My Dad had a hail, hearty and memorable throaty laugh. I can still hear it, 40 years after his passing, ringing joyfully through my internal coffee world. “Just remember it’s a game,” he would say, over a corned beef sandwich at Katz’s on Houston Street just down the block and across the street from where he was born in 1910. “Don’t take it too seriously,” but of course I did, and I do, and he sympathetically found that whimsical.
Specialty roasters, now as in my Dad’s generation, are forever enjoying the game of the marketplace. Blue Mountain and Kopi Luwak can give a brand an edge. We game the romance of Yemen and we rejoice in the season of Kona. Ever seeking the perfect cup, and a competitive advantage, we embraced the gambit of dark roasting in the seventies, and adding steamed milk to everything in the eighties. Tamping with just the very right pounds of pressure drove the nineties, while today some are playing the very light roast card. And yes, there are still dark roast devotees, and medium ones too, and so we are commended to sales gamesmanship of a high and varied order, each ploy boosted by their player, as being the perfect point of roast, the perfect long-pour technique, the perfect “God shot”.
The diversion of layered oenophilic descriptors designed to raise a company intellectually above their competitors is an interesting exercise in silliness of which I am occasionally guilty. The fragrance of persimmon, aroma of rye toast, and finish of Amedei’s Porcelana chocolate bar is also of interest to some. But, how many of those who spout that stuff, really know what they are talking about, and how many are just feigning erudition? Unsurprisingly, this wordsmithing has been used to great effect by many. At the same time it has been the fountainhead for the phrase, Coffee Snobs; a brush with which many innocents in the trade have been painted, and which holds us up to ridicule by some, and contempt by a few.
The specialty trade matured, in the 1990’s, with one firm emerging as the economic medalist in that new market. This raised the ante forcing those who followed to invent alternative marketing strategies. In part these New Beans fell upon the idea of buying while seated at the farmer’s table rather than buying over the telephone through brokers and importers in the US. Initially their trips to origin were coffee tourism scouting expeditions, but in some cases they actually resulted in the practice of direct from the farm purchasing. Using their in-country experiences as marketing tools was good business that in one case resulted in a Cable TV show for the roaster. Relationship Coffee is now a powerful and fashionable phrase. When presented as something completely new, it permits those who employ its marketing possibilities to present themselves as both holier than and superior to their competitors, while living in denial that direct purchases were standard industry practice from mid-Nineteenth Century until not very long ago, and at least one major, Nestle S.A., continues to have agents, and cupping stations in many of their source countries. More than a few specialty roasters travel to coffee countries yearly.
Of course, in real life, finding good reliable resources for green coffee is not an insurmountably difficult part of the contest. You can often find that quality of farm resource without leaving home, thanks to the network of farmers, agents and representatives, brokers, importers, and trade venues are in place to support the roaster in bringing better coffee tastes to their customers. A wonderful opportunity afforded farmers and roasters each year is the opportunity to meet at the annual SCAA gathering, which this year will be held in Seattle April 9th through April 12th.
It is a blessing when I find a farm whose produce is delicious, and shaking the hand of a farmer whose produce pleases is a well-remembered experience. As a buyer I tend to stay with reliable resource for a long time. I have, for example, been roasting the same Guatemala Antigua for years, with very happy results for the farmer, and our customers. The product is an old growth Bourbon coffee, sun dried and milled at the family beneficio. I can become poetic about its taste qualities, and I’m pleased that the qualities of the farm’s produce has not been our discovery alone, as it takes more than one little roaster to keep a farm prosperous. In the case of Finca La Tacita, no fewer than two other roasters relatively nearby are offering their coffee; Kobricks, in New Jersey, and Willoughby’s in Connecticut. Happily, we each bring a different roasting technology and sensitivity to the beans, so that while the coffee going in has a commonality, the resulting roast profile, and cup quality are unique to the roaster.
The eagerness to bring attention to products spawns contests. Winning brings recognition and added value to the lucky few. The loss of apprenticeship in the cupping room has been replaced with a measured scientific approach to measuring cup quality. These legitimate efforts have devolved into codifying everything coffee into numbers, and at the same time placed the game at the cupping table into the hands of scientifically, mathematically standardized cupping technicians trained to appreciate bright character above all other considerations
First recorded in 1870, the adage “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” is applicable to the current fashion in coffee competitions judging, where panels of certified experts tend to choose the coffee that yells the loudest in the cup, rather than the cup that is truest to the traditional taste of an origin, or district. This approach often leaves the best balanced cup on the table no chance of winning laurels. It also, sadly, flattens the coffee world, forcing every origin to make efforts to appear to be grown in Tarrazu in order to be taken seriously in the game. We have seen great changes in the fashions of coffee taste in the generations since the Second Industrial Revolution. It is my hope that the idea that acidity as the highest virtue, as other extreme coffee attitudes, will mellow and sweeten with time.
My old man would have loved the “cultivar game,” where rainfall, variety, and the brand of socks warn by the pickers at origin are manipulated by salesmen to add value to the cup. I have always enjoyed learning the minutia of coffee, particularly in its historical context. I want to, but can’t always find within myself the tolerance to believe that others really care about such things, but only spout what they believe will sell. Sometimes I think that the customer is being sold The Emperor’s New Clothes rather than, what my friend Dan Cox calls, “the real deal,” in a cup.
I understand and pay homage to the game of courtship rituals of selling, but while some of the things the customer is being asked to swallow by some roasters may be interesting, even fascinating, some are just incidental and unimportant items of esoterica that overwhelm the customer’s intelligence in choosing a coffee. I also think my old man, who admired the showmanship and gamesmanship of P.T. Barnum and Billy Rose, would find my seriousness about this stuff a reason for mirth. Pass the mustard.