Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
We’ve written about coffee in India before, but this Sunday’s piece in The Seattle Times is one of the best-researched, most thought-out pieces we’ve seen on the subject in the mainstream Western media: As India gains strength, so does its coffee | Special reports pages | The Seattle Times. At least on the growing side of things. (Coffee consumption in India is another story that’s poorly reported globally. The Seattle Times‘ Part 1 was dubious and a bit patronizing.)The article notes the long history of coffee growing and coffee consumption in India, dating back to the 1600s. This while most of the Western media has treated the news of Starbucks‘ recent entry into India as if the American fast food chain was on a mission to liberate the uncouth India masses from their coffee ignorance. (This is a little like introducing potatoes to Peruvians.)
The article also does a great service by introducing Sunalini Menon, who was formerly the head of quality at the Coffee Board of India and is credited with much of Indian coffee’s quality gains. Of particular interest is the controversy Ms. Menon raises by suggesting that robusta, when handled properly, should be eligible at Cup of Excellence competitions.
Over the past several years, far and away some of the best robusta we’ve ever tasted has come out of India. In India, robusta can be handled like the most precious of arabica beans, and we often love what a measured dose of it does to round out an espresso blend. (Insert the *gag* *spew* *hack* of professional tastemakers here.)
Copy-editors are strange beasts. They can take a perfectly valid story, dress it up with titles and subheds, and transform it into something that sounds completely irrelevant to the contents within. Take yesterday’s Wall Street Journal piece on efforts seeking the genetic diversification of consumable coffee: The Indiana Jones of Coffee – WSJ.com (subhed: “Companies Go Deep Into Africa in Search of Perfect Bean”).
No, it’s not a bio piece about some swashbuckling snake-charmer in search of lost coffee gold. The Orchid Thief would be a more appropriate movie reference for just one of the characters in the article. It’s also not about Africa, as the genetic diversification effort is global. It’s not even about the ever-abused mythical “perfect bean” — as any single genetic coffee bean lineage would be just as susceptible to a mass extinction event as the limited coffee progeny we enjoy today.
But peel back the superficial layers of Hollywood pomp, general cluelessness, and deceit, and you’ll discover a decent article on efforts to develop more genetically robust and diverse options for our drinkable coffee stocks — something of a follow-up to a post we wrote six years ago. Of some 26 documented coffee species, only two are cultivated to produce something humans would actually pay money to consume. And of those two, many consider only one of them as drinkable.
Tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal features an article on the Lisbon espresso, the bica: The Best Cafes in Lisbon – WSJ.com. It touches on Lisboeta coffee culture — e.g., drinking many shots each day at the local pasteleria (a sort of pastry shop/bar); a dependence on slower roasts, good quality coffee from Brazil, but also a proportion of robusta from former African colonies; and 40ml espresso shots instead of the Italian standard of 20ml (something we never saw as a positive, btw).
The article’s title is something of a misnomer, as it overlooks some of the best and most notable cafés in town. In part, this is due to the article’s focus on Delta Cafés coffee. Cafés such as Pastéis de Belém and A Brasileira are mentioned. But then again, our definition of quintessential Portuguese/Lisbon experiences includes headbanging to Da Weasel in Praça do Comércio whereas it probably doesn’t rank with the Journal.
One of the long running jokes among the (these days: masochistic) fans who follow Italian soccer is that — at least according to the Italian sports media — teams tend to go from “crisis” to “crisis” several times in a given season. If a top-caliber team doesn’t win for two straight matches, sono in crisi (or “they are in crisis”). It’s as if the Italian media have a mission to create melodrama.
We think about that sometimes when we hear about the new coffee crisis: global warming, or climate change if you prefer. If you weren’t keeping score, the last coffee crisis was rooted in the collapse of coffee prices. With the 1989 dismantling of what was essentially a cartel among coffee producing nations, mass market coffee greens went from a high of about $1.50/lb to an all-time low of $.46/lb in 2003 — a pricing collapse catalyzed by the influx of mass-produced, low-grade Vietnamese robusta. It was this crisis that gave root to Fair Trade and other economic initiatives — to stave off the inequities of the coffee trade from spreading poverty and putting coffee growers out of business.
However, today coffee has a new crisis. From papers [pdf, 622k] presented at the 2007 SCAA conference to some of the key talks at the conference last weekend (not to mention posts here going back to 2006), there’s been a lot of chatter lately about how the forces of climate change are reducing crop yields, eradicating available land use for coffee production, and extending the breeding grounds of harmful coffee plant pests. This month’s CoffeeTalk cover story comes with the apocalyptic headline, “Can this really be the end?” and the quote:
Nearly all of the specialty coffees in Latin America are sold and shipped. There simply are no quality Latin coffees left except Brazilian and those are going fast.
Something is seriously going on. But is it a bit premature to declare the end of coffee? There’s real danger in being false alarmist.
Whether it is quality coffee or anchovies off the coast of Chile, one of the biggest safeguards for a product’s survival is a group of consumers willing to pay a decent price for the good stuff. So when we read lamentations that coffee is going to disappear, and that coffee consumers are going to flee for cheaper energy drinks, we get the sense that these are primarily concerns for the lower grade coffees we generally avoid anyway.
Yesterday we attended a Meet the Producers event hosted by the Epicenter Cafe and Barefoot Coffee Roasters and got to test this theory. There we talked with Barefoot’s “Chief Espresso Officer,” Andy Newbom, to ask his opinion on the subject — in addition to the opinions of visiting coffee growers from El Salvador and Guatemala.
Sure enough, they all confirmed our suspicions. As long as there are consumers willing to pay for good coffee, there will be a market for good coffee. It does leave concerns about supplies at the mid-range and low end. But the best way to ensure there will always be supplies of good coffee is to keep demanding it and paying a premium for it.
Just when we write about the stifling conformity among roasters and coffee professionals of this modern era, today’s New York Times blog reports on the use of robusta beans in espresso blends: Robusta Economy – Times Topics Blog – NYTimes.com.
Although there’s nothing in the post we haven’t heard before, it’s the tone of the post that we find a little sad and almost incredulous. To read the author, Oliver Schwaner-Albright, you’d think measured use of robusta beans in espresso blends were akin to the medicinal practice of bloodletting — and that those who continued to use a little robusta in their espresso blends were akin to underground disciples of Falun Gong in modern China.
We may not seek out robusta beans any more than necessary. (Ain’t that the truth.) But the apparent belief that there is a singular, conformist voice about what definitively does and does not make good coffee today smacks of a “taste totalitarianism” — not to mention a historical and factual revisionism.
Whether it’s coffee or Slow Food Nation (or both), today there’s a strong public undercurrent of knee-jerk, reactionary dismissiveness of anybody who dares suggest that the generic brand-X-in-a-can isn’t good enough for them.
The mistaken public belief is that most of the things we eat and drink today are somehow normal, inevitable, and “natural” outcomes — and not necessarily the result of a series of cut corners to even outright scary practices made to industrialize food production and minimize costs (while also maximizing profits).
Now minimizing costs is a good thing. But when it’s the only thing, when lowest price is the rule and all consumables are considered interchangeable commodities, typically all the production tradeoffs made to minimize those costs are swept under the carpet and consumers are kept blissfully unaware.
If you operated a business where you produced a good or product that consumers thought the only difference was price, how would you run that business? You’d make the cheapest stuff available — using as low-grade supplies as you could, and performing whatever compromising processes and practices you could to keep expenses down. You’d follow Henry Ford’s rules of industrialization, add scale, find innumerable ways to cut corners. This is how you’d make your profits. The only other challenge would be ensuring that whatever came out the other end of your machinery still qualified as the product in the eyes of indiscriminate consumers.
These practices in the mid- to late-20th century ensured that we were sold unripe oranges shipped on trucks and painted orange for consumer appeal. It ensured that supermarket tomatoes were hard and flavorless. It ensured that the chicken we eat came from factory farms where the animals were raised in impossibly tight quarters, succumbed to various diseases and illnesses because of the conditions, and then had to be pumped with drugs and antibiotics to combat these illnesses and keep them alive under those conditions. All the things that would horrify our grandmothers in contrast to what they used to call “food”. But even what do they know, given the transparency and accountability of the sausage factory these days?
The analogue for coffee today is embodied by the Big Four. Coffee beans were treated as the equivalent of nuts on screws — so producers were incented to find the cheapest, lowest grade stuff available. This is how we got in the Fair Trade mess in the first place. The major international coffee producers sought robusta supplies from Vietnam and other emerging markets — bean supplies that were cruder, and yet far cheaper, than their existing suppliers. They added chemical treatments to make it taste more like their “old” coffee, and violá! No transparency. No accountability. Just give me a big can of generic “coffee”.
Today people are coming to a greater awareness that their tomatoes don’t taste the same under these conventional rules of industrialization as they do from the backyard. And so there’s a growing consumer interest and demand for accountability and transparency in what they are actually getting for their money. A tomato isn’t necessarily like every other tomato, and the same is true for coffee in how it is grown, handled, and prepared.
It’s always been true: you often get what you pay for. But how many of us truly know what we’re getting, or what we’re contributing to, when we demand whole chicken at Safeway for 69¢ per pound?
A lot of people still want lowest common denominator products. All fine and good — that’s a matter of choice, and economics. But should someone remember what a ripe tomato really used to taste like and asks for that experience again, does that make them an elitist food snob? If so, we will proudly wear the badge of elitist food snob with honor. Food snobs everywhere are saving our food supply from becoming one giant Play-doh Fun Factory fed by tubes of high fructose corn syrup.
Interestingly enough, yesterday The Consumerist highlighted a Pittsburgh-area video from WTAE-TV. It featured someone’s grandmother, and she demonstrated some of the clandestine production practices a Big Four coffee producer followed to squeeze every last drop of profit out of their “tastes like crap” coffee. As if we’re surprised…
Today Condé Nast posted an general consumer article on what to look for in good coffee: Coffee Drinking Guide – Portfolio.com. However, it reads more as a quick guide to following what’s “trendy” today — rather than as a guide to seeking good quality coffee experiences. (Not to mention that the article’s title, “Eat Sheet: Coffee,” takes on a whole other meaning with a Middle Eastern coffee grower’s accent.)
For example, the pro-”light roast” movement is really just the flavor du jour. And after so many years of over-roasted and darkly roasted coffee, who can blame anyone? But as much as we tire of the ubiquitous wine analogy for coffee, the recent focus on light roasts isn’t far off from all the people who are now drinking rosé wines again.
Once people get it out of their system, they’ll be interested in darker roasts again. Just as when they get off single origin and single estate coffees, they’ll come to appreciate well-crafted coffee blends again — and the merits of high quality robusta beans again. And just as we explore enough with Clover machines and vacuum pots, something like espresso becomes interesting again. Each has their merits, and there never has been one way to appreciate good coffee.
For example, it’s true that lighter roasts exhibit better characteristics of certain beans. But for other bean varietals — such as those from Indonesian estates in Java and Sulawesi — a lighter roast is no better than darkly roasting a delicate island coffee: instead of the great body and lower acidity inherent to these beans, they come out tasting thin, bland, and even a little grassy at times.
Coffee is often best roasted to maximize the best, most unique qualities in the bean — and no bean is the same, really. And there is no one way to appreciate it all.
One definition of “overly ambitious” is attempting to write an article about the relationship between coffee and a pluralistic nation of over 1.1 billion people. Compounding this is the nature of India itself — where not only can you find evidence of just about everything, but for everything you find to be true you will also find the exact opposite to also be true.
India is a mesmerizing country that can be quite a lot to take in at any given time or place. Life there seems so much more raw…and vibrant. Besides being a diverse country of contradictions, one seems to experience a 360-degree view of life there — in contrast with our much narrower perspectives of the world here. For example, destitute poverty lives side-by-side with optimistic, upwardly mobile hope for the future. But at either end of this wide spectrum, India is filled with people of great friendliness, joie de vivre, and spiritual centeredness. It boasts some of the best people-watching in the world, and we rapidly developed a great fondness for the country and the people who live there.
Yet despite two weeks in a country that arguably changed us (is there such a thing as an Indiaphile?), we were much less successful at unraveling the mysteries of India’s historic, evolving coffee culture. There are a few reasons for this:
Despite these obstacles, we always welcome flimsy excuses to publish more travel photos.
It’s a bit ironic that Westerner travelers feel the culture shock of India’s raw authenticity — far removed from the corporate sameness that afflicts every downtown in America — and yet dedicated retail coffeehouses in India are dominated by big chains. The independent, mom & pop places called “coffee houses” are typically old school diners, cafés, and restaurants. (Another strange irony: with the escalation of world food prices, there are questions of how middle America can continue to afford organic foods for their families — whereas in destitute India, that’s all they’ve ever eaten.)
Of course, India is a nation famous for its tea drinkers. Chai being the Hindi word for tea — and not that latte-styled spiced tea stuff Americans call “chai” either, which is closer to chai masala gone Starbucks. (Indian trains and train stations are filled with the “chai, chai!” calls of tea-vending children and adults.) As in other developing countries famous for their tea drinkers, such as China, many of the newly affluent are gradually eschewing their daily tea for the perceived cosmopolitan mystique of espresso drinks. And in most modern offices staffed by younger Indians, coffee seems to be the beverage of choice.
However, coffee (kaufi in Hindi) is hardly new to the subcontinent. It’s generally believed that coffee was first brought to India in the 17th century through its historic Islamic ties to Yemen and the Middle East. Today India claims to be the fifth largest coffee producer in the world. Coffee is grown almost exclusively in South India, and most of it has been consumed in the domestic market — with an occasional bulk trade with the former USSR. But since the 1990s, India has developed some excellent coffees. They are also home to some excellent “oddities”, such as Monsooned Malabar and some of the highest quality robusta beans in the world. (Unfortunately we didn’t have the opportunity to visit coffee farms at origin.) Italy is currently the largest importer of Indian coffees.
South India is also famous for what they call “filter coffee” — or what the rest of us call “South Indian” or “Madras” coffee. It’s a ritualistic combination of darkly roasted beans blended with chicory, a lot of warmed milk, and sugar. It all comes together through coffee mixologists who use metal cups and tumblers to form the frothy, sweet, milky drink. While available in Northern India, it was too sweet and milky for our tastes — though some Madrasi purists told us that the concoctions up north came up short to the real thing.
|Name||Address||City||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|Barista Crème||33, 1st Floor, Khan Market||New Delhi||6.60||6.80||6.700|
|Costa Coffee||L8. Outer Circle, Connaught Place||New Delhi||6.40||6.50||6.450|
|Café Coffee Day||14 Indira Gandhi International Airport||New Delhi||7.10||4.20||5.650|
Corporate spokespeople frequently speak volumes more in what’s left unsaid than in what they say. Take yesterday’s Reuters news release from The Big 4‘s Kraft Foods. Kraft’s flagship coffee, Maxwell House, has desensitized American coffee taste buds for decades. Kraft has just recently decided to use 100% arabica beans in Maxwell House’s cans of unholy horror: INTERVIEW-Maxwell House coffee to go 100 pct arabica | Reuters.
In a statement made yesterday by Kraft senior vice-president and general manager of coffee in North America, John LeBoutillier, Kraft is changing the Maxwell House blend “to give mainstream America a richer, less bitter cup of coffee.”
The unsaid message from Mr. LeBoutillier? “For decades we have knowingly given mainstream America a weaker, more bitter cup of coffee. In more recent years, while the likes of Starbucks has created a market for much better coffee than the crude commodity we’ve been forever slinging on supermarket shelves, we countered by offering mainstream America even worse coffee: using cheap Vietnamese robusta beans, chemically treating it to taste more like our usual coffee, and passing the savings on to our shareholders. And by diverting our massive coffee purchases from our usual growers to cheap suppliers of low-grade beans, we helped instigate the global coffee crisis, inspiring desperate measures such as the Fair Trade movement.”
To also cite the Reuters article, “The move is neither an effort to challenge premium coffees nor in response to the hike in robusta futures prices to a recent nine-year peak, LeBoutillier said.” As if we didn’t predict exactly this ten months ago.
Last week, C. Clairborne Ray of the New York Times answered this question as part of the paper’s Q&A feature: bookofjoe: What makes coffee bitter?. (I’m citing it on another blogger’s post instead of the original NY Times source — in case you are religiously opposed to NYT logins.)
As the article states, coffee is a “complex chemical soup”. So complex, in fact, that the answer they offer is a complex alphabet soup.
The digestible short of it is that a little bitterness isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the overall balance of coffee, as it cuts down on its acidity. However, you can cut back on the perceived bitterness of the cup by avoiding distilled water, by brewing at higher temperatures, and laying off the robusta. The Coffee Research Institute also recommends medium roasts, drip-brewed systems, and using a coarser grind.