Sunday, October 5, 2014

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.


  1. Your description of the saddened arc from breasted mermaid to incinerated beans contains much, and you capture a decline-and-fall even the coffee-uninitiated can grok. It’s heartening to hear of a java start-up that is driven by vision and passion (for lack of two more potent nouns to wield). I’ve also visited the Fundamental site and it is redolent of spirited determination and fun. When was the last time a ‘coffee experience’ was actually suggestive of a swell time in the company of good-humored know-somethings anxious to share the bounty? If attitude is anything like half the battle, these Fundamentalists are to be embraced and supported.

  2. Thanks very much for your comments Jeff!

    Jerry Baldwin, co-founder of Starbucks and long-time head of Peets (and one of the people in coffee I most admire) was talking, three decades ago, about the value of having regional roasting styles much like we used to have regional beer brewing styles (something that of course still exists in many parts of Germany and Belgium). Fundamental, along with the other roasters in Seattle I mentioned, Tim McCormack up at Mukilteo Roasters and Steve Smith at Fonté (both of whom I was seriously remiss in not mentioning originally) are pretty much the only links to the tradition of really great deep-roasted coffee in the area.

    The third-wave places, almost across the board, were started either by folks with no coffee background or with a barista background, meaning they knew something about making espresso but little or nothing about green coffee or roasting. Given that reality, it's really no surprise that we now have buyers for such firms talking glowingly about finding flavors in coffee that are either classic defects, signs of underdeveloped roasts or (as the Fundamental folks speak so well about in their blog) bizarre fruit flavors that simply aren't there and make it sound like someone's substituted flavored teas for coffee at the cupping table.

    Lastly, it occurs to me to point out that the only thing rarer than fresh, deep-roasted coffee like this in Seattle is coffees roasted to a classic full-city roast - meaning a rich chestnut brown but NO second pop, no oils. That's the style of roasting once offered by Freed, Teller and Freed in San Francisco (where Alfred Peet learned about coffee), Pannikin in San Diego, Kobos in Portland and perhaps best of all The Coffee Connection in Boston. Stumptown used to roast many of its coffees to that degree as well, but in recent years has joined the rest of the Third Wave lemmings in not only selling City roasted everything but putting such beans in doser-hoppers near their espresso machines (which ought to be grounds to have one's license to operate a La Marzocco revoked).

  3. Kevin, I'll say it's interesting for this coffee appreciator/non-aficionado to learn that 'fresh, deep-roasted coffee' of the Fundamental variety is rare in Seattle, a coffee-Oz whose name to most folks is synonymous with the Bean and coffee culture. I also had to look up Third Wave and am getting up to speed on coffee connoisseurship. Thanks again for your edifying and entertainingly expressed views. It's good to know that talented young outfits like Fundamental don't need to shout into a vacuum and can be championed by experts who write colorfully and knowledgeably and don't suffer bores. Why are there so many bores?