Monday, May 16, 2016

In Praise of Plushness

We recently moved to Tucson, Arizona after contemplating doing so for several years. It's great to be back in a real city after too much time spent in small towns both here and in Mexico.

I'm hoping to do something with coffee retail here and have been looking into the local scene in more depth than has been possible on previous reconnaissance visits, and while Tucson would never be confused with Portland or San Francisco when it comes to coffee sophistication the bandwidth of what's available at retail isn't all that different.

Starbucks of course is everywhere and very successful. There's an old-line roaster who roasts about the same as they do but enjoys a strong following mostly because Tucson, much to its credit, is fanatically strong (even more so, I'd say, than the aforementioned West coast cities) about supporting local businesses. And then there are the Third Wave places, immediately identifiable by hipster airs, stale light roasts sitting on the shelves at high prices, and (above all) by roasts sitting in their espresso grinder doser-hoppers that are too light for the cupping table, let alone pressurized brewing.

Nowhere to be found, it would appear (except chez nous) are coffees in what not long ago was considered mainstream specialty coffee territory: full city to full city+ roasts. From Pannikin to Kobos, The Coffee Connection to Schapira's, these are the kind of fully ripe, balanced roast expressions that gave rise to appreciation of great coffee in America in the first place, and they've now become rarer than hen's teeth as what's available at retail is either Folger's-sour or Charbucks burnt. As with our politics, the middle seems to have disappeared almost entirely.

This is particularly unfortunate because over the past few years brewing methods that showcase coffee that has its flavor and body as fully developed as possible without sacrificing acidity and aroma (that's the definition of Full City) have done nothing but improve. First was the Aeropress, which I've praised extensively elsewhere, and more recently the Espro Press has thoroughly redeemed and revitalized the much-maligned (in Third Wave circles anyway) French Press, offering all of the body of plunger pot coffee with none of the grit.

For those unfamiliar, here are a couple of photos of the Espro (both 1 liter and 10 oz. travel mug size):

1 liter double-wall stainless Espro

As for coffees, photos of roasted beans are notoriously difficult to pull off even with a good camera and I have only the one on my phone to rely on, but here are three home roasts of great green coffees from Sweet Maria's. The very imperfect photography gives them a somewhat darker cast than they should have. None of these coffees entered second pop.

Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Dry Process

Kenya Auction Lot

Sumatra Lintong

Many years ago at Starbucks a few of us in the roasting department (who were wisely prohibited from getting anywhere near the marketing folks) cut-and-pasted a parody of an ad by our arch-rival Stewart Brothers (aka Seattle's Best Coffee and now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Green Menace Herself) showing one of their roasts but with the caption "There's No Such Thing As A Healthy Tan." Looks like it's time to bring the slogan back.


  1. It's been too long between posts. Happy to have you back. Your comments are always very insightful. I too have been disappointed lately with the offerings from third wave roasters. One of the reasons I got into home roasting years ago was to get away from the burnt offerings that had become popular. Now we have the opposite. Even though I'm a home roaster I do occasionally buy roasted coffees from some of the "better" roasters to calibrate my senses. Fortunately I have found cafes that truly understand coffee preparation. Unfortunately I have had a lot of sour pourovers too. I'll take coffee from a properly calibrated batch brewer any day. I wish you success in your endeavours in Tucson.
    Best regards.... Jack

  2. Thanks Jack!

    I too frequently check out the offerings of roasters I know do a good job with sourcing. In some cases folks who used to offer moderate roasts have joined the lemming-like rush to see just how light they can go, but there are certainly companies out there (Batdorf & Bronson, Tony's in Bellingham come to mind immediately) who still offer full city roasts.

    I'll hope to have some good things to share from Tucson in the future. Thanks again for your comments, and best wishes.

  3. Always nice to read your posts Kevin.

    I've been vacationing this past week and periodically drinking the house blend (Pike) at Starbucks. It's somewhat roasty tasting but always fresh and hot. There's something to be said for batch brewing if done right and I think Starbucks understands that part of the equation.

    I can personally recommend Tony's coffees (Cafe Carmelita and Tony's Blend in particular) as I've been enjoying them for several years.

    I wish you the very best in Tucson....Jordan

  4. Hi Jordan,

    I'm not a fan of Pike Place (starting with the fact that the full name is "Pike Place Roast," indicating that the marketing department idiots have so thoroughly taken over the place that no one understands the difference between a roast and a blend) and of course ending with its incredibly bland flavor (already offered by House Blend and many other ill-advised creations).

    Brewing is another story though, and batch brewing at Starbucks or anywhere else that has the good sense to use well-calibrated Fetco or AMW brewers is far superior to the wretchedness of single-cup pour-over, for reasons doubtless well-known to you (contact time between grounds and water for drip needs to be 4-6 minutes, flat bottom filters work far better than cones, brewing into a pre-warmed insulated container beats the hell out of glass, etc. etc.). For that matter I'll take Starbucks espresso over any Third Wave coffee in Seattle, not only because it's properly roasted for their pour but because they still use a 14 gram dose for a ~2 fl. oz. double shot rather than overloading the portafilter with cinnamon-roasted whatever and then exacerbating that error by pulling an ├╝ber-ristretto shot.

    Tony's Carmelita Blend in particular was the best coffee I had all last summer in the Pacific Northwest, and I look forward to visiting them up in Bellingham.

    Thanks again for your comments and kind words, and enjoy that gorgeous part of the country. We'll be up there in a few weeks ourselves.