Archive for the ‘sad’ Category

Yay for us!

Twice in the past two weeks, we have been “honored” with small business “awards”.

One was for having an excellent blog.  Among the “Top 30” coffee blogs, in fact, according to the award givers.  I mean, wow, I do work hard at the blog, but knock me over with a feather, right?

Not so fast.  In order to “claim” my award, I needed to agree to a link exchange, i.e., I post a link to their site on mine, in exchange for… what, exactly?  Maybe a link from their site?  A well written survey of all the coffee blogs out there?  No, not so much.  Turns out their site is basically just “Pimp my MBA Program”, an extraordinarily shallow promotion of MBA programs around the world.  Their site doesn’t even mention coffee.  Or blogs.  And if I didn’t agree to a link exchange within a short period of time, well, they were going to have to give my award to somebody else.  Somebody who also had the #8 coffee blog, apparently.  Man, I haven’t felt that deflated since my kids gave me the “#1 Dad” hat and I realized somebody else had one just like it.

Then yesterday, we learned that we had also been recognized with a prestigious customer service award.  Yeah man.  We do work hard at customer service.  All we had to do to claim our award was to purchase a small plaque.  For $195.  Plus $18 shipping.  Seriously?

First of all, shame on these idiots.  This is really the most productive use of your time – cooking up bogus “awards” to sell to small businesses desperate enough to decorate their walls with worthless business bling?  When your momma asks you what you do for a living, this is what you want to tell her?  “Gee, Momma, I make up phony awards to sell to fools that think they can trick people into believing they do a good job and lots of folks like them.”  Yeah, that’ll make her proud.

And shame on any business that propagates this sham.  Next time you see a small business displaying a seemingly prestigious “award”, maybe you should ask what they did to earn it.  And whether it came without strings attached.

As for us, we’ll just keep on blogging, and serving customers.  Because our award is the feedback we get from you.  Thanks, and keep it coming!


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The first two years of our business, I followed local coffee pricing pretty closely*.  I monitored local groceries every couple months, noting changes in pricing and availability.  This past summer, life started getting pretty crazy, and my last price check-in was in July 2009.  Given that we do all our food shopping in farmer’s markets, that was probably the last time I was in a grocery store.

Until yesterday.

My first reaction upon returning to the grocery store was to be glad I’m not in the ice cream business –  Breyers blowout in progress, but 2, get 3 free.  Man, that’s some tough competition.

My second reaction was, “What happened to all the coffee?”.  It was immediately evident that there was a much smaller selection than I saw in July.  Consulting my spreadsheet later, the numbers revealed that there was fully 33% smaller brand selection than in July 2009, and the brands that remained were large, national brands.  I’ve never tracked the SKU level, but my sense as that even within the remaining brands, the number of individual SKUs was reduced (essentially, there was just less shelf space devoted to premium coffee).  Bottom line, if you buy coffee at the grocery store, you have a lot less choice than you did just nine months ago, and you will be selecting from major national brands.  This isn’t entirely surprising, except that exactly the opposite has occurred in the beer aisle. Given there are just about 500 craft brewers in the US, and 1600 craft roasters, this is a little counter-intuitive.  My best guess is that structural aspects are driving the difference, e..g, beer has a better distribution network, and the profitability to retailers is higher.  But that’s just a guess.  Maybe people just like beer more – some days, I do.

The final unpleasant surprise came when I entered the prices into my spreadsheet.  In the past nine months, the average price of coffee has increased 3.7%.  This, in a period where the inflation rate was 1.06%.  The average price of premium coffee when I calculated it last night was $13.91 per pound, up from $13.44 per pound on July 27, 2009.

Interestingly, in July there was only one 16 oz. put-up.  Now there are none available in the grocery.  Most of the put-ups are 12 oz., a couple are 10 oz, and one is 11 oz.  This smacks of the incident with propane sellers about a year ago, where tank exchange companies quietly decreased the fill weight of tanks while keeping price constant.  It seems that coffee sellers are using the same cleverness to hide the fact that small increases in package price translate into large changes in the per pound price.

Now, you may think I’m going to argue that coffee prices are too high.  Well, I’m not about to argue that; in fact, I think coffee is still too much of a bargain, as are many food items in the United States.  Read the book Cheap to get some perspective on food prices.

But I am going to argue that if you buy premium coffee in the grocery store, you should be buying from us instead.  You like variety?  You like fresh?  You like local?  You like a good deal?  Our coffee averages in the low 12’s per pound.  We have about three dozen SKUs to choose from.  We roast fresh weekly.  We roast date the packages.  We can tell you about the pedigrees of the coffees we buy.  We are a local bricks-and-mortar merchant and tax-paying member of the community.  The only thing we’re not is as convenient as a grocery store.  So what’s the problem?  Why are you still buying coffee in the grocery store?

Break the habit of buying bad, stale coffee from the grocery store.  Come visit us and let us show you a real value.


*Comment on methodology: I follow coffee prices in a few “mid-range” groceries in my area, e.g., Harris Teeter, Lowes.  I look at coffees I think of as “premium”, that is, comparable to what we sell – coffees like Peets, Starbucks, Green Mountain, and a few local roasters.  I do NOT include what I think of as commodity coffees, e.g., Dunkin Donuts, Folgers, etc.

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Last week, a friend of mine gave me a bag of Starbucks Anniversary Blend.  She had won it in a raffle of some sort, and is not a coffee drinker.  She knows I enjoy trying all types of coffee, from all types of places, so her gift was much appreciated.

Those of you who know me know that I, unlike many other coffee people, don’t hate Starbucks.  In fact, I admire them.  Say what you will, but their hard work has built a market for the rest of us.  If you follow my blog, you know I have actually had more things positive than negative things to say about them, such as this post when they launched the Pike Place Blend, and this one about the new Via instant coffee.  Yes, that’s right, I gave an instant coffee a “doesn’t suck” rating.

So I think it’s safe to assume that when I post an unfavorable review of a Starbucks product, you can rest assured that it’s actually… bad.

Such is the case with their Anniversary Blend.

Starbucks has developed a reputation for over-roasting coffee.  Their nickname – Charbucks – speaks to this.  I’ve been saying for at least a couple years now that I thought they had gotten beyond that phase; coffees like Pike Place are actually pleasant.

But this one…. this one is burnt.  There’s just no way around it.  This is darker than my French roast.  The first reaction as I poured it out of the bag was, holy heat, Batman, somebody really leaned into the throttle on this one.  Burnt beans are brittle, and as expected, the contents were full of broken bits.  The pock marks from 2nd crack + explosions were abundant on the whole beans.

And the taste… well, burnt.  And flat as a board.  A whole lotta charcoal flavor, and not much else.  My typical coffee descriptions are effusive, starting with initial impressions and progressing through the cooling cup, identifying as specifically as possible every fruit, floral and other nuance I can nail down.  My cupping notes on this one are telling… the only words written are “burnt” and “flat”.  It wouldn’t be fair to the origins and the farmers to judge a coffee as badly mistreated by a roaster as this one obviously was, so there were no more notes, and no score.

They should be ashamed to promote this coffee.  I’d avoid it at all costs – the rest of mine has been composted.


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One year ago, President Obama came to office in the US with a wave of enthusiasm. Yes We Can was the mantra. Yes We Can to all kinds of things. Yes We Can end war. Yes We Can fix healthcare. Yes We Can promote equality. Yes We Can address climate change. Regardless of how you may feel on any of these topics, it’s the last point I want to address here. And I’ll give you a prelude to my opinion: the mantra should have been We Don’t Really Care. At a minimum, it’s safe to say, We Haven’t Yet.

This week, I have the opportunity to be penning this missive from Europe. On this trip, I realize that I’ve been coming here quite often, for quite some time now (several times per year, for nearly the past 20 years – it’s safe to say I’ve probably been here 50 or 60 times in the last two decades). The advantage of being in Europe is that one is acutely sensitive to world news here. (To be fair, one reason for that is that world news in the only English-language television or newspaper available, aside from porn.). In addition to Europe, I realize I’ve been exceptionally privileged to have traveled extensively throughout the world. I used to keep track of the statistics – dozens of countries, hundreds of cities (thousands of excellent meals and probably an equal number of dreadful cups of coffee), but honestly, I’ve lost interest in scorekeeping. For one reason, I have nothing left to prove. But more to the point, everything is becoming the same, everywhere. It is a small world, after all. As one of my graduate engineering professors liked to point out, everything is connected, it’s a matter of how tightly. That extends to you, your coffee, and your future. As well as mine, and everyone else’s.

The news in Europe this week is the Climate Change summit in Copenhagen (show of hands – how many of you even knew it was going on?). The world must act, is the punch line of all the coverage. (Despite all the coverage, it’s not clear to me whether President Obama will be here; presumably he will send representation, at least.) So what does this have to do with your morning cuppa? That’s a fair question. The answer is, hardly anything. And that’s part of the problem. It’s hard to care about small things. But it’s hard to act on big things. The classic Catch-22.

Climate change, driven by man-made carbon emissions, is a multi-faceted problem. The elephant in the room is building heating, cooling and electrification generally, accounting for approximately 50% of emitted carbon by some estimates. Nobody seems interested in addressing this (not easy, or sexy), so we make noise about chipping away at other stuff. Auto emissions, maybe high single digit percentage on the Bad Actors list. Aircraft emissions, 2%. Coffee – the proverbial pimple on the ass of the elephant.

But pretend for a minute that we really do care about chipping away at the small things. Organic. Fair Trade. That’s the answer, right?

Let’s dismiss the obvious. Fair Trade has to do with prices, not the environment, per se. But to some small extent, the ability to make a living wage on a small plot might prevent some slash and burn to plant more coffee (though from a pure carbon perspective, the coffee trees are good, too), so Fair Trade probably has some de minimus positive influence.

Organic? It’s hard to argue that organic practices aren’t better for the environment than conventional agriculture (at least you avoid fixing nitrogen from fossil fuels), so you get some points there. But both of these things, organic and Fair Trade, are pimples on the pimple of the ass of the elephant. It’s been observed that better than half of the carbon emitted due to coffee consumption is due to things that happen after beans leave origin, namely roasting and consumption. (I should observe here that I am very favorably impressed with the Rainforest Alliance and what there certification implies for sustainability. They are really about much more than rainforests, and my opinion is that they have missed an opportunity to reach American consumers because they are narrowly branded with a topic that most Amercans, frankly, do not really care about. Maybe that can be the topic of a separate post.)

On the consumption side, it’s the disposables that are the big culprit. Want to make a difference? Reusables are the answer, wherever possible. Bring your own cup, in other words. But packaging is an opportunity, too. At Muddy Dog Roasting Company, we package all our coffees in biodegradable, compostable bags. How do I know they are compostable, aside from the claim printed on the bag? I compost them myself. Three months in my Earth Machine and there is no sign of coffee bags, just rich fertilizer. Buy one from us and try it, I dare you. To our knowledge, we are the only company in the southeast using this particular compostable bag, and one of the few in the nation using any type of environmentally friendly packaging.

So what about roasting? Well, in most cases, this is an activity that has not technologically changed in a hundred years or more. Essentially, most coffee roasters (machines) operate by continuously heating room air, and blowing that hot air out the ceiling in almost instantly. This activity requires a prodigious amount of fuel. Say what you want about natural gas being better than other forms of fossil fuel, burning less of it is better than burning more of it. At Muddy Dog Roasting Company, we partnered with US Roaster Corp to help develop a new type of eco-friendly roasting machine, one that oxidizes smoke and recirculates heat. We use 94% less energy than conventional roasters. We can roast coffee in North Carolina and ship it anywhere in the US with less total emitted carbon, from roasting PLUS shipping, than the same coffee roasted on site with a conventional system. We are one of only a few of these systems installed in the world. You would think that people would care about these kinds of improvements. To be fair, most people, when they learn of our environmental leadership activities, are favorably inclined (the rest don’t care, and they say so). But it’s also fair to say that they were going to buy from us anyway, regardless. They buy from us because we’re local, they like us, and in some cases, it’s convenient. And we sell excellent products. By and large, they don’t make environmental responsibility part of their purchase criteria.

And therein lies the opportunity.

All else being equal, selecting the organic, Fair Trade, locally roasted option is usually the best course of action. And nine times out of 10, when you ask the right questions, you’re going to find that your options are roughly equivalent in terms of roasting and packaging technology. Same circus, different clowns, as it were. But occasionally, when you peel the onion, and ask the right questions, there is something new. Something different. Something better. When you find them, select them. And make a difference.

Yes We Can.  Change We Can Believe In.  CHOPE.  Call it however you like it, just DO something.


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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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Somebody is going to have to explain this one to me.

The Old Jalopy, our 1997 GMC 1500 4WD.  We use this truck exclusively for the business now.

The "Old Jalopy", our 1997 GMC 1500 4WD. We use this truck exclusively for the business now. The government says shes gets 12 MPG. Seems about right.

On Friday, I finally started thinking that maybe I should take advantage of this Cash for Clunkers thing.  Usually I stand on principle with this type of thing, and let my pride get in the way of me getting what other people will jump at.  I’ve thought and said that I think this clunker program is fiscal malfeasance at its finest.  But I’ve paid enough taxes over my working life.  Isn’t it about time I get something back for a change?  What the hell, people are getting $3500 and $4500 left and right, and I’ve paid for it whether I get any or not.  Almost seems like it’s my patriotic duty, to hear the media tell it.  And, I figured it could do my business some good.  Debbie has been regularly complaining about our company truck, which she affectionately calls “the Old Jalopy”.  Admittedly, the girl has seen better days (the Old Jalopy, not Debbie).

Being a guy that has always loved cars, I’m always thinking about which one might come next, so I knew exactly the call to make.  I have been eyeing up the Dodge Sprinter diesel for over a year now, and figured that would be the next business truck.  A nice Sprinter rings in at about $48,000 – while it’s not cheap, I consider it to be a prudent capital investment in my business, as the asset will have a useful life exceeding 10 years, probably closer to 15 years.  So on a per year basis, it’s actually not bad.  So I called my friendly, neighborhood Dodge dealer.  I figured this should be an easy conversation – the fuel economy of the Sprinter is 20.2 MPG.  As I called on my way home in the evening, I was thinking about having Debbie meet me at the dealership that evening to pick color and equipment, then maybe get some dinner.  I was certain I was going to be driving it home that night.

Heres the truck I want.  Great economy for its size.  And I like the red one.  It would be perfect for our growing small business.

Here's the truck I want. Great economy for its size. And I like the red one. It would be perfect for our growing small business.

So imagine my surprise when the sales guy tells me, “sorry sir, this trade doesn’t qualify”.   “Are you telling me my Old Jalopy isn’t a clunker?”, I ask.  “Not on this trade it’s not”, he replied.

But there was good news, I was told!  I could trade my truck for another truck.  Not one that would do me any good for my business, mind you.  But I could get a brand, spankin’ new Chevy Colorado Crew Cab 4WD.  Nice truck, to be sure.  And check out the deal – with my clunker credit, rebates, etc., I could leave the dealership for about $18,000, I was told.

Heres the deal I was offered.  Chevy Colorado.  Nice truck.  Too bad its absolutely USELESS to me.  And the feule economy is WORSE than the Sprinter I wanted.

Here's the deal I was offered. Chevy Colorado. Nice truck. Too bad it's absolutely USELESS to me. And the fuel economy is WORSE than the Sprinter I wanted.

Yeah.  Too bad that truck does me NO GOOD WHATSOEVER.  It will not haul inventory and equipment in the quantities we need.  It will not have nearly the longevity of the Sprinter.  And it’s not as economical, especially if it were to be used as a work truck.  Anyone who actually USES a truck for work will tell you that light trucks don’t stand up to the demands of commercial use, and their mileage plummets when you put 2000 lbs in the back of them.

As I shook my head in amazement, it occurred to me that maybe, somehow, I had misunderstood the stated goal of the Clunker, er, CARS, program.  So I read the Rule, 49 CFR Parts 512 and 599, NHTSA Docket 2009-120.  Right from the rule, here’s what they say about the program: “The program helps consumers pay for a new, more fuel efficient car or truck from a participating dealer when they trade in a less fuel efficient car or truck.”  And the threshold for “more efficient” has been set at 5 MPG.  That all seems pretty straightforward to me.

So let’s see if I have this straight:

  • I have a 12 year old SUV that gets 12 MPG
  • I want to buy a $48,000 truck that gets 20.2 MPG.  I would buy it today with the $4500 incentive.
  • The truck I want doesn’t qualify.  And no truck I can use qualifies, actually (I skipped that part of the story.  The short version is that when I had resigned myself to the fact the Sprinter wasn’t going to qualify, I started asking about 1/2 ton cargo vans with 6 cylinder engines. No “Category 2” truck is eligible, I found out.)
  • They do want to sell me a truck however.  I can walk away with one that gets 17 MPG (3.2 MPG less than the truck I want), and I can’t use, for $18,000.  The dealer will get $4500 for the trade from the government.

Is it just me, or is this insane?

I am now firmly convinced that this is just another welfare program.  The reason I don’t qualify is that I will make the required investments anyway.  There is no need to help small business owners.  When we need a new truck, we’ll buy one.  But it would have been nice to be able to have my tax dollars work for me.

So this is CHANGE, huh?  Looks like the same old stupidity to me.  And this from the same people who want to fix health care?  If they can’t do something simple well, can you imagine what a clusterf*ck something complicated will be?  I am certain we will all be wishing for the “good old days” of Blue Cross Blue Shield.


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We just stocked out of Yemen Mocha.  Than means no more Mocha Java, either.  I’m pretty much stocked out of Java, too.

Believe it or not, both of these origins, in high-quality versions anyway, are hard to come by.  Part of the problem is simply availability, part is logistics for me.  Anyway, the bottom line is that I miss them as much as you do, so I’ll be working hard to source some more.

We’ll keep you posted.


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