Monday, August 12, 2019

Sublime Artistry in Albuquerque : Cutbow Coffee

Cutbow Coffee owner Paul Gallegos amidst the tools of the trade
A summer house sit in Albuquerque has afforded me the opportunity to finally pay a visit to Cutbow Coffee, run by the humble, affable and vastly knowledgeable Paul Gallegos, who roasted for Peet's for decades. Cutbow was in fact recommended to me by Starbucks co-founder and long-time Peet's owner Jerry Baldwin. There's no one whose recommendations I trust more than Jerry's, but I must say my high expectations were greatly exceeded by the reality of what Paul and his team have wrought in less than two years in business. 

Understated packaging and don't miss the humorous "pairings"
Cutbow is clearly first and foremost a neighborhood hangout, with carefully made espresso drinks, great drip and French Press coffee, pastries and the usual wi-fi addicted habitu├ęs, but the beautiful 50 kilo roaster and heavenly smell of just-roasted coffee lets you know this is a serious place to buy beans. And from the caliber of the customer service to the cups the coffee's served in, it's clear that the standard Jerry Baldwin always said needed to be applied to everything ("is it as good as the coffee?") is taken very seriously at Cutbow. 

You might expect a guy who roasted 70 million pounds of coffee during his 28 years at Peet's to roast everything the way they do, but instead Mr. Gallegos sources, blends and roasts with the intuitive freedom of what wine writer Matt Kramer calls "signatureless" winemaking (in this case, coffee-making), in which the degree of roast is a product of engaging with each green coffee with all 5 senses. Instead of a formula, the Peetsian ideal of achieving as much luscious body as possible without sacrificing acidity, aroma and varietal nuance is achieved through a "beginner's mind" approach of letting each new coffee speak for itself. 

I had fleeting exposure to (and training from) roasters with such skills during the early days at Starbucks, but Paul's three decades of deep practice of his craft under the tutelage of Mr. Peet, Jim Reynolds, Jerry Baldwin and others gives him a depth of sensitivity and appreciation far beyond anything a person like myself, who bounced between Starbucks and Allegro rather than staying put learning from the best, could ever hope to fully appreciate. 

Photos of roasted coffee are notoriously hard to get right, but here are three I took with my phone that give a sense of some of the range at Cutbow. The Ethiopian is roasted exactly as we used to at Starbucks in the early 80's (and thus much lighter than the nuance-less Scolari torching they apply to everything today), and the Sumatra is likewise deep but not dark. The seasonal Stone Lake blend is one significant notch lighter, reminding me not of Peet's, but in both its flavor and roast degree of the reference-standard Mocha Java from Freed, Teller and Freed's, San Francisco's original specialty coffee roaster (founded in 1898) where a certain one-time employee named Alfred Peet perhaps learned as much about coffee as he had in Europe. Stone Lake is truly a rara avis in today's coffee landscape: not only is it a true full city roast, but it's also a masterful blend that really does offer more complexity, nuance and balance than any single origin coffee. 

Ethiopia, Sumatra, Stone Lake Summer Blend (left to right)

Part of the Peet's tradition is taking equal pride in single origin coffees and blends, and Mr. Gallegos has learned this lesson so well that one of his innovations is offering single origins that in at least two cases are themselves blends! The current Ethiopian offering is a combination of two spectacular naturals, while the Sumatra, which is simply the best Indonesian coffee I've ever tasted, is an artful post-roast blend of an excellent "regular" Mandheling with a classic Aged Sumatra. 

Given the thorough transformation of Starbucks stores into a moron's version of Baskin Robbins and the even more undrinkable $30 a pound lemon juice on offer (with a free side of attitude) at hipster Third Wave outlets everywhere I mostly avoid even visiting retail coffee shops anymore and content myself with home-roasted beans from Sweet Maria's. You can imagine then that walking into Cutbow was for me a form of time travel, taking me back very specifically to my first visit to Starbucks Pike Place in 1977, where I was overcome with a desire to buy a half-pound of every coffee and take it straight home. The sense of total commitment to excellence and the confidence that aroma and taste will correspond exactly and be an authentic expression of place is something I haven't experienced anywhere else since that time, with the one treasured and noteworthy exception of George Howell's The Coffee Connection back in its early 90's heyday. 

It would be hard for anyone who didn't know Starbucks in its early, pre-espresso bar, pure roaster-retailer days to fathom, but it was once such an intensely and obviously product-driven place that an article in the Seattle Weekly quoted a customer as saying "one of the things I love about this place is they're so passionate about coffee that I sometimes wonder as I walk through the door if I'm qualified to shop here." It was nice for an old dog like me to feel that kind of gratitude and goosebumps again. 

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