Thursday, August 21, 2014

You've gotta be sh$%!*ng me


Thanks to long-time reader of this blog Patrick Booth for sharing this story from NPR, about an entrepreneur who's decided that the way to improve Kopi Luwak (the notorious "recycled" coffee made by collecting beans that have been eaten and shat out by the palm civet) is to supersize things by feeding coffee to elephants and collecting what comes out the other end.

Kopi Luwak was perhaps excusable when it was a rare novelty made from beans found in the forests of Indonesia, but it has long since morphed into a hideous (on many levels) enterprise involving keeping the hapless civets in captivity. It was - and is - in George Howell's incomparably precise and concise summation, "coffee from assholes for assholes."

I wish I could come up with an equally witty summary for this new project, but "Enema & Ivory" sung to the old Michael Jackson tune just doesn't cut it. Perhaps what's needed is an insistence from consumers that, in the interests of animal welfare, they'll only buy elephant shit coffee from free range pachyderms. Then at least there's a fair chance of these noble beasts flattening their handlers-cum-bean-collectors into the ground, thereby putting an end to the enterprise and vindicating Darwin once again.

Friday, August 1, 2014

"The Future of Iced Coffee" leaves me cold



If this be coffee, give me.....coffee?

This well-written article in The Atlantic has been recommended enthusiastically by a couple of people (Peter Giuliano and Mark Inman) I have a lot of respect and affection for, but I think their enthusiasm is either misplaced entirely or a result of greatly diminished expectations for specialty coffee altogether. 

Sprudge entitled their link to this article "Can the Next Starbucks Actually Sell Good Coffee?," which speaks volumes about the level of ignorance of specialty coffee history that prevails on the internet. The product the Atlantic article is about is a coffee-and-chicory based milk-and-sugar drink in a milk carton, produced by a marketing-driven company (Blue Bottle) that is to coffee retailing what Patron Tequila (a brand started by hair stylist John Paul Mitchell) is to authentic small-producer tequila. 

Starbucks on the other hand was a superb roaster-retailer from 1971 through 1984, during which time it sold not just good but often truly great coffee. It was a product (not marketing) driven company from top to bottom, which of course made it ideal for the masterful job of co-optation and prostitution done by Howard Schultz from 1987 onwards. Blue Bottle, on the other hand, was marketing-driving from the beginning - it has no soul to lose. 

The appropriate frame of reference for discussing Blue Bottle's milk carton coffee would be a comparative tasting of that product with bottled and canned iced products from Starbucks, Illycaffe and the like. 

Fresh brewed iced coffee prepared Japanese style, as championed by the aforementioned Mr. Giuliano, is the only iced coffee beverage I know of that captures, to a considerable degree, the aroma and flavor of excellent origin coffees. As a summer complement to core offerings of hot, freshly-brewed coffee it makes all kinds of sense. 

Blue Bottle New Orleans Iced Coffee on the other hand, is in the same category as the other aforementioned bottled coffee products, and only one small step away from NescafĂ© flavored coffee creamers, Irish Creme flavored beans and other such swill that are all still very much part of the (meaningless but measured) "specialty" coffee category. 

Traditional New Orleans coffee, to begin with, starts with mediocre to out-and-out defective coffee beans incinerated (French Roasted) to mask their defects. The loveliness of that starting point is then compounded by adding roasted chicory root, a foul-tasting coffee extender, after which copious amounts of milk and sugar are added in order to make the brew drinkable. Apparently Mr. Freeman is hoping that "New Orleans style" will evoke just the right happy associations in the consumer's mind, but that particular kind of coffee marketing is the province of somewhat larger companies (surely we haven't forgotten that the best part of waking up is Folger's in your cup?). 

Over twenty years ago, during the heady early days of explosive growth at Howard Schultz era Starbucks, I had the pleasure of hosting the superb food writer Corby Kummer (of The Atlantic) at the Starbucks roasting plant in Seattle for tasting and lengthy discussion. Even then (this was the early 90's) I could see substantial erosion in the level of knowledge of, and passion for, the taste of unadulterated origin coffees among both our customer and employee bases, and when Corby said "but surely Seattle has the highest level of coffee connoisseurship in the country" I replied that that was equivalent to seeing a table full of women at a cocktail party drinking daiquiris and assuming they were all Vodka connoisseurs. The current Atlantic article is about exactly that kind of "connoisseurship," despite the fact that the quality of the coffee required for the product in question is utterly mediocre and the taste for sugary, milky coffee it both satiates and cultivates is anathema to the appreciation of the flavor of real coffee. 

If we have gotten to the point where industry leaders enthusiastically embrace "premium" coffee-based beverages that directly undermine the cultivation of a consumer base capable of appreciating (and paying for) the subtle aromas and flavors of great single origin coffee there's no hope. 

At the very least, I shouldn't be the only one with an industry background pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes - or rather, that there's (almost) no coffee in this "coffee." 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

"Doing for Tea What They Did for Coffee:" Threat or Promise?




In this post from awhile back I gave a bit of the back story of tea at Starbucks, which went from fabulous whole leaf single origins and blends to discontinued category during my time there. 

Only a few years later the company, after toying with acquiring Republic of Tea, instead bought Tazo out of Portland, largely on the strength of the creative brilliance of Steve Smith - someone I greatly admire. The back story for that can in part be found in this article.



The good old days: no espresso, great coffee, Hao Ya Keemun and Namring Darjeeling, and saffron for your paella


Fast forward to today and we have stories all over the press, including this piece in today's Forbes, about the joining of Starbuck's more recent tea acquisition, the Teavana chain, with the substantially more formidable brand that is Oprah Winfrey. Today both Starbucks and Teavana stores are awash with Oprah Chai Lattes and gift sets, and anyone who knows Howard's tastes can easily imagine some of the additional products and co-branding opportunities surely waiting in the wings. Chopra Oprah chai incense? The Color Purple Lavender Earl Grey? 

Bad jokes aside, those who care about the actual taste and aroma of origin tea probably ought to take very seriously Teavana/Starbucks promise (or threat), to "do for tea what they did for coffee." We already have a "specialty" tea business that, even more than specialty coffee, has almost no representation of the actual taste of the unadulterated thing itself, and is instead awash in chemical flavorings ("natural" or otherwise) and scents. 

Appropriately the core product in the Oprah Teavana line is Teavana Oprah Chai. Now the transformation of Indian chai - the lowest-grade of non-exportable tea heavily doused with spices and sugar for local consumption - into a "gourmet" beverage for wealthy white folks (sorry, Oprah) is itself the perfect example of what Agehananda Bharati called "the pizza effect" in which a humble product accorded no particular status in one country is exported to another, re visioned as an upscale or special thing, and then re-exported to its host country which then proudly claims to have invented it in its new and prestigious guise. 

Bharati himself cited the Hare Krishnas, Transcendental Meditation and yoga as perfect examples of the pizza effect, and Oprah with her enthusiasm for the likes of Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra has clearly been a masterful modern exponent, albeit unwittingly. 

Less amusing, and more to the point, is the simple fact that any sound, strong black tea will do as the base for this premium-priced tea product, just as any sound, dark-roasted arabica coffee will suffice as the base for the upscale beverages going out the door at your neighborhood Starbucks. In both cases there is a pervasive training or conditioning of the palates and perceptions of millions of consumers to associate premium pricing and value with products that are in fact mediocre in quality, and whose consumption over time almost guarantees that, in the unlikely event a great cup of actual origin coffee or tea crossed the customer's palate they'd spit it out. 

Third Wave Tea anybody?

Friday, April 4, 2014

The seasonality fail

I was just in Seattle for a week and spent much of my time tasting coffee at leading roaster-retailers in the area.

One of the most striking things I noticed (this being late winter/early spring) at (to be specific) Zoka,  Stumptown and Millstead, was that the only single origins promoted and brewed were Central American coffees. Given the time of year, this means these coffees were all approaching past-crop status: close to a year old. Adding insult to injury, much of the pre-bagged roasted coffee on offer was not only past crop but stale, with roast dates on some bags three weeks or more in the past

"Seasonal" offerings would have included October-November shipment Colombias from Huila, perhaps an outstanding Peru, and maybe dry-processed Ethiopians and Yemens or late-season Sumatras where acidity and freshness aren't the most important flavor elements.

As far as I know the only roaster in America who who can claim that old green coffees are still "seasonal" is George Howell's Terroir Coffee in Boston, since he freezes green beans in hermetically sealed bags to extend their shelf life.  The fact that there's zero correlation between actual seasonality and what's on offer in theoretically coffee mad Seattle just underlines the "all hat, no cattle" reality of much Third Wave coffee marketing.

In the interests of not making this into yet another purely critical post, I'll share a bit about ways to make good use of high-quality Central American coffees over their life cycle, since it would seem that this knowledge is not being passed on to newer roasters in any systematic way.

Using an excellent high-altitude regional Guatemalan coffee from Huehuetenango as an example, we'll figure March/April shipment and thus May/June arrival in the U.S. The coffee will be at its peak of aroma and flavor at that time and will be delicious at any number of roasts, from city+ through espresso, but peak flavor expression for drip or vacuum pot brewing will be in the city+ to full city range.

Assuming regular daily tasting of one's production roasts, some fading of acidity will likely be noticeable by September/October, which calls for a very slight darkening of the roast to optimize what remains (more body, fewer top notes). By November or so it will be time to stop offering the coffee as a single origin, which should be fine as new crop coffees from places like Papua New Guinea, Colombia and Peru can replace it. It'll still offer much pleasure and deep flavors of bittersweet chocolate and peppery spice when used in an espresso blend, whether that blend is in the Italian style (Vienna+ roast) or taken darker still in the deep-roast tradition of Peet's and Starbucks.

This progression of use over time: pure and unblended and lightly-roasted when at its peak, blended when past-crop woodiness sets in, and incinerated in dark roasts at the end of its life cycle, works well for pretty much all washed Central and South American coffees. The ideal of course is to plan one's buying so that new crop coffees from other regions can replace fading ones from another, but this also requires deep and ongoing efforts to educate one's employees and customers about the true nature of seasonality, which as I pointed out at the outset of this post isn't going to happen when those who tout seasonality and freshness are in fact offering the exact opposite.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Monday, March 31, 2014

Peter Guiliano Was Right, Part 2

I just can't resist sharing this bit of breathless excitement from Sprudge. It really does go to show the kind of progress the Third Wave has made since the bad old days when all anybody cared about was making a buck by adulterating coffee.

No doubt coffee farmers worldwide are rejoicing at this kind of dialed-in focus on coffee flavor nuances.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Simply excelent coffee

I just returned from a whirlwind week of touring coffee places in Seattle, and hope to post more about that trip. Meanwhile a couple of articles came my way this week that dovetail nicely with the purpose of that visit: looking at ways to deliver great coffee-by-the-cup both in-store and at home that are much simpler and more integrated from bean to cup than current practices.

This piece on a start-up called Perfect Coffee is interesting to me because it's so novel to see anyone trying to make coffee easier and less arcane for the consumer. Now obviously there's nothing really innovative going on here, but apparently precision grinding and packaging of coffee for long shelf life are okay if done in partnership with Blue Bottle but evil if done (better) in a Nespresso Capsule.

Of much greater interest, it seems to me, is this cool experiment done by a scientist whose interest in brewing a great cup of coffee with the lowest reasonable investment of time and money certainly is representative of the consumers I've dealt with at retail. His blade vs. burr grinder test is certainly at odds with industry preaching, while his Aeropress vs. pourover drip results shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's done such taste tests themselves. I'd love to see his experiment replicated at a venue like the SCAA trade show.