Saturday, May 21, 2016

Mocha Memory Lane

Mocha Harazi coffee, Yemen

This lovely post by my old green coffee importer friend and mentor Bob Fullmer of Royal Coffee was great fun to read over my morning cup of dry-processed Yirgacheffe (thank-you Sweet Maria's). Bob, among his many talents, is the original coffee origin travel blogger - dating back to when such missives had to be handwritten on legal pads or typed and mimeographed.

Bob does a great job of talking about the realities of importing coffee from a place as difficult as Yemen. On the consumer end, I will certainly never forget walking into Starbucks Pike Place in 1977 - years before you could buy a brewed cup of anything in their stores - and being captivated by an aroma that seemed to be a combination of blueberry, wild strawberry, chocolate and wine, then seeing the employees behind the counter furtively sipping coffee from a plunger pot.   It was newly-arrived Arabian Mocha Sanani, and the sip they offered me changed my life and started me on the path to working in coffee.

Fast-forward to the early 80's and Starbucks, thanks to the marketing genius of co-founder Gordon Bowker, was offering educational marketing to its wholesale customers in the form of pieces like these:

As Mr. Fullmer points out, the availability of Yemen Mocha, due to trade embargoes, political strife and demand from Saudi Arabia, has always been iffy, forcing American fans to often do without for years at a time. Starbucks, as you can see from the pieces posted above, did its utmost to offer Mocha when available, and when it wasn't there was the inimitably-named Revolutionary Mocca-Java (RevMo in roaster speak), which combined carefully-chosen lots of Ethiopia Harrar (most often the Horse Harrar from another legendary Royal Coffee supplier, the late and much-missed Mohammed Ogsaday) with Estate Java.

The name for this blend might seem to be some sort of celebration of socialism to those unfamiliar with the nefarious ways of the coffee trade, but as Jerry Baldwin pointedly said "what's revolutionary is that [unlike just about any other roaster at the time] we tell you what's in it." Contrast that kind of painstaking authenticity with what my old boss at Allegro Coffee, Roger Cohn (whose grandfather founded Superior Coffee in Chicago) told me about their Mocha Java blend: "we did buy some Yemen Mocha once in awhile and I think we put 5 pounds in a 500 pound batch just so we could show Accounting there was some usage." Things weren't much better at Allegro itself at that time, which supplied an ersatz Mocha Java blend to supermarkets that was comprised of some particularly bad lots of Ethiopia Djimma and non-Estate Java that tasted like petroleum. All we roasters could do was write our own truth-in-advertising name for the blend on the roast log to piss off the boss: Mucho Jiva. Sadly there is still a lot of that blend available in many a supermarket.

While I stand by my characterization of much if not most of what leading Third Wave roasters have done as regressive rather than innovative, one area where they and the network of wonderful green coffee importers all of them - especially those who crow loudest about "direct trade"- depend upon have made huge leaps forward over the past 20 years is in the packaging and shipment of green coffee, and nowhere has this made a more pronounced difference than in deliveries from Ethiopia and Yemen. Gone are the days when buyers like myself, heartbroken at tasting dazzling preshipment samples of coffees that became baggy, musty shadows of their former selves on arrival, refused to buy coffees from these countries until they'd arrived in the U.S.

GrainPro bags and faster shipment with better temperature control are one aspect of this improvement in quality, but the other is certainly much better processing of dry-processed coffees in particular in Ethiopia. Yemen, meanwhile, is as troubled as ever and its coffees just as rustic and inconsistent as they were 35 years ago - meaning that for the better part of the past decade or more anyone who wanted to buy a really stellar stand-alone coffee in this style, or to assemble the best possible Mocha Java blend, would have been better-advised 9 times out of 10 to go with a choice dry-processed Ethiopia Yirgacheffe or (less frequently) Harrar.

The superiority of these coffees has not gone entirely unnoticed at Peet's, which has offered choice lots of Queen City Harrar and/or dry-processed Yirgacheffes under the Ethiopia Super Natural moniker in recent years, but while they've seen fit to use that coffee to turbocharge their recently introduced Big Bang Blend, their Arabian Mocha Java reflects some sort of fall-on-your-sword dedication to authenticity, combining baggy Yemen Mocha (also on offer straight) with Estate Java when far better (and cheaper) options for both the African and Indonesian components are available. Starbucks, meanwhile, recently offered a 21st century version of the old RevMo blend briefly in stores in 3 states, but otherwise the only chance to connect with that company's roast style and green coffee sourcing standards as they were "back in the day" is to pay double or triple Third Wave prices for the occasional choice lot at the Reserve roastery in Seattle or online.

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.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Consolidation: Peet's Buys Stumptown

While the illustration above pretty well sums up what many in the trade think Stumptown has done, the only thing that surprises me about this news (you can read more here) is that it's taken this long. 

Dare we hope that Portland and environs finally gets some coffee that's actually seen the inside of a drum roaster past first pop? Probably not, but joking aside Peet's scale and tremendous sourcing expertise, access to capital and infrastructure will be huge plusses for Stumptown. 

Of course cold brew is the main reason given for the buy, but what one wishes Peet's would get out of this, in carefully reviewing Stumptown's marketing of its coffee, is a reminder of the focused, product-driven and passionate company it itself once was and could be again. Unfortunately the legendary Berkeley-based firm has utterly and totally lost its way, going from a product-driven purist of the highest order to a faltering, unfocused marketing-driven machine with said marketing reflecting no discernible strategy or position. In selling their souls they didn't even get a good price and went out with a whimper not a bang. 

The procession of boneheaded moves in recent years at Peet's is beyond counting, but includes acknowledging third wave farm-to-cup positioning by disclosing the name of exactly one farm (San Sebastian in Antigua) on its menu board; halfheartedly offering a couple of medium roasts and exactly one light one after three decades of "deep" roasting; utterly abandoning even the pretense of having the quality of the non-coffee items sold match that of the coffee;  and most recently trashing one of the best whole leaf tea brands in American retail history in favor of flavored crap under the Mighty Leaf label. 

Here's hoping they do indeed leave Stumptown alone as they've said they'd do (of course Starbucks said the same thing about The Coffee Connection and we all know how that turned out). 

Stay tuned for further mergers and acquisitions. 

Caffè Terzi, Bologna

One of the producers of the video below sent it along to me and I thought it was worth posting for several reasons - not the least being that if your only exposure to espresso in the U.S. is either the mega-chains or Third Wave places you'd have no idea of the sensibility that underlies espresso in its native land. 

The gentleman featured in this clip unquestionably knows his coffee and his art, and how refreshing to see beans in the doser-grinder hoppers that are neither oily and incinerated or (a la Stumptown, Water Street and the sorry rest) a Folgers shade of sickly tan, but instead optimally developed for the brewing method in use. 

The next thing you'll notice if you pay close attention is that the ~7 gram dose for a single shot going into the portafilter looks like nothing compared to the overfilled triple baskets in use stateside, and after you're done being shocked (or in my case delighted) by that you can see the master barista brewing shots into demitasses already containing the proper amount of sugar, which is actually required (as Dr. Illy taught us long ago) to bring the coffee into balance and reveal all of the flavors present. 

Most of the trade in the U.S. looks down on Italian espresso as something it has long since transcended, when the reality is the most knowledgeable practitioners of blending, roasting and brewing there have forgotten more about excellence in coffee and cuisine altogether than the self-styled leading lights in the U.S. will ever know. 

Caffè Terzi

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Tale of Two Coffee Makers

Fresh off the presses from Sprudge, the coffee hipster's National Enquirer, come two posts in succession about coffee makers. Far be it from these guys to notice any irony about the juxtaposition, so allow me...

The first is an interview with the creator of the Ratio, an admittedly beautiful appliance that for a mere $580 (or $640 equipped as shown with its de rigeur Able filter) brews almost as good a cup of coffee as you can with a hot water kettle and a Chemex.

The second is a lovely Vimeo profile of Alan Adler, inventor of the Aeropress, which costs $29.95 on Amazon. It brews a much better cup of coffee than any drip brewer, electric or manual, makes extra-strength coffee that while it's not espresso is certainly delicious in a cappuccino or caffe latte, and is the ideal travel coffee maker. Plus you can buy twenty of them and still have enough money left over to buy a bag of obscenely overpriced Third Wave beans to brew in it. 

I highly recommend checking out the Ratio coffee site and its videos, reading the interview with the inventor if you're a glutton for punishment, and then contrasting the lifetime supply of precious pretentiousness you just ingested with the humble warmth of Mr. Adler. Derivative drip dreck for $600 or versatile originality for $30....geez, I just can't decide. 

If the Ratio videos and website style seem eerily familiar, it's because they're clearly using the same PR firm as The Timmy Brothers, whose priceless video can be seen at the link. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Is it The Onion or is it Sprudge? Who knows? Who can tell the difference?

It's truly impossible to discern reporting from humor when your entire website is self-parodying, but the hipsters at Sprudge have certainly offered us coffee gold with this gem of a post. 

Pan-roasted coffee in Alaska on a bus makes at least as much sense as what's on offer from the site's better-known sponsors, but what I especially loved was the photo above. If my eyes don't deceive me that's gotta be Allegro Kenya Grand Cru (or is it Water Avenue whatever?) blended half-and-half with Peet's French Roast. 

Ebony and Ivory? 2nd wave-3rd wave coffee peace treaty? Surely this is what's next. I'll await the IPO and infusion of venture capital money (not to mention the "Black & Tan Nitro Cold Brew") with bated breath. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Full City Roasts: An Endangered Species?

I just returned from a trip to Northern California and Western Washington to see friends and family. We were in our old hometown of Boulder, Colorado on both ends of the trip where I had occasion to try to find coffee worth drinking at the local Whole Foods (with no success despite - or rather because of? - it being the home of Allegro Coffee). 

Everywhere I traveled this trip the coffee choices seemed to be either screamingly acidic, underdeveloped cinnamon-city roasts from Third Wavers or carbonized stuff from Peet's. Thankfully there was finally an exception when we got to Seattle: Cafe Carmelita from Tony's in Bellingham, which is not only advertised as a medium roast but comes complete with an Agtron number (67) to prove it. It's a lovely blend. 

Sweet Maria's has an excellent roast color chart (I'll post the photo below, but the detailed description is well worth reading. 

What I'm seeing in the hipster places are mostly roasts in the #8-10 range, and of course Peet's and Charbucks, with the exception of their token (and silly) new medium and light roast efforts are all in the #14-16 range. That leaves the entire world of balanced, nuanced, fully-but-not-overly developed coffees pretty much unrepresented at retail, unless you're lucky enough to stumble on just the right, rare Blue Bottle, Counter Culture or Tony's offering or, on the darker end of the spectrum, an old-school Northern Italian espresso blend (~#'s13-14) from the likes of Mr. Espresso or Illycaffe. Of course there are other regional roasters (Broadway Café and Roasting in Kansas City comes to mind immediately) still offering balanced coffees, but based on the Agtron numbers I'm seeing in Coffee Review for every such roast that's out there there's either a new player doting on the "tea like" flavors of their cinnamon-roasted direct-trade Yirgacheffe or an old-line roaster like the aforementioned Allegro abandoning balance in favor of trendiness. 

I noted with interest that Tom at Sweet Maria's (as reliable and unbiased a guide to roasting and to coffee in general as I've ever read) lists the bean temperature correlates to Full City (#11) and FC+ (12) as 444 and 454 degrees F. respectively, and it reminded me of a roasting seminar taught by Agtron's Carl Staub I attended many years ago, during which he referred to 450 degrees as "the death of fruit." 

I think that's accurate for coffees intended for drip or vacuum pot brewing, but espresso extraction reawakens and emphasizes acidity so strongly that optimal roasts - at least if the blend contains a fair amount of dense, high-acid coffees - can go slightly darker. What goes unsaid though is that cinnamon-to-city roasts are underdeveloped and just as imbalanced as the murky Starbucks stuff everyone is so determined to rebel against. 

It seems like much of what's going on these days is that a roast that's only fit for evaluation purposes (#9) is not only being offered for sale and brewed in pour over bars but also routinely finds itself into espresso machine doser-grinder hoppers. This is something truly unprecedented, and it's unprecedented for good reason: drinking such coffee is an exercise in masochism. We've arrived at a retail landscape that, in fruit terms, offers nothing but green bananas or black ones useful only for banana bread: fully ripe has disappeared. 

With bland and burnt now thoroughly explored, it will be interesting to see if the next (Fourth?) wave brings an interest in nuance and balance...the very things the best second wave companies, from Schapira's to Kobos to Freed Teller to Illy - tried to teach us about so deliciously decades ago. Here's hoping there's more to progress than applying a Folger's roast to good green coffee.