Thursday, September 28, 2006

the beautiful view

so we're back with the second half of my interview with edwin martinez of finca vista hermosa in huehuetenango, guatemala. rather than bloviate any more, let's get right down to business. enjoy.


8. talk about the role of the coyote in the coffee chain.

In countries like Brazil and Colombia the average grower is middle class or higher and they are a fairly large land owner. The average grower in most other countries is far below middle class and more distant from technology and the market. Thus it takes more middle men to make things happen. Although they often get a bad rap and do tend to abuse their position, their role is vital. More often than not a coyote is someone who owns or has access to a vehicle to move coffee for another who otherwise couldn’t get their product to the next link in the chain.

9. what are some of the earmarks a visitor should notice to determine whether a coffee farm is concerned with quality?

I would first gauge the social climate. How are people treated (be it a co-op or large estate)? Does everyone, particularly those picking coffee, feel they have purpose and ownership? Do they still have their pride and their dignity? Or do you feel like your visiting a sweat shop? Then I might be curious to see if records are kept of all activities. It is important to track history to improve future [production]. It’s not like it’s a daily cycle where you can keep trying again and take risks experimenting. An annual cycle leaves little room for error. One specific thing I look for is if it is a wet milled/washed coffee, is the coffee wet milled the same day it is picked? And how meticulous are they in determining when to cut off fermentation and begin washing?

10. how do you feel about the Fair Trade movement?

Oh boy. You had to ask. I believe historically it has encouraged mediocrity in quality. It is what it is. It guarantees what is average fair wage to qualifying co-ops. Average fair wage is not real attractive in the highlands of Guatemala where there is an exceptionally high cost of production. However, it is a nice insurance for those who are not producing an exceptional coffee that they’ll always get a decent price if the market is not hot. As long as there is a growing consumer market for Fair Trade, this seems to be a fairly sustainable model. The only wrinkle of unsustainability in the system is when the C [commodity coffee futures market tied to the New York Board of Trade] is well above fair trade, than many of FT’s contracts get shorted. I am a big fan of it in these cases where I believe they do successfully meet the goals of their mission statement. They are in fact bringing more of a fair wage to many who otherwise couldn’t make ends meet when the market is low. I remember a few years back people gave Transfair USA a hard time for seeking to improve the lives of so many yet paying a salary of $200k or more to their CEO. I have no problem with this as I know you couldn’t just hire more people with that same amount to accomplish the same thing. Companies this size need qualified CEO’s to be effective. I hope fair trade grows with tremendous success, however there are other models that I feel will accomplish the same, but be based on quality. They just can’t be built up overnight. It will require much collaboration by many over time as well as an increasingly educated consumer base.

11. most of your calendar year is spent in the united states. what are some of the challenges of keeping an eye on quality control during the year and how do you overcome them?

The challenges are absolutely endless. From land and water rights disputes, problems with too much liquor, guerilla warfare in the 80’s, lack of rain, lack of sun, lack of labor, you name it. There are many factors that are controllable and many that aren’t. Some may say the key to quality control is in the details. I would agree, but I believe there is another factor that is much more important.

We have very good people. Our goal is to be sure they are well equipped and happy.

Mitch (as in the hurricane...not a friend) knocked out roads, and Anacafe [Guatemala's coffee oversight organization] feared Guatemala would suffer a greater loss than it did. Not because of Mitch damaging the coffee trees directly, but rather because it eliminated roads. In this case many land owners who live in the city of Huehuetenango were not able to make their regular visits for weeks. They were not able to haul in needed fertilizer and other supplies. We are very well stocked in advance and managed by very forward thinking problem solvers who are respected leaders in their communities. I have to admit there is a sense of concern when someone of our family is not there. But every time there has been a problem--and believe me there have been plenty--it is often handled internally better than it would have been if I or we were there. Last year Carlos goofed up a few thousand pounds of coffee and let it go too long in the tanks. Rather than mixing with the rest, we set this aside. Had he not done this on his own, we would never have known otherwise until it was too late.

12. any cool coffee projects you're working on lately?

I’m always excited about half a dozen projects. I just committed to running a collaborative experiment – which you Aaron are a part of via the study group on [online coffee forum name know who you are!], evaluating changes in coffee during the fermentation process. I’ve also been challenged by George Howell [Terroir Coffee] to keep our mirco lots separate... probably so he can pick his favorite. This month we partnered up with Orca Bay Coffee and Toad Mountain Coffee to launch a new venture separate from all of our businesses. We are setting the bar very high for a new retail location that will put a serious dent in coffee education geared towards end consumers in NW Washington.

13. what does a typical day on your farm look like during harvest season? non-harvest season?

For harvest season...this will be a few pages of text… I think you’ll just have to come down and visit and tell this story yourself. Non-harvest time, I will say that every day’s different. Networking and being a resource to our customers sums it up. We’re sold out for life, but there is some natural attrition as well as attrition that I’m pushing for as not all our customers are ideal match. I’d like to have a better relationship with less customers. Monday of this week I’m going down to SEATTLE with Jeff and Rob, our two new business partners for this new “project” mentioned above to visit roasters and retailers to share and mostly learn and brainstorm. My passion is that this new venture is just SCREAMING QUALITY AND SUSTAINABILITY. Tuesday I’m starting to build a deck on our barn and meeting with the health dept and city planning. Wed I drive to eastern Washington to do a TV spot, a few presentations and then pay a visit to some places that are carrying our coffee. Then I’ll spend the weekend with my father in-law as my wife takes her mom, aunt and Grandmother to Vegas for Grandma’s 85th birthday.

14. what do you think the best thing is that could happen to specialty coffee in the next five years?

That someone discovers that coffee is both the cure to cancer and AIDS.

On a serious note, I really don’t know, I’d like to have a smart answer for this, but every day I learn more about coffee and the industry I realize how much I don’t know. But in efforts to give you something, I might say TIME. The 5 years themselves. I think in 5 years we’ll have witnessed many cool things. The specialty industry has evolved in such an accelerated manner the last 5-10 years I can’t imagine what we’ll see in the future. I do dream of a day when I pick up a pound of coffee and I can read stats on the label such as soil type, amount of rainfall, elevation, actual varietal meaning something like “Caturra, Catuai, or Bourbon” in addition to the estate or co-op and region.

15. any final thoughts to share?

A good friend of mine in Bellingham, Washington, has been very helpful to me in shaping where and how we choose to do business. He recently spoke to a gathering of one of the largest accounting firms in British Columbia and based much of his talk on a book titled “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't” by Jim Collins. I haven’t read the book myself, but who needs to read books when you have friends that do? I share this because when I think about the future of the coffee industry I get really excited. I see a growing number of companies and people that are increasingly on the pursuit of excellence! I see more collaboration than ever before, I see guilds forming and forums (and blogs like this one) growing. I see new market developments connecting growers direct to roasters. And I get really excited when I see quality driven folks genuinely striving to make their customers successful. What a novel idea! It truly is an exciting time to be in the coffee industry. I am blessed to be a part of it.

thank you, edwin, for your insightful interview and candor. readers, please give his website a visit at


i think i may be going off the deep end. i told my wife recently that i'm beginning to notice myself drink coffee for cupping. more and more my personal production roasts are resembling my sampling roasts, though my production roasts still tend to be toward the lighter end of the spectrum. a couple thoughts on this.

first, i am viewing this as a good thing because i am wanting to capture in my own personal production roasts more of what i captured in the sample roasts/cupping sessions. this makes sense because i want to taste in production what made me want to buy a particular coffee anyway: what i tasted from the sample roast and cupping session. i see it as a move toward consistency.

second, i find so much sugar and fruit in my sample roasts that just fleets away with a full city or darker roast, roasts where the marbling has just about smoothed out and you have to watch for second crack and the onset of some oil beads on a few beans here or there. i almost never roast "to the sweat" on any beans. but nowadays i find myself craving the sweet and sour notes of sample roasts because they are so juicy and ripe.

third, it helps that the quality of beans i'm procuring are just getting better and better.

fourth, it is weird and funny that i end up drinking a lot of what i cup at the table. hey, i'm there already. pleasure cupping, if you will. if i'm cupping in the morning that's when it's more likely going to happen as i may not have already had my morning cup yet. after cupping and note taking, i just start 'drinking' from the spoon until i get to the sludge. either that or i just keep screech slurping it down to the sludge.

so here i am, pleasure cupping everything i get and finding myself wanting to reproduce that more and more for my customers. and maybe i can pull it off, because i barely have any customers to upset!

well, i don't see the sample roasts making their way into my full blown production roasts anytime soon. but i'm just saying that i'm noticing myself getting lighter and lighter in the quest for the ultimate coffee drinking experience.

revisionist history

i guess i need to eat a little bit of crow. in the past i have done a coffee-off between two pieces of brewing equipment and have given the edge to the french press over the aeropress, even though in my heart i probably gave a much bigger edge to the french press.

i need to revise that statement and let it be a lesson to all not to get stuck in old modes of thinking, to always be willing to expand your base of knowledge and experimentation around coffee.

in the last month i can count on one hand the number of times i have reached for the french press when wanting personal coffee. it has almost always been the aeropress that has made its way onto the kitchen counter. it's quicker, easier to clean up and the taste profile is radically good. used to be i would savor how a coffee might taste in the press. now i wonder to myself how this coffee or that will be as an aeropress 'espresso shot' or 'americano.' always it makes me stand up and notice flavors i didn't think i'd find.

so hat's off to the aeropress for making a firm believer out of me. i mean, here's to the aeropress...we always knew you were headed for greatness from day one. er, right.

those of you who have an aeropress, any thoughts?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

texas barista jam

so we're on for the first barista jam i've ever been to. and i'm going to be the host! how did i ever decide i wanted to take on such a project? it's a rhetorical question, of course, but it's crazy/cool to think that in just under two months we'll be having what i hope is a cool jam deep in the heart of texas. i have no idea what i'm doing. and since i've never even been to a jam before, i have to rely on my own best thinking as to what will work and what will be cool.

the goal is 10 people. anywhere near that and i'll consider the event a screaming success. and the objective is mostly just to meet and greet all the other baristas around this great state and to put ourselves out there that we care about coffee and are willing to support each other in that pursuit. i don't give a flip about promoting my own company or making any money (we'll probably lose a bunch of it). i care about getting texas into the swing of the barista community and putting the rest of the community on notice that we intend to learn and grow and not be silent any longer.

i've set up a sign up sheet on my company website. look for the link on the left entitled "TX BARISTA JAM RSVP" for the latest.

hope to see you there.

coffee and music

so i had a realization the other day. my search for the world's cool coffees has a lot of similarities to my search for the world's obscure indie rock music. i realized i love searching out and finding new coffees very few people know about. quality is key, of course, but when i find that great hidden gem, as with finding a killer new band, my sense of pride and accomplishment just seems to soar.

weird but true.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

a glimpse of the past. a picture of the future of coffee.

edwin martinez has feet planted in two worlds. a third generation coffee industry veteran, his family owns the finca vista hermosa. i say 'information' because when one talks with him it is immediately apparent that he knows his stuff. he's not blowing smoke trying to impress anyone with high-falutin' terminology. he's the real deal. i say 'wisdom' because edwin and his family of coffee growers--originally itinerant pastors in the rural backwaters of guatemala--seems to understand the absolute value of knowing just what to do with the right information. to hear him talk about the lives of the pickers, the plantation workers, the site manager--indigenous mayan, all--you get the real sense that edwin and his family genuinely care about the welfare of their people and have invested in their success in a human way rather than simply in a financially sound way...wisdom.

anyways, i asked edwin a short time ago to submit to another one of my email interviews and he graciously agreed. without further adieu, i give you part one of my interview with edwin martinez of finca vista hermosa.

in guatemala's famed huehuetenango region. he's seen--and participated in firsthand--all the processes that go into growing and harvesting coffee. he's also been fortunate enough to experience coffee life on the 'other side' as a retailer--he actually lives most of the year in washington state. because of these experiences, edwin martinez has amassed in his time here on earth a treasure trove of information and wisdom about nearly every aspect of the so-called seed to cup chain.

1. talk about your family's origins in the coffee industry.

In 1957 my grandfather was pastoring a church in the city of Huehuetenango and he hiked around the entire department of Huehuetenango and planted many other churches. Yes,the city has the same name as the department, which is like a state in U.S. or a province in Canada. Consequently, there were probably few people that knew the area better than he. One day a man who needed money offered his land to my grandfather. Although he couldn’t afford it, they worked something out. My grandmother Martha was very resourceful and found other ways to generate some income that soon exceeded Felipe’s salary as a pastor. They got 10 cents per pair of pants they made at home, usually between 4:00 and 6:00 a.m. before their day started. While raising 7 kids is a lot of work, eventually the kids became very helpful at home. My father and his brothers and sisters all have memories of accompanying my grandfather to the first parcel they purchased. It was a 7 hr bus ride and hike to do what now is driven in less than 2 hrs. Keep in mind that last hour of driving today is only 16km. The roads are still rustic today. Today in the specialty market more coffee comes to the U.S. from Huehuetenango that any other region in the world. All this coffee changes hands numerous times at origin and most of these “hands” belong to folks who were high school class mates of my fathers and his siblings. That’s my families origins with coffee. Me on the other hand, I’m still very green. I’ve a long way to go to pay my dues.

2. what is the most cutting edge thing you've seen in coffee? where
are we going?

You. That’s an easy one. For us coffee runs in our veins, it is in our blood. Passion is more than a choice. But folks like you who dive into the industry head first and make it your life. This is what is guiding where we are going. Even for me, the circumstance I exist in is because of blood, sweat and tears of those before me. It is quite a responsibility that should not be taken lightly.

3. what is the most critically important thing coffee consumers
(importer/exporters, buyers, roasters, consumers) don't know about
coffee growers?

Growers are the only link in the chain that generally don’t make a living when the market is down. Every single link in the chain after the grower, be it 6 or 26 links between grower and the cup, has margins and can make a living under any market conditions. In the U.S. during the Great Depression, spending went down on EVERYTHING except coffee. When everyone had to cut way back on everything, SPENDING ON COFFEE ACTUALLY WENT UP! It’s one of life’s precious luxuries that seem to always be affordable to all, yet every day there are growers going bankrupt.

4. what was the most important step you've taken at finca vista
hermosa to increase coffee quality?

Stepped away. In Guatemala, most people picking coffee are 100% Mayan and most managers/owners are not. By hiring Mayan managers, trusting them completely, and treating them with respect like family, this is not only reciprocated but passed on, creating an atmosphere like none other. Many other local growers have asked what we do differently that makes the difference in quality. Sure, we can make a list of things, but the bottom line is people. Happy people make the difference. And it’s not just paying more either.

5. you've mentioned before in your roast magazine interviews that honesty is the biggest key to meaningful coffee relationships. give
me an example where honesty was a very difficult choice to make.

The practice of swapping is ethically wrong and is often a tough decision. We have a limited crop and that [when it] is sold out, it would not be too hard to sell “more of our coffee” when in fact there is no more. In Huehue when a buyer is considering some coffee, the samples before and after carry much weight in the transaction. Otherwise the same premium lot of coffee will be sold 10 times to 10 different parties, when there is clearly only one lot in existence where samples were pulled from. This is just as if we had a customer who sold much more FVH than they bought from us. (Don’t get any ideas or I’ll come after you with a machete.)

6.what are some of the challenges quality-minded farmers are faced
with in getting their coffee onto the international market?

One of the greatest challenges is lack of logistics and connection to quality-driven, educated buyers. Quality is only valued when compensation reflects the quality. In most cases there are way too many links or there’s lack of transparency. Thus incentive to continue producing quality is gone. Also, even with a relationship direct with a quality buyer, if price is a premium on the C, then the price is not sustainable… It can be too low when market is low, and on the consumer side it can also be too high when market it high just the same.

Intelligentsia has taken a bold step with their Direct Trade program. I recall a conversation with [Intelligentsia founder] Doug Zell a few years back where they had a contract for a Guat where the market went up and a few containers of their coffee disappeared! Most would say, “You can’t win em all” and try to make up the loss buying a forward contract on another coffee when the market is down. But in the end it’s a frustrating game where half the time one side ends up a big winner and the other a big loser. What kind of a relationship is that? It’s not a relationship! With their Direct Trade program it’s simply always paying a good price for good coffee. It’s not rocket science, but you have to both agree to mutually share the risk and the reward of stability and it takes much more time and effort than most are willing to invest. Doug Zell was not the first to lose contracted coffee, but they are certainly taking steps to avoid this in the future.

7. i've heard you talk about how taking a short cut here or cutting
back there during a particular growing season can have long term
devastating effects on a coffee product. what are some examples you
can share of this?

This is beyond common. It’s quite standard that when the market dips below cost of production, one naturally holds back on spending. So if you skip out on key activities such as fertilizing, pruning, weeding or picking, future crop qualities are compromised. You may wonder why one would skip picking? It is the most costly activity of the year, and if the market price at the time are below the cost of production, often crops are either abandoned or sometimes burned so a more sustainable crop other than coffee can be planted. Any of these activities skipped, particularly if done a few years in a row, will take 3-6 years to recover assuming it is still possible or even cost effective.

in part two of my interview with edwin, we get into the role of the coffee coyote, the fair trade movement from a grower's perspective, what a typical day on the finca looks like, and much more. stay tuned....

Friday, September 15, 2006

i need a camera

seems all the good blogs have camera shots that are really, really close up pics of i think that's the secret to success: a camera for your blog pics. i'm tired of posting stuff from my dumb camera.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

in case you don't read the times every day

here's a link to a really solid piece in today's new york times about the burgeoning specialty scene in new york city. [registration required, but you can try to get around that here.] the story links to a short video clip you really must see that has some great shots of espresso being pulled and some good latte art being done on a synesso and a la marzocco

(btw, i rarely read the times anymore now that i don't live within easy driving distance of new york city. i mean, in case you were wondering...)

is 'heterohemispheophobic' a word?

in sort of the same vein as the post directly below, i've been wondering why there are no cup of excellence programs operating in either africa or southeast asia. i can surmise why: because those areas have must less orderly systems of coffee production, or because washed process coffees are not nearly the given they are across latin america. or maybe it simply betrays the preferences of the founders that they choose locales that produce coffees they prefer.

as with this ongoing discussion and research i'm doing into processing methods, i have to keep in mind that my own preferences for coffee tastes do not equal the rules of coffee tastes. one is not necessarily better or worse than another. it's just different. and variety is good.

so how is this in the same vein as the post below? i don't know. i guess i got to thinking about the relatively poor processing methods one encounters in dry process places such as sumatra or yemen and it seemed a bit of a parallel to expecting something greater--maybe unrealistically--from these countries before they could host c.o.e. auctions. maybe this is a case of wanting the bar to be so high that some can't/won't make it. (but if that's the case, how would you answer that question for a sterling locale such as kenya, which has had sophisticated coffee auctions in place for decades?)

is it impossible to have a defect-free dry process? is that what it is? i mean, if pulped naturals can do so well in brazil why not? is it heterohemisperophobic? seriously...are there no c.o.e. programs in, say, indonesia because we are less familiar with the cultures and languages and religions in that part of the world?

it's an easier question to get answered than i'm probably making it, i'm sure. but that's what a good blog does--i'm told. it asks the unanswerable questions.

where's the bar?

i'm thinking about barista jams of late. mostly, of hosting one. some issues i see. one, i don't trust very many people very easily. it's just a fault i have (so if you see i like you almost immediately, take it as a blessing). two, hosting a barista jam pretty much requires one to trust lots of other people to pull it off successfully. hence my conundrum.

maybe my inability to want to work with too many other people is my fear that somebody will say or do something or want to incorporate a vision or feeling that doesn't seem to me to embody specialty coffee. maybe i'm just a control freak. in any event, i guess i just want to start something here in texas that isn't being done. i have no aspirations of making tons of money off it. in fact, i expect i would lose a tidy sum just to host it and make it run right. that's not the point. nor is getting brown's name out there. really, it's not. it's finding some level set for the craft here in texas and starting us down the path toward higher calibre coffee and espresso presentation in our respective cafes and coffee businesses.

which to me raises yet another issue. as i have begun to really think through hosting a jam one of the earliest questions i have to ask is, 'what is the purpose and objective of even having a jam?' profit? fame? introduction to specialty coffee for more newbie type baristas? because it's mostly the last one i have to consider the programs and settings that would be most conducive to newbies learning and growing.

but here's the philosophical rub. do you make the bar really high knowing that many people may be intimidated by it and walk away, or do you water it down to make it digestable enough for everyone's current level and risk them wondering whether they feel they even got their money's worth by traveling across this big state for this event. surely one might say that it has to be a combination of both of those philosophies. i would tend to agree; but in what measures? and how much is too much?

i've always been of the mindset that if you set expectations super high and some people hit it, while a large group of people get close and some don't get very close at all, at least you've gotten some that high and others much higher than they would've normally jumped. and the ones who don't make it at all might never have gotten there anyway no matter what you do.

the bottom line is i want to have fun and i don't want texas to be a specialty coffee joke anymore. so i'll start pulling stuff together and see if we can make a run at it.

sirens blaring, or, my interview with rick boleto of starbucks coffee, part two

here is the second part of my email interview i had recently with rick boleto, district manager for starbucks coffee company in philadelphia, pennsylvania. rick does a good job tackling a few of the more pressing questions thrown at starbucks people--sometimes diplomatically avoiding them--with precision and typical starbucks style. seriously, when i think of the face of starbucks and what it means to excel in a world class operation such as big green, rick really embodies that spirit with his drive for excellence in every area of his responsibility, and there are a lot. and in the spirit of fun and surprises, rick decides to answer the wild card question with a question...for me! we begin this second part with what i believe to be the most important question facing starbucks today and in the future. enjoy.

10. to what extent has starbucks unbridled success in non-coffee related branding (i.e., cd's, sandwiches, etc.) helped/hindered its image and/or ability to be known as a coffee company?

We want to create a unique experience for our guests. Music, books, and other forms of entertainment add to this experience. Our guests have asked for us to have more food items for their convenience, again, to enhance the experience, so we have responded. With all our decisions measured against our guiding principles* [ed: see below], I know we will continue to add items to our overall product line to make the customers' experiences fuller and more enjoyable. At the base of that experience is and will always be a great coffee company with an outstanding cup of coffee.

11. starbucks is seemingly everywhere already. when will they be done growing?

This question is outside my scope.

12. if you could have any one job in starbucks, what would it be and why?

I have really enjoyed my role on the CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] team. I have enjoyed being able to respond to some of the questions people have about our impact on the coffee industry. I would enjoy pursuing this arena further.

13. what is one thing about howard schultz the world should know that it may not?

I think this question would be better suited for Howard.

14. starbucks currently has operations in over thirty countries. what has helped starbucks translate across international and cultural boundaries?

Partnering with local successful businesses in those new markets has helped, beyond that, I think our brand and a lot of hard work.

15. press, drip or espresso?


16. what's your morning coffee ritual?

Set the timer the night before and hope I don 't wake up before it is done.

17. what's your favorite starbucks coffee ever?

My favorite ever - I guess a Black Apron Exclusive we recently had Ethiopia Shirkina Sun-Dried Sidamo

18. talk about black apron exclusives. why are they such a big deal?

BAE are a big deal because we reward the farmer a premium for the coffee. The premium is a $15,000 cash award the farmer must use for a social improvement project or put back into the farm, either agricultural improvements or improvements to a mill. The coffees are exceptional and often the amount available is too small for us to make a LTO [Limited Time Offering].

19. Wild Card question (write your own)?

Aaron, you were an extremely successful partner with Starbucks, what did you learn while working here that is helping you with your own venture?

i would say the biggest thing i internalized from my time with starbucks was that success is not an entitlement. you have to work hard to get it. you have to work hard to keep it. hanging a starbucks sign up by the road will get them in the door. we saw that on a massively unexpected scale at my store. whether they return (and return and return) is up to what you do once they get inside the door. with my own company it's kind of the opposite, but i work hard just the same. nobody's banging down my door here in the early days of brown. but once they try my coffee they want to come back because of what i did with it, how i treated them as a customer, how i conducted my business.

*STARBUCKS MISSION STATEMENT AND GUIDING PRINCIPLES (from memory, so if i miss a word here or there...)

To establish Starbucks as the premiere purveyor of the finest coffee in the world while maintaining our uncompromising principles as we grow.

[these are the six guiding principles to measure decision appropriateness]

Provide a great work environment and treat each other with respect and dignity.

Embrace diversity as an essential component of the way we do business.

Apply the highest standards to the purchasing, roasting and fresh delivery of our coffee.

Develop enthusiastically satisfied customers all the time.

Contribute positively to our communities and our environment.

Recognize that profitibility is essential to our future success.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

deconstructing espresso

i'm sitting with the prospect of creating espresso by deconstructing it. today i thought i'd start with one of the best: intelligentsia's black cat espresso.

i began by reading everything google would fetch for me on black cat. mostly it's the novice's review here, intelligentsia's own one paragraph description there. basically i'm just trying to get some background and some hints as to components and proportions. from what i've been able to divine it is a blend of latin americans only--something i find very interesting indeed.

i cupped it out in both a couple of my new cupping bowls (shown left, courtesy of my buddy has bean steve) and via my aeropress, for reference and for slightly different accentuation.

the bowls created a really buttery, creamy chocolate base that showed a lavender or clove or licorice--i still can't decide--quality. something very floral or sweetly spicy, which i've often noticed in black cat before. as an aside, i've noticed those bowls really do butter up my coffees. the wide mouth flare must help create those notes, or at least put them more up front for display. i've cupped africans, centrals and even a sumatra in them and they all display more butter than i can remember noticing before. (steve?)

in the aeropress it displayed a little more of the cloves and licorice spice, but also a real roastiness...and not necessarily a good roastiness. it was almost too sharp. maybe that's a function of the centrals components without something with more body to balance it out.

i've read that the black cat was designed to work specifically with la marzocco machines at specific temps. maybe it can be more a matter of tweaking some of my serving temps--i don't have a la marzocco lying around, though.

anyways, more on this later as it unfolds. i mocked up some stuff i thought would replicate the black cat a little bit ago: tanzania/yirgacheffe for floral and cloves; sumatra for low end and some costa for sweet higher tones. the sumatra brought the whole thing noticeably lower and more chocolately, especially when i went back to the black cat. then i noticed the black cat seemed really tinny and sharp even as it displayed that characteristic licorice.

this is why i've always been a big proponent of cupping coffees next to other, very different, coffees. it really pulls together some perspectives from vastly different angles.

what do you think of black cat?

more later....

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

interview with the vampire slayer

everyone has heroes. one of my heroes happens to be my former boss of my former company (see pic at right for a hint). i asked rick boleto if he would consider contributing to the coffee press blog by submitting to either a lie detector test or an email interview a la my first one with steve leighton of has bean coffee in the u.k. rick graciously accepted my offer and since i have no reason to believe he would fail any lie detector test (and since i couldn't remember where i put the thing, either...or remember how to use it...or exactly how i would administer it across the internet...) i opted for the email interview instead.

having known rick now for coming up on five years i can say i've watched him operate as a person of high personal integrity and an even higher amount of passion for coffee and company. and since coffee *is* his company, rick is perfectly suited for work in one of the world's premiere coffee companies, starbucks coffee company. seriously, after working for starbucks for three and a half years i can truly say rick is one of the most effortlessly starbuckian people i know--a very high compliment in starbucks circles. he knows his stuff and he always makes his team around him better. as you read the interview i hope you'll get a sense of why i admire rick so much: what makes him such a vampire slayer superhero. he is winsome and witty; aspirational, challenging and yet not afraid to fly the risk aversion flag every now and then. he's a great guy i'm glad i know.

the following is part one of two that rick and i traded. a short bio compiled by rick himself gets us started. enjoy.

Bio – Rick Boleto, DM [ed: District Manager] & CSR [ed: Corporate Social Responsibility] Coffee Diplomat

Began my career with Starbucks as a shift manager in Atlanta, Ga in 1996.

Graduated from College of Boca Raton with a degree in accounting in 1995.

I now reside in Media, Pa about 20 minutes SW of Philadelphia with my wife of 11 years and my son Nicholas and daughter Alexandra.

I am a coffee fanatic!

1. what is one misconception among people in the specialty coffee industry about starbucks you want to correct?

After visiting the Specialty Coffee Assn. Conference in April, I am not sure there is a misconception about Starbucks Coffee Company. For me, I was encouraged that we were accepted and highly respected within the industry.

2. tell me about starbucks "c.a.f.e. practices."

This is a big question –

v In 1998, Starbucks began to integrate conservation principles in our coffee buying practices through our partnership with Conservation International (CI). Three years later, we collaborated with CI to create and pilot Starbucks Preferred Supplier Program (PSP) that was based on a set of socially and environmentally responsible coffee buying guidelines.

v These early efforts laid the groundwork for what eventually became Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices. Formally introduced in fiscal 2004, C.A.F.E. Practices was designed to assure high-quality coffee is grown and processed with environmental sensitivity and social equity throughout our coffee supply chain.

v Program improvements were made in fiscal 2005 by Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), a third-party evaluation and certification firm retained by Starbucks for the development, training and auditing of C.A.F.E. Practices.

v C.A.F.E. Practices helps ensure that Starbucks purchases coffee that is grown and processed in a sustainable manner by evaluating the social, environmental and economic aspects of coffee production. The guidelines include 28 indicators against which suppliers (farmers, cooperatives, processors and exporters) are evaluated. With the exception of the indicators for quality and economic transparency, which are prerequisites, all other indicators have been assigned a minimum and a maximum number of points.

v Suppliers need to earn the minimum points in each scored area, representing social and environmental criteria. Final scores are determined by independent, third-party verifiers, a process monitored by SCS. Starbucks looks at the points earned in each section to decide each supplier’s status.

v Starbucks was presented the Gold Medal Award, by the World Environmental Center, representing the company’s leadership in the development of C.A.F.E. Practices.

v In 2005 we purchased 76.8 million pounds of coffee from CAFÉ practices supplies. In 2006 we have a goal of 150 million pounds.

3. you've had a successful career with starbucks in many roles. you could be successful in any coffee venture. what keeps you at starbucks?

Aaron - You know I am not much of a risk taker, and I feel like I am to here satisfy my entrepreneurial desires. The company has the same values as I do and as long as this continues, I will stay.

4. there was a lot of discussion that went into starbucks decision to move from the la marzocco linea to the super automatic verismo? was it a good decision? a prudent compromise?

I am pleased with the automated machines and based on customer responses, I think automated espresso is here to stay.

5. when starbucks decides to give attention to a (product) segment of the specialty coffee industry, other players naturally need to pay attention to that segment as well. to what extent does starbucks lead or follow industry movements and to what extent can starbucks maintain its edge as it grows?

I think the specialty coffee industry is very innovative, and I am not sure we are always the leaders. I hope we continue to influence the industry to be more socially and environmentally conscious.

6. is starbucks the next wal-mart? the next mcdonald's?

Starbucks is a unique company, we are like no one else.

7. what's the case for dark roasting coffee?

If you are asking about the Starbucks roast, I think the case is similar to any other roaster, we believe we are roasting coffee to reach the full potential and best flavor that particular bean has. Just like any roaster, it is our opinion of what the optimal flavor is for that coffee.

8. is there an achilles heel for starbucks, either now or in the future? anything that keeps you up at night trying to figure out?

For me that is simple - How can we continue to attract high quality future leaders to our company? Any company is only as great as the employees it has, and our #1 asset is our people. We need to be able to continue to staff our company with great partners who can grow with us.

9. starbucks has been a fairly environmentally friendly company. what are some of the challenges it faces in this respect as it grows? how has it met these challenges?

I think continuing to use our leadership position to have an impact on the coffee industry as a whole is our biggest challenge - to make coffee a sustainable business. C.A.F.E. practices is a huge step in the right direction.

to be continued....

in part two we discuss starbucks phenomimal growth curve and its prospects for reaching more customers without diluting the message, the inside scoop on howard schultz, killer coffees and a surprise twist at the end as rick turns the interview tables around.

stay tuned.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

hario pour over brewer: first blush

so i got my pour over brewer yesterday in the mail. aside from being completely nervous i was going to open a box and find a pile of broken glass, the only negative moments came when i opened the intact box and pulled out the intact glass and searched--in vain--for english instructions. they are all in japanese. everything on the box is in japanese. well, that's not entirely true. along the side of the front of the box it says "pour over wood" or something like that.

anyways, the coffee. having never used a pour over before i wasn't sure what to expect. my first brew was with a auto drip grind and the water basically went through like a gully washer, resulting in a nice looking cup of tea. i played with it several times, adjusting tighter the grind and using varying amounts of coffee and water to get an optimal brew. i'm not sure i've found that optimal point but so far i think i'm liking the results when i use a very fine grind--near the turkish border--and fill the cloth filter full with water, stir, let it drip down about halfway and then refill to the top of the filter.

i am in love with the cloth filter concept already and think this method has huge cachet and major retail romance written all over it. the simplicity of the method is profound when you taste the final product.

and oh yeah, the final product. basically the coffee comes out tasting like that of an aeropress or french press without the sediment. this is a mixed bag for me, as i have come to love, dare i say 'depend?' on the sediment. it's a comfort to see it there in my cup, sludging to the bottom of my cup. without it i feel like i'm drinking auto drip coffee again. but the taste is there still, so i'm not completely sure how i'll feel about it in the end. basically it's a little cleaner in the cup than a press and not as low end and bassy as an aeropress. but the character is still there. just in a slighty different form.

the beauty of coffee. now if i can only get my hands on two dozen of these and for less than what the chinese-canadian company charged me, i'll be in business.