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Here comes the big buying season.  Coffees in Central America are being lovingly pulled from trees and carefully processed as we speak.  Soon we’ll be getting the calls, emails and visits from farmers, brokers and the like, all wanting us to try their samples, make commitments to lubricating their financial wheels so they can keep rolling another year.  Some samples you just don’t have time to roast and cup and take notes on.  Others you semi-desperately wait for.

Obligatory picture of coffee cherries ripening on the tree

El Salvador seems to be finishing early.  I am keen to start getting those early packages of samples from our contacts there.  Some promising things in the works.

We have also decided to make a run at some quality Costas this year.  Costa Rica has been an area that we’ve bought some very decent gap-fillers from in years past.  But I’m interested in The Brown Coffee Company making a more permanent move in that direction.  So we’re in contact there as well.

Also starting to get the early East Africa rumblings.  But we’ll see.

All that to say, this is the time of year we buyers/roasters begin to salivate, Pavlov style.  Here’s to the bell ringing

 

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Up Sleeves

Tongue Fatigue-Inducing

Thinking about improving our game in the area of ColdBrew.  I love the options we currently provide our customers at The Brown Coffee Company.  I feel our interpretation of ColdBrew coffees are interesting, exceptional and well-executed in the cafe.  And I aim to smash that to bits and think it up anew.

Anyone who has been in the cafe over the past six months has met Laura, whose work here at Brown has quickly earned her a reputation as one of the state’s up and coming coffee faces.  She and her husband are not only good coffee friends of Brown (being connected as they are to Madan Estate, with which we have had an ongoing relationship now for going on five seasons), they are thinkers, doers, entrepreneurs.  Like us.

Laura and Dean have hatched a plan to start a cold-brewed bottling company and these past few weeks we have been tasting various recipes of various ages in hopes of identifying some fun and marketable products.  Brown, of course, has been chomping at the bit to be among their first customers.  So has Ursa Major Coffee, for what I think are obvious reasons.  Synergy is a wonderful thing.

I’ll keep you updated on how things progress.  And if you hit us on just the right day when we are doing tasting, you can grab a spoon and join the fun.

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First Kiss

Buying season is upon us.  This is that frenetic time of the year when many diligent roasters act like diligent ants and begin to store up provisions for much of the rest of the year.  I am no exception.

But what this sometimes reminds me of is how many first time visitors to coffee producing countries view and experience the phenomenon of tasting coffees on their home soils.

Cast your mind.  Young buyer (I include myself in that group still) heads off to some Central American country.  Meets a couple farmers; maybe hits up a national coffee association.  And this being harvest time the roaster is invited to cup some of the new crop.  It is sweet, alluring, fresh and alive.  And the roaster is beguiled.  And he wants to sell his soul to acquire this special lot that no one else will have.  And possess it.  And have dominion over it.  And be the envy of all his other roaster friends.

And so forth, ad nauseum.

This is what I call the First Kiss Syndrome.  Everything is set perfectly.  The angels are singing and playing their harps, and it seems like heaven itself is smiling upon the match of you and this perfect creation of a coffee.

And so you make the move.  You purchase the coffee.  And a few weeks later it arrives at your roasting facility.  And you think again at how massive you will be with this coffee by your side.  And you roast up some samples.  And you wait the requisite time to consummate your tastebuds with the coffee.  And the day comes.  And you set up your cupping table the way a bridegroom prepares the bedchamber for his lovely new bride.  And the water is heated.  And the steam of it is rising.  And the anticipation grows to a silent roar.

And you…break the crust.  And….

well, it may have been less than you had built up in your mind.  Frankly, you are now trying to recall exactly what it is you saw in this coffee the first time around.  Maybe you were drunk the first time you came in contact with it.  Or maybe you were just in lurve.

That first kiss can be tricky.

My point is this.  Emotions are serious things to keep in check.  So often I have been guilty of buying as much on emotion as on principle, when the exact opposite should as often be the guiding principle of the day.  Let your customers buy on emotion.  Your job is to sell the steak, but it is also to sell the sizzle.

But first, your job is to buy the right cut of meat, and that is done purely by empirical observation, not with the heart.

Sorry to mix metaphors.

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Being a one-person operation definitely has its advantages.  No boss hovering over you, demanding more productivity.  No huge payroll obligations to meet.  Etcetera.

It also presents some challenges from time to time.  As my business continues to grow on two complimentary but inherently different tracks–the wholesale/mail order side versus the retail cafe side–I find difficulty sometimes keeping pace with what’s happening in the larger world of coffee.  You can call it coffee myopia, or, the business of being in business.

Chasing dollars (yen, euros, pesos, whatever) as a man of commerce is a perfectly legitimate and centuries-honored endeavor.  But I sometimes lament–quickly, that is, because I’m busy, you see–the lack of time I have lately to dive into a lively debate here or a good discussion over there. I simply so often anymore don’t have the time to read and chew and swallow and regurgitate and maybe even add a voice to the chorus.

I can zoom out and recognize what’s going on here:  that I’m working hard to establish the cafe and a more sophisticated coffee culture in a place that has only a well-developed cantina culture (read: margaritas, not macchiatos).  And I know the day will come when things will look a lot different financially for me and my family:  where I won’t feel like we’re still fighting for every dollar and pouring it all right back into the operations of the business.  That time is actually closer than it ever used to be, as we are actually contemplating the steps we need to take to purchase our first home, and can realistically consider making slightly larger necessary purchases (new tires, an actual vacation, a new computer, etc.) without needing to rob Peter to PayPal Paul (if you will). But by and large it’s nose to the grindstone for this period until blue sky breaks through on a much broader, more permanent basis.

This manifests itself in my business activities as well.  Being busy with day to day operations of roasting, bagging, labeling, boxing, shipping and making countless presses, Chemexes, espressos, pourovers, etc., can distract sufficiently from the need to look up and out a bit and forecast, for example, what tasty new coffees are coming on the horizon.  Granted, this is not exactly the busy time for great coffees to be coming online; but the idea is the same.  When you have barely scanned anyone’s offerings list in weeks because you’re too busy trying to get a full 5 hours of sleep while still being able to watch your children grow (and grow up) while wondering still in the back of your mind whether that pain on the left side of your chest is because you moved too many bags of coffee by yourself and you strained muscles or if something in there is damaged and you’re ticking toward calamity…it’s then you know you need to just set the microscope aside for a bit, take a walk around the block and remember that all the work is for a goal.  It isn’t the goal itself.

Better, it’s the process of going through it all that is the goal in itself.  My children will never be these ages again.  Neither will I.  What good will having worked myself to the bone to give them everything they need and a lot of what they want if what they want will have forever changed from the wonderful and simple things we all want as children into the droll, tired and world-familiar things we all want as adults?

No one is quitting.  Brown is not going anywhere.  Not after all this clawing out of the doldrums and poverty I have endured these 4+ years.  If anything, this post is a self-directed post-it sticky note (to you as well) to remember to savor it all along the way and pull off the road every now and again, just to make sure you are not being currented away by the rush to stay current.

Now if you’ll excuse me–a new set of customers just came in, talking about how they heard this was the best coffee in town…

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Anaheim

It’s taken me a while to admit it (to myself) but I will go on to compete in Anaheim in April for the USBC.  At first I didn’t want to consider it.  I was mostly decompressing from my first barista competition, as well as wanting to just enjoy the moment of punching a bit above my weight class in coming within 2 points of actually winning the region.

But now the reality sets in that if I want to have any shot at not embarrassing myself completely on a larger stage I’d better get back to it.  For me it starts with a Lessons Learned exercise.  What worked well?  What fell flat?  What judge’s advice can/should be implemented?  And of course:  what do I want to say via the signature beverage and overall presentation?

I’ve been asked if I will simply overlay my regional performance/sigbev into Anaheim.  Flatly…no.  I’m sick of that layout.  In order to make this work I have to challenge myself to start over.  In sports that usually means watching lots of film of your competition.  I will surely do that with different eyes now having gone through it once.  It also means finding film of yourself and watching it (anyone have any footage to share?) to identify your tendencies–good and bad–to either build upon them or fix them.

In many ways a barista competition appeals to the best of several sides of my personality.  It’s a strategy game that unfolds over several weeks/months.  One has to consider small details of both tactics and strategy over the training period and for within that 15 minutes.

Secondly, it’s a technician’s game.  Nothing artful can really shine without the skeleton of solid technical execution.  That minute technical regimen also appeals to my analytical nature as well as to my fascination with the need to develop muscle memory over an extended period of time in order to make your technical presentation seem artful.

And finally, the art.  On so many levels the good barista is selling the sizzle as much as the steak.  It is so obviously true that to be memorable one has to speak and move fluidly.  Not just in a mechanical way, but in the way that the words that come from you seem as though they HAD to come from you, that there was nothing else that could be said that would make nearly as much sense. That bald reality of boiling it down to its pure and delicious essense (if you take my meaning) is an art.

I haven’t even touched the taste aspects of it, only to risk seeming self-congratulatory to say that I felt my competition espresso (Chinati) was flat out the most delicious espresso blend I’ve ever concocted.  That could mean something really special, or it could mean I suck at creating espresso blends in general and the bar was so low I could trip over it and still surpass the previous stuff with flying colors.  But even that I think must be tossed out the window and rethought, re-approached.  Different stuff will be in season.  (The roasters reading this will understand that statement acutely.)

Onward to Anaheim it is then.  Will I see you there?

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I need to start adding more pics more often.

Anyway, just a quick and dirty post that I’ve been thinking about for a week.  I went to McDonald’s the other day in a fit of hungry desperation–usually the only time I darken their doorway.  I ordered my usual, which is to say, what I used to order way back when patronizing McDonald’s was not high on the list of crimes against humanity health.  2 Cheeseburger value meal with a Coke.

And for grins I thought I’d ask them to toss in a small mocha, since this was one of the thousands of McD’s now outfitted with a McCafe.  You know:  market research.

The drink started with what looked like a squeeze bottle of Hershey’s syrup into the bottom of the cup.  Then the girl (I dare not extend to her the title “barista” as she was also slinging fries) marked the cup, placed it on the drip tray, pressed three buttons in rapid succession…and walked away.  A few seconds later a double shot stream of white began pouring into the cup.  Milk.  I can only assume there is a hidden milk reservoir inside rather than a plumb line.  At any rate I could smell the smell of hot milk and was not enticed.  Then, from two separate spouts came the hot brown liquid at the heart of the beverage, the “espresso.”

Four little pour spouts.  Interesting.

My drink sat there for another minute until another person walked up, read the cup markings and then pulled out a can of ReddyWhip whipped cream or some such and sprayed it on top, then covered the whole thing with a chocolate syrup crosshatch, lidding it and handing it to me.

The result?  Meh. About what you’d expect.  I guess I never expect much from the espresso in a mocha anyway. But I could still definitely taste the taste of low altitude in the cup.   Overall, not a revolting experience, especially if I weren’t “in the business.”

I thought about trucking it across the street to the Starbucks to do a live side by side comparison; but I’ve drank enough hundreds of Starbucks mochas to remember easily their taste.

Bottom line, although to me Starbucks still makes the best rendition of this silly drink of any big time chain, McDonald’s should not be counted out as a “specialty coffee” player simply by virtue of their huge reach and the fact that, sad to say, Starbucks certainly prepped the ground well for lesser quality knockoffs that the masses wouldn’t mind.

That I’m even including big green and Mickey D’s in the same sentence is testament to how the world has changed.  But maybe that’s another post for another day.

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Forward

Transition is almost always a good thing.  Most times we are unable to see it or appreciate it from up close.  But afterward, with a little honesty, we can often say if it had not been for (x) we might never have had the opportunity to (y).  A similar saying goes, “Humor = Pain + Time.” 

My business is transitioning.  It is both painful and exhilarating to endure the pangs of growth or the disappointment of not being able to grow at as quick a pace as I might like.  This time of year, for example, is the time of year many coffee buyers love/hate because so many good coffees are coming on line and you simply can’t have them all.  Difficult choices ensue.  Careful forward analysis and projections must be done.  Every dollar must be made to bring a friend or two along back to your bank account.  Otherwise you’re just treading water.  That may be fine for some.  I am not in that category.

From the beginning Brown made the conscious decision to grow organically.  No bank loans.  No revolving lines of credit with lending institutions.  No back alley deals with Vinnie the loan shark.  Over the long arc it is very, very gratifying to see what we’ve built so far:  from pumping out tiny batches of coffee in the garage at my folks’ home to getting our own lovely place, to turning a profit for the first time this year to…what’s next?  Maybe I could have seen faster growth had we taken that risk of exposing our dreams to the probing spotlight of a loan officer.  But then, maybe not.  In that respect Brown is both gloriously upheld on its philosophical pedestal and confined to what we can afford at the moment.  Our business decisions remain no more than 6 months forward at any given time–often more like 6 weeks forward.  

How do you handle transition times?   If you started organically like I did, did you at some point take your dreams for the next phase of growth to a bank to leverage yourself to the next plateau?  Did you risk all in the beginning and have it pay off handsomely?  Or not so handsomely?  

Let’s talk.

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