Archive for the ‘coffee’ Category

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about roast styles.  I often receive coffees from friends and customers who travel thither and yon and bring back a bag of the local XYZ Roaster’s coffee.  Almost always I find something interesting and tasty in the bag (my friends/customers know not to bring back cat poop coffee or its equivalents).  But anymore, I also am finding a rise, albeit an anecdotal one, in the prevalence of ultra lightly roasted coffee.

I say “ultra lightly roasted” when I mean to say “something that borders on a cupping-for-defects roast coloration,” which is to say, just at the end of the last crackle of first crack and well, well before the approach of second.  If a roast moves from the beginning of first crack to the beginning of second crack in, say, three minutes, these roasts are probably being dropped at 1:30 to 1:50…maybe a late as 2:00.

My personal sensibilities have some issues with this.  My first issue comes upon visual inspection.  Thumbnail down into these beans and crack them open and it’s a rare day in which you see an even strata of roast coloration over the cross section of the bean.  You find the zebra-striping that comes when the drupe’s (coffee bean’s) foldovers show a light outer layer, followed by a noticeably darker subsequent inner layer, and yet another lighter fold inside of that.  Uneven.  And this, to my brain, means the very real potential for misdevelopment.  If a drupe has not had enough time to develop its sugars evenly, this will be evidenced by uneven coloration.  Sugars get more and more brown the more they have been baked, cooked, roasted, broiled, etc.  The colors tell the tale.  And if the colors are “off” then it only follows that the taste is, well, in some way, off.  And that’s kind of the thing.  Often they look really handsome on the outside.  But break them open and you will see they have not been developed evenly–whether by roasting too quickly or by dropping too soon after first (or even to have plowed through the early drying stages)–so as to create an optimum baseline from which to derive tasty liquid of them.  When things look a certain way, there’s a reason.  A cause.

That’s my first issue.  The second is of course, taste.  One hand holds the other.

Externally lovely or not, sugar doesn’t lie.  It either is developed well or it isn’t.  And in coffee a well-executed roast is nothing short of a needle a good roaster must thread to find just the right level of sugar development.  Not too light, and certainly not too dark.  Goldilocks.  Just.  Right.  Every. Time.

But I think I’m in a currently shrinking minority here.  The trend most definitely seems to have swung again back to these very lightly done offerings that, frankly, all taste hay-like and vegetal.  Like quakers.  Which–help me understand–why would you spend good money on non-quakered coffee, only to have it look and taste a little like quakers?

Let me not cause a misunderstanding here.  I am not sitting on my perch from on high claiming what is acceptable and unacceptable in roast profiles.  Do as you please, please.  Nor am I saying one style is superior or inferior.  I am only trying to get to the why of why people would flirt so close to the edge of underdevelopment as to be underdeveloped?

I’m looking for someone to make the solid case as to why Roaster X would roast so lightly and leave so much real flavor via proper sugar development on the table…make the case other than trends and fads.  More importantly, who are the roasters out there doing a really great job at sugar development so we can tout their skills and support them?


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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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I’ve said this a bunch of times over my short coffee life:  Dealing with water is the most important part of the roasting process.  More important, methinks, than the latter stages of approach into first and possibly even than the final drop point.

I say it without any science to back it up (this is where you can chime in); but only what I consider to be common sense and my own experiences with my own quirky roaster.

Here’s my thinking.  When greens are first dropped into the roaster they have more ingredients in them than at any time in the roasting process.  Not only are they at their standard 10-12% water content, but Strecker/Maillard has not had a chance to reduce or eliminate any sugars.  You have all the cards in the deck still intact. 

Once water content gets to zero, of course, we start cracking and we move from one type of coffee preparation to another–we go from the cooking actions we do when the steak is first put on the grill, for instance, to the actions we do when the steak has been seared and sealed and now it just needs to continue to cook through to completion.   But prior to that period, during the initial drying stages, one’s approach to getting from twelve per cent to zero per cent water can shape the final approaches into first and beyond and can have a drastic effect on how the coffee will ultimately taste.

I have known roasters who say that the way to attack density/acidity in high-grown coffees is with heat.  They charge at 400, 410, 415 in hopes of keeping the bottom-of-the-curve temp high enough to dry the coffees in what they consider to be an acceptable amount of time.  Another way of viewing this is that they want to dry out all the water in the first 6-7 minutes so that their approach to first shows up at what they’ve been told/taught is within the proper time frame of 9-10 minutes.  I’m not saying 9-10 minutes to first crack is or isn’t proper, good, right.  I’m saying depending on the physical dynamics of the greens, the drum, the ambient space in the drum and how the roaster works there is often a lot of sweetness being left on the table, or, better put, in the roaster.

I’m not trying to project my own tastes and sensibilities on anyone.  I’m merely saying my own empirical testing has shown sweeter, more interesting cups when I slow down the drying stage and hit first in the 12-13 minute area and then slow things down for a 16-17 drop time, before the final approach to second (which I rarely, if ever, hit).

My point here is to ask what others’ approach is to the early stages and what body of experience they have employed in coming to that roasting philosophy.  I simply don’t hear enough discussion about the early drying stages versus the discussion-heavy first through second crack techniques people apply.

Add here the caveat that every coffee is, of course, different and maybe there’s enough ammo to start a little roasters’ discussion.  Bueller?

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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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And yet, here I am, making one–committing to revive (or keep alive) this blogspace in need of new life or a plug pulling.  But it’s part of Brown’s 2010 overall “branding strategy” to more tightly integrate its various threads of digital communications into something woven, stronger, more consistent.

For 2010 Brown WILL, among other things…

  • Migrate the main website and blog into a cleaner, easier to navigate site
  • Keep a better journal of Brown projects, thoughts and musings for open comment (and the betterment of coffee)
  • Link to the wider world of coffee friends and colleagues (again, for the betterment of coffee

Blogging, it seems,  sadly took a hit on a wide front in 2009 with the rise of Twitter and touchscreen smart phones that punish people with fingers larger than an 8 year old.  Consider this my pushback to reclaim some of that lost territory, with the goal of expanding and enriching and unpacking thoughts, rather than only tweeting out drive-by skirmishes of pithy thoughts.

I’ll close for now because I’m waaay over 140 characters (kidding!).  But I hope I can encourage you to remap this space in your digital thought life and to contribute to the conversation.

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