Sunday, September 23, 2007

Important Questions

People have become more and more interested in coffee over the past five or so years, so much so that we are seeing heaps of small specialty coffee businesses open; both roasteries and cafes. That's great. But it does open up a few questions. None of these are new, but they are of such crucial importance that they deserve not to be swept under the rug ...

Question 1: What do people actually want in a coffee?

OK, so there are a number of different types of coffee consumers out there and they will want different things, hence most pro roasters offering different blends. For example:

(a) The office worker: who wants something that's going to cut through the milk-based takeaway drink that he/she is taking back to his/her desk

(b) The masochist: who believes that coffee should be bitter as hell

(c) The foodie: who wants different, constantly changing taste experiences

(d) The outsider (for lack of a better name): who hasn't been raised with espresso and wants something a bit lighter and more acidic

(e) The poser: who wants something with an impressive name and/or pedigree

(f) The beatnik: who wants something with fair trade and organic certification

So what's the distribution amongst these areas? How much does it vary according to location? How much market research are people in coffee businesses doing? Are they targeting the right segments? How severe can the impact of selecting the wrong blend or brand be on a new business?

Question 2: How much of it is marketing? How important is flavour?

Pretty self-explanatory. Say I were to open a store that looks good on paper; multiple boiler machine, big conical grinders, clover, large coffee offering, knowledgeable staff, etc. How important would it be to actually have good coffee? Is it worth doubling your expenditure to get a tiny increase in flavour? How easy would it be to talk up something like a generic "Brazil Santos" as a premium single origin offering, or a crappy espresso machine as a god-shot box?

Example 1; over the past few years, there has been an explosion in the number of La Marzoccos and Synessos in cafes in Melbourne. I wonder how much of an asset to their business those machines are for cafes - and, yes, there are a few - that own these machines but don't actually put out very nice coffee. Conversely, would cafes that do a great job with HX machines - and, yes, there are a few - experience a boost in business if they stuck same machine inside the shell of a LM or a Synesso?

Example 2; in testing the idea that "fresh is best" by blind-tasting some imported and some local coffee, Instaurator and I had broadly similar picks, which did not have all of the "fresh" coffee ranked above all of the imports. We tasted both terrible locally roasted coffee and terrible imports.

Question 3: How will the trends change over time?

So I think that it's fair to say that fresh coffee, however you define it, is starting to gain more market share over stale coffee, however you want to define that. I personally predict and hope that that trend continues. But what direction will our relatively young fresh coffee businesses expand in? Will more poeple want a generic chocolatey blend in future, or will they want fleeting floral flavours? Will the guys who put in the hard yards to deliver quality end up with more custom than those who focus on marketing? Will there be more or fewer home roasters in future?

Naturally I have my own points of view about all of these questions, but I don't want that to obscure the importance of the questions themselves. Anyone who buys, sells or drinks coffee makes up a tiny part of a broad marketplace. It's all very well to take your own point of view and be happy with what you are doing or drinking, but it would be the height of ignorance and arrogance to presume that this applies to the whole world.

Ignoring the whole market obscures a whole bunch of very interesting questions an possibilities. For example, in looking at the specialty coffee end, Jim Schulman has come up with two fascinating and insightful, if unpopular observations/questions:

(a) The "big boys," who buy coffee that would be completely undrinkable if put through a specialty coffee roaster's drum, have invested a considerable amount of time, money and research into making a silk purse from a sow's ear.

(b) What would happen if we applied those techniques to specialty coffee?

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Hacienda La Esmeralda Especial

About the coffee:

I probably don't need to write too much about this one. If you have been living under a rock, or if you just happen to be one of the few people who doesn't follow the coffee auctions, you might not know that this is currently the world's most expensive coffee. Previously, that dubious honour went to kopi luwak. (I'll spare you the jokes - google it if it's news to you.)

Esmeralda has an impressive back story; in a nutshell, the gesha varietal that makes up the Esmeralda Especial lot seems to have basically gone extinct except for a few random rediscoveries in Panama. It just so happens that this particular farm's gesha offering has won something like four Best of Panama auctions and every single other cupping competition it has been entered in. In terms of scores, the consensus seems to be that it's a 92 at a minimum, with some tasters going as high as 97!

So how much of it is hype? How much of it is mystique? How much of it is actually in the cup? Recently, a very generous person coming to Melbourne from the US of A offered to drug mule some coffee over for me. So naturally I asked for some Esmeralda. (Before you ask, no, this was not the auction lot stuff - it was the pre-auction stuff that sold for exorbitant but comparatively sane prices.) As fate would have it, the coffee arrived right in time for the first of this year's Melbourne Barista Jams, which I was running. (Perhaps I will blog quickly about that in the future; for now, you can take a look at my crappy photos and Syd's rather better photos.)

Strange shaped beans. Reminds me of a Harrar Longberry.

Tasting Notes:

Syphon/Vac Pot: Dominant and unnatural mandarin. This is a definite shock to the system. In Peter's words, "coffee shouldn't taste like that." Dry finish. Hints of Earl Grey tea (is this what they call "bergamot"?) in the first few days after popping open the bag, but these subsided. I didn't get the cornucopia of subtle aromatics that many others have waxed lyrical about, but I put it down to being ten days after roasting and having travelled half-way around the world. Most of the US coffee that I have tried just gives up the will to live on the plane trip, so the phenomenal coffee that we were producing really is a testament to either, or perhaps both, the inherent quality of the bean or Miguel's roasting and packaging.

French Press: Mandarin. Dry finish from the syphon wasn't really there. Creamy finish (I usually associate "creamy" with "vanilla," so I hasten to add that there was no vanilla flavour.)

Espresso: Yes, I couldn't resist the temptation to pull two shots with some of the remaining coffee. No, none of them were perfectly dialled in. The better pair had a fair whack of orange, but a slight astringency that I tend to associate with coffee being roasted a bit too light for espresso. This coffee has gained notoriety against a backdrop of Americans who drink drip, so it is unsurprising that it was more suited to preparations other than espresso. Indeed, a lot of the commentators online say so quite explicitly.

The Wrap Up:

A sensational coffee for anything except for espresso. Espresso is unique and interesting, but I didn't feel that it showcased the coffee as well as the brewed methods. Perhaps it would make a good foil to a rich, heavy style of espresso as a small component in a blend.

More Information:

Many of these people have tasted the coffee under fairer conditions ... ie. without it having travelled half way around the world. It is interesting to read their taste descriptors.

Hacienda La Esmeralda - the farm's webpage; quite a bit of info on gesha

Stoneworks - final auction results - tasting notes for green Esmeralda roasted by Jim and Bob

Coffee Review - Kenneth Davids tastes Esmeralda from multiple sources

Sweet Maria's - tasting notes from Tom

Paradise Roasters - where my lot came from

Digression 1: Syphon coffee - dryness + bitterness

The dryness of the syphon coffee warrants more investigation. To my mind, there were three possible causes:

(1) a taint inherent in the coffee;

(2) contamination from past brews in the hario cloth filter;

(3) the sunbeam grinder that I bought for non-espresso use not cutting the mustard.

Number 1 was eliminated with the french press preparation. However, I used the ditting at work to grind the coffee, so numbers 2 and 3 are still on the cards. I am now storing my cloth filter in a solution containing cafetto and doing a cleaning brew with just water before brewing, following some tips from Toshi. We'll see how things turn out.

Digression 2: Back to Basics

Well, it has been a while since I started this blog and I can't say that I have been prolific in generating a set of tasting notes for me (and others, I guess) to refer to. I will endeavour to correct this in future. This might entail me just putting up some basic posts; just the notes, with a minimum of chat and without photos.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Request: Nuova Point Cups

Well, the Nuova Point cap cups proved to be a smash hit when I first bought them a few years ago. Today, they continue to be a smash. Literally! I'm down to one. I'd love to pick up a few more if anyone is buying a half dozen and doesn't want all of it. They're cheap as chips - only $30 for half a dozen, so if no-one is interested I might just buy some myself and be done with it.