company - education - coffee

Monday, March 31, 2008

To the next 'golden' brew

87980001, originally uploaded by SIWA COFFEE.

Right now, there is a lot of navel gazing going on in the blogs about what brew methods are best, what to do now that the clamour for Clover turned into the planet buster on the death star....

A lot of people are talking about moving to the manual methods or anything new that's less automated. Siphon, pourover bars, and getting back to basics are becoming the buzz words. I think it's just a movement in trying to find a new niche, the new amazing brewer that will give them the angle. Specializing and definite product differentiation from the big boys. I am proud there are some serious cats out there brewing vac with all the tedium and technical precision of a guitarist mid solo but they are the few among a mob of new found fans of the manual method.

The times are changing and nothing is settled right now. There are no firm standards and we have no clear direction where things will be in the next year. It was not too long ago that I believe we were in the dark ages of coffee on the verge of change. Sure the forums were buzzing and 3wavers were aplenty working for 'the goal', but it was a time with a lot of passion and very little substance. Vac sealing was something only eccentrics did and few would publicly admit how much coffees deteriorate much less think about freezing a coffee.

The focus was on the equipment mods, ritual movements in preparation, and all about these name brand 'black box' blends. The forums were left to the machinations of latte artists proclaiming the value of triple rosettas and pacman blowing flames in your cup AND gratuitous photo series of 'naked' portafilter triple thick one ounce muddy baked 'chocolate' shots. Sure, there was an interesting segment focused on how to hack some cheapy piece of equipment into some better cheapy piece of equipment.... but eventually, you PID your PID and it becomes redundant so you end up buying the best equipment after spending lots of cash on a series of small modded upgrades.

Somewhere along the way, a lot of focus on the actual coffees was lost. Sure, I realize everyone is 'about letting the coffee speak for itself' and other catchy phrases but a little less time on forums talking about the concept and more time living it would help us all.

It's all the more complicated these days by marketing that is geared at direct trade and relationships where the farmer as a brand is glorified on one hand and on the other often then repackaged in mill marks where the farmer disappears again. Transparency is a funny thing we all talk about but don't really ever see or have the access to understand.

Then there are coffees where the placement in contests or prices paid set notoriety and it can simply be a contest to pay the highest price for the right to pay the highest price AND then you have press and buzz based on expensive brewing equipment and 20K utterly superfluous heating elements clouding the picture of what is really good coffee and what is just an expensive lamp making cheap coffee at a high price.

So, if you can clear through the fair trade, organic trade, direct trade, bidding wars, ego trips, pricey brewers, complicated techniques, barista flair, and well, everything but cup taste to well... simply cup taste, that's an amazing moment of clarity.

Things haven't really changed that much but I am thoroughly excited by splintering segments of the industry headed in new directions. The point is, there are great things going on in coffee BUT you have to dig deep and often the people doing the most amazing bits don't spend time cruising coffeed or CG, they are out there doing it. Marketing rarely cuts through to the tiny elements that can help make or break a good coffee.

IMG_3245, originally uploaded by edwinfvh.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Taste in Newton, MA

Today, I dropped by my friend Nik's new digs in Newton called Taste. He is taking over a space on Walnut street where it was an existing crepe bar with limited coffee service. Nik is hoping to change the coffee service and is working on upgrades and renovations with an idea of expanding the coffee program to be more progressive. Particularly, an interest in espresso that peaks my curiosity. Of the new additions, Nik scored a nice three group Synesso and is in the beginning stages of building a nice little coffee scene. With a small dedicated staff and continued investment, it looks like it will progress in a good direction.

Having followed Nik for some time (and having an affinity for his grandfather Larry), it's good to see him land in a space where he can start to work out his direction in coffee. I am curious to see how things progress and where he takes his interest. It should be noted, his espresso cup collection is well ahead of expectations.

Something I noticed today while at Taste. We spend so much energy in producing coffee but many of us don't get to see the end product realized. This was part of the realization I had in Guatemala, they had very little perspective of how the product often arrived 'finished' in the cafe. We typically only get to see the customer reaction as a barista and that reaction rarely makes it back through the multitude of people who had a hand in production. I recently have not been behind a counter in a while and I was beginning to lose touch with that relationship and the joy of that exchange. The barista to customer connection made over a product. Sometimes we forget that without that, there is nothing more than a product. Nik has that, a fluid conversationalist, he has an ease in making that connection.

For a good conversation and to see the varying stages of his progression, I recommend a visit or two.

Baca!: Tops... (Drew: Also tops, but slightly less so)

tops, originally uploaded by baca!.

We rarely show love on this blog, we just never get around to it. We like to talk about new, different or exceptional things going on in some other part of the world that we feel should be brought to the attention of the community stateside. Additionally, we basically never talk about SCAA sanctioned events, news or otherwise... Hell must have frozen over though, because I will do both in this brief post (it's like therapy).

Anyway, I just want to congratulate Chris Baca of Ritual Coffee Roasters on becoming the new Western Regional Barista Champion. He's a goofy dude and takes a lot of photos of himself (see above), but he's a true barista and has really put the hours in to get where he is.

I also just wanted to give Drew Caitlin (also Ritual) a shout out for making it to the finals and giving what I'm told was a really solid performance in his first appearance at competition. No small achievement in a region a strong as the WRBC.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Romancing the cup

Cups, originally uploaded by jaminsky.

What if you took a good coffee... and preserved it? A solid 90pt cup. Strong sweetness. Good pleasant fruit. Clean and well processed on the patio. Strong aromatics and a sugary finish.

You find that coffee at origin and then you mill it to higher than specialty grade standards, let's call it grade zero.

You pack it progressively and preserve the coffees, vacuum seal and keep degradation and contamination issues at bay.

A fresh cup, prepped well, preserved on the way from the farm to the roaster. An interesting idea. No sexy brand names, just focus on keeping unique cups as close to the farm gate flavor as possible.

What would you pay for this? What value would it add to the cup? What would the coffees taste like and how different would they be from the same coffees prepped at specialty grade with 5 defects per sample in jute and normal packing?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

En jute y reposa

There were two big debates on this trip and one of them centered around reposa, the resting period where coffee is off the patio but still in parchment. This is a way to let water content stabilize and in theory, to get a more homogeneous product. Reposa often happens in a place with a balance of temperature and air flow that will allow the green to settle but not promote mold growth.

The debate for me came from the materials used in reposa. I often have a big problem with jute. Jute bags are the scourge of great coffees everywhere and yet there are few alternatives that aren't much more expensive. One common exchange is the plastic feedbag that is used for agricultural products and comes much cheaper than jute. The problem is that it does not 'breathe' freely and molds will grow so it is never used in transport.

This presents an interesting balance as a coffee in reposa will homogenize better if stored in jute but risks some contamination during this critical stage. If the sterile feed bags are used, there is the real risk that the coffee may have increased mold growth. The jute quality seems to play greatly into this as the thicker and better quality the bag, the more the flavors seem to seep in. A pristine coffee could quickly develop nutty hazelnut flavors that in time will become the hallmark of baggy notes. You probably won't pick it out in a darker roast but with the right profile, you will.

The best project we undertook was to get some green coffee last year at Finca Vista Hermosa and vacuum seal it. I then returned with the green coffees and kept them stored in both frozen and room temp situations. Having this coffee taken straight from reposa and sample milled gave a stark contrast to other coffees from FVH that had made the travel from origin via ship and packed in jute.

We recently roasted a sample of the jute coffee vs the vacuum sample with an almost identical profile through first and in the drop. The results were staggering. A fresh clean note and sweet acidity on the vacuum sealed coffee and a spice snappy unpleasant acidity on the jute coffee. At close to a year from harvest, this presents a unique comparison.

The quick summary of what we learned this trip was that coffees stored in plastic during reposa are a risk for one problem while in jute another. It's possible that drying racks of either metal or wood with liners should be considered for progressive farms to use at this stage. The other item reconfirmed what we already knew, coffees deteriorate and fall apart as they age and jute is a big contaminant. Aroma first, acidity, and then finally sweetness goes all the while the bag flavors increase.

At some point, we are going to have to see if reposa can be done in a vac sealed bag on the way to Cambridge.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Guatemalan coffees

The last week has been spent in Guatemala. Both Kaminsky and I left last week and he is still there, probably headed up to Huehuetenango as I write this. When you detach from this online community and spend a little time chasing some good coffees, you begin to sort through a lot of things that were never really apparent before. The realities of production and the simple fact that due to language or otherwise, most exporters or mills are just beginning to have some awareness of what people like us are interested in.

For me, there are two producing origins that consistently produce top notch coffees, Kenya and Guatemala. The variation in exceptional regional coffees in Guatemala further reinforces this. I found myself being exposed to many different profiles from each region and variations within each that are quite unique. At times, you could take large representative lots and simply split them to find exceptional coffees therein.


You could literally spend weeks looking for good coffees from each region and there would be much exceptional variance within each to differentiate.

Huehuetenango - This remote mountain region produces some fantastic coffees but it also seems to produce them wildly inconsistently. Part of this may be because the region is so highly prized, many coffees are apparently bought sight unseen but another part is that invariably in this remote region, most producers are apt to process their own coffees. My impression of what Huehue coffees were supposed to be had been largely built on Vista Hermosa and El Injerto. This is possibly an unfair representation as what few chances we had to cup Huehues yielded some wild cups and only one we were excited about.

Atitlan - This region struck us as interesting on each and every cupping table we came across. A balance of delightful florals and mid tone fruits seemed to mark the coffees we came across this year. Lower acidity in general but more marked aromas came across well to our cupping group. The cleanest cups seemed to come from this region which may simply be a fact that it is largely overlooked next to the more highly prized name brands or it could have been the weather!

Fraijanes - This coffee presented us with an interesting set of descriptors. In some cases, it was like eating ripe apples, at other times slightly over ripe fruits. The variance of snappy acidity was apparent but it yielded intriguing cups that if cleaned up at the sorting phase or more attention during the washed process, it could be a very good cup worth chasing. The aromas were subtle and balanced in most cups.

Coban - I never met a Coban I liked. These coffees are a cleaner and fresher version of a Sumatran. The wild fruit and musty notes are a product of the lower elevation and the high humidity in the region.

Las Lapas/ New Oriente - These coffees were dominated by the presence of some very unique and interesting fruits that bordered on an intensity that ran the line of our tolerance for a 'fruity' or 'winey' notes dominated these cups.

Acatenango - This region is close to Antigua and was newly developed to separate it's product from that of Antigua in terms of branding. This coffee has a soft fruit profile described as peach and pear with subtle aromas. Since it's a late harvest, we only cupped a few which were not exciting.

Antigua - This bluish green bean is often considered a premium and therefore demands a higher price than many exceptional coffees. The profile is often coveted by many including the Japanese. Balanced acidity and aroma are common descriptions. I only cupped a few Antiguas and they simply were not why we went to Guatemala. These are also a late harvest coffee.

San Marcos - These volcanic coffees have a note as one of the most defined coffees I cupped came from this region and yet a multitude of wilder cups also came from this region. A high amount of rainfall in the area makes the drying phase critical and this seemed a problem with many coffees we cupped during our trip. The one great cup was part of a large lot that had been broken down to mill days to yield what I thought was a very unique coffee. Defined ripe fruits with a sweet finish but it was disappointing that the best lots seemed mixed into large untraceable lots.

What many may not realize is that there is relatively little low grown coffee in Guatemala. The soil types and quality of productions vary while the multitude of micro climates lend a huge variation in the coffees. This leaves me wondering what the future holds if we dig even deeper and persist in searching for lots of coffees with high expressions. Add to that impeccable sorting and some progressive (non jute) packing and you have the script for good coffees in the future.