company - education - coffee

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Coffee: Repeating that great experience

The romance of your first great cup and getting back to that feeling. Be it coffee, tea, or wine, this is what we are searching for. That one defining moment where everything is beautiful and the cup was glorious. It could have been the moment, the people you were with, or simply the lack of a good cup in a long time. The problem is repeating the 'in the cup variables' of that great experience are a lot harder than we would like and we need to do something about that.

There are plenty of great drinks out there to be had right now. The wine and liquor industry has a long established pyramid of quality in which at any point there is a unique experience waiting to be found. Coffee though, is still finding it's own quality pyramid and we don't really have a handle on how many great coffees are out there or what prices are fair. In fact, so few people have had the truly great coffees, it's often very hard to relate paying for a great cup. There is very little perception in the general public of what great coffee can be right now. If you do manage to find that great defining cup, the very real problem arises that we want it again.
In essence, the great drip coffees are somewhat like bottles of wine. Taking a simplistic look, they are typically similar for each year's crop from the same area or same lot. There can be inconsistencies from roast to roast in the coffee, but the ability to repeat the experience with the right roaster exists. The irony of typing this is one amazing coffee experience I had this year literally yielded me a single good bag while the rest were far less than amazing. With that said, your 'top of the top' drip coffees are typically easier to prepare and will likely yield more consistent bang of the buck than that high grade espresso.

If we do venture into espresso, that's where it gets tricky because espresso is not like wine. Espresso is really like a bottle of those more expensive single barrel Bourbons. You really only know what you will get from batch to batch and it's the intensity that is at the root of the drink. One week, the coffee's roast may be a tiny bit darker and your espresso may have more chocolate flavors, the next, it may be lighter citrus. This is the nature of espresso. While it may magnify all those delightful flavors, it also magnifies any tiny change in the roast. This means it is in constant flux and the Barista needs to adjust.

All this makes coffee a very frustrating product for even the best trained and obsessive Barista. While the Barista is constantly adjusting and attempting to compensate for every little detail, the consumer just really wants to repeat that experience. They want to come in every time and get the beautiful cappa or perfume Yirgacheffe with no excuses. That's easier said than done, but it shouldn't be so hard.

After all the issues with consistency and repeatability, I still feel that espresso has the greatest untapped potential, because there are so few cafes that exist which simply pull acceptable shots of a decent grade espresso much less great shots that qualify as culinary experiences. Aside from those hurdles, the great redeeming factor in espresso is that the intensity makes the flavors obvious to even a beginner. A great Barista can call their shot and the customer will be simply wowed or at least go 'I get it'. Imagine walking into a shop and hearing 'This is a Brazil Daterra Reserve 2004, you should get a creamy sweet buttery almond flavor.' That's rarefied air though and only a few shops in North America have this caliber of Barista.

Today's great coffee experiences will only be shadows when compared to our future experiences as long as we continue to move forward. What I thought was great only a year ago is sad in comparison to what I have today and what I find tomorrow may overshadow it all. We will keep looking for that great cafe Barista to show me the way, but in the meantime, I will nurse a good french press of a nice coffee assuming I get that good bag!