Archive for the 'the grumble' Category

Symposium, Imposium, Opposium

I have always had mixed feelings about the SCAA Symposium. And in my inimitable style, I have had them in absence of any actual experience: I never went to Symposium. It is the 2 day event before the SCAA Exposition that is billed as a meeting of Industry Leaders, and features a stacked bill of various personalities, consultants, a couple scientists, market researchers, financial experts, and interpretive dance. Okay, strike the last one.

In any case, it is an orchestrated series of presentations and panel discussions that comes with a high price tag (over $1k to come), but also high value. I had always thought it drew away from the general show,; it represented a retreat from investing in the quality of the educational discussions at the low-cost weekend event. I might still feel this way, but having just sat through my first day of Symposium, it undoubtedly has great value. And I am not just saying that because I got in free, in exchange for blogging it. There, full disclosure.

The core members of SCAA that plunge their hands into green coffee every day, the roasters, don’t get to poke their heads out of the backroom often enough. Along with the Roaster’s Guild Retreat, Symposium definitely offers a rube like myself who is always absorbed intensely in the issues of my own business to consider the broader picture … how the same issues are affecting everyone else. Even if the discussion isn’t speaking directly to me and my struggles in coffee, the benefit of Symposium can be experience tangentially. Just allowing myself to absorb the information, let it wash over me, and consider how I address whatever the speaker’s topic may be, has a certain distinct value.

We have had a lot of alternative names for Symposium, and I think some of them are pretty expressive. To a yokel like me, much of the lingo sounds like somebody went and got themselves one too many MBAs. And the results can be a bit comical too. “Where are the hotspots in your supply chain?” Or “How can we blow apart our assumptions, and make money in a whole new way?” Sounds like revolution-talk to me.

But when do you get to hear multiple perspectives on what is driving instability in the commodity market from people who focus entirely on that? How about some solid criticism of romantic notions about coffee varietals and cultivation from people with 40 years experience in a producing country? How can that not be enriching? When I consider my paltry experience with market watching, hedging coffee contracts, or on the other hand, a week or two in a producing country trying to understand all the complexities of quality and production, can that meager experience not benefit from listening to the folks on stage? Hell yeah.

So that’s part of Symposium, seeing the value in listening to other perspectives, whether you agree or not, whether you think they are relevant to your daily experience in coffee or not. We all know coffee is incredibly complicated. We all know we can’t “do it all” nor can we “know it all”. Coming together is a good humble admission of this fact. Plus, people say some hilarious things. -Tom

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Funny or Not, Here I Come…

So I made a send-up coffee travel video that was supposed to parody the potential silliness of a coffee travel video, and the responses to it range a wide gamut. I am sure many people get a small chuckle from something in it and move on. A few think it is hilarious, others don’t realize it’s an attempt at humor, and a handful are a bit offended. Because some comments were a little “out there”, a couple downright mean, I actually turned on “moderate comments” for the first time ever, and I culled a few. I kinda regret that now, because the responses are far more interesting than the video. So let me earnestly respond to this, because I think the points it raises are interesting.

The fact that coffee buyers travel at all has recently been examined in posts by Kevin Knox and Ken Davids. Aleco Chigounis wrote a great little piece a while back on the same topic. Wish I could find the link to it.  Kevin in particular has raised some points I feel are sentient, that traveling to origin and doing a direct trade deal is not any guarantee of getting the best coffee. It’s dead on true, but its also mildly annoying to me personally because here I am spending a wad of money, precious time (away from Maria and Ben and my important tasks in the cupping lab, not to mention missing possibly good surfing days at OB!) to make sure each trip is relevant, and absolutely does result in better coffee than I can get by trolling the brokers list. And the last thing I want is to ruin my good carbon-neutral standing. LOL.

But there is something potentially ridiculous about this kind of trip; if you take some of what I do and nudge it a few degrees further, becomes laughable. I thought I would just have a little fun with that, because when viewed form a certain angle, the way I (and other buyers/companies) represent what we do is silly. We go to a place for 3 or 5 or 10 days and pretend we know it? We take pictures of coffee cherry in 1:1 Macro, and that means we know more about coffee? We know the name of the farmer, his wife and kids and his dog, so we understand them? Really? An intern spending a summer in the area might find some humor observing this. A doctoral Anthro candidate living in the area for 16 months would chuckle, and probably an NGO worker who has been worked in the zone for 12 years would guffaw. So what does the farmer who has spent a lifetime there think to witnesses our hit-and-run wisdom?

After all, I come to a place to buy coffee, and if I make videos and photographs to use on our site, isn’t there the possibility that I am just hawking something with these materials, that it is all part of a shtick? Pushed to the levels I attempt to make humorous (I say attempt) in the video, whats the difference between this and Cal Worthington and his Dog Spot?

So the earnest criticisms and parodies of coffee buyers do land some deserved punches, and I think there is good reason to assume the position of the skeptic, and have a dialogue about the logic of coffee buyer travel. Is it to create Direct Trade marketing? To seem more authentic on a web site? To sell a product with more flair? Or is it to understand the source of a product you sell, to get access to a good reliable coffee source. Are these things all intertwined in a way, the noble aims and the not-so-noble benefits of the coffee trip?

In fact, my experience is that the way different buyers travel, what they achieve, the visual materials and stories they come back with, the way the represent themselves and what they do … there is really quite a range of players out there in both style and substance. (And style and substance seem not unrelated). I have traveled with people that are incredibly focused and skilled, who understand the hard job at hand, and who know how to have the difficult conversations with coffee producers that ultimately form the basis for a mutually beneficial business relationship. I travel with others who are “coffee tourists” (we all are a little bit, I would say), who just want pictures of red cherry,  video of themselves with the locals, or just to drink a lotta beer and whoop it up. Fine, but that get’s old really fast. And it’s a big waste of money, time and a very finite amount of energy I possess. Frankly, it’s the reason I usually travel with one or two people I know well, or alone.

Let me say that I absolutely DO try to amuse myself and others when I travel, usually as a way to bear with my jetlag, and the anxiety of being in a new place and missing home. And I do find humor in what I do. But when it comes down to it, I am there to use any observational and intellectual ability I have to make those 3 days, 5 days or 10 days the most meaningful, most informative, and most valuable in terms of sourcing better coffee. I am amazed at the courage some other travelers have, the stories they spin, but I don’t feel like some hero out there, some Indiana Jones pushing through the jungle, all alone (or pretending to be), on a quest, and in the typical Hollywood denouement, “winning” by slinging a sack of fine coffee over my back and coming home.

No, it’s frustrating to deal with language barriers, I am anxiety-ridden to take on the huge risks of a more direct purchase, it’s exhausting to have so little time and try to do so much, and it’s a big bummer to lose so much sleep. Oh, and and I hate missing good surf in OB.

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Theft: Side Effect of High Coffee Prices

I had sent this tweet last night: “Stolen: Container of coffee. Where: Guatemala. Contents: Sweet Maria’s and Stumptown coffees. Description: Big metal box. Call me if found.” It was not a joke… We lost 98 bags of coffee (Pulcal – Hacienda Carmona) that was en route from Antigua to the port, just over an hour away. I don’t know the details yet, if the truck was stopped by thieves, or if anyone was hurt. It might have been the driver was paid off, and simply drove away with it. It is no wonder. With the current prices for even low grade coffees, a container of our coffee that is about $150,000 of contents, can be taken somewhere, blended and re-bagged, and sold for $100,000. That is a lot of money in Guatemala, as anywhere. In the past, the low prices made this impractical, but now it makes perfect sense. Trucks have been traveling to port in convoy, with security in front and back to prevent this, but something went wrong in this case. I am sure insurance will pay eventually (and the container might be found yet, perhaps for a “fee”). It’s just that great Pulcal coffee is lost for now.

It’s the second theft that has directly impacted us. About 6 weeks ago a Pacamara lot from El Salvador that we had contracted was stolen, not bags of coffee, but it was stolen from the trees! A crew of thieves came to the farm in the morning, locked up the manager, told the farm employees to go away (if they knew what was good for them), and proceeded to strip pick the coffee off the trees. Sounds odd to steal like this when it requires so much labor, but it is happening all over Central America this year with the prices so high. Normally they come in to the farm at night and pick, which is sad because they damage the trees, pick recklessly, and the result is a big income loss for the farm. Owners have had to hire security to combat the thieves, which has driven up their costs dramatically as well.

Who would have guessed that such a fortuitous situation for coffee farmers and all who work in coffee, an income bonanza, would result in more insecurity. I have heard of vigilante responses to the thieving. Two men who tried to steal a loaded coffee truck in Huehuetenango were supposedly lynched by the community!

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Central America Coffees and the New Crop

I was just asked about our current selection of Central America being slim. We are actually adding a Guatemala  and a Mexico coffee late this week, but it is too early for many new crop Centrals still. We had a fantastic delivery of Costa Rica coffees, but we are still a month away from the bulk of the microlot arrivals.

A few general comments on SM and our coffees. We sell through many of our lots rapidly and it’s really important to us that the green coffee is new crop. All our Centrals now are new crop. Arrival dates are posted on every review! This is critical, because if we had a Central from 2010 crop now, even stored in Vac Pack or the special Grain Pro bags we use, chances are the flavor profile and cupping score we originally assigned to it would no longer apply; the coffee would be faded in flavor. We know that home roasters buy green coffee to store for some time before using. And I try to take that into account on all the coffees we review and ship.

Arrival_Date
Look ... it's the arrival date from an SM coffee review.

Freshness and seasonality are not terms you can apply to coffee in the same sense as produce like peaches and avocado! And yet they are not irrelevant to coffee either. After all, it’s not like stocking soda pop on a shelf; it doesn’t last forever, and when it’s gone we can’t just go make some more.

As a side note, I have been asked about Sumatras and their mysterious absence on our list right now. There has been a lack of cup quality on the arrival samples I have cupped lately, so we have pulled it from the list. We have a shipment leaving Medan within a couple weeks, so that is still about 6 weeks from arrival. But we should have a nice wet-hulled Sumatra before then, based on some recent samples I have been cupping here.  -Tom

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A French Press Moment

Uganda - Mathias, President of the coffee coop, and Soloman, the crazy driver.

Who would have imagined five years ago that a coffee wonk who announced proudly “I make coffee in a French Press!” (or perhaps even more so, a “Cafetiere” or “Melior”) would be so unfashionable these days. With SF coffeehouses all switching en masse from French Press brewing to pour-over techniques, who would think the method you use for making a good cup of coffee would be so trendy? Maybe next  you will need to consider whether your apparel matches your brewer.

I have always had some reservations about the french press; namely, it can be tough to get the right grind to avoid the gritty “fines” in the cup, and the long steep times generally means you see a steep temperature drop while brewing. The fact that cafes would brew in French Press and then dump into a big commercial Pump Pot (that draws coffee from the bottom, where the sediment accumulates) always seemed ill-conceived.

But the fact is, French Press didn’t suddenly become a bad way to brew coffee, and it’s still the method that guarantees “full immersion,” a complete 4 minutes, or 6 minutes, or whatever, of coffee soaking in water. The problem there is temperature drop; you don’t get full flavor extraction if the brew is too cool.  You can pre-heat your press with hot water as a small measure. You can wrap the press in a towel. A few even come with a jacket. Better yet, you can use an insulated French press. These come in both all stainless, which are beautiful and unbreakable, but you can’t see the brew. You can also opt for a glass double-wall French press, more spendy than the single wall, and definitely breakable, but it turns out great results but I wouldn’t count on either of these to keep your coffee hot. If you like coffee hot, I say, drink fast.

I think the best results in a press can be with longer steep times and slightly coarser grinds. It takes some experimentation, but I have achieved the best extraction levels at 6 minutes in an insulated press. To deal with fines and avoid grit in the cup, I plunge slowly, then wait an additional 3 minutes and pour cups slowly and gently. That extra 3 minute wait allows particles suspended in the brew to settle out. The bottom third of the press is going to always be a little nasty. Just make sure the person who creams their coffee gets it.

-Tom

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Drinking vs. Tasting

I come back to this thought very often, the difference between tasting or cupping coffee and drinking it.  I spend most of my time cupping, really thinking about what I am tasting, holding the coffee in my mouth and thinking about what makes it unique.  Sometimes, rarely, I just drink it. That is probably the opposite of what most folks do!  I thought I would post a link to this You Tube video again – Drinking Coffee vs. Tasting Coffee I made and posted that video over a year ago – but it is a crucial point that I think of over and over again. -  Tom

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Small Quality-Obsessed Coffee Roasters On the Rise!

Totally Unrelated to Anything. Captain Scarlet.

Totally Unrelated to Anything. Captain Scarlet.What coffee would the Mysterons drink?

Yawn. Double Yawn. I feel like it’s groundhog day, except this never-ending story is about exciting and fresh-faced coffee roasters who are obsessed with quality and decide to open up shop in NYC, or SF, or some other glamorous place. Never Kokomo, Indiana or Dayton, Ohio. Search “coffee” on the New York Times web site and read the same story, rewritten, over and over. It’s the basic premise of “God in a Cup” the gawd-awful book about personality-driven business. Without any substantial information about coffee itself, these stories are just a new type of consumer fetishism, but instead of being on the scale of the grand corporation they are the “humble neighborhood small-batch roaster” makes good and grows, but darn if  they don’t do  it in their own anachronistic quality-driven way. No matter how you wrap it, it’s a story about conspicuous consumption, about “where do you get yours?” as if it is a triumph of personal character to know which is the best shop to walk into and ask for coffee. If we substitute “coffee” for “perfume” or “Rolex” or typical, highly fetishized luxury goods, does it take on a new aire? And yet it is the same conversation, but with coffee brands. I am only peeved because each time I see a coffee headline, I hope that it contains some small bit of good information, planting some seed in consumer consciousness to change the way they think about coffee a bit. But I fear what we get, repeatedly in the cast of the NYT, is a basic shopping guide for those who want to be “in the know”. Unfortunately, they miss that coffee itself is more interesting than the business about business, even if you dress it up in trendy fashion. That’s too bad, I think. The odd thing is that these are some really good roasters too, offering good coffee. The roasters they reference and others are worth writing real coffee stories about. Not fluff. -Tom

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Gesha – is it all that?

I cupped the auction samples for the Tuesday auction of Panama Esmeralda Especial, their Gesha (or Geisha as everyone else writes it) lot selections. I guess being the most celebrated coffee of a celebrated cultivar has its downside, and it’s easy to take shots at Esmeralda Gesha when it isn’t anything but a 95+ point coffee. But the lots this year showed the full range of qualities, which oddly ended up ranked in order from lot 1 to 7 as they are in the auction. 1-4 lots are solid coffees, 5-7 are second tier… well, 7 is maybe even third tier Gesha with muddled character. But it begs the question; how good is great Gesha and how good is average, lower-grown Gesha. It’s a question that came up often at the Best of Panama competition (see my video listed below). Do we compare Gesha only to itself, where the lower grown lots suffer in scores, or globally to all other coffees, where even the lower grown lots score well, be they a bit murky and ill-defined in cup character? Should we compare them to fine washed Ethiopia coffees, which bear some resemblance in terms of flavor (jasmine, berry, bergamont, light body, etc)? And this leads to the question of how to price Gesha. Is it 3x better than a great Yirgacheffe, and therefore deserving triple the price? How should a mediocre Gesha be priced, when it is still a very interesting cup … and doesn’t that price encourage everyone to plant this type, even when they have no hope of growing great Gesha? And how will it be priced in the future when everybody and their uncle grows it? (They already do – wait a couple years for all this Gesha to come into production!) Did anyone else see the NY Times article about the P’ur Tea price bubble in China and think not a little about the Gesha bubble? All I can say is that the 95+ point Gesha of last year does not exist, I believe, in the small harvest of this crop. Sure, the Esmeralda is great, but is it like the #2 lot in last years auction, or the #3 peaberry? Wasn’t the #6 lot we offered at around $10 last season still a really nice cup, be it not the best Gesha ever? It gives me pause, since I am sitting here at home on the weekend trying to brew the #1 lot in the Tuesday auction, trying to get a great result in Vacuum pot, Aeropress, Pour-over, and … well… it’s a nice coffee, but not the 93.5 I gave it in my cupping room Friday. So it’s not just about asking whether the marketplace should encourage this, should pay this, should endorse it. I am asking myself how I should behave as well, and what best serves our customers. I don’t want to be part of any bubble, to wake up some morning and regret being involved in hype. I am not saying the Gesha phenomenon is that, but it’s a good question that I need to ask myself, and I hope others do as well… I also think about phenomenal Kenya arrivals this week, which are just the tipof the iceberg. Kenya has a big crop and great qualities. We bought heavily, and at high prices. But “high” means coffees we will be offering at $6 or perhaps up to $7 per pound. And we still are offering vac-packed Esmeralda Gesha #2 from the last harvest at $125 per pound! That’s what’s on my mind this fine Saturday …

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