Friday, January 10, 2014

Mortar and Pestle named official grinder supplier for World Barista Championship

(Los Angeles, CA) Organizers from the Barista Guild announced today that the Mortar and Pestle will be the official grinder for this years World Barista's Championship. "We wanted to emphasize the hand in handcrafted espresso beverages and thought what better way to do this than doing away with mechanized grinding equipment," Nicholas Gramby, head of product procurement for the Barista Guild, said.

The decision recognizes the general movement within the industry of late, eschewing technologically advanced equipment in favor of simpler devices that focus more attention on the preparer than the misdirected focus on the product. "Customers want a show, Nicholas explained, "they could never hope to have the sophisticated taste and knowledge of a skilled barista but this way we can educate them about terroir and processing methods." 

It is hoped that the addition of the mortar and pestle into Third Wave coffee bars will help slow the line times down another 3 to 5 minutes, allowing baristas to more fully develop their coffee lectures to eager, uninformed customers. "Currently, our line times are averaging around 15 minutes, that's just not long enough to fully explain to the customer where their coffee is coming from," one barista said. 

While it is too early yet to judge the potential success of the new model, many high end coffee bars are already adopting the mortar and pestle along with the return of propane-fired, piston-lever espresso machines, and finally, finally, ridding the stores of condiment bars. "We want customers to fully appreciate the coffee as we intended it," a spokesperson said. "Plus, they really make a mess over there." 

Asked about any concerns about how the longer times may affect customer loyalty, Nicholas was quick to point out that they are already at work on a model that eliminates the customer altogether. "We're very excited about this new model, I mean, customers are just such a hassle"

"Just think of what we could do without them!"

Friday, August 30, 2013

Fourth Wave Coffee Shop Opens

(Portland, Oregon USA) A new coffee shop opens today in Southeast Portland billing itself as the first Fourth Wave coffee shop in the world, pioneering a new model in retail coffee. The new store, called The Cupping Room, attempts to recreate the environment of a cupping contest by offering coffee only in sample form. Customers are allowed to purchase a cupping spoon and slurp and spit a variety of seasonal coffees. "Most third wave coffee shops pride themselves in their limited offerings, the best refusing cream and sugar," Elliot Frenton, The Cupping Rooms manager said. "We wanted to take it to the next level and offer our coffees as they are supposed to be experience, on the cupping table." Elliot went on to explain, "Great coffee shouldn't be consumed, it should only be tasted."

The new model represents a culmination of efforts by industry professionals who, for a long time, looked down on the consuming pubic. "Customers don't really know how to properly enjoy coffee," one expert explained. "Its up to us to educate them."

The new store will feature an array of coffee samples from around the world, emphasizing natural processed coffees in micro-lots of 1 bag or less. Customers are provided spit cups and those who choose to swallow their samples will be held in contempt and ridiculed just as soon as they leave the store. The store will also feature music from reel to reel tapes since vinyl is so over.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Cambodia announces new DPP coffee.

(Phnom Phen) Coffee farmers in Cambodia today announced a new process coffee for the high end specialty coffee trade, DPP. The process is unique in the world and was discovered by farmers in the Ratanakiri region already famous for its civet processed coffee. Farmers discovered that much of the coffee passed from the civet was being consumed by feral dogs in the area before they were able to harvest the beans. Farmers then traced down the scat of the dogs and were delighted to discover all was not lost. The resulting double ingested coffee produced a unique flavor that the farmers realized would have appeal to the increasingly specialized coffee market. "Nowadays, it seems everybody's getting into the mammalian excreted coffee craze, not just civets, but monkeys and elephants, too. Having our coffee pass through two mammal's digestive tracks gives us a clear advantage," coffee farmer Thun Yesman said. This new coffee is designated as DPP, Double Pooped Process and promises to be the most expensive coffee yet in an already crowded market.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Is Coffee Tasting Useless or just Bullshit?

It would seem that coffee has an identity problem. Specifically, a low self-esteem problem. In a vain effort to make itself recognized seriously it has borrowed taste terminology and quality identifiers from another, more reputable industry: wine. For years I have heard of this image problem with coffee, in how do we get consumers to respect the care and effort that goes into the creation of high-quality coffee? The answer appears to be to ape another's reputation hoping it will enhance ours. We're like the unpopular kid hoping that if he wears the same clothes as the popular kids he will finally get some respect.

Of course, for much of coffee's history here in the States, it was always a drink of the masses controlled by a few commercial conglomerates that chiefly gained market share through couponing and promotions. There was little in the way of customer loyalty to brands and so each attempted to out-price the other, knowing that customers' principal motivator was price. This resulted in a few brands that maximized profitability by managing blends that incorporated the cheapest beans, and roast profiles that minimized shrinkage. From the consumers perspective there was little reason for loyalty since all of the coffee brands tasted largely the same: thin, acidy, and stale.

Making matters worse, the market in which all were competing was shrinking. The National Coffee Association performs an annual winter drinking study each year and the trend was unmistakably down from WWII right through the 1980s. The blame for this shrinking market varied, mostly centering around the idea that younger consumers were more interested in soft drinks or energy drinks and coffee couldn't compete in this new market. It just wasn't hip anymore. Not only were fewer people drinking coffee each year, those that did were using more "sweeteners and whitening agents."

Not until a few intrepid individuals came along and introduced customers to high-quality coffee, craft roasted, inspired by traditional European roasters, that the real culprit in the declining market share was exposed: taste. When an alternative to the thin, acidy, stale excuse for coffee was offered, customers responded, consumption trends reversed, and Specialty Coffee was born.

A funny thing happened on the way to the revolution though, we became Specialty Beverage Retailers rather than Specialty Coffee Roasters. Instead of continually innovating coffee quality, coffee bars diluted the focus, dumbed down the process, and promoted the next hit drink from a blender. That's what the Third Wave Movement is suppose to be all about, correcting this back to be about the coffee. That's a good thing that deserves support.

The Specialty Coffee Association of America has been instrumental in this movement. What began as a small group of like-minded souls dedicated to raising awareness of quality coffee has grown into a serious market changer. With the establishing of the Barista's Guild, the Roaster's Guild, the Brewer's Cup, Cup of Excellence and Q Certification, much has been accomplished to improve the knowledge and skills of coffee professionals. Today there is a veritable army of young coffee professionals eager to share their passion for coffee with the public. Coffee cuppings are no longer the purview of just coffee roasters, they can be found in any number of coffee bars.  Baristas are commonly heard deftly describing the coffees they are preparing.

But, as Alexander Pope said, a little learning is a dangerous thing. What dominates coffee conversation today is pretentious snobbery masquerading as intelligent analysis or helpful information. Here is one example of what I mean from a popular website describing a "94 point" coffee:

Crisp, finely structured, quietly distinctive. Dark chocolate and a shifty, anise-toned fruit (orange, blackberry, grape) dominate in aroma and small cup, with backgrounded complications of cedar and butter. Creamy, full yet buoyant mouthfeel. Berry and chocolate in particular persist in a rich, deep finish. Round, quietly balanced in three parts milk.

Okay, this description jumps the shark from being simply useless to utter bullshit. It is not about the coffee but about the taster. But this nonsense is now commonplace. Few coffee professionals would go this far attempting to bullshit their clientele but some get pretty close. Most these days limit themselves to random lists of various fruits, candies, and the occasional dessert dish, such as, look for: peach, mango, tamarind; or, apricot, marmalade, orange zest. Its as if they got stuck in the enzymatic and forgot about sugar browning and dry distillation in the aroma spectrum. Others are so caught up in describing the variety of the coffee tree and the ancestry of the farm that any hint of a flavor description is lost in the miasma of horticulture and geography.

Now, we all know that bullshit exists and we like to think we are pretty good at being able to recognize bullshit when we see it, but the problem here I think is that we are so steeped in bullshit that its difficult to recognize its source. I suggest that this problem stems from our image problem and adopting wine terminology, and hence wine quality identifiers, when describing coffee. What's worse, its as if there is only one style of wine, white, that counts as truly worthy. Interestingly, it has been observed that there are nearly three time the number of compounds that make up the flavor of coffee compared to wine and yet we have narrowed ourselves to just a sliver of our potential.

What makes this bullshit rather than merely misguided is the adoption of the pretentious attitude that shifts the attention from what is being described to who is describing it. Many have become so enamored with this terminology that it has affected the way we roast, coming full circle back to thin, acidy coffee. We have inadvertently created an echo-chamber on coffee quality that leaves out the most important player: the customer. As one friend remarked: the SCAA is not a market segment.

Many years ago when the Specialty Coffee movement was in its infancy I began offering coffee cuppings for the public. It became immediately apparent that the methodology was too cumbersome and participants were unable to come to any sort of agreement as to what they were tasting. It was largely a free-for-all in "I taste this" and "I taste that" sort of anything goes mentality. Thankfully, the Nuz de Cafe kit became available and with this and other props I was able to get a handle on producing repeatable results by adapting a methodology that incorporated simple ways to test cognition. In this way it became about the coffee and not about me, the taster. There is much literature on the subject of taste and odor perception and the follies inherent in memory and one needs to be cognizant of these foibles in order to connect with consumers. Ultimately what we had to do was establish a consistent terminology that was experiential to the customer. If the customer does not experience what is described there is no basis for loyalty.

In contrast, third wave coffee bars have become the bastions of puffery, the retail beverage equivalent to golf: Never have so many paid so much to look so good while performing so poorly.

I recently visited a third wave coffee bar that featured a local third wave roaster. This roaster, I was informed, "cures" their coffee for two weeks before delivering to their clients. For $2.50, I was carefully prepared a cup that would have been indistinguishable had I stopped by 7/11 on the way over and placed it side by side. Instead of the flowery rhetoric that the barista articulated to me during preparation I could sum the flavor up in three words:

Thin, acidy, and stale.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Cupping Table Trap

Not too long ago, while on a trip to origin, the producers who had arranged the trip set up a cupping to show off the variety of the coffee they could provide. Each table had a number of microlots of various process methods and farms and there were a number of tables. The coffee producer that I had a relationship with was there and I immediately recognized the flavor profile I had come to expect from his farm. There were a couple of other farms that had similar profiles but there were also some microlots that had unexpectedly unique flavors that really set them apart from the rest. One in particular stood out. It was noticeably sweeter, honey-like in its sweetness, with an almost crystalized ginger quality. There was only about 50 bags of this coffee available and if I wanted I could lock them up right then and there with the producer. It was a moment every coffee buyer pines for, that special find, an exclusive deal, a Direct Trade dream. I asked to have samples sent back to the Roastery to cup them again when I returned. When I did, I wondered what I could have been thinking. What stood out from the crowd in the origin cupping room now reflected a flavor taint. Without the other cuppers around gushing over this sample, the shine disappeared. Once again I was glad that I didn't fall for the cupping table trap.

I was reminded of this episode just last week in the cupping room while sampling production roasts. With the seasonal weather changes the coffee cools faster and a couple of coffees’ profiles had changed more than expected. Anyway, while cupping a client stopped by and, after having a go around the table, was struck by one in particular. It was noticeably sweeter, honey-like, maybe more like molasses. I told him this was a coffee slated for a temperature adjustment. That this molasses flavor he was tasting would change to a more liqueur-like characteristic with a couple of degrees increase in final temperature. But he's hooked now. I know how he feels. He's got the bug of discovery, wants to have that experience at his shop, share his treasure. He's fallen for the cupping table trap.

The process of cupping is enjoying much attention these days and cuppers are often exalted for their ability to ferret out the nuanced subtleties hidden within coffee. The once esoteric art of cupping is now taught at workshops held everywhere, indoctrinating a whole new legion of master cuppers with their own arcane vocabulary. This naturally has spread out to the masses as converts share their new found gospel of taste. The altar of this new faith is the cupping table. A magical realm where secrets are revealed by revered adepts, bestowing favor in the form of a cupping score.

Of course, it wasn't always this way. The business of cupping was the purview of coffee traders and coffee buyers whose aims were not the same. For traders, the principal concern was defects and taints that could negatively affect a coffee's value. For this reason the cupping samples are given a very light roast, commonly referred to as a trade roast, to expose any off tastes. Particularly where taints and defects are concerned, it is not enough to be able to describe a flavor characteristic, one must also identify its cause. If something jumps out at you on a cupping table it is not always for the best of reasons. Coffee growers and traders have historically focused taste terminology on defects since the principal concern was rejection by buyers.

Mike Sivetz observed that quality cupping language should consist of three characteristics:1. A vocabulary pertinent to the item being tasted; 2. a common agreement on a taste or odor impression from the same sample; and 3. a depth and breadth of coffee tasting experience. In the past, most vocabularies for coffee flavor leaned heavily on taints and defects, not because we were looking for them but rather to avoid them and, if identified, to fix the problem. Coffees that were free of off flavors and displayed clean characteristics were approved for trade.

While popular notions of coffee buyers as intrepid explorers dominate our media depictions today, historically the reality has been far more mundane. Most coffee buyers of the past worked for large roasting firms producing a few blends for the commercial trade. Their job was not a search for an elusive coffee, it was rather to find the cheapest possible coffee for the blend. These cuppers, too, would have trade roasted their samples to reveal taints and defects. The goal wasn't to find the best bean, but the cheapest with the least defects. If they shaved even a penny off the cost it was worth it since most customers were not brand loyal - coupons dictated sales. Naturally, the coffee couldn't be so offensive that customers would object, but most commercial blends had so many components that it was a muddled mess anyway, making it near impossible to distinguish one brand from another.

Even with the rise of specialty coffee most roasters still focused on blends. Now, however, the goal was to create a complete coffee. One that could serve as the flagship of the brand and have wide appeal.

This emphasis on blends may have influenced what was desirable in a single origin coffee. Many roasters sought to align themselves with well known estates that could offer exclusive, signature profiles. It wasn't so much a uniqueness that was sought after, rather an ideal. Again, this coffee needed to be complete in and of itself, not needing to be blended. The operative trait associated with quality in this case was balance. Estates could deliver on this quality by crafting a signature profile from combining beans harvested from different parts of the estate. In this scenario, the cupper is not only responsible for identifying attributes that would detract from the experience, i.e. defects and taints, but for crafting a distinctive flavor.

This technique would be adopted by cooperatives as they, too, entered the realm of specialty coffee. Individually, small farms’ quality and flavor was often inconsistent and unreliable, but by combining attributes together into a coherent whole cooperatives could produce coffee that rivaled estates. For roasters such as myself, these coffees are often preferable over estates since the trees are more likely to be heirloom varieties grown in very biodynamically diverse environments as opposed to hybrids grown in specialized shade or even, too often, full-sun conditions.

In both cases, whether working for a roasting firm or working at origin, cupping is not simply a passive exercise, and quality isn't stumbled upon - it is something created. Today, however, with the focus on microlots this model is largely forgotten. We have come a long way since the days when a few commercial brands dominated the coffee market and now coffees are lauded for their own unique characteristics rather than simply for being the next Jamaica Blue Mountain. But what may have been lost along the way is that different is not always good. Having a sound knowledge of taints and defects, and an idea what one is looking for in a quality coffee would avoid the cupping table trap.

Some of this may have come from the very thing that the SCAA initiated to improve coffee quality at origin - cupping competitions such as The Cup of Excellence. In the beginning many growers would put aside a small lot that would be carefully prepared for the competition but many are simply baffled what it is cuppers are looking for anymore when they see farmers who do little or nothing with their lots win. Many view the competitions merely as one would a lottery ticket - it doesn't make much sense to make a special effort preparing a coffee for the competition when there's no sense to what wins.

Some of this also may have to do with the cozier relationship that roasters are encouraged to develop with growers in the world of Direct Trade. But grower and roaster interests are not always aligned and an inexperienced buyer may not recognize a known taste fault in a delivery and a grower is not obliged to train him or her. This goes beyond the obvious taste faults from growing to the more subtle taints from processing. Too often I hear taste descriptions that are the result of a mediocre coffee being subjected to processing taint, intentionally or otherwise. I recall one grower insisting on a sample's “wineyness”, when it was obviously ferment, despite the spin.

Perhaps, though, the real culprit here may be the trade roast itself. Trade cupping is meant to expose possible taste faults from taints and defects, not reflect potential flavor. A good coffee, free of taints and defects, is clean and straightforward at a trade roast. This would certainly seem boring after awhile. This may be why process taints are gaining favor among those cuppers caught in the cupping table trap, they create an impression of complexity and diversity. Some may argue that we are entering a new era of taste acceptance, that the old rules no longer apply. I must disagree. Taste faults are not taste preferences, ignorance does not make it so.  

Sivetz further asserted two aspects of taste terminology for coffee. One consists of the trade or lay terminology by non-chemists, e.g., growers, traders, and buyers. The other is chemical terminology by chemists, chemical engineers, and food technologists; the industry benefits from a combination of the two. While I am no chemical engineer myself, I benefited greatly under his tutelage when confronting the different taste attributes in coffee. Particularly when it came time to call a duck a duck when confronting an unusual taste characteristic on the cupping table. 

Recognizing a defect should be obvious to any cupper; harder, I think, is to recognize taints. Some coffee taints are generally accepted in the trade, i.e. processing taints such as dry-processed beans from Sumatra. Many would argue that this taint, so long as the dry-process is done properly, characterizes this coffee, is part of what makes it unique. Sivetz himself long carried Sumatra coffee in his roastery. But there are too many dry-process coffees out there, not just from Sumatra, that are simply dirty tasting and fermented. This is not character, this is not uniqueness - this is sloppy processing. Coffee left on the side of the road to dry is not quality coffee regardless of poetic waxing.

While the days of looking for the one complete coffee are over, we should be equally concerned about falling for “anything goes”. We can become so fixated on finding something different that we forget what’s good. Knowing the difference between a taste fault and a taste preference is crucial to creating true specialty coffee. One can develop a warped view of coffee flavor on the cupping table if one loses sight of the purpose of cupping. This trap can be avoided when one recognizes that the cupping table is a tool to be used for quality, not a world to stumble through hoping to discover treasure. Much of my own work on the cupping table isn’t looking for something new but cupping what we have done, i.e. production roast cupping, with an eye towards improving it.

In the world of coffee you can always have something different, but that does not make it good. True coffee professionals not only identify great coffee, they create it.