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Archived Posts from this Category
This is gonna sound cliché, but while I’ve been a longtime fan of Jon Stewart, I never quite warmed up to John Oliver.
Oh sure… on his new show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, now in its third season, Mr. Oliver can amp up the incredulity and indignation, throw in contrived comedic riffs, and preach to the choir of his liberal-minded audience as Mr. Stewart did for years on The Daily Show. But Mr. Stewart was always so much more adept at it.
Even if Mr. Oliver is trying a bit too hard to follow in Mr. Stewart’s Daily Show footsteps, there are times — like his rant on FIFA — where he can nail a topic with obliterating precision. This week’s episode on scientific research in the media did exactly that, where coffee-related medical research is one of the more popular topics among cited studies.
Readers of this ancient blog may recall many past rants of mine on many of the identical issues raised in this short — from a 2006 story about caffeine studies on rat libido to my 2008 calling out of the media-medical-research complex to a 2014 lament on the scientific shallowness of TED talks.
As Mr. Oliver says in the video:
Coffee today is like God in the Old Testament: it will either save you or kill you depending upon how much you believe in its magic powers.
Reading news headlines on my Flipboard these days has been an exercise in dismay for the future fate of the species. “Science” is regularly quoted in headlines as if it were an individual person, spouting off the most inane opinions on the most vapid subjects. But these opinions are treated as fact — as if chiseled in stone and handed out from high atop the mountain.
Yet study after cited study is inevitably flawed, distorted, and/or spun as click-bait. And no matter what, each and every study is almost certainly unverified — each a quotable example of what has been brewing as science’s massive replication crisis that’s been quietly underway for the past decade. The lone hope is that the scientific process can still call out these replication gaps. But as Mr. Oliver points out:
There is no reward for being the second person to discover something in science. There’s no Nobel Prize for fact-checking.
So why the sudden interest in coffee from Myanmar? While it is still more curiosity than serious demand, coffee from Myanmar is still something of an exotic export — despite Myanmar being overshadowed by its neighbors in China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia.
The country formerly known as Burma is just now opening up to the world much like Cuba is currently opening up to the U.S. Once a prosperous nation, Myanmar succumbed to a coup d’état in 1962 and it had been under military rule until only recently. Borders were closed, the economy stagnated, civil guerilla wars proliferated among Myanmar’s many tribal minorities, and multiple generations of Burmese citizens were lost to an oppressive regime stuck in the past.
That’s all changing today — and ridiculously fast. Last month, and for the first time in 17 years, a co-worker of mine and all-around cool guy — Anjo — recently returned to his Burmese birthplace. He witnessed a vastly different place with paved roads, modern construction, saturated trucking routes to and from China, the proliferation of smartphones and $1.50 SIM chips, and local Burmese wearing more Western clothes. In the three weeks he was there, he witnessed Myanmar swearing in its first democratically elected president in 50 years and the opening of a new Myanmar stock exchange.
At first Anjo hoped to pick up some coffee at origin near his original home in the Shan State, where much of Myanmar’s coffee has been grown ever since it was first introduced by missionaries in 1885. Instead, he picked some up at a City Mart, a popular supermarket in the former capital of Yangon.
This was even more interesting to me, as it represented what is consumed in the domestic coffee market — not just what’s shipped out for export. While the difference between domestic and export market coffee can be dramatic in many coffee-producing countries, Myanmar’s history of closed borders likely means the locals have become used to drinking “the good stuff” as its only market.
The first 200g bag of coffee I tried was simply labeled — in English — “Italian Coffee Myanmar” from Ananda Cocoa & Coffee Ltd. It was 100% organic, 100% Arabica coffee designed for “Italian espresso” shade grown in the Pyin Oo Lwin of the North Shan State at about 1200m. As for the coffee varietal, it claimed to be Kenyan — which coincides with the SL 6, SL 14, SL 28, and SL 34 cultivars introduced to Myanmar in 2004.
Purchased in mid-March 2016, I couldn’t help but notice the expiration date stamp of 28-Jan-2017 on the bottom of the decorative bag. Taking a wild guess, that was probably an annual stamp and thus the roast date was probably about 6 weeks prior to purchase. It’s also worth noting how much English labeling is on a package of coffee sold in a Yangon supermarket. (Thank you, British colonialism.)
Myanmar coffee is more typically Arabica (two-thirds of its production, the other third being robusta that was originally planted by tribesmen of the Karen minority) and tend to be higher elevation Catimor cultivars — known more for their body and earthiness. Which is why it was a little bit of a surprise — especially on a bag labelled “Italian espresso” — to find a more medium City/Full City roast that barely made the second crack. There was no visible signs of surface oils on the beans. Have Myanmar coffee roasters been following Third Wave hipster protocol all along?
Brewed as espresso, though not on my most meticulous espresso machine setup (a consumer-typical Saeco Syntia Focus), it produced a cup with a medium-to-blonde crema that was relatively slight (6+ weeks since roasting will do that to you). The body was pretty solid but not heavy. The flavor profile lacked sweetness but also that dense, roasted fullness — and thus centered more around the midrange of the palate. I suspect it wasn’t quite a single origin, but it was a close approximation for some relatively similar green stocks.
Overall, an impressive coffee if you compare it with anything you could get in a supermarket bag labeled “Italian espresso” in Vietnam, Thailand, or China.
The second 200g bag of Myanmar coffee I tried came from Shwe Yin Mar Coffee, a member organization of the Mandalay Coffee Group — and not to be confused its related auto parts, iron, and steel business.
The packaging appeared far more commercial and lacked any designation for coffee origin other than “Arabica from Shan State”. While not labelled “100% organic”, they claimed their beans were grown without chemical fertilizers. Plus an expiration date also showing January 2017 and what looks like an indicator that it was roasted January 2016.
As a bag labelled “Espresso – whole bean”, the roast was more of what I expected for SE Asia supermarket coffee: a dark roast with a sheen of oils. As with the Italian Coffee Myanmar, the beans are a healthy, Arabica-friendly size which you might not normally associate with coffee in this part of Asia.
Brewed as espresso on the same machine as before, it produced a cup with a slightly more blonde crema of weak thickness. The body was decent, not great, and the flavor profile dipped into that burn-the-crap-out-of-my-identity territory: not quite a watery cup of ash, but definitely heavier on the smoke and tobacco with only some midrange and no real brightness to speak of. Which is a shame, because it was essentially roasted to taste like coffee from anywhere else.
In conclusion, I can’t say I wasn’t fully convinced of the exotic magic of Myanmar coffee. But there was clearly something going on here that I wasn’t quite expecting — and that coffee from Myanmar clearly has the distinctive potential to be something that could stand on its own relative to other quality coffee producers around the world. So at a minimum, I’ve been put on notice for what’s to come from this rapidly evolving country.
As the local T-shirts put it, “New Mexico: It’s not new, and it’s not Mexico.”
Even the food here is its own thing. Between sopapillas, calabacitas, carne adovada, and Hatch Valley chiles (and ordering things “red”, “green”, or “Christmas”): it’s not Mexican, and it’s not Tex-Mex either.
New Mexico can probably even lay claim to its own state of mind, defining the term high desert. Anywhere you turn starts from at least 6,000 feet of altitude. The combination of the altitude and arid climate can leave you with mild headaches and nosebleeds for days after arriving. Any notable breeze will result in red dust and grit in your teeth.
I last visited this region one winter in the 1990s, passing through one bleary-eyed day in the high-desert driving across I-40 from Flagstaff, AZ to Oklahoma City as part of a marathon trek across the country. Even back then I found Albuquerque more than a little odd, with the entire stretch of the town littered with “experimental speed limit” caution road signs. Experiencing it close up two decades later, it’s far stranger than I could have imagined.
It seems rather apropos that humanity’s nuclear era started in the neighborhood, just up the road at Los Alamos. The town of Albuquerque strikes you as a post-apocalyptic world where someone entered a typo in their nuclear launch codes and accidentally overlooked this place. Add the many locals who convincingly impress you as veterans of earlier (and multiple) alien abductions, and to this day there is perhaps no better movie that captures the essence of Albuquerque than the 1984 cult film Repo Man:
Repo Man:This could easily have been set in Albuquerque, NM
Yes, even more than No Country for Old Men and the excellent TV series Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. While New Mexico may not directly feature in Repo Man, it’s the film’s origin story and its influence permeates throughout. (Sorry, L.A.)
The residential areas are typically a criss-cross of wide East-West-bound boulevards littered with strip malls, with North-South streets (like Washington St. NE) jaggedly intersecting like misfit puzzle pieces so there’s never a continuous line through the many lots of ranch homes, covered car ports, and gravel landscaping.
On the subject of food, simply eating here reminds you that Albuquerque is not your typical American city. The most exclusive restaurant in town — universally voted the biggest “splurge” restaurant in ABQ — is run by a three-time James Beard nominee. In true ABQ style, it resides in a local strip mall, next door to a hydroponics shop and across the street from a drive-thru emergency loan shark/cash station called Fastbucks. That’s how ABQ rolls.
Among friends I’m known for identifying the TV trope of the generic “fancy restaurant”: high-end dining establishments that have zero distinguishable interior design. Meanwhile, real-life restauranteurs often bleed ridiculous amounts of money to heavily brand their high-end dining room experiences so you always know exactly where you’re eating. For all that Better Call Saul gets right about the town, there was a scene in an episode last month where they dine at one such generic “fancy restaurant” in Albuquerque. If you spend any time in ABQ, you’d immediately recognize that no such place could exist in town.
Better Call Saul does, however, nail the region on lawyers. Albuquerque is overflowing with courthouses and law offices, with the billboards of personal injury attorneys lining Interstates 25 & 40 with come-ons such as, “Hurt? Call Bert”. Is it any wonder why Bugs Bunny should have turned left?
Downtown ABQ gets even stranger. There’s a vast sea of multi-story parking garages, largely filled with cars, scattered among the remains of aging U.S. Route 66 kitsch and the tinted glass monoliths of more modern-yet-nondescript bank and energy company towers. And yet walk the downtown streets on a weekday afternoon a couple hours before rush hour and it is eerily devoid of pedestrians or even traffic. Which gives downtown ABQ the feel of a giant long-term airport parking lot for alien abductions: nobody is here, and yet everyone has left their cars behind.
We’ve written before about Austin, TX and their “Keep Austin Weird” motto. But the people here, although very friendly, are simply just too weird for Austin. More to the point: they’re blissfully unaware of their weirdness, thriving as an amalgamation of teen and adult runaways, Native Americans, silver-toothed street urchins, and the progeny of prior vehicle breakdowns along U.S. Route 66 to California.
All of this makes Albuquerque a more than unusual base for developing a quality coffee culture, which most cities typically identify with urban hipsters. The bizarro culture of ABQ essentially renders a hipster’s raison d’être as pointless and irrelevant. If anybody from Portland, OR ever ended up here, I’d put them on a suicide watch.
Quality coffee is a relatively new thing in this town that normally celebrates commodities, down to its streets named after mining and minerals. Hence it is surprising to see a few $3 espresso shots here without the “moral outrage” you’d normally expect from most cities that love to gripe about the cost of a cup of coffee.
In Albuquerque, the espresso shots tended to run a bit thin on body and were often served in various presentation contraptions involving carved wooden blocks (or serving trays) and sparkling water on the side.
One of the local oddities I came across was piñon coffee. Much as New Orleans has been known for blending regular coffee with chicory for a unique local variation, piñon coffee is made by combining regular coffee with nuts of the piñon pine tree (the official state tree). Native Americans traditionally harvested these pine nuts. Once roasted and brewed, it exhibits a sweet, spiced smell like an amped up Arabic coffee, but it tastes more like regular coffee with an earthy, nutty edge to it.
An hour up I-25 from Albuquerque is the town of Santa Fe. Founded in 1610 by Spanish colonialists, the New Mexico state capital carries a lot more history — including one of the oldest houses and the oldest church in the U.S.
Very much unlike Albuquerque, Santa Fe is a deliberately preserved town. This makes the stark contrast between the two not unlike the city of Napa versus St. Helena in the Napa Valley: one grows through big-box-store sprawl and lower costs of living while the other prefers a controlled aesthetic gentrification that makes it attractive to tourists with money.
This means that Santa Fe, like New Orleans, is one of the few places in the U.S. where you know exactly where you are — i.e., not in some random urban center lined with all the same chain stores. Sure, there are many fancy restaurants and massive hotels and spas about town, but everything is harmoniously dressed up in Pueblo or Spanish style. Every building is some variation of an earthtone and the architecture is remarkably consistent.
Despite the million-dollar Pueblo homes near the old city center, there are still plenty of tourists parading through town in rumbling two-story pickup trucks with tinted windows, Oklahoma or Texas plates, and blasting some variation on death metal out their windows. Yet at the same time there’s an extensive arts community and even the relocation of many Tibetan expatriates in town.
Although Santa Fe is where locally roasted coffee was first introduced to New Mexico, the coffee culture here has generally been slow to evolve — with more options growing in just the past few years. Like Albuquerque, there’s often an unusual emphasis on an inventive rotation of specialty drinks. But here there is also a strange validation of the Paleo diet as something more than the snake oil fad that it is: a few places place their own buttered coffee knockoffs prominently on drink menus.
Synesso espresso machines can be found in uncommon locations — cart services, ice cream shops, etc. — which makes us suspect there’s a local distributor with service and influence in the area. If you’re going to cover this high desert service area, my advice — based on ample empirical evidence — is to listen to a lot of Guadalupe Plata on the car stereo:
Guadalupe Plata may be from Andalucía, Spain, but if it was good enough for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly…
I originally noted a lack of sweetness in the coffee of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, which I partly blamed on the altitude at first. But I eventually found examples that broke that stereotype, such as the excellent Iconik Coffee Roasters — easily one of my more favorite coffee house finds of the past couple of years.
In conclusion, fallout from the Manhattan Project and Trinity tests may have left behind one unusual place and its residents, but the global advance of good coffee has infiltrated even here in just the past few years. Though for the record: Los Alamos scientists still drink pretty crummy coffee for the most part.
|Name||Address||City||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|Deep Space Coffee||504 Central Ave. SW||Albuquerque||8.10||7.50||7.800|
|Humble Coffee Company||4200 Lomas Blvd. NE, Ste C||Albuquerque||7.50||7.80||7.650|
|Zendo Coffee||413 2nd St. SW||Albuquerque||7.50||7.50||7.500|
|35° North Coffee||60 E. San Francisco St.||Santa Fe||7.40||5.50||6.450|
|Holy Spirit Espresso||225 W San Francisco St.||Santa Fe||7.10||6.50||6.800|
|Iconik Coffee Roasters||1600 Lena St., Ste A2||Santa Fe||8.10||8.20||8.150|
|Ohori’s Coffee Roasters||505 Cerrillos Rd., Ste B103||Santa Fe||5.80||5.50||5.650|
|Santa Fe Espresso Co.||56 E. San Francisco St.||Santa Fe||7.30||7.00||7.150|
This is a coffee shop fitting for downtown Albuquerque, which feels like it’s at the fringes of the known universe. (More on that in a later post.)
Its interior is stark black and white, frequently adorned in stripes, with cement or brick walls, scuffed square tile floors, and a worn wooden service counter littered with woodcut puzzle pieces of their logo (aka, their “business card”). There are several tables inside, often attended by students and/or laptop zombies, with window counter seating in front beneath glass block windows.
They work closely with Chad Morris, roastmaster at the Las Cruces, NM Picacho Coffee Roasters – one of the best roasters in the state. They serve V60 pour-overs in addition to espresso drinks.
Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the back of the rectangular space they pulled shots of Picacho’s Sidami Ardi Natural to produce a cup with a mottled medium-to-darker brown crema. As a single origin Ethiopian, it exhibits a broader flavor profile than you might expect — with some bright fruit balanced with body and darker herbal elements with more spice and warming elements at its core. Served in a cheap Tuxton cup with a glass of sparkling water on the side.
It’s a pretty solid espresso shot: not exceptional, but worthy in a town ruled by the odd and bizarre — albeit pricey at $3.
Read the review of Deep Space Coffee in Albuquerque, NM.
This is a difficult trip report to author. Because on the one hand, we have to pay respects to what Ohori’s Coffee Roasters pioneered in Santa Fe, NM. But on the other hand, we have to call out product failures as we experience them.
Like Peet’s, Ohori’s Coffee started as a take-home bean sales store. Also like Peet’s, as consumer preferences changed over the years, it evolved into a retail coffee beverage shop. This was particularly innovative in Santa Fe, where communal “third places” are rare and most social gatherings take place in private homes. Susan Ohori sold the company to her longtime accountant in 2002, and the tiny chain has operated rather consistently to this day under the “newer” ownership.
This location on Cerrillos Road was the second retail shop they opened, and of the two it is designed to be more of a social gathering space. As I entered, even without knowing Ohori’s Peet’s origin story, I felt like I was in another Peet’s chain café. There are four café tables offering sparse seating in a vast space with tall ceilings with exposed wooden framing. There’s a service counter setup with a heavy emphasis on bean and leaf sales that looks lifted out of the Peet’s interior design catalog. And as for the roasted coffees themselves, many hearken back to a flavor profile of dark roasted ashiness popularized by Peet’s some 40 years ago.
There’s a wall of merchandising (cups, machines, Chemex and pour-over paraphernalia), and the art on the walls here is generously showcased without commission.
As for the retail coffee service, they may have dated roots but have not missed out on many coffee fads. They offer pour-overs, buttered coffee for those most recently into Paleo snake oil, and as a sort of health thing they avoid syrups and artificial sweeteners. Ask for a flat white, which is still not yet on the menu, and they will know how to make you one.
Using a two-group Nuova Simonelli machine, they pull espresso shots in a short paper cup (what’s that the deal with that?) with a creamy-looking medium brown crema of a smooth texture that’s relatively thin. There’s a definite ashy edge to the cup: it’s very harsh with a flavor combination of smoke and ash. This is not a pleasant espresso, and we have consumed hundreds of cups of outright rot-gut espresso before.
And yet Ohori’s has won the “Best of Santa Fe” by the Santa Fe Reporter for 7 of the last 10 years, and even the New York Times recently recommended this location in a 36-Hours piece. At first this lead me to believe that many local fans of the place must rarely ever drink the espresso straight here.
But if that were only the case. The milk-frothing here is dishwater-like: thin with irregular bubbles, producing what seems like little more than milk-flavored air. My wife found the macchiato to be simply undrinkable and abandoned it after the first sip. She never does that. I tried it and sympathized with her assessment. I’ve never experienced this at a Peet’s Coffee, for example.
Thus we can’t be sure that the coffee adoration here is rooted in local loyalty, nostalgia, or layers of milk and natural sweeteners that disguise the raw taste of their espresso. There may be other product lines worth trying besides their straight espresso and macchiato. Ohori’s offers medium- and even light-roasted coffees, even though they believe you often need a medium roast to at least develop the coffee’s flavor more fully — of which I am generally in agreement.
But when the core espresso is this dubious for a best-in-town consideration, something is clearly wrong. And I would be the last person some might accuse of being a Third Wave apologist. Unless you are a die hard, dark roasted Peet’s Coffee fan, we have to recommend that you seek your coffee elsewhere in Santa Fe.
This central Santa Fe coffee house resides in the Santa Fe Arcade on the 2nd Floor. Opening in December 2015, it was developed as a new coffee house “concept” by an area restaurant group lead by Gerald Peters called Santa Fe Dining Inc.
Yes, apparently coffee has become a restaurant theme in America, with this concept being self-described as “full-service third wave coffee house”. Which only underscores how the term third wave has become the modern coffee equivalent of the hackneyed gourmet label from the 1980s.
We’ve been mocking the wannabe hipster use of third wave for a decade now, so most of you are probably glad we’ve largely given it a rest over the years. But ten years later and we’re still surprised that so many relative newbie coffee lovers come to its defense — and so much so that desperate marketers continue to use it.
For the many Millennials who were too young to know the 1980s, a little social history lesson about the term gourmet may provide context. As Wikipedia notes for the word:
In the United States, a 1980s gourmet food movement evolved from a long-term division between elitist (or “gourmet”) tastes and a populist aversion to fancy foods.
Sound anything like the many curmudgeons today who seem offended by the mere existence of “fancy coffee”? Also note that this transformation followed the establishment of supposed “second wave coffee” stalwarts such as Starbucks and Peet’s.
The 1980s saw the popularization of many otherwise commodity foodstuffs to an elevated status with an obligatory gourmet label. Orville Redenbacher became synonymous with gourmet popcorn. Jelly Belly popularized the concept of gourmet jelly beans. Lather, rinse, repeat. Thus at the time, the word gourmet became a sort of shorthand nudge-and-wink to let consumers know that this wasn’t your father’s foodstuff and that its distinguished quality commanded a higher price.
Compared to our coffee wave, your coffee wave is tough and chewy.
Problem was that the term gourmet wasn’t backed by any real definition, guarantee of quality, nor certification. This left the barn doors open for every profit-minded copycat and charlatan to rush in and lay claim to its meaning.
Thus today the term gourmet has since been relegated to downmarket product come-ons in the aisles at commodity goods stores such as Wal-Mart; meanwhile the premium quality/price vanguard has moved on to terms like artisan. Just this week at the ABQ Sunport (airport), I walked up to a Comida Buena with bold “gourmet deli” branding that served me a soggy croissant sandwich wrapped in tin foil and left under a heat lamp for who knows how long. What does gourmet really mean when this happens?
The same is true today of third wave coffee, which has become an unqualified label boasted by wannabes in an attempt to claim some sort of false legitimacy. Meanwhile, virtually all of the top-quality roasters and coffee shops in the world distance themselves from the term. What does third wave really mean when this happens?
Which brings us back to the 35° North Coffee concept. Their slogan, coined by restaurant vet and manager Rob Rittmeyer, is “Find your latitude”. Its name refers to Santa Fe’s latitude as well as the number of grams of coffee used in their pour-overs.
As part of a concept restaurant chain, the food gets a bit more of the attention here. They serve beignets, a croque monsieur, and banh mi sandwiches as a sort of French-influenced theme — even if French is a poor choice for a coffee affiliation.
Accessed from inside the mall, there are five nicer faux marble café tables along a back booth and a marble rear counter with a half-dozen stools. There’s also a separate seating room (the “War Room”) with more and larger tables across of the main entrance. The kitchen, and its vent, are massive: these are clearly food people. And the food sensibilities don’t stop with edibles, as they even offer (as is creative coffee in New Mexico) an oatmeal latte: complete with actual oatmeal, brown sugar, and granola as influenced by Colorado ski bums.
They do roast their own coffee on-site with all the space they have, but any labeling of blend, coffee origin, or other pedigree is virtually absent from a supposed third wave coffee house. They offer drip, pour-overs (supposedly single origin, but how could you tell?), nitro coffee, and espresso service. And yes, they even offer something called a “Latitude Adjustment”: a nod to the Paleo snake oil types seeking a Bulletproof Coffee(tm) knock-off.
All said, they use the three-group La Marzocco Linea behind the counter on shots of their “dark roast blend” to produce an even, medium-to-darker-brown crema of decent thickness. Whatever wave they are supposed to belong to, I have had identical coffee experiences in the late 1990s. But to their credit the espresso body is good, and despite being served in a short paper cup the results are better than expected. It has a darker flavor profile of herbal pungency with some tobacco but no ashiness.
Read the review of 35° North Coffee in Santa Fe, NM.
A quote in the subhed of Modern Farmer‘s recent article about coffee flour kind of summed it all up for me: “Given the rapidly advancing state of coffee technology…”
I understand that coffee product marketers have a vested interest in injecting a measure of planned obsolescence and general FUD in your preferred coffee choices — trying to equate the evolutionary trajectory of quality coffee with the exponential technology curve of the smartphone. That’s kind of their job. But an agricultural webzine?
The sad part is that they are not alone in this. And yet for over 1,000 years, humanity has followed the essentially unchanged ritual of roasting and grinding coffee beans, extracting a beverage from the grinds with water, and serving it.
Some men hope for revolution but when you revolt and set up your new government you find your new government is still the same old Papa, he has only put on a cardboard mask.
— Charles Bukowski, Notes of a Dirty Old Man
Chemex? Invented in 1941. Pour-over coffee? Invented by Melitta in 1908. Cold brew? Originally called Kyoto coffee, its origins date back to 17th century Kyoto, Japan and the Dutch traders who probably introduced it there. Vacuum pot coffee? Wannabe technogeek webzines with names like Jismodo go full-on circle jerk over their high-tech “Walter White in Breaking Bad” chemistry set looks, but even these devices date back to 1830s Germany — almost a century before the discovery of Penicillin.
Even literal attempts to directly connect the rise of the smartphone to the rise of quality coffee fall horribly short: i.e., the proliferation of smartphone-enabled coffee brewers that invest the bulk of their manufacturing and purchasing costs in useless busy-box application controls and virtually none of it on making better coffee.
So just what is so “rapidly advancing” here? Other than hype and repackaging old brewing methods as “new”.
Another example yesterday came from Condé Nast Traveller: How a Famous Chef Is Helping Cold Brew Coffee Go Global.
I can look past for a moment that cold brew is essentially the Colt 45 of quality coffee (without Snoop Dogg) and that you can get better coffee extractions with hot water and a gym sock. I can even look past that Stephanie Izard is a great chef but yet every chef affiliation with a coffee project has proven meaningless and mediocre at best.
But I’m really looking forward to a Wyndham Grand hotel opening in Kyoto, Japan where they can convert the grossly ignorant public to this great new beverage they’ve invented called “cold-brew coffee.” This is not even about PC bros ranting about cultural appropriation: this is outright cultural theft. And then selling it back to the inventors as if it were their own creation.
Same circus, different clowns.
Whether it’s the promotional materials of coffee purveyors or the so-called journalists who write about them, the only evidence I have for any real revolution is that the educated and intellectuals seem to have fled the premises. Our historical ignorance about coffee only seems to have become worse over the years.
So I implore all of you who even attempt to do this for money: research what you’re doing. Before you tell us that your client or some Young Turk has just invented sunshine, please understand the context and recognize the history and the innovators who may have come long before. Do only that much, and you just might be the coolest thing since an alien Scarlett Johansson drove a rape van around Scotland.
Sometimes the headline gives all the spin you need to know. Our spin here is on the same story published yesterday in the NY Times Business section: Starbucks Prospers by Keeping Pace With the Coffee Snobs – The New York Times. Except we’d like to think our spin has a slightly different, less investor-relations-for-PR take.
The good news for Starbucks is that they’ve returned to financial growth after years of stagnation. But make no mistake about Starbucks’ brand extension failure after failure in getting here. They’ve failed at virtually all of their major market expansion attempts beyond coffee: movies and books, music, beer & wine, food (ZOMG, BBQ?). These failures are major blows to Starbucks’ continued growth plans. Because just like their mature fast food brethren, Starbucks has reached a saturation point with their core (coffee) products.
For example, let’s compare Starbucks with Taco Bell. Starbucks is expected to maintain same-store sales through the old marketing hack of continually introducing new products, such as cold brew coffee or the Chestnut Praline Latte. (Hence why the words “new” and “innovation” should never be associated with good coffee.) This is their equivalent of when Taco Bell introduces DareDevil Loaded Grillers in Mild Chipotle, Hot Habanero and Fiery Ghost Pepper flavors. But to truly grow their business, Starbucks needs to do more than just coffee. In Taco Bell terms, this is akin to their recent mad foray into breakfast menus.
Thus reading that “Starbucks Prospers by Keeping Pace With the Coffee Snobs” through their Starbucks Reserve program is akin to defeat. Eight years ago we pondered Starbucks introducing “Starbucks Select” concept stores as part of their eventual desire to claw their way back into the quality coffee market — the very market they so wantonly abandoned for the mass-market race to the bottom over a decade ago. This would be like Taco Bell saying that they are going to focus more on up-market tacos for growth.
Thus instead of expanding into new categories, Starbucks is retreating to its original basics. But with the commodity-quality coffee market already saturated and its growth stagnating, Starbucks is now seeking growth by going up-market and competing with smaller, more nimble, and ever-more established independents in a higher quality market they conceded long ago. Except since it is Starbucks we’re talking about, it is more likely aiming to compete with the indie-turned-corporate darlings of Stumptown or Intelligentsia.
Keep reading the NY Times piece, and you’ll encounter absurdities such as, “Starbucks’s size gives it an edge in securing the best beans. They can do what the smaller competitors can’t.” Oh really? As a bigger company, they are actually at a disadvantage at dealing with smaller family farms producing higher quality beans. For them, working with Starbucks is akin to trying to do business with NASA. And for Starbucks, dealing with such small, piddly providers is grossly inefficient and expensive compared to the supply chains they’ve optimized to supply tens of thousands of global coffee shops with near-identical products.
The piece even ends with an ode to mobile payments and delivery services — which have nothing to do with quality and everything to do with quantity, convenience, and transaction volume.
It just goes to show you how the same data can be interpreted so differently, depending on your perspective. Even if Jim Cramer would be proud.
Unless you’re wearing a tinfoil hat and staying off the grid (except for this blog), you probably know that Peet’s Coffee & Tea — through JAB Holding — bought out both Intelligentsia and Stumptown last month. Predictably, there was much hipster angst on social media (as if that isn’t the whole point of social media), and at first I didn’t see the need to cover the story again.
After all, it is essentially an updated rehash of a post I wrote four years ago. This time around there was an enormous amount of mainstream media coverage as well. But prodded some here, there’s probably another chapter on this topic.
Some of the mainstream media have come to the defense of the acquired, noting the dual standards of how an Instagram sells for billions of dollars to Facebook and its founders are congratulated while Intelligentsia and Stumptown are showered with “sellout” scorn on social media.
However, most Silicon Valley startups scale by merely replicating data and code. With many leveraging Metcalfe’s Law, these businesses naturally improve the customer experience with scale. Contrast this with the business of coffee, which scales through the much higher friction of skilled labor and quality coffee sourcing.
These two factors are subject to a sort of inverse Metcalfe’s Law: the bigger the scale, or the more customers they serve, the poorer the quality of what they serve. Starbucks didn’t dumb down their baristas and throw out their La Marzocco machines for brain-dead, push-button Verismos because it would improve their coffee quality. They did it out of the necessity to scale to thousands of outlets in the face of a dearth of skilled baristas to hire en masse (and less expensive ones at that).
Thus do not be fooled by any of the founder rhetoric about how joining Peet’s provides access to better supply chains and whatnot. I cannot think of a single coffee purveyor that has improved with scale — at least from the consumer’s perspective of a quality end product. Investors and shareholders are a different story, however. It’s also worth remembering that Starbucks’ scaling genius was in getting millions of people who don’t like coffee to believe that they did — through flavored milkshakes and the like.
But I don’t begrudge the founders of Stumptown and Intelligentsia for taking a great risk in the marketplace when much fewer cared as much about coffee quality, for making a great product, for working hard at it, and for growing their businesses. They deserve to be rewarded for their efforts and for helping to popularize better coffee. I thank them heartily, but make no mistake: effectively this is their stop. This is where they get off.
You could argue Stumptown got off earlier than Intelligentsia. While Intelligentsia was still producing barista champions, Stumptown was already downgrading itself as a bottled coffee purveyor as its founder preoccupied himself with becoming a restauranteur. Stumptown counter-intuitively went beyond producing wholesome basics to embarking on the packaged foods path of processed, shelf-stable consumables — just as much of the food world was headed in the opposite direction. In other words: more pumpkin spice latte in a can, less Cup of Excellence.
In fact, the world of coffee today seems obsessed with the brewing-gadget-of-the-week and “new and exciting” coffee beverage concepts as a complete distraction from the basic quality of the fundamentals. These fads and come-ons hint at the side-show desperation of coffee in the 1980s when the emphasis was on faddish gimmicks such as flavored coffees (French vanilla, mocha creme, hazelnut whatever, anyone?).
Every time I see the words “new” or “innovation” associated with coffee, I know they have completely lost the plot. Those are the marketing buzzwords of factory production and packaging. Coffee is an agricultural product, and there’s a reason why we don’t seek out “new” and “innovation” when buying other agricultural products such as asparagus or pork.
“New” beverage concept introductions such as cold brew and nitro coffee (another thing to thank Stumptown for) are just a page lifted from the Jack-In-The-Box food fad marketing playbook for the Spicy Sriracha Burger. May as well package nitro coffee in a cardboard box along with an action figure from the next Star Wars movie and call it a Happy Pack. Offer good while supplies last.
I do hope both Intelligentsia and Stumptown have a ways to go still under their new ownership. But then I look no further than Starbucks and how its buyout strategy of competitors with better product played out. Whether Torrefazione Italia, Teavana, or the Clover Equipment Company, Starbucks seems to have taken a deliberate scorched earth approach that ultimately eliminates consumer access to better end product.
Thus I recommend fans get their Intelligentsia and Stumptown fixes while they still can, because there really is only one direction for them to go from here.
One of the greatest espresso blends on the planet has remained something of a Bay Area secret for the past 23 years. It is almost certain to remain such, as popular tastes have moved on to single origin espresso shots to the pour-over-device-of-the-month to today’s quality-regressive fads being heralded as the forefront of coffee: cold brew (hello, 17th century Kyoto, Japan), nitro coffee, and bored mixologists treating coffee as if it were merely a Torani syrup flavor.
Or to paraphrase Nick Cho: “Second Wave wolves in Third Wave sheep’s clothing“.
All of which makes Josuma Coffee Company and their flagship Malabar Gold blend seem like dinosaurs of a lost age. But if you enjoy an espresso of balance and technical precision, Malabar Gold is a tall order that few American espresso purveyors have been able to match.
Disappointed by virtually all pre-blended green coffee supplies designed for espresso, I first encountered Malabar Gold about a dozen years ago as a home roaster. Buying from off-beat green sources such as Hollywood, CA’s The Coffee Project, the proprietary nature of the Malabar Gold blend strikes you as a false industry secret. For example, purchasing from The Coffee Project requires you to claim your status as a home roaster and not an industry professional.
This makes more sense when you understand Josuma Coffee’s business. Founded by Dr. Joseph John in 1992, they company pioneered the Direct Trade model with India coffee growers a good decade before Intelligentsia came up with the term (and two decades before Intelligentsia became Peet’s Coffee & Tea). They promote themselves largely through industry trade shows and today walk an even balance (i.e., 50/50) between their roasted and unroasted greens coffee businesses.
Over the summer Dr. John’s son, Melind John, invited me down to Josuma’s modest “headquarters” in a Redwood City office park. They had been importing approximately 6 to 7 containers of green coffee from India each year — which most recently has grown to about 9. They store their green coffee in some three different Bay Area warehouses (mostly in the East Bay) and roast in South San Francisco on Mondays.
Their coffee continues to be almost exclusively sourced from India, and most of their blends consist of 3-4 sources. However, Josuma has more recently started seeking out some coffee sources outside of India to aid the flavor consistency of some of their blends and to help round out their offerings to customers — many of them cafés — to provide them with a complete coffee sourcing “solution” as it were.
I’ve found knowledge about India’s coffee to be staggeringly poor in the West. For one, there’s often a presumption that India is purely a British-inspired tea-drinking nation. In South India, there are at least as many, if not more, coffee drinkers than tea drinkers — plus a tradition of it dating back to the 17th century. In 1670, India became the first location in the world outside of Arabia (i.e., Ethiopia, Yemen) to cultivate coffee when the Indian Muslim saint, Baba Budan, smuggled coffee beans from Mocha, Yemen to Mysore, India in what was then considered a religious act.
I joked with Melind that I had encountered the name “Malabar Gold” on multiple occasions around Mysore (officially Mysuru today). But instead of finding the mythical coffee blend, I only encountered locations of a popular chain of jewelry stores.
The great majority of coffee consumption in India isn’t of the “specialty” variety, but that’s also true of the rest of the world. Even so, India — with the Coffee Board of India — have invested heavily in growing and testing quality coffee. That includes wet- and dry-processed arabicas, the unique Monsooned coffee, and some of the highest quality robusta in the world (something you learn as a home roaster if you like a little quality robusta in your espresso blends). And 98% of India’s approximately 250,000 coffee growers remain small growers.
Melind demonstrated some of their own roasts with the two-group La Marzocco FB80 they crate over to trade shows, complete with naked portafilters. Whether straight up espresso shots or Melind’s favorite cortado option, the shot quality was unmistakable.
As quality espresso pioneer and “dinosaur” David Schomer (of Espresso Vivace fame) said at the recent Portland Coffee Fest about Malabar Gold: “This is the only other espresso I’ll drink. And you can quote me on that.” So we will.