company - education - coffee

Friday, December 21, 2007

It's all about volume

I have long been a bit confused by the marketing of some of the larger coffee companies out there who set absolute terms for quality but the product has almost never really lived up to the pitch. It's as if by shaping the term quality to fit their own model, they can be 'right' or 'correct' in their approach or a hard to prove claim, the most ethical in their dealings. This is something that quietly is muttered by many a purist in closed circles but often doesn't get discussed in public.

So let me add a few thoughts on volume and quality.

Volume begets buying power. Buying power allows for purchase of better product or quite simply, purchasing discounts. The problem therein, the best product is only available in limited supply and at a high cost so scale becomes relevant to access and purchasing power.

Building for volume then means you may have the buying power to get the best coffees but then you also may get too large in volume to offer them to all your accounts or too large in scale to focus on producing the product at near peak efficiency. It becomes a relevant question if the end quality even exists to justify the purchase of the high grade product at certain volumes. Once you begin a volume model, there must be a minimum and a maximum to sustaining peak quality but I feel like many roasting outfits pass the maximum threshold well before the machines are running at max capacity.

Think on this, the best lots are tiny, the best roasts are at less than full capacity, the best brews are often manual and labor intensive. The best product must then be quite manual, labor intensive, and time consuming at every step in production. It's everything a volume business is not. Though every sustainable model currently in coffee focuses on volume and still screams about quality during every step of the way, it seems that the roasting part of the coffee business and especially the cafe end are about as volume oriented as you can get.

A true specialty model would be built solely on the top end coffees and focusing on producing them at maximum quality. Does a roasting outfit like this exist and could it survive under the current market OR would it simply lack access to top green coffees for lack of buying power? Could they even get through all the convoluted 'fairly directly organicaly' traded speak out there to a market segment willing to pay top dollar for detailed execution of a good cup?

Many roasters who dabble in the most expensive green seem to be buying a lot of low grade coffees to fill out the majority of their offerings which they sell in volume to a multitude of cafe accounts. In many cases, the margin on a sub $2/lb coffee can be much larger than on one of these top placing CoE winners. The truth is that you can jack up the cheaper greens once roasted several times the actual production cost but the price multiplier on an expensive coffee leaves a slim margin. This is built on a fear that consumers won't pay the high prices. It almost seems that buying the top coffees are simply marketing schemes to attract high volume accounts with some 'credibility' so a company can then push the lower tier coffees at good margins.

At low margins, as established by the current market, how can a business focus on solely top end 'gold bag' product without selling a lot of 'black bag' offerings to shore up the financials? How do they keep the disconnect out of the public eye and balance a commitment to both ends of the business? How can you commit to quality and charge a profitable price AND still be able to buy top product in the current market at a smaller production volume?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Cambridge Coffee Notes

-Google maps now has street view for Cambridge which isn't all it's cracked up to be. I almost expect to see Miguel out front of Simon's on his cell phone... but it isn't that realistic!

-I saw Nick Cho and Trish at Simon's. No idea if Simon is going to send people to the North East Regional Barista competition. It's in Ithaca NY which seems closer to Chicago than it is to us here in Cambridge. Simon's or Diesel really should send someone to compete but the reward vs cost is still mostly intangible for those who don't know if they could actually win some prize money. It's likely I won't even be in the country during the event anyway so I'm not making plans.

-A friend is about to take charge of the coffee program at a local cafe that promises to be the new hot spot for coffee in town. I wish I could say more but it looks like a fantastic fit for an old coffee place with a new direction. Details will follow when he is comfy breaking the news. Maybe we'll get him blogging about the changes as they happen!

-Simon Hsieh will be stateside for a week in January, we plan on having an event to discuss some of his ground breaking philosophies and taste a lot of great coffees. Expect some vac pot wizardry as he demos a syphon coffee bar...

-I spent a lot of time lately with Simon (the one in Cambridge) on his fetco(drip brewer) and adjusting his bulk grinder. The rewards have been immediate and have showed a better cup overall. The Costa Rica, La Minita from Atomic Cafe was coming out like maple syrup.

-Evidently our old buddy Nick Brown is working his coffee magic at Manic in Toronto. Kaminsky had a Rwanda Golden cup that was noteworthy in store. Shocking what a small community it is!

-Post tasting event, we had one roaster complain, one more open minded roaster ask for more events, and a cafe owner show interest in having more events. To that end, we are approaching a few cafes to have a local barista focused event. Not really sure about details or who would be interested but I'm asking around.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Oh the humanity!

Coffee shops are often a unique set of personalities and even in the cleanest most organized ones, there are still bits of drama.

The best shops are like a strange family where everyone plays a role and the friction is focused on moving the line and getting orders out. That's the best case (but highly improbable) scenario where there aren't a lot of side dramas distracting from the actual coffee production.

While we often tend to get self important as barista, the truth is that we are only the end in a long chain. Quality is every single step in the coffee production chain. As a barista, I can speak from a great deal of experiences, returned roasts, tense meetings, and general service of some embarrassing shots that the barista is often the fall guy as much as the occasional hero. The barista may, at times, be able to swoop in and bask in some of the glory but they are simply the last step in a hugely complicated process.

I'm not even going to get into all the details of production at the farm level. If anything, I really believe in focusing on the demand the rest of the chain sets rather than the supply. If we search out and pay for better sorting, cleaner prep, riper coffees, and more interesting high elevation 'sexy' varietals, farmers will respond.

The irony is that while many people see the complications in preserving quality, few people take the attitude that this is as absolute as it appears. Obviously, it becomes increasingly difficult financially at every step in the process but while many green buyers acknowledge that coffee tastes great at the gate they are hesitant to spend the money on measures to prevent fading and staling. There is even research and documentation at many levels detailing this which begs the question, who can really argue green doesn't age? Yet, many still pack coffees in jute bags in uncontrolled conditions such as large multi use warehouses with no intention of ever upgrading. Imagine having a warehouse deep in an area like Georgia where the heat and humidity turned your green from emerald jewels to tan lifeless wood in short order during the summer. Imagine that jute fiber flavor penetrating and contaminating your coffees while small bug bites and molds are spreading bit by bit with little bluish green spots as pales are appearing more and more over time. Hugging the farmer through the bean isn't so romantic anymore is it, especially if the green goes south?

Then you have the other situation where someone gets all that absolutely and spares no penny to expedite transport and store them, then preserve them with great labor including re-bagging the coffees. Then they roast them to death or worse, the roasts are all over the map with mind boggling inconsistency or dare I say it, simply mislabeled before shipment. Why should any of us pay for a product that's all over the map? What good is a 90pt coffee roasted a bit too dark or roasted light simply just for the sake of light? What good is it if the roast is just plain botched?

All that comes down to the barista, who assuming any small amount of that 90pt cup remains, they are left to try and figure it out. If they are extremely lucky, the equipment is somewhat clean and cared for while possibly up to date. They might even have some semblance of training or communication from the roaster to get something out of the coffee. If you, as a consumer are extremely lucky, all of it comes together and you get a decent cup worth paying for.

A friend asks, what part of the the process effects flavor the most? The real question is what will a 90pt cup taste like when at every step in the process, it actually came out the best it could? BTW his better half has a blog too where she often disagrees with him...

Monday, December 03, 2007

Espresso: The delay timer hack

We go through a lot of nonsense for a good espresso. Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it... sometimes.

photo originally uploaded by hazelsheard.

Simon's Coffee Shop has been working with a delay timer on the machine for the last few weeks. The basic setup involves a flow regulator and an adjustable delay timer that controls when the rotary pump kicks in.

The idea is that you use the flow regulator to control line pressure during a 'pre-infusion' where the pump does not kick in yet. To set it up, you adjust your line pressure to get your first drip at a desired time.

Let's say in this case, 5 seconds. Then you setup your timer to kick in at that same 5 second mark and your pstat will swing up to 9 bars at that point from your line pressure of say, 4 bars. This involves a lot of grind tweaking and adjustment during the early stages and graphing it would be weird so don't ask.

You then go through a series of adjustments testing from 3 seconds on up to 10 seconds to find the right balance for your espresso(assuming a fixed dose/extraction volume... at least temporarily). It helps to have an ideal batch of roasts lying around or work with it over a week or two instead of trying to coffee out and fix it in one night.

The original idea we had was that we could imitate the Synesso's style of pre-infusion where the pump kicks in at your manual control. Often overlooked on a Synesso, you can soak the puck with line pressure by moving the paddle to the middle position and then let pump pressure start when the paddle is moved to the full on position. The delay timer/flow regulator setup is meant to imitate this in an automated manner.

It's a hack. Don't get me wrong, I don't profess anyone should install this setup on their machine unless they know what they are getting into. For the price though, it gives you an almost lab style setup to make adjustments and we should credit whoever we originally took the idea from but I can't remember who we stole it from. Of course, a local tea guy is now treating it like the greatest thing since sliced bread and intends to push this as a solution to consistency(user/roaster) ills involving espresso at a small profit, of course. He thinks it will take out the variation in espresso.

It's not a cure all and in all honesty, if the roast has wild variations, homogenizing the brew method is only hack compensating. If people don't have the fundamentals in preparing espresso and clean grinders with new blades, none of this is worth even debating. That said, everything in espresso starts with the roast. In Simon's case, he is using a prolonged(close to 9 seconds) pre-infusion to build mid tones and smooth a roast that had very little mid tone on the cupping table. He's also using a low brew temp to mellow sharp acidity into something more approachable to the general espresso drinker's palate.

Simon isn't trying to reinvent espresso or try to force a new perspective on espresso that everyone else 'should follow.' The result is a very approachable but not super complex espresso that fits his personal palate. While roasted for high tones and lemon acidity, this Brasil comes out mellow, clean, and smooth nuttiness with hints of cocoa after all the tweaks. I think that's a great thing when the espresso matches up to the owners personal palate very well.

I find it educational and a lot of fun to muck around with experiments like this. Realisticaly, a newer machine likely would negate the need for such modifications. A Synesso, FB series LM, or GB5 completely negates this setup since the pre-infusion is built in already. Most heat exchangers have a mechanical preinfusion built in and won't work with this either but a machine like older LM Lineas could be modded with this setup just for curiosities.

A few more changes since and the shots for Simon are now a very low line pressure with a 7 second timer delay at 196F 17g. If I implied that you absolutely had to sync first drip with pressure kicking in, you don't.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Best barismo related quote ever

“I know a lot of people think we’re insane,” says Ben Chen. “Until you taste [the coffee]. The proof is in the cup.” more on Bostonist