Archive for the ‘cupping’ Category

#10.  Stop Drinking Coffee as a Water Substitute.

Much as we want to sell coffee, it’s not the right beverage for every occasion.  If you’re thirsty, drink water.  If you’re at a pub in London, hoist a pint.   If you’re having dinner at a fine restaurant, have a glass of wine.  Every beverage has its time and place to be savored.  When you want to relax with a warm beverage, or a little pick-me-up, drink coffee.  Savor it.  Enjoy it.  Look forward to it next time, in between water, wine, beer or other beverages.

#9.  Lose the Condiments

We spend a lot of time watching people prepare their coffee.  Most people (90%+ by our observation) don’t even sip their coffee without adulterating it with cream and sugar.  To drink better coffee, you must be able to taste it.  Commit to drinking your coffee black for a month as a first step on your journey to great coffee.

#8.  Be an active, not a passive taster.

Most of us eat every day.  Some things we like.  Some things we don’t.  When asked why they prefer one thing to another, many people are challenged to describe exactly how something tastes.  Taste, don’t chug, and THINK about what you’re tasting.  Chocolate?  Fruit?  Flowers?  Wood (not so silly – think about chewing on a toothpick)?  Cardboard?  Seriously.  THINK about it while you taste.

#7.  Choose Your Cup.

Different beverages are served in different containers because they make sense.  Wine glasses are shaped to allow your nose to capture the bouquet and have a stem to prevent warming the beverage with your hands.  Shot glasses make sense for whiskey because a larger portion is just too much.  Coffee, on the other hand, is served in all kinds of  containers.  Paper.  Foam.  Stainless steel.  Thermal. Ceramic.  The list goes on…  Find your favored serving container and stick with it.  For regular coffees, it’s hard to beat a pre-warmed ceramic cup about 5 or 6 ounces in size, preferably one that tapers down slightly at the top.  The shape allows you to capture the nose of the coffee.  It is a good size to allow you to savor the beverage through various stages of cooling.  It feels good on the hands.  If you must go disposable, opt for paper – foam imparts off flavors to the beverage.

#6.  Just Say No to Swill.

When you taste obviously bad coffee, stop drinking it.  Period.  Yes, toss it (after cooling) on one of the office plants.  Complain to the server, in the long run you’re doing them a favor.

#5.  Buy a Grinder

The single best investment you can make in equipment is a decent grinder.  Buy yourself a good burr mill and toss the old $20 blade grinder.  You can buy a decent burr mill from us for $100.  I don’t even want to hear that you think that’s expensive.  For the pleasure and longevity it will deliver, it’s a bargain.

#4.  Buy a French Press

The second best investment you can make in equipment is a nice press pot.  Simple, inexpensive, easy to use and infinitely controllable.  Bodum makes the best workaday press on the market; stick with the classic Chambord model.  And never buy a press smaller than 0.5 liter – making coffee is a non-linear process, and it’s hard to get a really good result with a single cup press.  Save the extra coffee if you must and use for iced coffee.

#3.  Find a Great Local Roaster.

When you go to a great restaurant, you place your trust in a professional sommelier, right (even if it’s just to have gather the selection in the cellar)?  A great local roaster will be knowledgeable about  seasons, origins, processing, roasting and more.  They will enable you to experience the world of coffee in ways you never knew possible.  Obviously, we think we fill the bill for central Carolina people.  Regardless, find a good local roaster and develop a relationship – it’s symbiotic, and fun.

#2.  Be Adventurous.

Don’t stay in your same old rut.  Try new origins.  New prep methods.  Taste things you think you’ll hate, and taste them roasted and prepared several different ways.  Never stop exploring.

#1.  Buy the Best Beans.

Think about the difference between a fish taco from a street vendor in Mexico, and Coq Au Vin from a French bistro in Paris.  They are completely different, yet both may be the best example of that particular thing that exists.  Best doesn’t necessarily mean most expensive.  It means beans with a known pedigree, selected with purpose, that are freshly roasted (within 2 weeks).   We hope you’ll consider buying from us.


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Starbucks is the company that coffee people love to hate.  They’re an easy target, after all, our favorite whipping boy.

That’s why it surprises people when I tell them I don’t hate Starbucks; in fact, I owe them a debt of gratitude for doing the market development that enables our business.  They’re not my favorite, either.  But when I’m away from home, with no other alternative, I’ll drink an SBUX beverage.  Sometimes I actually enjoy them, like when I can get the Pike Place Blend at the flagship store in Seattle.  Other times, it’s good enough in a pinch.  Not their espresso, that’s never good enough, but their brewed coffee.  And I will even acknowledge the elephant in the room – while I am a strong supporter of independent coffee shops, they are all too frequently not nearly good enough and deserve to lose to the big green mermaid.

I hope I come across as I see myself – not a Starbucks hater, not a Starbucks lover, but someone who respects what they’ve done and the reality the operate under, and someone who acknowledges that for what they are (a big, multi-national corporation), they do a reasonably good job, frequently better than the independents who should be much, much better.

Single serving packet of Via.  Its a plastic pouch tube about 3 inches long with a perforated tear near the top.

Single serving packet of Via. It's a plastic pouch "tube" about 3 inches long with a perforated tear near the top.

But instant coffee?

I was surprised when Via, their new instant coffee, was announced.  Seems like a strange strategy for a “premium” coffee company.  But the reality is that Starbucks is a mass market company, trying to be at the high end of the mass market.  And after thinking about how much our own customers value convenience, I realized that if they have a decent product, it’s a brilliant strategy.  So I’ve been wanting to try Via, and this turned out to be my lucky week when somebody gave me a serving.

My first reaction was a kind of pleasant surprise about the package itself.  Overall, the form factor is quite attractive: a 2-3 inch long plastic tube, kind of like a sugar stick.  Easy to carry with you (my road coffee strategy may be forever altered).  I’m no fan of plastic, but I have to admit it makes sense in this application.  The other thing about the package is that it specifies two details I never thought I’d see on instant coffee: an origin (Colombia, in the case of my sample), and an expiration date.  An expiration date!  All in all, this package gives the impression they actually care about the quality of the coffee.  I did find a little irony in the expiration dating, however.  While SBUX does not stamp their bean coffee with a roast on date, they do put an expiration date on it, and the conventional wisdom is that the product has one year dating (which, of course, is at least 10 months too much, but that’s another topic).  Well, my tube of Via had an expiration date of 25 July 2010, so it’s not a stretch to think it was made in July 2009 and has the same dating as their bean coffee.

Each tube carries an expiration date.  Pardon the poor image quality from my cell phone camera.

Each tube carries an expiration date. Pardon the poor image quality from my cell phone camera.

I think we’ve established that the package itself is reasonably well done.  The proof, of course, is in the beverage.  Here’s where I made a couple tactical errors.  The first involved the powder pour.  The Via powder has a strange consistency (relative to other instant coffees) – it doesn’t have good flow properties.  Instead, it’s almost “moist” though I find that hard to imagine.  It tend to flow in clumps, and is subject to static.  The net result of all that is that it wound up sticking to the side of my cup in a rather unsightly way.

Here's the rather unsightly stain left on the side of my cup as result of poor flow properties of the powder. The little boy in me cannot stop chuckling at the scatalogical parallels.

The second error was a failure to follow instructions.  I fully admit I did this on purpose, when I should have listened to the package.  The painfully simple diagram showing how to prepare clearly says to add 8 ounces hot water to one tube of Via.  My rather limited experience with instant coffee, however, is that the instructions result in weak coffee, so I always use slightly less water than instructed – in this case, about six ounces instead of the recommended eight.  The result was, well, strong coffee.  Overly strong.  I suspect that 8 ounces was the right number, but at that point I was already 200 feet from the hot water source and not looking back.  I like strong coffee, but my advice is RTFM and follow the instructions.

All of which leads us to the ultimate question – how did it taste?

My honest answer: not bad.  Recognize that not bad is a different thing than good.  But better than most of the swill prepared from beans in this country.

The flavor profile itself is rather flat.  Somehow this makes sense, as I would expect acidity, along with other nuances, to be a casualty of the drying process.  I would have been hard pressed to identify this coffee as a Colombian, but I’d like to think I would have correctly identified it as being from the Americas, as it did retain enough of its identity to distinguish it from, say, Africa or Indonesia.   I also have to admit that I probably would not have identified it as instant coffee. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought it to be a mediocre but not terrible brewed coffee.  And who knows, if I adulterated my coffee with cream and sugar it may have completely fooled me into thinking it was good.

Certainly this product is good enough for the mass market in the United States. Which is a sad commentary on the mass market in the US, but true nonetheless.  All in all, I suspect Starbucks may have a winner with this product.


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If there is one thing I’m good at, it’s inventory management.  My graduate degree is in a field related to Operations Research, which is essentially the study of industrial efficiency.  My specialization was in mathematical models, which are used to predict demand, calculate safety stocks to avoid backorders, etc.  For many years, things I learned at Lehigh, and later while earning an MBA at Duke, have served me well, and that continued to be the case with our small business.  Until recently, when I’ve engaged in more green coffee buying, and have had occasion to speak with numerous importers and traders.

The dynamics of specialty coffee are interesting.  And difficult, in some ways.  The first thing to realize is that the coffee we buy is not commodity coffee.  Commodities are items that are always available and, recent price volatility nothwithstanding, are predictable or can be hedged.  Think oil, or corn.  The Big Four of coffee – Procter & Gamble, Sara Lee, Nestle, and Kraft – employee armies of people just like me, in fact I was a consultant to one of those companies early in my career.  Specialty coffee, however, is by definition the top of the quality heap.  Certainly the top 5%, maybe the top 3%.  So by definition, in short supply relative to the rest of the crop.  And with specialty coffee becoming a larger trend, there is more competition for that scarce resource.

Another nuance is the business model of the small importer.  While giants have the financial capacity to move large amounts of commodities without having to put up their own cash (or they have the cash), small importers like the ones we buy through stock their shelves the same way I stock mine – with inventory they actually own.  Bought and paid for, then resold.  (And we run a debt-free business, so I’m not about to stock more than I can sell.)  In any climate, this would limit the amount of selection available from a given importer.  But in these unusually turbulent and tight economic times, it’s even worse.  As importers have their credit squeezed, they can buy less coffee.  Which impacts my selection, and thus yours.

Lately, commodity prices have fallen.  Fill your tank recently?  Then you’ve noticed.  Yes, coffee prices have fallen, too, but don’t expect to see much of it flow through.  With commodity prices down, countries are demanding more price differential for the premium product.  And they either won’t sell at a lower price (good for them!), or they’re getting it.  We’re paying it.

Decaffeinated green coffees add another level of complexity, especially if you want organic and/or Fair Trade Certified.  Top quality growers, especially FTO producers, sell all they can grow for all the money.  They don’t need to submit coffees to decaffeination.  Of course, some top quality producers do produce decafs, but they are a minority – another short supply situation.  So when a good FTO decaf becomes available, they sell out quickly.  This means we need to buythem when they are available, from wherever they are available, instead of waiting to include them with a scheduled shipment from a specific importer.  Obviously this is inefficient, especially with respect to freight charges.  But we do it, and this is a big part of the reason why great decafs are more expensive.

Couple all this with unstable demand at the consumer level (let’s face it, you can live without premium coffee – we felt you hold your breath at the end of September as the markets began their free fall), and increased competition among specialty roasters, and it all adds up to more difficulty securing great green coffee at reasonable prices.  And it’s going to get more difficult as this current financial crisis becomes more severe.

You now have a little insight into my world.  But not to worry – we work with the best suppliers in the business, and we are well positioned to buy large enough quanitites of fine green coffees.  We’re placing an order this week that should arrive just before Thanksgiving, and I am very excited to offer our first Rainforest Alliance coffee (my cupping notes contained the words “balsamic vinegar” to describe its sweet, sharp acidity), as well as an excellent Mountain water Process Mexican decaffeinated.  Stay tuned!


WWJD (What Would Jim Drink today?): Wow, this was a cupping weekend, so I’ve been tasting about a half dozen different coffees.  Right now, I’m drinking a Sumatra MWP decaf, which is wonderful, but not wonderful enough to overcome my current inventory position on Sumatra decaf and my immediate need for a Brazil.  One of those economic realities – I need to balance my taste with my forecast and budget.  Earlier today I cupped a Rainforest Alliance El Salvador that made my eyes cross, it was so good.  I’m buying that one!  But until it arrives and I find the sweet spot, then put it on the website, you can keep drinking our organic, Fair Trade Certified El Salvador El Jabali.

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Are you engaged in the eternal search for the God Shot?  Do you think about whether espresso blends should be pre or post-roast blended?  Do you own multiple grinders for different styles of coffee preparation?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be interested to join me as I begin to evaluate a Laranzato espresso machine (I’m contemplating becoming a distributor).  They sent me a single-group pourover to demo.  We will compare it, quite unfairly and in vain, to the Reneka Techno I keep in the shop, which in my opinion is probably the finest single-group ever made but has been (sadly and inexplicably) discontinued by Reneka.

So on Thursday evening, I will roll up my sleeves, get under the hood and pull shots till I can’t stand it anymore.  Or can’t stay awake anymore.  I would seriously welcome other opinions on this machine.  A benefit of participating is that you can take home whatever espresso blends are left over at the end of the night.

Drop me an email if you think you might want to participate, just so I know not to change plans at the last minute, which could happen if I’m on my own.


WWJD (What Would Jim Drink today?): Nope, not the Nayarit.  I was hoping it wouldn’t all sell at the market today.  OK, actually I WAS hoping it would all sell, but I didn’t EXPECT that.  But sell it did – smart customers.  So instead, I’m drinking Thanksgiving Blend.  We sampled it at the market today, to rave reviews.  One recurring comment was “refined”, which I thought is a great way to describe this blend.  Classy.  Like me.

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After a few weeks of tedious IT minutaie, tropical storms, and just general malaise, it’s time to get back to business. It’s business time. You know what that means… that’s right, coffee cupping.

So I’ll be doing some cupping this weekend. Not intense, marathon cupping like last time, but a few new possibilities. I’m particularly looking forward to comparing a natural and washed Ethiopia Sidamo (Sidama?) Guji recommended by my importer… neither of them carry any certifications (organic, fair trade, rainforest, etc), but remember, we’re all about putting cup quality first. I have a feeling I’m going to fall for the natural, despite what George Howell says about them – “just another garden path that will ruin farmers”. George, you may have Demigod status in the world of specialty coffee, but I beg to differ with you on this point. And I have a BUNCH of customers who just groove on anything funky, and we cannot ALL be wrong. So there. (That felt good.)

Anyway, if you would like to cup with me, email me and we’ll nail down a time. I’m thinking late Sunday morning, like 11 or noon.


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