Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Batdorf & Bronson Part 2: A Walk on the Wild Side

Today's morning cup couldn't be more different from yesterday's Costa Rica La Minita del Sol Tarrazu, yet both coffees are outstanding exemplars of their particular styles. One of my heroes, wine importer Kermit Lynch, would probably say they both "reek with typicité," while most professional cuppers would say the Ethiopian just reeks - period - of exactly the kind of funky, fruity ferment they go to such lengths to avoid in their buying.

During my nearly three decades in the coffee trade I took advantage of every opportunity that came my way to taste coffee with consumers and whenever I included a choice lot of either Ethiopian Harrar or Yemen Mocha it was the overwhelming favorite of most tasters - even alongside top Kenya auction lots, the best Guatemalans and clean but perfumed Ethiopia Yirgacheffes. The winy complexity and room-filling aroma of these coffees really is incomparable.

To be clear, there is a decisive difference between "fruity" and "rank ferment" and this lot of Ethiopia Gedeb is stunningly fruity but not fermented. That said, a fastidious fan of washed coffees (of whom there are many in the coffee trade) would say that due to the nature of dry-processed coffees one is playing with fire here, as it only takes one bad bean for a pot (or ground pound) of coffee to be thoroughly ruined.

Among my many mentors who abhorred natural-processed coffees two in particular come to mind: George Howell and Bill McAlpin. Just about the first thing George did when he got a large sample of Erna Knutsen's beloved Yemen Mocha Mattari was to roast it up, sort all of the quakers (unripe, light-colored beans) out and brew the sound beans and the quakers separately, pronouncing the former uninteresting and the latter undrinkable. As for Mr. McAlpin, I'd wager there wouldn't be a printable word in his description of a dry-processed Ethiopian like the one I'm drinking this morning, considering his answer to New York Times writer Florence Fabricant many years ago when she asked him about the then new-to-market dry-processed specialty coffees from Brazil. The exchange (all via phone) went like this:

"Mr. McAlpin, what do you think of the unwashed Brazilians?"

"I think they're great - as long as you're not talking about coffee."

Twisted humor aside, this particular Ethiopian, which (like yesterday's La Minita) I'd rate in the mid-90's on a cupping form, is an outstanding example of a truly dramatic improvement in coffee quality from that country for which leading specialty coffee importers and passionate buyers at leading Third Wave roasters deserve tbe credit. The use of Grain Pro bags, improved sorting of cherry, use of Kenya-style raised drying beds and expedited shipping from origin have pretty much done away with the all-too-common situation from years past where a pre-shipment sample FedExed from origin tasted fantastic while the same coffee on arrival at its U.S. port was a baggy, woody shadow of its former self. For at least the past 5-7 years, thanks to roasters like Batdorf & Bronson and home roasting supplier Sweet Maria's I've been consistently able to drink dry-processed Ethiopian coffees that are far better than anything from Ethiopia or Yemen in past decades. That's not true, by the way, of washed coffees from either Ethiopia or Kenya, which despite being beautifully processed and full of citric acidity are almost invariably lacking in the particular kind of fruit (lemony Apricot and jasmine in the case of Yirgacheffe, blackcurrant for Kenya) that used to be their signature.

Ethiopia Gedeb, Full City+ roast
It's not every coffee company who had the "bandwidth" to source a washed coffee as refined and subtle as the La Minita while also offering a natural coffee as funky and outrageous as Ethiopia Gedeb, which surely is a direct link to the taste of coffee as Kaldi the goatherder and his peers first experienced it thousands of years ago in coffee's motherland.


  1. Excellent posts, Kevin! Glad to see you posting again!

  2. Thanks Patrick!

    Yes it has been awhile and I've thought about just retiring the blog. Living in Mexico most of the year means I'm even further removed from current goings-on in coffee retail than usual.

  3. Whatever you plan to do, I wish you luck and happiness!

  4. Thanks Patrick and same to you!

  5. Kevin,

    Thanks for another informative post. I like reading your impressions of vastly different coffees such as the two from Batdorf & Bronson you've most recently profiled.

    As I've commented before I'm a store manager at Starbucks. From reading what you've written in the past I get the sense that there was a real spirit of adventure at Starbucks in the early years. It seems like the sourcing of rare, exotic and exquisite coffees was a reality back then and just a slogan now. Today we are more interested in playing it safe with consistently unremarkable coffees meant to be doused with dairy and sweetener. For this reason I enjoy when you write about unique coffees that are rare if not mythical these days.

    Thanks again for the post. I'm not sure if you've read the news that Starbucks is closing all Teavana stores but I'd love to get your take on what you think the future of specialty coffee and tea is some time.


  6. Hi David -

    Thanks for writing.

    It seems to me that the Reserve Roastery project is what remains of the old product-driven passion, and while it's a tiny part of the business there are some great coffees being offered there, albeit at pretty obscene prices. Still with Mr. Schultz giving that project his full attention I expect great things to happen.

    Yes, the Teavana debacle on top of the precious tea debacles (killing the great whole leaf tea program, which happened under my watch, then the buying and squandering of Tazo) shows that Howard should have stayed with what he told me when he made me get rid of our great teas and pawn off all the tea customers on Upton: "if they want tea, let them go to China" (and yes, this is a verbatim quote).

    Good luck!