This month’s issue of the trade rag CoffeeTalk posed the question of standardized specialty coffee ratings and grades as an aid to consumers: Toward standardized specialty coffee ratings and grading [PDF, page 8, 7.6Mb]. The article opens with mention of $130 a pound Hacienda Esmeralda Geisha. It then questions how retailers and consumers can inject some predictable sanity into pricing high-quality bean stocks.
So just how can the layman consumer reliably know when a coffee is really worth $20 a pound and when it is not? The challenge, according to some specialty coffee experts, is in being able to separate gradings for specialty coffee from the mass commercial coffee that dominates the trade. Historically, the industry has based itself off of “C” grade coffee — mass production coffee with much lower quality standards and a low baseline price traded on the floor of the New York Board of Trade (NYBOT, now Ice Futures U.S.)
Oddly enough, the answer probably lies partly in their invocation (via CNBC this time) of the ever-popular wine analogy. Wine buyers rarely base their purchase decisions purely on the grapes. More often, consumers are willing to pay more for specific vitners, labels, and vintages — and not by any special grading system that tells consumers that a $10 bottle of wine is made from one class of grapes and a $30 bottle is made of some other grade. Unless the wine comes in a box — or any container larger than the gas tank of a Mini Cooper — wine buyers follow few other large-grain cues associating price with quality.
Of course, coffee can similarly be sold by regions, varietals, crop harvests, and even single estates. But this represents a progressively smaller and smaller share of the specialty coffee market. So if there’s going to be any meaningful grading system at all, it will need to be very simple — more like the grade A and AA we see for eggs (and even that is a bit much for many consumers). Meanwhile, labels like Jamaica Blue Mountain or Kona will continue to command their prices just on recognition alone. The marketing efforts behind different varietals, etc., may prove far more influential than any grading system.
Just ask a Japanese-speaking Tommy Lee Jones about his favorite coffee-in-a-can:
In the mixed feelings department, the Washington Business Journal recently reported on Counter Culture Coffee‘s newest regional training center in D.C.: Counter Culture Coffee opens training center in Adams Morgan – Washington Business Journal:. As with Counter Culture’s other training centers, it is designed to educate industry wonks and general consumers alike on coffee flavors and Fair Trade practices.
On the upside, awareness of what makes good coffee is a very good thing. I wholly support the notion of educating more people on how to make good coffee, from bean to cup. And while Fair Trade practices are hardly secrets anymore, coffee retailers and consumers should be aware of the issues that lead to the creation of Fair Trade.
That said, Counter Culture seems intent on shoehorning the ever-popular wine analogy with coffee consumers. While this is a convenient vehicle for explaining to consumers why a roasted coffee should cost $15 a pound, it’s also very misleading. Consumers are loaded with pre-conceived notions and expectations where the wine tasting model just does not fit — whether it’s the manual skill and chemistry involved in coffee preparation, the completely unromantic ritual of coffee cupping, or the idea of food pairing.
Counter Culture is avidly Fair Trade at its roots, so it’s no surprise that they actively promote causes they so firmly believe in. But I have personally become further and further disenfranchised with Fair Trade. As with Communism, the devil isn’t in the concept — it is in the detail of how it is executed.
And it’s not just because growers and the environment aren’t being aided to the degree Fair Trade advocates suggest they are. The goals of certification labels such as “Fair Trade” and “organic” have literally been swallowed whole by marketing efforts — not entirely unlike the “buy green” oxymoron. Just as Michael Pollan advised “never trust a food product that makes a health claim” in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ve recently come to the rather radical conclusion of “never trust a product that makes an environmental or social justice claim”. Unfortunately, it’s gotten this bad — and it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.
La Colombe Torrefaction, a Philadelphia-based roaster that’s been something of an East Coast analog to Blue Bottle Coffee Company, has regularly received national recognition for the quality of their roasted coffee. But on the West Coast, La Colombe may as well be based out of Belgium; they’re largely unknown around these parts.
In an attempt to help remedy that, last year La Colombe set up a simple West Coast distribution office — just two-blocks from the Piccino Cafe in Dogpatch. From here they receive fresh shipments from their Philadelphia roaster about every two weeks and ship it out (via UPS) to various local restaurants and cafés in town and up and down the West Coast — from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and beyond.
Recently I was invited by Damien Pileggi of La Colombe to pay a visit to their humble SF office — to share stories and to taste some really good espresso. Damien previously worked in one of La Colombe’s Philadelphia cafés, and seven months ago he came out West to run their operations out of Dogpatch. (It’s pretty much a one-person operation.)
The Illinois St. office is a modest space consisting of a couple weeks of inventory of their various coffee lines — e.g., Nizza, for espresso, Corsica, for drip, and pod supplies for the restaurants and other retailers that insist upon it. Freshness, and hence inventory rotation, is of critical importance. And like all the other premier roasters in the area, they struggle with finding a place to showcase their coffee by preparing it to their own standards. This is perhaps the biggest piece missing from their West Coast presence.
With so many elite-yet-coffee-clueless restaurants in the area serving poor, copy-cat renditions of Equator Estate Coffee, I’m surprised that so few have caught on to the unique, distinctive coffee service proposition offered by the likes of La Colombe and Ecco Caffè (for example).
Of course, you can’t count on restaurants making good espresso. But competition for great espresso is a good thing. Hopefully someone will soon pick up La Colombe in the area and prepare it to its full potential.
Time Out London just announced their votes for the best London area coffee bars for 2007: Time Out Eating & Drinking Awards winners – Features – Eating-and-drinking-awards-2007 – Time Out London. They named Fernandez & Welles as London’s finest this year — followed by Bullet, Flat White (pretty much Southern Hemisphere for café com leite), the Nordic Bakery, and Sacred Café.
I’ve honestly heard of none of them. Which isn’t necessarily a bad sign; it’s always better to learn something new than to be referred to the nearest Caffè Nero chain. And while Time Out hardly rates with connoisseurs, they are known for digging beyond the surface.
So their recommendations are probably worth checking out — with a few caveats. The article frequently mentions a coffee bar’s use of Fairtrade coffee, and yet that certification has no bearing on coffee quality. London-area roaster and small café chain Monmouth Coffee Company also receives multiple citations of note — and yet their none of their coffee bars made the Time Out list. And, as happens all too often with supposed coffee reviews, there are enough mentions of tarts, snacks, pastries, and sandwiches to make anyone question how much attention they paid on the actual coffee at these places.
While the relentless drumbeat of blindly obedient Fair Trade support continues — vilifying anything that isn’t certified Fair Trade — we have yet another reason why it doesn’t exactly achieve the results consumers may be expecting. Yesterday’s National Post (Canada) reported on how the minimum prices paid to Fair Trade co-operatives have not changed in 10 years: Fair-trade coffee price unchanged after 10 years. As a person quoted in the article put it, “It’s like not taking a raise in 10 years.”
Meanwhile, alternatives such as Direct Trade are at least starting to get a little attention.
Yesterday’s The Campus Press published an article naming a few of the better coffeehouses in Boulder, CO: Buzzed in Boulder – Weekly Features. For the Colorado University set, the article mentions the Peaberry Coffee chain, Boulder’s outlet of Berkeley-based Espresso Roma, and Trident Booksellers and Café.
Today’s New York Times featured an article on how the upper echelon of coffee roasters pursue the finest cup the world over: To Burundi and Beyond for Coffee’s Holy Grail – New York Times. Introducing a number of America’s celebrity roasters, including Stumptown and Intelligentsia, the article touches on some of the key tools of today’s trade: direct trade, professional coffee cuppings (no shoehorned wine-tasting metaphors allowed here), and coffee tasting competitions such as the Cup of Excellence.
Bypassing co-operative-based systems such as Fair Trade, Direct Trade (a term popularized by Intelligentsia’s buyer, Geoff Watts) is a model for how individual roasters can directly buy from farmers. The roasters help ensure living wages, sustainability, social infrastructure, and environmentally friendly practices for the growers they work with. But, unlike Fair Trade, there is a stronger incentive to create truly better quality coffee in the process. (This is precisely the sort of niche green coffee buying that Starbucks is too large to do anymore.)
Today’s The Sydney Morning Herald ponders how Australia’s Italian immigrants could bring a culture of appreciation for some of the best espresso in the world, and yet New York City — no stranger to Italian immigrants — is such a puzzling espresso wasteland: Brew ha ha in city that falls short on espresso – Opinion – smh.com.au. This is a different angle on a theme we’ve touched on before. (We have also touched on the rare exceptions in recent years.) The Herald even takes its inquiry to the heart of New York’s Little Italy and finds, “a cafe latte in Little Italy is a sad anaemic thing, devoid of flavour and aroma.”
The outsiders’ view of the scourge that is American coffee can sometimes be quite revealing. For example, the article raises the all-too-common occurrence of the great Italian restaurant meal finished by the pathetic Italian espresso. It cites a story where the espresso was sent back and replaced with something pretty decent. When asked why the restaurant didn’t do it right the first time, the barista replied with the exasperated, “They wouldn’t know the difference here.” Ouch. (This might also be the Theory of Consistently Bad Coffee in action.)
The critical subject of how America’s “bigger is better” culture ruins our espresso is also echoed in the article. But what mystery it fails to address is perhaps the greatest one of all about New York City: why is it that an international megacity, with a diverse and wealthy enough population to afford the best of everything in this world, cannot make espresso as good as you could find in, say, Kansas City?
Walking in to a Peet’s Coffee & Tea last week, I noticed they are once again offering their supply of Panama Esmeralda Geisha as a roast-dated “Reserve” coffee. We wrote about this coffee varietal last month (and also in 2006). It has consistently sold at record auction prices, and it has won numerous awards for the best coffee stock out there. (Good luck finding it at Starbucks.)
Unlike the ever-popular yarn for the coffee tourists known as kopi luwak, you will actually find reviews of the varietal on CoffeeReview.com. And although I didn’t purchase a sample at the $130-a-pound auction price for the green beans, I did purchase a roasted half-pound for $25 — for “research purposes” — making it the most expensive coffee I’ve ever purchased.
So what’s the lowdown on this coffee? No surprise: upon opening the bag (two days after the roast date) I immediately noticed how Peet’s will roast anything darker than I’d like — even a prized Central American coffee that has garnered ten first place awards in the past four years. For a Central American coffee with such subtle floral and fruit-like elements to it, roasting it darkly enough so that the beans start surfacing oil (well into the second crack) is a bit like serving prized Kobe beef cooked medium well.
Its roasted coffee fragrance is dominated by floral notes and some caramel. (Here I’m reserving the word aroma exclusively to the olfactory sensation at the back of the throat, per ISO methodology and Espresso Italiano Tasting.) The fragrance is rather subtle, however, and not as potent as Peet’s write-up leads you to believe.
Brewing it in a Cona vacuum pot (vac pot being my clear favorite brewing method for more delicate coffees), it produced a surprising full and richer mouthfeel — not the kind you’d normally expect from a Central American coffee. Tasting it, right away you know you’re dealing with really, really good coffee. It has a wide breadth of flavors — jasmine, some slight citrus, and also some darker, earthy notes that gave it an unexpected structure. Which gave me the idea that it might not make such a terrible espresso after all.
Brewing it as an espresso, it produced an adequate layer of medium brown, even crema. It carried a lot of bright notes in the cup. Its vac pot mouthfeel did not translate to a great espresso body — it was a touch thin. But it makes a very good quality espresso. However, and no surprise, espresso does not highlight the real merits of this bean. (Espresso cup in the photo below courtesy of Bar Lamia, Portovenere.)
Speaking of merits, is Panama Esmeralda worth the expense? In a word, no. Or at least with the way that Peet’s roasted it to something more pedestrian. However, I do recommend it for a one-time tasting to calibrate your coffee palate.
Just when you think that Starbucks chairman, Howard Schultz, might be the last person left at the corporation who understands anything about good coffee, he makes boneheaded comments that dispel any chance of that happening again: Starbucks chairman sees gourmet coffee shortages | Reuters.
Today in Mexico City, Mr. Schultz publicly predicted a global shortage of gourmet coffee beans as worldwide consumption of higher-quality bean stocks is on the rise. But in an act that can only be described as misplaced egotistical chest-beating, Mr. Schultz not only acted irresponsibly by spreading rumors and arguably trying to incite a supply panic, but he also made ridiculous claims about Starbucks’ place in the coffee supply chain.
“At the very top of the market where Starbucks plays, I do not believe that others will have access to the quality of coffee that we are buying because we have secured those sources,” Schultz said.
Yet, for example, no one has ever found anything close to a Cup of Excellence coffee offered at Starbucks. Furthermore, Starbucks’ size and scale — and brand promise of feigned consistency across tens of thousands of retail cafés worldwide — prevent the mega-chain from sourcing their beans from smaller, artisan growers capable of growing the highest quality coffee beans. Instead, Starbucks’ scale requires a lowest-common-denominator approach — where they only deal with growers who can supply coffee beans in large enough quantities to meet their broad distribution needs. Thus Starbucks essentially has the same fast food mega-chain supply problem that McDonald’s has with their potatoes.
Mr. Schultz wouldn’t be the first corporate officer who has lied to the public. But most corporate officers of multi-billion-dollar chains are at least savvy enough to choose lies with some degree of credibility. Lacking this most basic of executive judgment skills, somebody needs to cut off Mr. Schultz from drinking all the company Kool-Aid Frappuccino.