I write a biweekly coffee column for the local newspaper, the Herald Times Reporter, called "Spill the Beans." I'll be reprinting those columns here, but will generally reprint them as I originally wrote them, that is, without any possible edits that appeared when they were published in the HTR. The only exception to that will be that the blog post title will be the title as it appeared in the HTR, while my title will begin the post proper. Sometimes the HTR used my title, sometimes they retitled it for publication. I may intersperse writings here and there that deal with other aspects coffee knowledge and education. The HTR columns will display the image of that day's front page banner. I'll continue to add past columns as regularly as possible until I get caught up.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

La Minita – a gift from a fellow barista

La Minita - a gift from a fellow barista

The other day my friend Nic Borneman gave me a small bag of coffee with the promise that I would thoroughly enjoy its contents. Nic is the head honcho and barista at the fine Red Bank Coffee in Two Rivers. He has been in the coffee business for some time now, which is to say that he knows his coffee. So I was expecting his little gift to be something special, and it certainly was.

Nic had pre-ground the coffee to a courser grind for French press brewing, a method we both agree reveals more of the desirable qualities and nuances of high quality arabicas.

The coffee came from the well-known Hacienda La Minita plantation in Costa Rica. Last month I wrote about another wonderful Costa Rican coffee from the same central Tarrazu region. The quality of the La Minita was further proof that this region produces exceptionally fine coffees. La Minita means “little mine” or, to be specific to this plantation, “little gold mine.” It is thought pre-Colombian peoples once mined for gold on the land that now grows coffee.

Hacienda La Minita cares for approximately 1,700,000 coffee trees on 680 acres. That’s around 2,500 trees per acre. The farmers lovingly tend to each tree, employing a system of pruning 350,000 trees and transplanting 150,000 trees each year. It is inspiring to imagine all of the work that goes into an operation like Hacienda La Minita, especially when you realize that everything is done by 80 individual, full-time workers with hand tools.

That core group of workers and their families live directly on the farm. 150 additional workers are brought in periodically to perform weeding. That number grows to over 600 workers employed during the harvest. Cap the image of all of those trees and all of the work that goes into caring for them with the fact that they produce only a single crop of coffee each year. It’s an amazing undertaking.

La Minita Coffee Farm. Don't recall what website I got this image from.

The plantation resembles in many ways “company towns” of days gone by, but perhaps with greater concern for their workers. Hacienda La Minita workers take advantage of community vegetable and citrus gardens; on site housing, dental care and a medical clinic provided by the plantation; a worker’s association that assists with savings plans (Hacienda La Minita contributes matching funds to workers’ savings); and even a plantation soccer team and other social groups. The story of this farm, their history, how they run their business and treat their people is very appealing.

And their coffee ain’t too shabby either. La Minita is considered by many to be the world’s finest estate coffee. According to Nic, “La Minita uses only ‘first-quality’ classified coffee seeds from each step in the production process and finishes with a unique hand cleaning. This final step takes a virtually perfect product and, with over 30,000 worker hours of effort, transforms it into the very special coffee that is bagged for export as La Minita.”

La Minita coffee has been discussed in virtually every contemporary coffee reference work and feature articles about the coffee have appeared in magazines such as Financial World, The Wine Spectator, and Saveur. There is a wonderfully interesting article Jim Daniels on La Minita that appeared in Cigar Aficionado magazine (titled “A Passion for Taste,” Autumn 1995) that you can access online at the Cigar Aficionado website. (Click here to go to that article)

As I prepared and tasted my own French press pot of La Minita I jotted down words that came to mind as I drank. My first impression was of butterscotch, hints of those little butterscotch candies I loved as a child. It had a delightfully luxurious and oily mouthfeel. Hints of nuts and buttered toast, and even a little plum-like fruitiness caught my attention. There was a nice lingering aftertaste, not at all bitter and acidic. Nic was right, this was a truly delightful coffee.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Organic Coffee – good for the environment and farmers alike.

Organic Coffee - good for the environment and farmers alike

Bird friendly. Fair trade. Organic. Shade grown. Rainforest Alliance.

What lovely phrases. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something, whether as a retailer or consumer, that markets itself as, for example, bird friendly or fair trade? These are terms that the coffee industry loves to promote and that make consumers feel good when buying coffee so labeled.

In my opinion, these are all worthwhile and valuable certifications. What person of good conscience would not want to support the earth friendly practices that these labels promote? This is an age where everyone’s favorite color seems to be “green” and “sustainability” is the buzzword of the day.

However, like most good things that catch fire in the popular consciousness there is also the inevitable co-opting of well-intentioned movements and terms for their marketing power. These days organic is good business.

As a consumer, if you are truly concerned about purchasing coffee or other products that purport to be supportive of certain causes then you might want to familiarize yourself a little bit with some of the relevant terminology and certification requirements. We’ll look at some of the above certifications in the coming weeks, but for today let’s briefly focus on the term organic.

Among other things, the word organic implies natural healthiness, fullness of flavor, sustainable farming practices and no nasty chemicals. But just because something might say “organic” on a package doesn’t mean that it is necessarily as organic as you might wish it to be.

Most of us would rightly assume that a bag of coffee labeled as organic at the very least implies that it was grown and processed without the use of man-made chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides. However, there are also different levels of organic certification. In the United States the USDA’s National Organic Program sets the standards for production and certification of organic food products. In addition to forbidding man-made pesticides and fertilizers they also require a period of time of two or three years of continued organic farming practice, stringent documentation, periodic auditing and testing of the soil and product.

Different countries may have different organic certification standards, or none at all. The USDA has determined that foreign government certification systems need not be identical to the U.S. system, but they do have to uphold the standards of the U.S. system. The key to insuring that a bag of organic coffee is in fact organic is in knowing that a USDA accredited third party agency has certified it as such and that it bears the USDA Organic label.

You may not be able to detect much of a difference between a cup of brewed organic vs. non-organic coffee, as most of the chemicals that may be present in non-organically farmed coffee are thought to be burned away during the roasting process. But there are other good reasons besides taste to choose organic coffee when it’s available.

It is fairly common knowledge that farming practices that avoid reliance on man-made chemicals and pesticides are more beneficial to the environment. Natural, low impact farming practices can maintain and replenish soil vitality in addition to enhancing the surrounding flora and fauna. Just as organic production methods help protect the environment, so too do they help protect the people who work the farms by minimizing or avoiding their exposure to carcinogenic chemicals.

Since 2000, the average growth rate for organic coffee sales in the United States has been over 25% annually. The rate of regular coffee sales has been consistent but less than 5% annually. As a result of this impressive growth the price that organic coffee farmers are able to get for their product has increased as well. Increasing returns are leading to more widespread emphasis on organic and sustainable farming practices. It’s a win-win for just about everyone involved.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Costa Ricans have rich coffee history

Costa Rican – drink this coffee; it’s the law

The law now requires you to plant and grow coffee on your property. Not much, just a few shrubs that you will be asked to tend so that they produce coffee cherries.

Of course that is not really required of people in the United States. But at one time it was apparently the law of the land in Costa Rica. While many citizens of this country would rightfully take umbrage at yet more government interference into their private lives and property, at least one nice thing did result from that old mandate in Costa Rica. The country and its citizens became very good at producing very good coffee.

Costa Rica is peppered with both large cooperative coffee plantations and small independent farms, big co-op mills that service the large farms and small “micro-mills” that the lone farmer and his family operate to process their own crops.

Costa Rica has an excellent climate and soil for growing coffee (along with fine cigar tobacco, a double bonus for the country). Flanked on either side by the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea it benefits from warm tropical winds and rain. Volcanic mountain ranges also bookend a central highland plain area of rich volcanic soil. You could hardly ask for better growing conditions.

I recently enjoyed a cup of drip brewed Costa Rican from the Tarazzu region, more or less in the center of the country, south of San Jose. This region is dense with coffee farms and estates as it is deemed one of the best locations for growing coffee in a country rife with ideal conditions. The high altitude, rich soil and shade conditions favor a slow growth that helps produce outstanding Arabica coffee.

Coffees from this region are generally described by the coffee terms “classic” and “clean,” meaning that they are silky smooth, without defects, and extremely well balanced. Sometimes the best examples of a clean cup are also so clean as to be almost uninteresting, with nothing that stands out or grabs your attention. Of course, as we’ve said a number of times in this column, a lot can happen from tree to cup to influence the coffee you end up drinking.

The particular Costa Rican Tarazzu coffee that I was drinking was not what I would describe as a classic cup. It was, however, quite good. I spoke with the barista and asked about the coffee. They did not roast their own coffee on site, but purchased it from a well-known and high quality roasting company that supplies coffee shops all over the United States. It had been roasted to an upper medium, or full-city roast and was only a week off the roast.

I found it to be very well balanced. The aroma was pleasing, not overpowering at all but light and fresh and hinting of garden cucumbers still on the vine. The drink was smooth, yet displayed a little brightness or acidity. It also impressed with a note citrus and even a little nuttiness, almost like a blanched, unsalted peanut. The aftertaste wasn’t so great, being a little too acidic for me to give it five stars out of five (that is, if I did, in fact, use a star rating system). Overall, it was a very good coffee.

It struck me that it might have been the perfect coffee for the warm, sunny spring morning we had that day. Gone (hopefully) were the last remnants of winter, when I seem to be drawn to heavier, heartier and bolder coffees. Spring calls for a change of attitude and a change in coffees. I guess serendipity was with me that spring day.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Here's what makes espresso so good

Espresso – the good stuff

Last week I discussed a few of the misconceptions concerning espresso. This week let us briefly look at what espresso actually is and a few of the factors that make for a good drink.

Espresso, as a drink unto itself, is small. It is a one to two (sometimes three) ounce dose of coffee essence best served in a small ceramic, or “demitasse” cup that is typically two to four ounces in size. It’s a drink that requires a specific process and specific equipment to create. It is made by forcing water that is around 195°-200° F under a pressure of around 140 PSI (pounds per square inch) through approximately 7.5 grams (for a single shot) of finely ground and compacted coffee, for 25 to 30 seconds.

As you might guess, all of those variables combine to impact the quality of the drink. You do need a special machine with which to make espresso (stovetop moka pots not withstanding) and once that machine is properly calibrated for temperature and pressure the barista is left to control and adjust the other variables as conditions warrant. Modern automatic machines can also be calibrated to, at the push of a button, dispense the hot water for a specific duration of time, such as 25 seconds.

Some cafés prefer to have as much control over as many variables as are practical. Our shop, for example, employs a semi-automatic machine that allows us to control the duration of water flow. We have plans to take that a step further by switching to an “old school” manual machine where the barista also controls the time and pressure by pulling down on a long piston-like handle that forces the hot water through the compacted coffee grounds. The phrase “pulling a shot” originated with the use of this type of machine.

Good espresso is the result of a partnership of the skills and talents of both the roaster and barista. Roasters blend different coffees to achieve sweet and mellow flavors, distinct aromas, low acidity and rich crema. The barista then does his or her best to release and highlight those qualities into the cup.

Crema is the creamy, reddish brown foam that sits atop the drink like the foamy head in a glass of beer. It is where all of those delicious attributes of the coffee, along with the roaster’s knowledge and barista’s skill reveal themselves. The crema should be thick, creamy, oily and subtly sweet. If you have a shot with little to no crema, where nothing sticks to the sides of your cup as you drink it, then you’ve got a fair indication that the drink is sub-par.

Making consistently excellent espresso time after time is a task that requires much practice and attention to detail. There are, of course, an infinite number of possibilities with espresso. No two coffee shops, no two blends, no two baristas, are likely to produce espressos with the exact same flavor profiles.

In Italy there is actually a national espresso day, and a National Italian Espresso Institute that defines just what an excellent espresso should be, including an aroma that smells “of grilled bread."

Some have said that the perfect espresso may actually be an unattainable goal. The espresso that approaches perfection is referred to as a “God shot,” and those are few and far between. But excellent espresso should be expected of any self-respecting coffee shop. When you’re paying $2-$3 for a one to two ounce drink you should accept nothing less than a high quality beverage.

Italians order it in the morning and, while still standing, quickly gulp it down before rushing off to work, as though filling themselves with fuel for the day. We Americans seem to prefer to savor it for a few minutes and drink while sitting, collecting our thoughts before beginning the day. Either way, it is a drink worth exploring.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Get your fill of espresso


Espresso. It is the word and product that most clearly defines specialty coffee in most people’s minds. The business of specialty coffee has pretty well become a part of our cultural fabric by now.

Yet even with both independent and chain coffee shops in virtually every city, coffee recipe books lining book-store shelves and cable television programs dedicated to coffee, the word espresso still sounds a little exotic to many people (I still occasionally hear it pronounced as “expresso”).

Espresso is the foundation for all of those syrupy, sweet lattes and cappuccinos Americans seem to love and that Italians scoff at. Conversely, when served by itself it is also the coffee that southern Europeans love and many Americans think of as “too bitter.”

Many people still seem to be confused and misinformed about espresso. They think of it only as that bitter, ultra-dark roasted little shot of coffee that contains two or three times the caffeine of regular brewed coffee. They may also think of it as that little drink that needs a quarter cup of cream and several tablespoons of sugar added to it before it is palatable.

Before we get into what espresso really is let’s address some of those misconceptions. Espresso is not a style or level of roasting the coffee seeds. It is not necessarily a dark or French roast, although that’s the common conception. The roast levels used for espresso vary according to the roaster, what coffees may be used, and even differences in region. West coast espresso is, generally speaking, often roasted darker than it is on the east coast, where lighter roasts seem to be popular. Of course, Starbucks, a west coast company, is viewed as the paradigm for dark roasted coffee. Since they are a very well-known specialty coffee company it is understandable that the darker roasts that they employ are thought to be ubiquitous by many. Returning to Italy, I understand that many Italian coffee roasters favor a medium roast for their espresso.

The point is that any roast level may be used for espresso. It is not the roast that makes it espresso. Creating espresso does take into consideration the blend of coffees that the roaster chooses combined with the level of roast that he or she decides will best achieve the desired qualities for that particular espresso blend. It is very much a creative process and a matter of taste.

Another misconception concerns the caffeine content of espresso. It is not the hyper-caffeinated drink that many people think it is. A shot of espresso (approximately 1 fluid ounce) contains about the same or even less caffeine than your average cup of joe. Again, speaking in generalities, a shot of espresso contains somewhere between 60 and 100 mg of caffeine, while an 8 oz. cup of brewed coffee might contain somewhere between 90 and 160 mg. But even those numbers are estimates, as there are a number of factors that influence the caffeine content of any particular espresso or brewed coffee.

Unfortunately, perhaps the biggest misconception about espresso is that it is a drink that one of my friends described as “nasty,” a bitter, acidic and far too strong dose of coffee oil. Unfortunately, he was right, about that particular shot. In my last column I praised the espresso I got at Café Soleil in Madison, Wisconsin. It was noteworthy for how good it was. Conversely, other espresso is noteworthy for how bad it is.

When prepared poorly it can be practically undrinkable. But – and this is significant – espresso can and should be a sweet, multidimensional and nuanced drink that stands entirely on its own, without the need for cream or sugar. When done well it is an attractive, rich, aromatic drink, more akin to a fine aperitif. It can be a little sip of heaven.

Next time I’ll discuss some of the things that make for an exceptional espresso.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

High service coffee roasters do more than just roast coffee

High service coffee roasters do more than just roast coffee

The specialty coffee business seems to draw an inordinate number of entrepreneurs who are driven by issues beyond financial motivation. Social and environmental issues are regularly championed and emphasized by retailers, roasters and coffee-related media. Many retailers and quality roasters go above and beyond the necessary and practical issues of business survival and growth by extending their reach into community enhancing projects, both local and global.

Of course many other (non-coffee) businesses are also intimately involved in helping to make their communities and the world a better place in which to live. But my perception is that the specialty coffee world does a better and more consistent job of heralding and promoting that kind of involvement among its ranks. Several truly high service roasters seem especially devoted to issues beyond their bottom lines.

“Locally,” that is in Wisconsin and the Midwest, there are some quality roasters who not only provide excellent, fresh roasted coffee to their retailers but who also make it known that part of their businesses involve bettering their communities. Alterra Roasters, for example, is a Milwaukee roaster that has experienced impressive growth since opening their first café in 1994. Now with at least nine Alterra cafés and many retail outlets, the company focuses not only on roasting quality coffee but also on partnering with community organizations that promote the arts, education and environmental issues, primarily in the Milwaukee area.

Alterra’s support of Second Harvest of Wisconsin is noteworthy. This organization distributes millions of pounds of food each year to people who need it in our state. The company donates a small portion of their sales to the cause and, perhaps more importantly, has raised awareness for Second Harvest’s efforts to feed hungry people.

On the west coast one company that is in many ways creating the paradigm for high service coffee roasters and is having a direct, positive impact on communities both local and beyond, is Dillanos Coffee Roasters in Sumner, Washington. I got to know some of the fine folks at Dillanos at last year’s CoffeeFest in Chicago. Although we did not develop a business relationship I found myself spending a good amount of time talking to them and absorbing their literature and company philosophy.

Of course everything begins with the coffee, and Dillanos produces an excellent product for a growing army of retail coffee shops across the country. Their company mission statement is as joyful and spontaneous as any company policy I’ve seen: Help People! Make Friends! Have Fun! And apparently that philosophy is more than just a catchy motto. The company makes a point of developing and emphasizing their relationship with the retailers who carry their coffee, working with them to help improve and grow their businesses. This is an especially appreciated attitude in these uncertain economic times. Dillanos also puts their money where their mouth is, so to speak, by donating time, product and money to local charitable organizations such as the Christian Children’s Fund.

As the company has grown so too has their vision of affecting positive change in areas outside of their local community. They began traveling to places like Guatemala and Costa Rica, directly helping coffee growers and their families. By living and working closely with growers Dillanos’ people are able to not only develop strong personal relationships and a shared vision, but also improve farming and processing methods. This has the ultimate effect of improving the quality of coffee produced, which leads to better prices funneled to growers and by extension improves the economic lives of everyone involved.

This philosophy of hands-on support and emphasis on all links in the coffee chain, from grower to roaster to retailer to coffee drinker, is becoming known as “relationship coffee.” It is a business model that is worth emulating, whatever the field.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Kenya produces wonderful coffee amid unrest

Kenya, wonderful coffee from a country in turmoil

Last week I received some whole bean coffee from a friend on the west coast, a small bag of freshly roasted Kenyan AA. We have long enjoyed the fine coffees of Kenya and have rarely found them to be anything but excellent. This package from our friend was no different, and it got me thinking. Kenya is a country that continues to experience civil unrest and marked violence, as well as recent natural disasters. Yet they are able to produce and distribute an agricultural product such as coffee with relative consistency in quality and production. It is really somewhat amazing.

Kenya is the southern neighbor to Ethiopia, the alleged birthplace of coffee. Yet it’s been only a little more than a hundred years that Kenya has been cultivating coffee on its own. Catholic missionaries brought coffee seedlings to the country in the 1890s (in still another example of the intertwining historical relationship between coffee and religion). A coffee industry quickly developed, with the help of both German and British colonials, and now Kenya is consistently the 17th or 18th leading producer of coffee in the world, with close to half a million small farms and plantations growing high quality arabica plants and employing over six million workers. Most of the farms range in size from less than a single acre to just a few, and have joined together to form of a few hundred cooperatives.

The geography and climate of Kenya is excellent in the mountainous plateau regions of the country, particularly around Mount Kenya, north of Nairobi, where the rich, acidic soil and high altitudes are favorable to arabica coffee. Kenyan coffee farmers are some of the most skilled, knowledgeable and devoted growers in the world. Their farming methods are very earth-friendly, with little or no chemical use and a heavy reliance on natural and labor intensive methods like pruning and mulching. The coffee trees (technically shrubs) are lovingly cared for, with the main crop being picked right around now, from October through December.

Kenyan coffees are wet-processed, a method that, as the name implies, uses water to remove the outer layers of the coffee fruit and further separates the perfectly ripe cherries. Wet-processing also produces a fruitier, brighter, more acidic (though not bitter) coffee. Kenyan coffee is known for its distinctiveness, and is not necessarily a “smooth” cup like, say, Puerto Rican or Hawaiian. It is a coffee with a strong character, medium to full bodied, and a certain flavorful and aromatic intensity.

Kenya also employs a coffee grading system where the milled seeds are sorted and assigned grades based on their size and quality. AA is the largest size bean and the largest beans are also generally the better quality beans, as they naturally contain more flavor and aroma components than smaller beans. This is not always true, however, and there are other factors that are considered in grading the coffee, such as the density of the bean. An AA coffee may yet be separated into a number of different classes.

The coffees are then sold via auctions run by the government, with the best coffees naturally attracting the best prices. In the past this has resulted in better returns for the farmers and even greater incentive to produce the best coffees possible. In recent years, however, the turmoil in Kenya has apparently touched the auction system as well, with farmers complaining of corruption by officials. There have even been occasions of violence between growers and officials.

And yet, in spite of the uncertainty the country as a whole has experienced, the Kenyan coffee industry has somehow managed to continue producing and exporting excellent coffees to the rest of the world. Let us hope that they are able to overcome the challenges they currently face.