company - education - coffee

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...