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.