Many (Most?) SCAA Past Presidents Support SCAA/SCAE Unification

It has been some time since I have posted anything here. I have “thought I should” many, many times. I am now moved to say something when, ironically, I feel my voice, un-voiced for so long, was being misappropriated. Some SCAA Past Presidents (I have collegially referred to our motley crew as the “Passed Out Presidents,”) have seemed to assert that we are “all” against SCAA/SCAE unification when, in fact, only eleven of 38 (well, 37, footnote to follow) who had the opportunity, signed the original anti-unification communication. Further, it is my understanding that all ten of the most recent SCAA past presidents support the merger. The language that has been used against unification of the two trade associations has alarmed me on many levels. The following is a response to the anti-unification rhetoric that has come from a very vocal sub-segment of our group, which, as far as I can tell, compose less than a third of our total. This communication was written in collaboration with others (I am not the “leader” of this group) and relied heavily on the contributions of Paul Thornton and Mike Ebert. The signers of this specific message follow and they include me, Timothy James Castle, Coffee Curmudgeon (although, between the two of us, it is not settled as to who is whose avatar):

Dear fellow SCAA members – 

We are writing to you as a group of former SCAA presidents who are concerned about the level of discourse in regards to the possible unification of the Specialty Coffee Association of American (SCAA) and the Specialty Coffee Association of  Europe (SCAE). While we all favor unification, we would like to encourage you to do your own research, learn about this issue and make a personal decision. This unification has been voted on by the SCAE and their membership has approved it.  Our membership has been voting on this same measure since July 5, 2016 , and will be voting until August 5, 2016. There is still time to engage in the dialog regarding the unification (or not), let your concerns be voiced and your opinion heard. Between now and July 5, there will be a number of webinars and live forums in which you may participate. Just as important, we encourage dialog between yourself and other SCAA members you know and on social media.

We believe that there are compelling reasons for our two associations to unite and valid concerns that many of you may want to address before you make your decision. But we do believe that the SCAA’s Board of Directors and the SCAA’s executive management are acting in good faith in recommending the merger. We believe the financial data they are presenting is accurate and current. We also respect and acknowledge the recent vote of the SCAE’s membership to proceed with unification. 

In writing to you, we are asking for your help, as we believe that the more of you that diligently research this issue, the better our decision-making process will be, and the better able we will be to proceed with the decision we make. Contrary to some harsh, false and unpleasant rhetoric we’ve read recently, we believe that the more members who are involved in this decision, and the more that this issue is discussed, the better off we all will be.

If you aren’t the voting member of your company or organization we encourage you to find out how your company’s vote will be placed. If you are the voting member, we encourage you to research this very important decision and ask your colleagues directly or through social media, what they have heard and what their thoughts are on this issue before placing your vote. 

Recently, with regard to the citizens of the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union (Brexit) we’ve heard and read a lot about citizens of the U.K. asking themselves, after the referendum, what their vote meant and what the ramifications of it would be. We don’t want to make that same mistake. While the stakes are lower for us, we a mere trade association and not a nation, after all, we are, as an industry, responsible for the future livelihoods of millions of people around the world who are responsible for picking coffee on one end of the value chain to serving cups of coffee to hundreds of millions of coffee drinkers every day, on the other.

This issue isn’t only about you, it’s about a lot of people who depend upon our industry to get it right and add value to coffee for all of us — value that, we believe, increases when it is shared. So please learn as much as you can about this important issue and vote with the hope that you are doing the best you can for your business and our industry.


Tim Castle

Mike Ebert

Peter Giuliano

David Griswold

Shawn Hamilton

Mark Inman

Tim O’Connor

Rick Peyser

Rob Stephen

Paul Thornton

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Might Specialty Coffee Finally Be Cut Adrift from its Market Moorings?

There’s a lot going on in the world of coffee but the headline right now is this: The internationally traded prices for coffee have fallen dramatically over the past few months while at the same time, the outlook for the continued production of higher quality coffees has grown increasingly bleak — in fact, the two phenomenon are eerily, ironically linked…

People who are involved in the specialty sector of the coffee business, including me, have been asking each other, “Why isn’t the market higher?” Then, after acknowledging that the market is not about “specialty,” or, rather, “us”  the questioning then turns to, “Why aren’t differentials (the premiums paid for certain ‘better quality’ coffees vs the actual market price) higher?”

With the production of higher quality coffees becoming less and less of the world’s total production the supply/demand factors surrounding those coffees have less and less impact on the overall market. This is especially so as the output in countries with the lowest production costs (notably Brazil and Vietnam) have increased.

There may be a silver lining in all of this for the producers of the world’s best coffees — if they can overcome the production challenges they currently face. Like fine cult wineries, they may begin to build their own markets for their particular estate branded coffees rather than rely upon a commodity market that places only minimal value on significantly better quality coffees.  Market conditions are telling us that the sooner that the commodity producers and the specialty producers can part ways, in fact, the happier both will be.

>>> That’s Essentially It, But You Can Keep Reading <<<

This is not to vilify “commodity producers” — not everyone has the time, attention — the need to obtain a truly great cup of coffee — and not everyone wants to thoughtfully enjoy their coffee’s taste as if it were a rare, cult wine.  There is room for both producers in today’s overall marketplace.

The comparison to wine goes further. There are wines on the market today for every taste and budget. This diversity has served to expand, not diminish, the world’s total consumption; just as, for example, the wine producers of Bordeaux used to simply make their wines, put it in barrels and send it to London (primarily) where it was then bottled and branded, today’s specialty coffee farmers can look forward to establishing themselves, as they’ve already been doing for the past thirty-plus years, as the owners of their own brands built on the quality and consistency of their own production.

The opportunity here is for the specialty coffee farmer to become truly artisanal and take ownership and responsibility for what he/she does…like the Bordeaux wineries decided they were better off putting their own wine in their own bottles and taking full responsibility and credit for what they were producing.…

Some salient facts:

1) Market prices are down, yet, across Central America, concerns about the devastating effects of a fungal disease < coffee rust > that attacks coffee trees and drastically reduces their production, are being felt by farmers and farm workers up and down the isthmus. Fifty percent of the land planted in Central America to coffee is being effected and this accounts for over five percent of the world’s total harvest. Of that amount a little less than half (about 2.5 million bags) was lost to the rust fungus last year. The critical thing here is that while this number is small, a rounding error in terms of Brazil’s total production of at least fifty-plus million bags, but a much larger percentage of the world’s total production of good-to-great coffee produced with the increasingly rare “washed” method. Next year, the projected loss will be more than double.

2) Add to that, generally, climatologists and agronomists have identified Coffee arabica as a candidate for being a botanical “canary in the mineshaft” as it may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.  No, this species of coffee, (the only one that can produce the beans necessary for a truly good cup of coffee) won’t become extinct, completely, at least; but it’s ability to produce commercially viable crops in the regions where it is currently grown, might be.

3) And yet, in the press, and in trade circulars, it is being gleefully and credulously recounted that “Gourmet Coffee” and “Specialty Coffee” are being consumed at an ever-increasing pace.  What this really may point to is that it is taking less coffee to generate more dollar volume in sales. Single-serve systems, for example, net out to a per-pound cost of over thirty dollars a pound for a typical “coffee drink.” If a cup of coffee is ordered in a food service environment it generates even more revenue per pound of coffee.

4) Perhaps what the coffee market is telling us by approaching near-term historic lows, (it hit another low as I was writing this, in fact) is that without the high quality coffees in the mix the market IS, overall and in fact, worth less.

Meanwhile the fate of a really good coffee may hang in the balance.  As growing conditions become less and less hospitable for producing truly excellent coffees they will become increasingly scarce and farmers will be less motivated to produce them unless their customers are willing to pay significantly higher prices than they are today (for the coffee itself, not the convenience of a single serve system or that of having someone else making it for you.

AND/OR if you want to be in the business of selling really good coffee, and most of the coffee industry doesn’t, (not that there’s anything wrong with that) then you’re going to have to get really good at demonstrating to people that genuinely good coffee is worth a lot more than it used to be. And that is that. The divide between “good” coffee and “commercially viable” coffee will widen both in terms of price and quality in the cup.  It will become increasingly important for roasters and sellers of good coffee to be able to clearly articulate and demonstrate the difference and give their customers the opportunity to connect what they’re paying for with what they’re getting in return.

Here it is again, a little more languorously rendered:  The world’s near term capacity to produce great coffees is plummeting and the overall market isn’t flinching in the least – it is almost as if the news is welcome, and I am sure it is by some market participants.

A volatile market is a great place to make money if you’re selling schlock because the ups and downs give you more room to play with quality. STABLE markets give folks with an argument about the Quality/Price = Value relationship an opportunity to win the day.  Schlock purveyors are happier than pigs in poop when the market bottoms out as most of them are smart enough to know that in high markets they can always buy crappier coffee and in lower markets the crappy coffee will still be there (at lower prices ) and their sappy, sentimental “quality-driven” competitors will be stuck with longer-term supply contracts because they were worrying about maintaining consistent supplies of better (at least) quality coffees .

Roasters with a commitment to Quality: Stand your Ground (but not with a firearm, please, unless it’s a coffee roaster) — the customers you keep are the ones you want — REACH OUT to them in every way you can, talk to them about quality and the work it takes to produce a great cup of coffee. Many specialty coffee roasters are hearing from the retail and wholesale customers that they expect coffee prices to decrease since the market has fallen — ENGAGE with those customers, explain to them with great tasting coffee and your experience, or LOSE them.

Coffee Drinkers who want to see their favorite “Specialty Roasters” survive: Keep paying a premium for the coffee you love (if you’re able and if the quality remains) even though you’ll likely not pay more in pennies per pound, the PREMIUM you pay will probably widen. You WILL be tempted; DON’T succumb (or the quality surcharge you’ll have to pay later will be even higher).

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A New Page: Coffee in the Media

I used to think I was a coffee expert, when I knew a whole lot less about coffee. Even still, though, coffee is the thing I know the most about and when I hear something in the news about coffee that does not jibe with my understanding of what’s really going on,  I tend to freak out a bit. It also shakes my confidence in the various new outlets to which I am addicted to reading and listening when I hear something “off” about the one topic I feel most confident: coffee. In that spirit, I have started a new page, “Coffee in the Media” where I hope to post some salient comments on the reporting that gets done about coffee.

I hope I will be broad-ranging in what I address on that page but what’s got me started are a couple pet peeves (and, after all is said and done, what else does a Curmudgeon have except peeves – and the right to deny access to his lawn, if he has one).

Peeve #1 is the widely accepted “truth” promulgated in the news media that when it comes to coffee, the supply chain is infested with greedy, rapacious “middlemen” that need to be stomped out at any cost.

Peeve #2 is that the spokespeople for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and the “certifications” that many of them administer are accepted by the news media as completely objective and disinterested in terms of the former, and their latter certifications are viewed with absolute confidence.

In my first post on this subject I attempt to address something that came up recently with regard to Peeve #2. If the hapless reader should wade forth into its 1200+ words, though, I do beg that he or she at least skip to the last few paragraphs before your eyes glaze over completely. (The link to this page is provided herewith, and it appears on the masthead of this site as well.)

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Yet More On Coffee in Restaurants

There’s was some discussion several weeks ago about the efforts that a particular restaurant, Noma in Copenhagen, was making to serve a very good cup of coffee.

First, there was this article by Oliver Strand on, Oliver Strand On Specialty Coffee’s Restaurant Gap and following that there was Kevin Knox’s post on his blog, (sort of in reply to Strand’s post but Knox’s philippic stands well on its own) “Fine Dining” & Coffee. THEN, wrapped it all up with this comprehensive summary: Other Voices, Other (Dining) Rooms: Hoffmann, Tacy, & Knox On Restaurant Coffee. In THIS post the very salient point is attributed to James Hoffman from his post on (Complaining about Restaurant Coffee) that restaurants don’t care about coffee because they don’t make money with it.

Well, I think it’s a lot worse than that, there is actually a built-in antipathy toward coffee service in restaurants and especially fine-dining restaurants. Restaurants not only can’t MAKE money serving coffee; they LOSE money serving coffee and, the way most restaurant managers and chefs see it, the better the coffee, the greater the loss.

Just to make sure, since this conversation started, I’ve been talking with folks in the restaurant business, and also to people who deal with chefs and restaurant managers. And, in particular, I’ve spoken with coffee roasters who sell coffee to restaurants (or try to).

I’ve reached essentially the same conclusion I did twelve years ago when I wrote, Food Service Coffee’s Quid Pro Quo, for Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, (Volume 174, #3, March/April 2001): Most restaurant managers and chefs, especially those in high-end restaurants, give coffee as little attention as they can; these folks do not believe that serving a great cup of coffee is worth the time or trouble and, in fact, is counter-productive. Serving coffee, even great coffee in a French press or by some other means whereby they can charge ten dollars or more is a money loser. They are better off “turning the table” (seating a brand new party at the table) and selling another full meal ,with drinks, wines and maybe dessert OR, if it’s late in the evening, bidding their would-be coffee-drinking diners farewell, thereby letting them get their hourly staff off the clock and also letting themselves and their salaried employees get home and get some rest. The LAST thing a manager or chef wants to see is a group of customers sitting around oohing and ahhing over their cups of coffee when they could, again, either turn the table for some real revenue, or close the place and turn off the hourly costs of having at least one server and one busboy watch them.

Serving a great cup of coffee in a restaurant setting requires AT LEAST as much effort as that Strand describes in his article and while the Nespresso system that Knox refers to is good for what it is  (and Kevin Knox persuasively argues that it’s even better than that) a lot of us in the coffee business feel dissed that the ONE thing that even most of the fanciest restaurants relegate to the folks that are otherwise in charge of disposing of the remains of the meal and setting up for the NEXT guests. (It’s as if your internist were to send you to a plumber instead of a gastroenterologist if you had a persistent stomach ache. – And I certainly intend no offense either to the folks who bus dishes or to plumbers, both groups of which work very hard performing very necessary functions..)

As any of us in the coffee business know, serving great coffee is, in the context of a busy restaurant, extremely difficult and requires the commitment of resources in terms of raw material (GREAT, Fresh Roasted Whole Bean coffee), equipment (including a grinder) and training, and re-training and training again when staff turns over — just like the kitchen staff is trained to carefully and precisely prepare and present each and every dish that leaves the kitchen in that same fine restaurant.

Much easier for the restaurant and the coffee supplier to come up with a “product” that says, “We DO appreciate your business and we don’t want to offend you outright, but now that you’ve arrived at the “coffee” portion of your meal we’d be most grateful if you’d ask for the check, push your chair away from the table and LEAVE. With every sip, in fact, our coffee will remind you to do so…” THUS, the “Quid Pro Quo” referred to in my now-ancient article [Food Service Coffee’s Quid Pro Quo]: a coffee not so bad as to immediately INSULT the drinker but to certainly alienate him or her well before the THIRD cup; the PRICE of that coffee should be accurately and appropriately placed on the continuum of any other well-engineered commodity that consistently performs to the expected standard – THAT’s where “quality control” comes into play.

NOW, there are a few restaurants that fall somewhere in the middle, and they usually aren’t fancy places, they’re the kind of places where a customer might order a cup of coffee at the beginning of a meal, even for dinner — the managers there want to serve a decent, or at least not wretched, cup of coffee. They try to buy a good, whole bean coffee, one that they would drink regularly at home, maybe one THEY drink! They then boost the “drop” (the amount of coffee used per brew), at least to as much as the  brewing equipment will allow, (and many older models don’t even allow for anywhere near the correct amount of fresh roasted coffee per full brew. Then they’ll perhaps get some insulated carafes , they ask their servers to dump any brewed coffee after less than an hour — things like that, not heroic, but a sincere effort not to poison their customers or make a total mockery of the drink we call coffee.

OR, restaurants could adopt the practice that I know at least one “high-end” restaurant is asking for large parties: they insist that you pre-approve, with your physical signature, what amounts to a table rental for every 15 minutes you over-stay your welcome…at least that’s a more honest approach. Folding coffee into that scenario might take the form of a menu offering that simply quotes the real cost of serving really good coffee over a leisurely period of time. Diners that have to ask, “How Much?” should probably go home and make that cup of coffee there — with a little effort (and relatively little cost) it could easily be as good as what’s served at Noma.


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Comments from the Specialty Coffee of America 2013 Symposium

I was asked if I would write some posts emanating out of the SCAA’s 5th Annual Symposium… in addition to their posting them on their blog page I have posted them here as well on a separate page for SCAA Symposium 2013 comments, and I will place the rest of this post there under “Some Thoughts on the Fungus (and Humans) Among Us.” Click, if you dare.


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The Aroma of Coffee and the Memory of it…

Has Coffee Ever Lived up to it’s Promise?

Has the taste of coffee ever lived up to the seducing aroma of its first whiff? For me it has not. From the time I was allowed coffee as a child, I spent many, many years trying to find or make a cup of coffee that TASTED as good as that first whiff when I broke open a vacuum sealed can or experienced the aroma, at a distance, of the morning’s first brewing pot of coffee. It never has.

To happily acquire a taste for coffee you have to first abandon that reasonable but child-like expectation that it will taste as good in the same way as it smells. And it does not. It is different.

Accepting that gulf between what we first expect from coffee and what we’ll actually experience AS a cup of coffee is one of life’s totem adjustments — at least for those of us that end up living our lives out as coffee drinkers. Once we do, the rewards can be many and varied…the taste of coffee is one of the most complex, delicious phenomena on the gastronomic/culinary landscape…but it is a puzzle: why can’t that first scent of coffee be what shows up in the cup?

Some people go too far, they somehow inure themselves to accepting almost any level of bitterness, harshness, or, worst of all, dishwater wimpiness, in lieu of that initial impression, presumably for the sake of a little caffeine and for the ritual of sipping something hot with a degree of nominal savor.

Even from a bad cup of coffee some warmth may be drawn; the steam may be inhaled and blown from its surface, the cup (paper or otherwise) may be; like a smoker cherishes not only the actual inhalation of the smoke, but comes to find comfort and centering in all the gestures and patterns of movement that the act of smoking requires and then affords (I have been told by some smokers trying to quit that these habits are almost missed as much as the smoke itself and are a reason that nicotine patches sometimes don’t work for some folks.)

A cup of coffee no matter what it tastes like, offers the expectation that the mind will soon awaken and engage — that THAT coffee cup will bestow upon the holder/drinker warmth, good spirits, alacrity of mind and courage to face the day  with it’s own heart-kindling glow, promising aroma and energizing familiarity. The rituals, memories, and the moral (or otherwise) support a cup of coffee provides are sometimes, sadly, ironically, more satisfying than the savoring of it.

In a way there is actually a reassurance and comfort that a bad cup of coffee can provide….as we sip it we might be tempted to think that only a very serious person, one of formidable courage and prowess (both intellectual and physical) could consume something so horribly wrong in its taste and aroma. Bad Coffee, in and of itself, becomes a daily rite of passage…a gauntlet that, once passed, indicates to the drinker that nothing today will be unendurable.

& & & & &

NOW, here, I recognize, I’m (once again) in the weeds. I started this off thinking that I was writing about one thing and now I realize that I am writing about three:

1)   One is about the dissonance between the primal smell of fresh ground coffee and the taste of brewed (liquid) coffee on our palates; they’re different, those two things.

2)   The next is the whole issue about the actual taste of coffee, once we abandon the idea that coffee is ever going to TASTE like what we imagined it might when we first inhaled it’s aroma. Is that taste actually one we all LIKE, much less agree on.

3)   And now there’s something I had not thought of: The Ritual of Drinking Coffee. This ritual may be conducted in the absence of a beverage that tastes GOOD… in fact the worse the taste, the more we seem to emphasize the ritual…the more it abuses us the more we love it…Let’s call this the Stockholm Coffee Syndrome (no offense to Stockholm, I’ve actually heard you can hunt down a good cup of coffee there).

So I guess I have at least a couple more posts…if some other shiny object of a subject doesn’t distract me first…

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Some (slightly re-heated) comments on Climate Change (& Coffee)

Warning: This post contains curmudgeonly chest-beating, credit-taking and self-serving horn-tooting that some readers may find objectionable; especially in view of the tragic situation that the author is claiming to have foreseen.


First the chest-beating: in 1996 I was Christmas shopping for some CD’s at the now-extinct Tower Records outlet on Sunset Blvd and was walking back to my car parked across the street. I walked past Book Soup, an independent book store (that still thrives, apparently) and in the window I noticed what was then Bill McKibben’s new book “The End of Nature,” prominently displayed. I walked in and ended up buying several copies to use as my annual gift offering to friends & customers in the coffee business.  This idea was inspired merely by what I read on the dust jacket of the book (the same basic info can be found below in the description of the newer edition that I’ve cut & pasted from Amazon–Irony Intended!–below). My inscriptions to my friends and customers all said something to the effect of, “Holy Crap — looks like we need to find another way to make a living.” (I don’t intentionally choose gifts that are likely to disturb and annoy, but it often seems to work out that way.)

Lately, there has been a lot of press and publicity extant (not extinct) noting that the limited land areas available for the production of high quality coffee are decreasing in size. Additionally, it has been observed that the even more limited land areas that provide safe harbor for the “wild” gene pool are also imperiled.

Change, as we all know, is inevitable.  But it has only been over the course of the past few years that we have come to understand that we cannot assume that our natural world is a constant — while we knew that our climate had changed (there was an ice age, after all) and that it might alter in the distant future (hey, there might be ANOTHER ice age) we never expected to SEE it change.  Every adult today was born into a  natural world that, it could be assumed, would, barring meteorite strike, remain as constant as day and night and the monthly lunar cycle. Today we are witnessing it change not only during the average human life span but over the span of a few years.

But, obviously, our worries with regard to coffee, while of singular importance for millions of people around the world, not to mention coffee drinkers who care about the taste of their coffee, are but a feather on the scale that shall measure and decide our fates.

Coffee, to whisk in another metaphor, is one of the many canaries that are tipping off their roost into our collective mine shaft. How many will it take?

In 2005 I asked the president of a small cooperative of coffee farmers in Huila, Colombia what actions he was taking to account for the possibility that it might become impossible to grow high quality coffee at the elevations where most of his members had farms. I expected him to either express befuddlement or to tell me, with God-fearing right-wing vigor (most small coffee farmers ARE, despite their willingness to humor and take advantage of “Fair Trade” schemes, extremely conservative both economically AND socially). Instead this businessman conveyed the following (and I am paraphrasing, but, at the same time, I will try to convey his professionalism, thoughtfulness and diligence.): “We take climate change very seriously and we are taking actions to prepare for it. Our Co-op has purchased, collectively, substantial acreage at elevations up to 1,000 feet higher than where most of our farms are currently located. We are conducting production trials there and we are also experimenting with different coffee varietals to see which ones are most able to produce good coffee in warmer climates. We also need to adjust for the fact that we will be growing coffee in a much drier climate and that the trees, if the changes that we anticipate come to pass, will be much more vulnerable to diseases and insects.” Hopefully, these words speak for themselves.

Most sentient folks without a financial stake in professing otherwise will agree that human activity is having a profound impact on our natural environment, certainly, the coffee farmer I just quoted, think so, and he had NO political ax to grind, just the opposite, in fact. I think we should be grateful that such folks are able to make such eloquent and straightforward observations…they drive home, by specific example, the urgency and palpability of the situation we find ourselves in, and that is good. But to stay there and not extrapolate to actions that we can take personally and need to urgently address collectively, and FAST, is shortsighted (but perhaps not as shortsighted as my previously-noted ego-centric investment in this subject).

In the here-and-now, though, (why not, once in a while?) MY observation is that worrying about THIS aspect or THAT aspect is (to haul out yet another metaphor) little more than adjusting the deck chairs for breeze and view as the great ship Earth…the vessel that has safely carried us here, carried you and me here, despite all of our depredations to date, is sinking.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&& (Symbolism accidentally intended…)

Here is a link, to another blog, one conducted by a friend of mine (I hope! I just sent him a rather (typically) weird email ) who offers a more tactical and pragmatic approach to this subject (THIS post inspired me to write the post above, one I have been thinking about for sometime, although I not SURE the exposition reflects that):

And here is a paper I just came across, addressing this topic vis-à-vis coffee farming in Costa Rica:

…and another article that popped up (it’s hard to AVOID them!):

Climatic factors directly impact the volatile organic compound fingerprint in green Arabica coffee bean as well as coffee beverage quality


The End of Nature, Bill McKibben, first published in 1996  – The following blurb on the book is taken from Amazon, I don’t have the thing set up (yet) where if you buy the book I get ten cents, but when I do, dear reader, I will let you know. Here is the link, notwithstanding my commercial ineptitude:

The End of Nature by Bill McKibben

Release Date: June 13, 2006

Reissued on the tenth anniversary of its publication, this classic work on our environmental crisis features a new introduction by the author, reviewing both the progress and ground lost in the fight to save the earth.

This impassioned plea for radical and life-renewing change is today still considered a groundbreaking work in environmental studies. McKibben’s argument that the survival of the globe is dependent on a fundamental, philosophical shift in the way we relate to nature is more relevant than ever. McKibben writes of our earth’s environmental cataclysm, addressing such core issues as the greenhouse effect, acid rain, and the depletion of the ozone layer. His new introduction addresses some of the latest environmental issues that have risen during the 1990s. The book also includes an invaluable new appendix of facts and figures that surveys the progress of the environmental movement.

More than simply a handbook for survival or a doomsday catalog of scientific prediction, this classic, soulful lament on Nature is required reading for nature enthusiasts, activists, and concerned citizens alike.

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“High Praise” for “Strong Coffee” (The beverage, if not my actual post…)

NPR has a podcast called “It’s All Politics” that I highly recommend and the two guys (Ron Elving and Ken Rudin) that put it together and are featured on it each week often refer to their “listener” in the singular…although I am sure that I am not the only one.

As I happen to know I might have at least THREE or possibly FOUR regular readers, however, I can say, without exaggeration (in the most literal sense), “One of my regular readers sent this comment with regard to my recent post…”

More amazing, though, was that I received this comment less than two days after I put up my most recent post…I could not muster the same alacrity in letting my two (or so) other readers know about it though, mostly because I am not sure I remember how to post a “link” but I will give it a go herewith.

Without further ado, (and to hasten MY adieu and conclude my shortest post yet…) here is an outtake from my good friend’s (Kevin Knox) email to me of a few days ago and a link to a post on HIS BLOG site (which I also recommend, generally, although it is mostly not about coffee) I have deleted a comment Kevin made about a journalist who writes nationally about coffee but should not, at least, evidently, in Kevin’s opinion but also in mine:

“Hi Tim,

I enjoyed your new post about strong coffee. In case you missed it, here’s a parallel rant from my blog:

[Unfortunately, this link was decommissioned…. I hope that Kevin will put it back up on his new blog: Coffee Contrarian.]

Happy New Year!


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So, what’s “strong” coffee?

So what do I mean by STRONG (see last post)? It is, after all, a relative term. Here is how I brew coffee:

1)   I use freshly boiled water that is either filterer or bottled (the important thing is getting the chlorine out).

2)   I use a large paper filter (the reason for that will have to wait) so I need a large plastic or metal filter holder. I like the flat-bottomed filter holders that are often part of commercial coffee makers. They are black with a handle on them and sit nicely on top of many 32 ounce insulated “airpots.”

3)   You WILL need a 32 ounce insulated airpot — these are generally available in the small housewares section of Target and K-Mart and other such places. They are basically pitchers for hot beverages and have, ideally, glass-lined insulated chambers inside…the all stainless steel versions work well (and don’t break!) but they don’t seem to keep even the first cup of coffee as hot as the glass-lined versions.  Pick an airpot that is designed so that the filter holder/brew-basket thingee you select can sit securely on top of it while you’re brewing your coffee.

4)   The paper filters for these flat-bottomed brew baskets are harder to find for than regular coffee filters (such as Melitta’s and the generic versions thereof) so you may want to just stop right here (if not completely) and get a Melitta filter cone (size #6) and some size number six filters.  IDEALLY, to take a step further  (and, at this point, to turn back might well be as tedious as going o’er, ne c’est pas?) I recommend the extra-large institutional filters that fit in brew baskets that are the next size up from the ones that are supposed to go in these “regular” flat bottomed brew baskets…but that is a project you will, for the time being have to undertake by yourself. (The larger filters allow more room to pour and stir without having grounds surf over the edge of the smaller sized filters, thereby leaking into the brew and murking it up entirely…more on this later as well.)

5)   Set the filter in the cone, of whatever combination you end up with and rinse some hot tap water through the filter and cone into the airport to warm everything up and then, right before putting the freshly ground coffee (see below) into the filter cone, pour some freshly boiled filtered or bottled water through the filter and cone into the airpot to rinse out the tap water — eight ounces or so is fine.

6)   Use about four ounces of freshly roasted coffee beans.

7)    Grind the beans coarsely, to the consistency of very gravelly sand or even sandy gravel. A small (and inexpensive) rotary grinder is fine. I have found that attempting to shake it while grinding produces a more even grind but basically just grind until you can’t hear any large chunks of beans rattling around in the grinder any more…you might still end up with some finely pulverized grounds, which is annoying but acceptable. Put the four ounces of ground coffee in the paper-filter-lined filter cone.

8)   Before you start grinding the coffee add some fresh water to your kettle (remember, you used eight ounces to rinse and further warm the filter and pot?) and set your water back to boil. Electric kettles that automatically turn themselves off are great…but boiling water in a kettle on the stove works well too. The key is to let the water sit a couple of minutes to cool down to between 195-205°F before you start brewing. Kettles are better than saucepans because the water can cool down TOO much during the course of brewing if the water is not in an enclosed kettle.

9)   NOW, pour the thirty-two ounces of just boiled water slowly over the grounds, while stirring them with a large soup spoon (big enough to gently agitate and circulate the grounds around without having to splash the spoon around and make a mess.. The brewing process should take no more than six minutes but I try to ensure that it finishes in four to five minutes.

10)                  This strength of the resulting brew here is about twice that recommended during the 1950’s that was (and by many lights still is) more-or-less considered the “gold standard” by the specialty coffee industry and was originally developed by an organization based in New York called the Pan-American Coffee Bureau and was chartered to promote coffee consumption in the U.S. (I am not sure if they were active in Canada as well.)  The four to six minute range originates from the same source. These standards were developed by surveying a few thousand coffee drinkers to determine how this group, on average, liked to drink their coffee. Since then various market forces have worked diligently to dilute these standards and, ineluctably, the coffee you drink. (Obviously, there is more to be said about this…)

MY method makes a very strong cup of thick tasting and feeling coffee…opaque, even as it is poured…and stays fresh for only five to ten minutes max.

People in the specialty coffee business assume that this method, however incredibly ill-advised to begin with, is only vaguely plausible for brewing very dark-roasted coffees (if dark-roasted coffee can be countenanced at all, to begin with…) but I find it can also bring out the best in many light roasted coffees as well. Many members of the specialty coffee industry seem to have adopted a really annoying (to me, obviously, but you, dear reader should be annoyed as well, if only to keep this curmudgeon company) preciousness when it comes to coffee preparation in general and, specifically with regard to pour-over brewing, the apotheosis of which is exemplified by the use of the Hario (there are other brands) filter, cone, pot and kettle. You are instructed to pour slowly and continually from the slender spigot into the grounds in a spiral (or some other arcane) pattern and to never stir the grounds (although, a few coffee folks are now starting to stir with this method). The brew produced, to my taste, is thin and while intellectually consistent (Freud had a term for it, too), is not sensually satisfying. To devotees of this method, my way is a rampant perversion of the pour-over method —a travesty, plain and simple. The resulting brew (mine, that is) is judged to be sludgy and so strong as to make it impossible to discern any of the subtle notes that a coffee may have to offer. I find the opposite to be the case: if a coffee is well processed, VERY well-processed, it will show beautifully at a strong concentration, bathing your palate in a cascade of flavors that will unfold in a procession of flavors as you savor each sip. During the several minutes it takes for the coffee to cool down a very good coffee will change in character but not for the worse…it will just change and different flavor components will fade as others assert….but, again, with a deliciousness and revelation that I don’t experience at weaker concentrations.

All this is not to say that I cannot appreciate a cup of very good but weakly made coffee. The cupping process, after all, is conducted at a concentration that is about 75% of what the now-considered-robust standard established by the Panamerican Coffee Bureau and less than half the strength I prefer. A good coffee  will taste nice at that strength…but first thing in the morning, when I know I’ve got a really good coffee to drink, regardless of whether it is a lightly roasted high-altitude Guatemalan or a carefully selected naturally processed and fully roasted Brazil, I’m  not looking for “nice,” I’m looking for an intense, memorable, complex experience, one I will be compelled to consider with every sip and then remember throughout the day.

To each his own…




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Weak Coffee, Part One

Weak Coffee

I do not understand weak coffee and never have…

I used to think, when I first got in the coffee business, that this had something to do with the cost of coffee; that coffee drinkers were being stingy, maybe it was a carry-over from World War rationing and/or the Great Depression. Or maybe restaurants and cafeterias and coffee service in institutions and the military got everyone used to weak coffee while these entities tried to save money by using less and less coffee per pot.

Then I thought, well, REALIZED, that over the years, it’s also the roasters: they started competing on the basis of THEIR coffee costing less because you could use less of theirs and still get the same taste in the cup. This strategy was one of the most flawed and poorly conceived (suicidal, really) marketing efforts ever executed. I believe it DID get people used to weak coffee, coffee that folks just barely liked and that they could easily give up for almost any other caffeinated beverage: tea, soda pop and these days drinks like “Red Bull.”

Another key historical marker in the history of the weak coffee movement came, I have been told (and also believe to be true), in the early sixties when the large US roasters started using a lot of robusta in their blends. (This coffee, for the reader that does not know, is another species of the more tasty Arabica species. For purposes of THIS discussion/post suffice it to say that it tastes horrible.) So, when roasters started using more and more robusta their coffee started tasting worse and worse. One way to mitigate this, they decided was to recommend that people use less so that, per cup, there would be less awful taste. This provided further force to the argument that such coffee was more economical because not only COULD less coffee be used, but, given the bad taste, less coffee SHOULD be used. And thus, the stupidity of this strategy came into full flower: the optimal amount of this coffee to use, both in terms of taste AND cost savings was none at all. American consumers began to oblige and since the early sixties and up until only a few years ago, per capita consumption in the US decreased. It was only the efforts of specialty coffee roasters (and I would include Starbucks in this category, again, for purposes of this discussion) that the trend started to reverse, or at least stall.

Ironically, though, the Chairman of one famous, long-established West Coast specialty roaster did tell me, though, years ago, that the secret of their success — and this roaster sells a LOT of beans in their stores — was that they DO tell their customers to make their coffee strong, and this, for some strange reason, makes them really LIKE their coffee and get addicted to it and use it up quickly, and come back from more, and they buy and use up their coffee more often, and thus get used to strong coffee made from freshly bought (and therefore freshly roasted) beans. (The same roaster I am referring to also exhorts their customers to grind their coffee at home, immediately before brewing. As a result, these folks, people making strong coffee from freshly roasted, freshly ground beans start noticing it when they drink coffee that’s not freshly roasted and ground, and not strong, and they then start appreciating the roaster that recommends strong coffee more and instead of burning out on spending too much on coffee they start getting even MORE addicted to this particular roaster’s coffee.  Yikes, I AM running on here…but I don’t know how better to ELUCIDATE this dynamic!

Thus, by brewing strong coffee, a juggernaut of coffee appreciation and consumption can be set into motion. But, obviously, there is a caveat…the base coffee has to be good, really good. Just as you want to use less and less coffee per pot if the stuff tastes wretched, you only want to use more and more if the coffee is really good, really tasty to begin with.

But, lately, there has been an ironical turn of events; one for which I don’t have an explanation…but I will try. Lately I have noticed that some of the “cutting edge” roasters that have established themselves over the last two decades or so, ALSO seem to be recommending that brew strength be weak. They serve coffee in their shops that is brewed from great beans in many cases but they are brewing it the color of tea (almost) and it tastes, at best, like an intellectual whisper of what the coffee COULD taste like were it brewed at a reasonable strength. One reason for this is that folks in the coffee trade evaluate coffee using a codified method called cupping and the strength of the coffee in that case IS rather weak. We taste coffee that way so that we’re all tasting and comparing a coffee at the same concentration, because it’s a tradition over a hundred years old, and because the conventional wisdom is that it’s easier to parse the different flavor components and detect defects if the coffee is tasted in lower concentration.  If there ARE defects in a coffee this theory of tasting coffee at weak strength to detect defects MIGHT hold water (lame pun not intended but left there, because it happened). So, if the defect in question is one that is occurring only in a few beans per pound then if one of those beans is present in the relatively small cups we use to taste coffee then it will definitely be detectable if there aren’t that many other beans that have been ground into that cup.  But if that coffee were brewed at a higher concentration then that defect might not  be detectable because it’s defective taste might get crowded out by all the other beans ground into that cup.

But we don’t buy and brew really nice coffee in order to perform forensic analysis upon it. Nor should we have to anticipate that the fine coffees we’re buying from our beloved micro-roasters are in anyway defective. Finally, if there are a few defects in a coffee (and with certain coffees a defect here and there is inevitable, no matter how good or expensive it is – almost ANY coffee, in fact) we don’t want to detect that defect anyway, do we! We just want to enjoy the coffee. To do that, I assert, posit and argue, you need to brew it strong!

Some coffee “experts” opine that making coffee too strong crowds out certain flavors and lets other taste experiences dominate.  I don’t agree. As a general rule, if I want to truly enjoy an excellent coffee I like to do so at full throttle. In savoring a fine coffee at a strong concentration, the flavors slowly unfold on the palate, one at a time as you savor them.; but in the meantime there’s a continuous flow of flavor music yielding up aromas, textures, highlights and undertones. Again, if you want mass spectroscopy or forensic science; then FINE, brew the stuff weak enough so that you can spot every flavor molecule going by at the rate of one a minute…but I wouldn’t want that to be MY last cup of coffee before shuffling off this mortal coil!

Next….so, how strong is strong?

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