Why Origin Matters

March 25, 2015

I recently wrote this letter to the editor of the Washingtonian in response to this article by Todd Kliman taking our local specialty coffee shops to task for trying to elevate coffee to a connoisseur beverage when it is nothing more than a caffeine delivery system. Obviously, I disagree. The letter outlines my argument for why consumers are better served by knowing where their coffee is grown and choosing a high value product.

“Delving into the world of coffee is an object lesson in geography. Each country not only presents a unique combination of topography, plants, climate and soil composition, but brings to the table different cultivation, harvesting and processing practices. Coffee is complex enough, the average bean comprising thousands of compounds with more than 400 flavor producing, that every step along the path from planting to brewing can impact what you taste in your cup.

In his article “One Man’s Search For a Good Cup of Coffee,” Todd Kliman argues that coffee is little more than a caffeine delivery system. He also suggests that attempts to raise coffee to new levels of appreciation is misguided. I would argue that the complexity of coffee, both in terms of how it tastes and how it gets into your cup, is worthy of your attention.

Whether drinking a rare single-origin coffee or just a solid morning blend, what should not go unappreciated is the importance of where coffee comes from and the enormous amount of work and expertise that goes into growing it. Without a good natural product to start off with, there is nothing a roaster or, further down the line, a barista can do to produce a top-quality cup of joe. In many and more cases, this has lead to a tightening bond between grower and roaster, facilitated by evolving sophistication in both agricultural processes and communication channels. More and more small roasters, such as myself, have been able to work directly with small farms to bring a better documented, better managed and better tasting coffee than has historically been available. Meanwhile, our demand for quality, and our willingness to pay a higher price for it, has helped drive quality improvement at origin. Perhaps just as important, a burgeoning interconnectedness between consumer and farm has fueled a greater sense of ownership and pride in the coffee these growers produce.

Yet the good stuff only makes up a fraction of the marketplace. The bulk of coffee produced in the world comes to your cup with little effort to track it’s precise origin and often combined in large regional lots with no financial or other reason for the farmer to grow a better bean. This coffee of middling-to-low quality is only salvaged by cooking off it’s natural flavor and replacing it with those tastes imparted by the roasting process itself. Yet it is often sold to the consumer at a very high mark up. Specialty coffee may cost a little more, but arguably offers much higher value, given that we pay anywhere from two, three or four times the average market price for our beans. Low quality coffee is also a bad deal for the farmers, the vast majority of whom are disconnected from the international market and must take whatever price is offered at their local processing mill. Only when coffee prices are high is this enough to sustain them and it’s never enough to improve their lots.

Does this mean origin should matter for you? Knowing where your coffee comes from may not caffeinate you any better, but it will mean you are drinking a higher value, more satisfying cup of coffee, one that also allows the people who grew that coffee to pursue a better life. For me, that seems like incentive enough.”

Roast Date Vs. Expiry Date

January 29, 2014

I view coffee, both in the green state as well as roasted, like I would fresh produce. It needs to rest for a short period after being roasted or harvested, it is best during a short window of time and it slowly but surely becomes a shadow if itself once it has passed its peak. It changes day by day and it is often difficult to pinpoint which day, which hour, it is best, but you know it when you taste it.

Roast Date Stamp

Date it, don’t conflate it.

This view presumes you know when the coffee was picked and roasted. Not having that information places you at a significant disadvantage when assessing whether a coffee will be near, at or past peak when you buy it.

For me, what has come to define the line between a SRINO (specialty roaster in name only) and a roaster who takes his or her craft seriously, is the use of an expiration date rather than a roasted-on date. Don’t even get me started on roasters willing to grind their coffee for wholesale (see my post on bad restaurant coffee here)

Expiration dates on coffee are an unacceptable compromise. It puts the decision as to what is too stale to use in the hands of the roaster, not the customer, often without any indication as to what is considered to be the shelf life of the coffee. An even more egregious farce was the expiry stamp I found recently on a bag of coffee from a well-known, well-marketed, mediocre-at-best coffee roaster in which the month, not the day, of expiration, was purported as the mark of freshness.

For shame!

Fussy Brewing Doesn’t Guarantee Better Coffee

December 4, 2013

Over the past couple of years, an increasing number of coffee shops seem to be adding brewed-to-order options to their menus, using one technique or several. However, what is sometimes puzzling is the level of precision with which they attempt to implement these methods.

For example, it’s not uncommon to see a Chemex or Clever dripper set on a scale to measure the weight of the water as the barista performs his or her pour. Why measure the water by weight? You got me. Water by volume is a constant weight, so there really is no benefit from a precision perspective. Measuring the beans by weight makes sense because coffee beans have different densities. But water is unchanging and far more easily measured with more precision by volume.

Fussiness aside, here is my real problem with these ultra-precise brewing methods: too often it seems like all the focus is on the brewing method, while the freshness and proper of roasting of the beans is largely ignored. All the precision in the world can’t save bad beans. On the flip side, good beans will shine through even relatively poor brewing.

The High Cost of Low Coffee Prices

March 13, 2013

Yes, the headline is shamelessly pilfered from the Wal-Mart expose, but the same market principles apply to coffee. In order to offer Americans cheap cups of coffee, somewhere along the production chain someone has to lose, and that is very often the growers. Recently there has been an increasing glut of cheap coffee coming from Brazil and Vietnam. These mass produced beans are of poor quality, but have the effect of pushing down the average market price of all coffee. As a result, many smallholder farms are forced to sell their coffee at or below subsistence levels or have their harvest go to waste.

I’m no saint. I happily pay above market (and above the so-called FairTrade premium) not out of some desire to better the plight of farmers in developing nations, but because carefully cultivated, well roasted and properly brewed coffee tastes so damned good. I know that spending more for my coffee can bring much more enjoyment (although you do quickly reach a point of diminishing returns for over-priced coffee). But for those folks who believe that paying more than $1 for a cup of coffee is pure snobbery, please know that it doesn’t come so cheaply for the farmers living in poverty.

It’s All About Origin (or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bean)

March 5, 2013
Hot Stuff

A drum-type roaster tends to lend more depth and complexity to coffee compared with fluid bed roasters which accentuation brightness. Photo courtesy Stewart Davis.

When coffee is roasted well, (and this is a big if that I have expounded on elsewhere) it’s flavor is more a matter of origin then roast level. A good roaster will bring out the best flavors in the coffee and whether the roast level is anywhere within the spectrum from city to full city plus, it will be very difficult from the drinker’s perspective to tell the difference. A dark roast, however, is distinguishable for the smokiness as the outside of the bean begins to carbonize late in the roasting process. Much of the roasting process itself is little more than warming up the bean (although heating rates and the balance of convection and conduction can have an impact). It isn’t until the last quarter of the roast, once the bean begins to expand and the internal structure breaks apart, that flavors begin to form and evolve inside the bean. Specialty roasters apply their art to this part of the roasting process to tease out the coffee’s natural complexity, which result from the soil, the environment, the type of bean and how it is harvested and processed for export. A roaster doesn’t create flavors in the bean, he or she simply finds a good balance of the existing characteristics, like a sculptor finding the inner beauty of a piece of marble. Any flavors imparted by the roasting process itself are often considered defects in the finished cup, this goes for under as well as over roasted beans. This is not say that dark roasted coffee tastes bad. That is a wholly subjective assessment. However, dark roasts taste the least like the bean and the most like the roasting process itself.

Get Thee to a Grinder

February 13, 2013

I have been a vocal advocate for thinking of coffee as more like fresh produce than as bulk goods. Unfortunately, it is far too common for people to think that coffee can be kept around indefinitely and that getting it preground is nearly as good as grinding it at home right before you use it. Both approaches lead to the loss of the volatile flavor compounds that would otherwise give brewed coffee depth and complexity.

After roasting, coffee beans start to slowly release CO2. This off-gassing keeps oxygen from getting inside the beans and breaking down flavor compounds. However, once the coffee is ground, the CO2 is released all at once, and there is no longer any protection against oxygen damage. Add to that the increased surface area of ground coffee and you have a recipe for bad coffee in very short order. This is why it is so crucial to grind the coffee just before brewing. In fact, I would argue that buying good coffee, if preground, is a waste of money. Some large coffee manufacturers go to great lengths to convince consumers that buying ground coffee is okay. They sell their coffee in high-tech packaging designed to preserve the coffees’ natural flavors. The problem is that even if these approaches worked perfectly, which they don’t, the coffee is still exposed to a fresh dose of air every time you open the package to make a pot of coffee.

Ultimately, the only way to get the most of freshly roasted coffee, is to grind it right before use. While I recommend buying a cheap grinder rather than no grinder, if you are investing any money in coffee making equipment, the priority should be the grinder. But be ready to spend $100 or more. Inexpensive burr grinders are not a good value. They don’t work well or for very long.

Great Restaurants With Crappy Coffee

December 25, 2012

Okay, so this is a bit of a pet-peeve, but it boggles me that so many really great restaurants are content to serve just mediocre to downright awful coffee at the end of a meal. Admittedly, I don’t get out to eat very often, so when I do spend a couple hundred dollars on a really enjoyable dinner, being served bad coffee at the end of it really leaves a bad taste in my mouth, literally. So I have assembled some bright red flags for when you shouldn’t even bother ordering coffee at a restaurant:

1) The restaurant gets their coffee pre-ground. Coffee stales so much faster once it is ground, even good coffee can’t stand up to being ground days before use, much less the weeks or months restaurants often keep coffee.

2) The restaurant brews and stores the coffee in large urns until someone orders a cup. Once brewed, the flavor of coffee slowly diminishes and starts to growing increasingly acrid. Each coffee is different, but this often begins to be noticeable after only 30 minutes.

3) The restaurant sources their coffee from bulk roasters like Illy or Lavazza. Large-scale roasting operations are much more focused on producing consistent results, not high-quality ones. As a rule, good coffee doesn’t come out of a can.

4) The restaurant can’t tell you anything about the coffee, such as where the beans come from, how it was roasted or what flavors to expect. Lack of knowledge is a big red flag, especially at restaurants that otherwise carefully source their ingredients.

Those are the major ones, although their may be other specific signs that a restaurant is serving bad coffee. For example, I recently went to a restaurant where the menu touted their offering of a “single-origin blend.” This oxymoronic statement was enough to suggest to me that good coffee was not a priority there.

Addendum: What you can do; complain. Served bad coffee many people will just  fix it with a lot of milk and sugar. However, if customers start sending bad coffee back, restaurants might think twice about what they are serving.  Just a thought.

Espresso Ain’t All That

November 28, 2012

What’s the good of a blog if it doesn’t slaughter a sacred cow now and again. One such bovine that has well outlived it’s meaningfulness is the notion that espresso represents the pinnacle of coffee achievements. Don’t get me wrong, a good espresso is a rare and precious thing and I even enjoy a cappuccino on occasion, but if one wishes to truly enjoy the variety and complexity that coffee has to offer, brewed coffee is the only way to go. Drinking espresso exclusively eliminates a wide swath of unique and interesting beans that simply don’t make for good espresso.

Fundamentally espresso is just another way of brewing coffee, no better or worse then drip or French press. Every technique brings out a different balance of flavors. The first espresso machines, invented more than a century ago, were designed to brew coffee fast, not necessarily well. Modern espresso has evolved substantially toward quality brewing since those early steam-driven contraptions, but is still defined and confined by short extraction time.

Personally, I have found that many reputable coffee shops are almost solely focused on churning out pretty lattes while serving mediocre or even bad brewed coffee. This is shame when you consider the natural variety and complexity of well-prepared arabica. Judging a coffee shop solely on its espresso seems a tragedy when the world of coffee has so much more to offer.

Tis the Season for Mysore Coffee

November 18, 2012

Conventionally, coffee is not thought of or treated like a seasonal. agricultural product, but in a very real sense, the vast majority of coffee growing countries only harvest their crops once a year. Since I really like my coffee to be as fresh as possible, both green and roasted, I usually think of buying different origins as soon as possible after they arrive on our shores. One great example is coffee from India. This is a bean we tend to see come in during the Fall and Winter. Although it tends not to be one of the more complex coffees I get, it does have a wonderful creaminess and body as well as distinct milk chocolate notes, which make it a great base for creating a warming spiced coffee. Here are a couple of ways to prepare Mysore Spiced Coffee:


1lb of Indian Mysore (not Monsooned) beans, or if not available something chocolaty with creamy body.

2 or 3 cardamom pods

1 or 2 sticks of cinnamon

½ tablespoon of whole cloves

Cold Brew Method

Grind Coffee beans coarsely and crush spices then combine with 3.75 quarts of cold water. Let sit over night. Strain.

To prepare: Slowly warm 2 parts coffee to 1 part milk of your choice in small pot. Add honey to taste.

Hot Brew Method

Simmer milk with crushed spices and honey for about twenty minutes. Brew strong cup of Mysore coffee and combine in 1:1 ratio.

What’s Your Favorite Coffee?

October 11, 2012

Bean Lineup

I get this question all the time. When confronting a row of a dozen different beans to choose from, it can be overwhelming to pick one. Tastes are so personal, that usually I try to elicit from the questioner what they are looking for in a coffee. Flavor is only part of the equation. Beyond flavor, the two most important aspects of taste are body, whether the coffee feels heavy or light in your mouth and brightness, whether the flavors slap or tickle your palate.

Keeping those descriptions in mind, there are some very general rules you can use to guide your decision. Assuming we are talking about single-origin coffee and not a blend of coffees from different countries, there are three main clusters where coffee grows: Africa, Latin America and Indonesia.

African coffees, from places like Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, tend to be big, with lots of brightness and a heavier mouthfeel. This also means they can be somewhat eccentric or harsh.

Coffees from Latin America, countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, are often relatively light in terms of mouthfeel, often have considerable brightness, but usually a balanced flavor profile that tempers any harshness.

Coffees from Indonesia, such as the islands of Bali, Flores, Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi fall right in the middle of African and American coffee in terms of mouthfeel and brightness, but their flavors vary considerably ranging from clean and sweet to earthy and spicy.

It’s worth reiterating that these are very general rules. There are many examples that break these rules entirely and they offer a unique pleasure when you experience them. But this should offer a good starting point to launch you into an exploration of coffee.