". This is just sloppy execution.

    1. Sadly this has been my experience as well Robert, and there are a variety of culprits. The most obvious thing is that espresso, as a uniquely high-pressure brewing method, greatly accentuates the perceived acidity of coffee, so for a balanced flavor expression one has to corral that acidity through bean selection and degree of roast. In order to learn how to do this, the logical starting point is to closely study the approach to sourcing, roasting and blending for espresso of the best artisanal Italian producers. Oakland's Mr. Espresso is an outstanding example of the benefits of doing this, and I still recall Carlo DeRuocco's enthusiasm for balance, nuance and complexity - in a word, elegance - in espresso.

      Complexity, elegance and balance in a beverage are signs of a mature approach, while jarring intensity for its own sake (think of heavily-oaked, 15+% alcohol "Parker" wines that win blind tastings but are undrinkable with food at table) is characteristic of neophytes.

      Anyway, high-acid coffees that are under-roasted explains the sour part, and the bitter we can blame on David Schomer and his legion of imitators, for pushing espresso doses to triple what they should be and yields to less than half. A proper double shot made with around 14 grams of coffee and yielding around 2.5 fl. ounces in less than 30 seconds is all but impossible to find in the many Third Wave bars I've visited, which are brewing über-ristretto shots with 22 or more grams of coffee in portafilters no Italian would allow into their bars. The only saving grace for these places is that, unlike in Italy where people drink straight shots and actually taste the coffee all day long, their customers are still masking their costly massacres with milk so they still have a business.

      I haven't had espresso from all of the places you mentioned Robert but I will say that Counter Culture's roasts have actually been among the more balanced and traditional (full city) I've seen and their green sourcing is very good. Stumptown, too, buys good coffee but the roasting, especially for espresso, is godawful. An industry friend just showed me some "French Roast" from them (sold only wholesale...the name could be bad for their image at retail) and, I kid you not, the actual degree of roast was barely Full City! Have not tasted Tandem, but Heart's stuff is screamingly light roasted - a truth-in-advertising re-naming for them would be Heart Burn.

      So yeah, it's sloppy execution, but on multiple levels: sourcing, roasting, blending (or lack thereof) followed by thoroughgoing misuse and abuse of the best espresso equipment the world has ever known, with the consumer paying the astonishing per cup asking price. No wonder so many folks are just buying a Nespresso machine and calling it a day.

  3. Hi Peter -

    Thanks for your comments. I really appreciate you taking the time to share them, and as I hope you know I have a great deal of respect for your accomplishments and ongoing leadership in specialty coffee.

    I actually am familiar with Trish's original article (link here to pdf: http://timwendelboe.no/uploads/the-flamekeeper-2003.pdf) and her intention in coining the "waves." She, like Nick Cho, is very thoughtful, but for the most part what I see on company web sites and in popular writiing about coffee is the notion that what's happening today in sourcing, roasting and brewing constitutes coffee of utterly unprecedented quality. I'm merely pointing out the precedents.

    I'd like to comment briefly on your sentence (2nd paragraph) about different manifestations: "Direct Trade, single origin espresso, pourover bars, public cupping..." As you'll know from reading this blog and my other writing over the years, my take on these things is this:

    - "direct trade" as a reality is something that the larger specialty players actually do and the Stumptowns and Intelligentsias of the world mostly just talk about. If you pay cash FOB for all of your coffee in full containers, pre-finance your farmers directly, don't depend on importers or exporters for financing, education, paperwork or risk management you're involved in direct trade. Otherwise, you're involved in marketing over-reach.

    - single origin espresso done by folks who know nothing of the Italian tradition of roasting and blending for espresso is almost invariably a disaster, as eloquently demonstrated by the doser-grinder hoppers full of City (or lighter) roasted beans at leading Third Wave outlets. Yet another case of folks innovating without any knowledge of the tradition they think they're transcending.

    - Pour-over bars, thankfully, did not exist "back in the day," because we'd studied the CBC literature, done our soluble solids testing (using refractometers, since there was no Extract Mojo) and understood that drip coffee has to be brewed by the pot, not the cup, for proper flavor.

    This leaves public cuppings as the one genuine, positive innovation on your list, and I am delighted that they're happening.

    Lastly, I appreciate your honoring of your barista background and I'm sorry if I was overly harsh. I still do maintain, on the basis of my own extensive experience with coffee bars and espresso, that the skills of a barista and quite distinct from those required to be a roaster, cupper or buyer. The latter skills are learned by apprenticing with people who have done that work at high levels for lengthy periods of time. If you want to learn, say, what constitutes a truly great Guatemalan coffee you need to be cupping hundreds of cups from all regions of that origin on an ongoing basis. No amount of shot pulling skill supplemented by occaisional Cup of Excellence field trips is a substitute for that kind of experience, and it is the lack of that background by so many self-taught baristas-turned-buyers that leads to such present-day commonplaces as classic defects being celebrated as terroir, roasts too light for cupping being sold at retail and much else.

    Being a barisa is a distinct advantage for participating in other fast-twitch muscle fiber intensive activities, but for actual coffee knowledge the only plus I see to it is having acute sensitivity to such variables as freshness, grind, temperature and the like that should transfer to mastering other brewing methods. Really if being a barista was a plus for coffee quality Italy would have green coffee the quality of Norway's, and such is not the case.

  4. I just read the Cho article, and your comment, Kevin. And my thought vis. cafes and coffee houses is that a decent burr grinder and a well-tuned Bunn-O-Matic can make better coffee than most of what I get at most places. Why feature the Mahlkonig and the Harios ad nauseum, when the coffee coming out of them sucks? 99 percent of customers would not be able to distinguish between coffee made with a $3000 grinder and a Grindmaster two-hopper unit. Sheesh. It comes down to: grind, brew, taste, adjust, repeat.

  5. Exactly Robert. The minute incremental improvement in particle size distribution offered by a $3000 burr grinder vs. a $500 one hardly matters when you're brewing too small a batch in a non-preheated brew cone into a glass pot where it cools instantly. Ditch the Hario, install a Fetco, AMW or Bunn brewer of at least half-gallon capacity and you have far better coffee. Even Stumptown has figured that one out, albeit recently.

  6. Really enjoyed the articles and conversation here thereafter. Kevin, you stated, "[...]drip coffee has to be brewed by the pot, not the cup, for proper flavor." Can you elaborate on that? How about single cup drip machines? I agree pourover coffee is awful and thin, but is there something happening in the pot that is clandestine?

  7. Hi Patrick -

    Thanks for reading, and for commenting.

    The deal with drip coffee is that for a classic drip grind the contact time between grounds and water needs to be 4-6 minutes (it can be up to 9 minutes for a perc or urn grind in large brewers). Up until relatively recently with the introduction of the various Harios and Kalittas all you really saw in the way of single cup drip brewers were Melitta cones, and Melitta is a company that makes its living selling over-extraction: they recommend 1 tablespoon or less of ultra-fine coffee per cup, which extracts essentially all of the soluble solids.

    What you see happening in a lot of Third Wave bars with the long-necked kettles, big doses of coffee in the cones and such are attempts to mitigate the problems caused by trying to brew single cups of drip, by getting the contact time up to around 3 minutes through the use of things like single hole filtercones that slow down the flow. Really the Clever dripper is the best solution to this self-created problem, but it isn't really a drip brewer at all: it's an infusion brewer just like a French Press or Aeropress is.

    Another problem with trying to brew single cups drip is the ratio of paper to coffee is very high, which is why you see all of that filter-rinsing going on in Third Wave places. It's completely unnecessary if you're brewing a reasonable batch, and one of the reasons why drip coffee brewed on a substantial brewer like the 3 gallon urns at Peet's is so fabulous is that the massive dose of coffee makes the use of a paper filter imperceptible, giving the coffee almost plunger pot level body but with no grit. Old school muslin urn bags, pre-soaked in espresso, give an even better cup, but I fear that knowledge of that kind of brewing has largely been lost due to the pour-over mania.

    The good single-cup brewers you see all use either agitation in a chamber followed by pressure (Steampunk, Clover, Trifecta) or capsules of finer-than-drip ground coffee with pressure (Nespresso, Illy capsules, etc).

    The bottom line with drip coffee is that it works when one understands that the method is meant to be used to brew a batch of coffee to be shared; it's a tool for communal enjoyment of coffee.

    I use a #6 filter cone atop a Nissan Thermos to brew a liter of coffee for my wife and I, and I find that to be pretty much the absolute minimum workable batch size. The Bonavita and Technivorm brewers are also optimzied for a liter of coffee, and my suggestion for brewing less is to go with an immersion brewer like the Aeropress.

  8. Hi Kevin,

    My apologies if this is a repeat post, as it seems my post yesterday might have been lost (Blogspot didn't print its usual warning about my post waiting for moderation).

    Anyway, another good, simple way I've found for brewing good coffee at home is basically the simplest full-immersion method possible: steep the coffee and water for 3 minutes, and then pour it through a paper filter, which takes another few minutes.

    Because of our past discussions here, I've changed my brewing methods a bit. First doing the steep above in a pre-heated insulated container instead of something like the Clever, so I minimize heat loss. Second is to increase the brew ratio to 7.5% (25 g coffee to 330 g water). And third is to use water as close to boiling as I can manage. This makes a really delicious cup of coffee for my tastes, and it's simple to explain and cheap.

    Your comment about pre-soaking cloth filters with coffee is very interesting. That's definitely something to try out in the future.

    Also, in the past, you mentioned that darker roasted beans should be brewed with hotter water. I can't find that discussion anymore. Could you walk us through your reasoning again?

    Thanks again for your writing and contrarian views!

  9. Hi Andre,

    The method you describe sounds like a nice combination of cowboy coffee with filtering. Effectively the same as the Clever dripper, except your coffee is probably a bit hotter, as you say.

    The practice of soaking muslin urn bags in coffee is undoubtledly an old one. I first learned about it from Paul Leighton (now in the green coffee business but founder of Coffee Corner in Eugene, Oregon).

    It was Jerry Baldwin from Peet's who told me, long ago, about increasing water temperature, and the specific context was with espresso. Check out the 5th bullet point in this writeup:


    On the other hand, as the article mentions later on, medium roast coffee has less bitterness to begin with. One also has to remember that the context of this suggestion was espresso, and as Dr. Illy has taught us the nature of the espresso extraction is to inhibit the tongue's bitterness receptors due to the concentration of the beverage.

    I don't know if you've played around with the Aeropress, but its inventor, Alan Adler, recommends a very low temperature brew (around 185 degrees F) in the interests of less bitterness. It seems to work, but at the expense of flavor complexity/definition.

  10. Speaking as the "neophyte" you mention, I (predictably) beg to differ on your comments concerning espresso which, all due respect, come off unfortunately myopic. I have read many of the relevant documents be they Illy's brilliant book or the SCAA coffee brewing handbook (as close as I could get to the CBC stuff) and I make it my business to learn the history of the industry I've made my own. Your name, Kevin, actually comes up with some frequency when I talk to other baristas. I also speak as someone who cant stand those oaky Parker wines so lets lose the straw man. Instead of immaturity, lets assume that these dozens of roasters aren’t just childish idiots and ask some questions with a bit more nuance.

    First: can light roasted espresso be made well?
    The up-dosed, under-extracted sour/ bitter tendency is annoying to me, but this trend seems to be waning these days. At Slate, where I work, our standard ratios are generally around 16-17g (slightly higher than your Italian based standard, yes) of coffee with a beverage weight around 40g. You mention 2.5 ounces as a recommended volume but undoubtedly that is a somewhat artificial volume based on crema. I would venture to bet that if you were to weigh your espresso, it would be somewhere in the 30-35g range. That said, our recipe involves higher numbers (due to our larger baskets) but the ratio remains the same. We use a low pressure pre infusion to make up for the increase in density and usually end with a total time between 30-40 seconds (under 30 of which are at nine bar). So it looks like our extraction and concentration preferences are relatively similar.

    Second: Is acidity the problem?
    Light roasted coffee shouldn't have an issue with sourness if the coffee is sufficiently extracted such that the acidity is balanced by sweet compounds and some bitter compounds. Think of a well made daiquiri cocktail. There is lime juice, but the drink is enjoyable because the lime juice is balanced by sugar. However, (and now we get to the real crux of the issue), some people don’t like daiquiris just because they don't like drinks with lime.

    Third: lets talk about preference.
    I find it hard to believe that the notion of preference hasn’t crossed your mind in these discussions, though I saw no mention made to it here. If Stumptown is “godawful” and Heart is “heart-burn” then the droves of people at their retail shops are clearly delusional. Or maybe they prefer something that doesn’t taste like carbon and bitter cardboard as the coffee from Lavazza and Illy tastes to me. But I recognize that people differ from one an other and thereby prefer different things. To that end, I would have you not discount the people I serve everyday who are excited that they finally found coffee they enjoy, some of whom … wait for it … have even been to Italy for coffee and … wait for it … didn't like it much. What I offer to these people with my “godawful” light roasted espresso is an accessible alternative. It is a way to discern variety in coffee from region to region without having cupped hundreds of Guatemalan coffees from different reasons.

    You know better than most that the style of espresso that was developed in Italy was developed to compensate for the method. What we are attempting to do these days is develop methods that are up to the task of our preferred style. Much like Illy with his automatic espresso machine in the 30s. If you haven’t already seen it, I recommend you watch Ben Kaminsky’s talk on espresso.
    It would be wrong to say that Ben is a neophyte with a palette that prefers extremism; though young, he won the US cup tasters championship three years in a row.

    The reason that we serve espresso made from lightly roasted coffee is that it tastes better to us and that it is accessible for our guests. You and I don’t have to agree, but its useful to understand where we don’t and make points that address these differences. After all, “complexity, elegance and balance” in an argument are “signs of a mature approach.”

    1. Hi Brandon,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, and I'm delighted by your seriousness about learning about the history of the trade as well as your passion to innovate within it.

      You didn't mention, in Agtron or other terms, what kinds of "light" roasts you're using for espresso. In any case, I believe that you unwittingly get the key points backward here:

      1. The many styles of roasting and blending for espresso in Italy were developed not to compensate for, but IN LIGHT OF the espresso method. It emphasizes acidity due to the nature of the extraction. Now of course there are large roasters in Italy who dominate the market and use beans of mediocre quality, but there are also many craft roasters who are buying high quality coffee, but they're still roasting and blending it appropriately. I've visited a number of such roasters in Florence and Turin and can assure you that they have forgotten more about green coffee quality and roasting than the good folks at Stumptown and Heart will ever know.

      I spent a good bit of time at Stumptown in their early days and I can tell you with certainty that light (city) roasted espresso is a quite new thing there, and that it is a tangent made possible by years of success with their appropriately-roasted Hair Bender blend.

      I certainly don't buy the argument that there's a big base of customers out there who prefer the taste of lemon juice masquerading as coffee, any more than I buy the notion that there's a native appetite for the bitter and burnt of a Peet's French roast. As you know there's a long history of success for lightly roasted coffes brewed vacuum pot or drip, and that's where they belong, in brewing methods that highlight what they have to offer. They are unprecedented in espresso, for equally good and obvious reasons.

      The saving grace for those who put such coffee through their espresso machines - and I'd say the same of those who make espresso out of French Roast - is that the espresso business in the U.S. remains a milk business, which masks and mitigates poor roasting and brewing.

      The Daiquiri analogy isn't a great one, since such a drink is in reality a lot of simple syrup (sugar) with a little lime. The sweetness is up front, and of course ice deadens the taste buds just as surely as espresso's dense extraction coats it. A Daquiri is as lousy a vehicle for the appreication of the taste of Vodka as a caffe latte is for the appreciation of the actual taste of coffee.

      A better analogy for superb light roasted coffee - which I am fan of in the right brewer, and which I made a point of offering when I was the buyer and roastmaster at Allegro - would be a grand cru Alsatian Riesling, where you have ripping acidity, complex aroma and amazing sweetness doing a dance. Roast a great Ethiopian Yergacheffe or Kenya in the high to mid 70's on the Agtron scale (light full city) and brew it strong in a vacuum pot or good drip maker and you have an analogous experience. But the espresso machine isn't a "power drip" brewer, it is a still that makes "high proof" coffee extracts. It is not - and was never intended to be! - a vehicle for appreciating the subtleties of origin coffee flavors; instead, it is a means to make many shots of high-intenstity, drink-me-quickly, coffee. Because its use is technically demanding, sucks up labor and required a great deal of capital investment espresso gets focus in contemporary coffee bars that is really not just disproportionate but one could argue inverse to its potential as a brewing method. It's a great tool to make money, and make caffe lattes and cappuccinos that are delicious and comforting in the morning, but as a tool for extracting and appreciating the taste of origin coffees it doesn't rank in the top five.

    2. I've been in coffee for 9 years now. (Precious little time to you, I'm sure.) And though I run a café in a small midwestern city with no high bar to jump, I keep myself abreast of the greater coffee community's ongoing dialogues about taste and technique and quality.

      That's a bad way to intro a comment, but I have to set that stage for this: The "Kevin Knox vs. Modern Barista" arguments that happen here always rub me the wrong way, and just today I think I've put my finger on why.

      Knox: "Pourovers are bad! Acidic espresso is bad! I like it the way we used to do it!" (This is a valid enough argument for preference, although it's often set against straw men... I'll get back to that.)

      Modern barista commenter: "We like it, old man! Get off our lawn!"

      Random commenter whose coffee palate/knowledge cannot be vouched for: "Well I LIKE my French Roast, dang it! Tell 'em, Kevin!"

      Thusly the author gets his ego stroked by myriad suspect commenters, outwits the few moderns who are arguing with him by way of "We did that back then, too, but it tasted better!" examples which cannot be disproven, and the circle continues.

      Two of the premises of your posts, Kevin, really strike me as lacking. They are:

      1.) Espresso machines weren't intended to brew delicate coffees: Perhaps not. But the espresso machines that pervade high-end brewers these days are leaps and bounds above those original Starbucks Lineas: Independent temp controls to 0.1º for each group; adjustable (and repeatable) pressure profiles; preinfusion on even budget-concious machines. Add to the mix the work Perger and Kaminsky and Harmon have been doing with EK43s and you get an "espresso bar" that can DO much more than the ones you were manning way back when. A rugby ball wasn't intended to be thrown in a spiral; that doesn't make American football a failed sport.

      2.) Consumers can't (or won't) do this stuff at home: The number of Clever drippers and Chemexes I've sold would disagree. Arguing for better coffee in K-Cups is fine; I'd love to see "roasted on" dates and origin notes on those little capsules. But the COST of that coffee is astronomical and absurd, and simply because some of the machines can get the water temp and distribution right doesn't mean that most of them will. The whole thing strikes me as the equivalent of a retired five-star chef arguing for an improvement in the manufacture of frozen meals, because those rubes at home can't be bothered to learn how to cook!

    3. The specialty industry as a whole — save for the Nordics — seems to agree that it has swung the pendulum too far to the light side where roast development is concerned; additionally, a great many coffee bars are realizing the value of a well-brewed Fetco batch as opposed to a long line of V60 brews. (I agree with you in your criticism of the V60s, though not of one-cup brewing in general... that's just a crappy piece of equipment.) And your comment that "I certainly don't buy the argument that there's a big base of customers out there who prefer the taste of lemon juice masquerading as coffee" is yet another argument in the extreme — PLENTY of light-roasted coffees don't taste like lemon at all, at least not when brewed well (and yes, that could mean brewed in a Kalita Wave or a Beehouse dripper).

      On the whole, it seems like you're having an argument between Your Preferences on one side and What I Think They Must Be Thinking on the other, but it rings overall false to me. These roasters and importers, small though they may be, are working at origin to introduce different processing methods in various countries, and to help farmers introduce new cultivars to their farms in an effort to find different flavors — and all the while paying higher and higher prices for it. If that's not good work, I don't know what is — and the Stumptowns and Intelligentsias of the world aren't hurting for business, despite the fact they could make a killing if they'd just grind it up and package it in little plastic cups.

    4. Hi Justin -

      Thanks for your comments.

      I agree with you that the trend towards extreme light roasts seems to be ebbing. And my comment about lemon juice masquerading as coffee had to do very specifically with running ultra light roasts (cinnamon-to-city) through the espresso machine, which is still going on. I have nothing against light (city+ to full city) roasts of high acid coffees; in fac t I love and drink them myself and took great joy in offering them when I was the buyer at Allegro. The perfume of a lightly-roasted washed East African coffee in a vacuum pot is one of life's great joys as far as I'm concerned - and so is Peet's Sulawesi in an Aeropress or plunger pot.

      I've written before about how further separation of coffee at origin and improvements in packaging and shipping of green from places like Ethiopia has been one of the genuine posiitive contributions of Third Wave roasters. It's wonderful. Ditto with helping to build washing stations and paying up for coffee, though those are things being done on a far larger and more meaningful scale by larger players.

      I think Stumptown and Intelli already are "making a killing" and will probably continue to do so, though what form that may take is anyone's guess. I'd bet it could very well include packaging their coffee "in little plastic cups."

    5. Missed your first post Justin, so here's my reply:

      1. I'm familiar with the innovations in espresso machines since the "Llinea good old days," and I applaud them. Would that they had been used in the service of better-tasting espresso, but what I continue to see is massively over-dosed ristretto shots made, often, from coffee whose roast degree is wildly unsuitable for espresso. Owning a Lamborghini doesn't mean you know how to drive it.

      Moreover, the basic criticisms of espresso as a vehicle for appreciating the taste of origin coffees still apply. The pressurized extraction and concentration of the beverage make for coffee that is to great drip-strength coffee what spirits are to still wine. It's a great coffee experience to be sure, but not a vehicle for appreciating the most prized flavors of coffee, IMHO.

      I'm glad you're selling a lot of Clevers and Chemexes, and far from saying that consumers won't brew great coffee at home what I've been arguing for in this and so many other posts is that we need to do a much better job of making it easy, fun and affordable for them to do just that. I don't like the standardized mediocrity and godawful waste of K Cups or capsules any more than you do.

      As for the cost part, yeah, the single cup brewers are expensive, but so is the coffee I've bought from Stumptown, Intelligentsia, etc., which in addition to being expensive is often stale. 50-75 cents for a properly roasted, precision ground dose of coffee that unlike the aforementioned coffees is at least packaged so it HAS a shelf life beats the hell out of paying $30 a pound for stale, under-roasted single farm beans, let alone forking over $5 for an undrinkable cup of coffee.

      Lots of room for improvement all around. We live in interesting times.

  11. Hi Kevin!

    Just to correct a couple of mistakes you make here:

    -You say "If you pay cash FOB for all of your coffee in full containers, pre-finance your farmers directly, don't depend on importers or exporters for financing, education, paperwork or risk management you're involved in direct trade." I don't know where you got that definition, I suspect it's yours? I disagree with it, and so would Watts, who was the first to use the term in the trade.

    -I just don't understand your zeal against pour-over brewers. I know it was more difficult to assess TDS back in the day (I used a hydrometer, myself) but the refractometer/mojo combination is available now. Any human being can easily get proper extraction and good flavor with a small brewer; it's really not that difficult at all! Of course underextraction can exist in pourover bars, just as stale, funky coffee is a problem associated with larger brewers (when you brew 1.5 gallons of coffee, you have to keep it hot, and more often than not it is kept hot for hours, not minutes in a semi-clean airpot). All brewing methods have their failings and strengths. I don't mind duking it out over the relative merits, but to dismiss all pourover coffee as inherently flawed is counter to the available evidence. I'm actually drinking a cup, similar to the one I made yesterday and the day before that, which disproves your ideas. Also, do you find it curious that the ABSOLUTE MINIMUM SIZE you think "works" for coffee happens to be the one you use every day? Just saying.

    And something else I see as self evident is that a barista background is an advantage to a coffee buyer. Tim Wendelboe, James Hoffmann, Tom Owen.... the names go on and on. Like it or not, Kevin, most of us got our start in coffee retail because coffee retail EXISTED when we were getting into the business. Dismissing that cadre of coffee professionals as "fast twitch fast food workers" is simple prejudice and a shame. You (rightly) celebrate the coffee culture of Norway, where many of its leaders like Wendelboe and Thorsen have barista backgrounds. Indeed, this was the point of Trish's article, right?

  12. Hi Peter -

    I don't doubt that Geoff was the first to use the phrase in specialty coffee, but the actual PRACTICE of trading directly far predates the likes of Intelligentsia and Counter Culture. I suspect Geoff got his idea from this guy, who isn't exactly in the coffee biz:


    Funny videos aside, this is a serious matter because what the consumer would assume "direct trade" to mean is something comprehensive like what I have suggested. It is certainly not a tiny roaster who is utterly dependent on a network of green coffee importers and exporters to show them farms, translate, pool their minscule volume with that of others to fill a container, finance them (and put up with their late payments and/or defaults), etc. etc. which is the REALITY underneath the "direct trade" BS spouted by many in the Third Wave. You know this, I know this, the green importers sure as hell know this, and there are many factual horror stories to be told to back this up if you so desire.

    Regarding pour-over brewers. I like and use pour-over brewers, but for reasonss that I've clearly articulated numerous times I think SINGLE CUP drip is a mistake. If you have in fact read any of the CBC literature and/or played around with a refractometer you know how difficult (I have never said impossible) it is to get the extraction right when brewing less than a quart/liter of coffee. Are you getting 4-6 minutes of contact time between grounds and water in your single cup brewer? Not unless it's a Clever, or you're couting pause time between pours with a Buono kettle. Our job is to make brewing a cup as easy, simple and inexpensive as possible, and the methods you are championing do not do this. Maybe you need to go back and actually read the CBC literature.

    As you should know from your years at Pannikin, a batch brewer is no problem as long as the batch size is appropriate for the volume of business being done. Some of the best-brewed drip coffee I've ever had came from 3 gallon urns at Peet's, Starbucks and Spinellis during their morning rushes. Any roaster with a clue uses a timer and doesn't keep drip coffee in an insulated container for more than 30 minutes, and that coffee is far better-extracted and better tasting - not to mention not at all papery and HOT (unlike what comes from a Hario, Chemex or any of your favored one cup cones) throughout that half hour of life than the end product of a single-cup pourover.

    On your last point, you continue to offer no evidence to support your claim that having a barista background RATHER THAN apprenticing with skilled green coffee cuppers, buyers and roasters at roasting firms is an advantage as a coffee buyer. If what you're saying is that having been a barista is an advantage vs. having never worked in coffee at all you'll get no argument from me, but that's not what I'm reading.

    What you call "coffee retail" is in fact the coffee bar or restaurant business. Coffee retail - no espresso machine - is a different thing. And the thing is there were and still are plenty of roasters where someone like yourself, Tim, James, etc. could have gone to work had they chosen, but instead all of you started out working in what are indeed coffee fast food places. That is what espresso bars are. That doesn't mean that you or the folks you mentioned are still "fast twitch fast food workers," but it remains true that the skills required to excel as a barista in a busy bar are very different than those required to cup, source and roast coffee. Are you working at being obtuse in order to miss my point, or just too much invested in your barista background?

  13. @Justin: I suspect i'm this guy:

    Random commenter whose coffee palate/knowledge cannot be vouched for: "Well I LIKE my French Roast, dang it! Tell 'em, Kevin!"

    I'm a micro-roaster, started two years ago, sold about 5000 pounds so far. I "apprenticed" at Mr. Espresso in Oakland from 1996 to 2001. I'm also 62 years old, and have a 40-year background in many aspects of the food industry. I've worked everything from a dose-o-matic Faema to a temperature-consistency-nightmare La San Marco. Been brewing my morning coffee in a Melitta basket since 1980. Yeah, I'm an old fart. You get off MY lawn. Kidding. I do remember the good old days when Peets had some extraordinary dark roasts of very hard bean single origin coffees. I remember getting my first Starbucks coffee sent from my sister who lives in Seattle in 1978, when all they had was the Pike Place Mkt store, and thought it was a revelation. I might actually have more accumulated hours behind the bar than anyone your age . .. i don't know. But I am most certainly not a coffee cupper, don't even know the exact protocols, and I'm fairly ignorant of green coffee buying practices. I rely on a trust based relationship with my coffee broker to secure coffees that will meet my roasting needs.
    Here's my point: Like I have said on this blog before, I have yet to enjoy a good espresso in a so-called Third Wave coffee bar. Period. I don't have anything against a bright profile. I have no agenda: I just like good espresso. So to me, all the talk about sourcing and varietals and cultivars and pressure surfing is utterly lost on me, because what I taste in the cup is always unpleasant. Who knows, maybe the coffee I'm being served is just handled improperly. Maybe it's the barista's fault. But until I start enjoying good espresso (not "good" on MY terms -- just "good") I will continue to ask the Third Wavers to stay off my lawn.

  14. Hi Robert -

    Great background, and great stories. I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Espresso, and we have a lot of the same memories.

    I think it's one thing to innovate in espresso on the basis of a thorough grounding in its best expressions in the Italian tradition, which is your background, and quite another to just be, to put it bluntly, making shit up as you go along, and asking the customer to pay for your experiments. Things do seem to be getting better out there in Third Wave land, but I've learned to look in the doser-grinder hopper now before I order, and if I see beans Folger's would reject as under-roasted I know to head for the door.

  15. great discussion! always glad to see new posts.