Archive for the ‘Coffee Business: Roasting and Retailing’ Category



  • The High Price of Coffee in Taiwan

  • June 13th, 2013
  • Yesterday, we noted that the average price of a 90+ point coffee from U.S. roasters in 2013 is $22.13 per pound.  Count your blessings if you’re a consumer in the United States.

    In 2013, we’ve reviewed 23 coffees rated 90+ from Taiwan.  The average score was nearly identical to the U.S. average: 92.0 vs. 92.1 for the U.S.  However, there was a dramatic price difference.  The average price per pound in Taiwan was $39.30 (converted at an exchange rate of 0f 29.9 TWD to $US).  That’s 75% more than in the United States.

    I’d be interested to hear from others what factors are driving the significant difference.  It does not appear to be a statistical anomaly, such as an over-weighting of expensive Geshas, luwaks, Konas, or JBM’s.  In fact, nearly half of the 90+ point coffees from Taiwan are blends.  In the U.S., almost all of the 90+ point coffees are single origin coffees.


  • What You’ll Pay for a 90-Point Coffee

  • June 12th, 2013
  • At Coffee Review, we cup coffees on a blind basis.  To be completely objective, we hide the identity of the roasters and coffees until after scores are determined and tasting notes are completed.

    When we cup, we don’t know the price of the coffee either.  It’s irrelevant from a cupping point of view.  However, it’s not irrelevant to consumers.  In fact, for most people, the price of a coffee plays an meaningful role in whether one purchases a particular coffee.  So, while a 95-point coffee may be very appealing in the cup, it will be less so at $40 per pound.

    With that in mind, I was curious what it actually costs to purchase a 90-point coffee.  With a little massaging of the Coffee Review database, I found that the average price so far in 2013 for coffees produced by U.S. roasters and rated 90 points or higher is $16.60 per 12 ounces, or $22.13 per pound.  For this analysis, we used the price per 12 ounces as the standard for comparison, as the majority of specialty coffees that we rate are packaged in 12 ounce valve bags.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a correlation between rating and price.

    < 90 points: $11.55 per 12 ounces

    90-91 points: $15.64 per 12 ounces

    92-93 points: $16.49 per 12 ounces

    > 94 points: $18.41 per 12 ounces

    Perhaps not surprisingly, in general, the higher a coffee is rated, the more it costs.

    On average, a 94+ rated coffee costs almost $24.55 per pound.  At Coffee Review, we’re always quick to point out that, while this may sound expensive, it’s an excellent value per portion relative to other artisan beverages.  If you consider that a pound of coffee beans brews roughly the liquid equivalent of a case of wine, at $24.55 per pound, or slightly more than $2 bucks per “bottle,” the finest coffees in the world are a bargain.

    In the coming days, we’ll provide some guidance on highly rated coffees that are also excellent values relative to their peers.

     


  • The Complexity of Coffee: Aroma Profiling Isn’t Just for Wine

  • December 30th, 2011
  • Proper Aroma/Flavor profiling is all too often neglected in Coffee. Coffee Aromas/Flavors are essential to understanding and appreciating coffee. As in wine, coffee gets its aromas or flavors from the soil and the climatic environment in which the coffee plant grows. The coffee variety (genetic) and the method in which the green coffee was processed also contribute to the aromas/flavors. Like wine, coffee has many variables which can affect its quality. Coffee crops can be harmed by insects, freeze and poor storage conditions during harvest, which may lead to moldy and sour flavors. It can also be contaminated during its processing such as in the depulping and washing of the coffee cherries, and lastly, during the final storage conditions where once again several defects can develop on the beans. These problems are not exactly the same but similar to those which occur during wine production. Coffee has different varieties, as does wine, which get their characteristics from the soil (terroir).  The core aromatic profile of the end product (in the cup) is defined by these characteristics and by the roasters. The coffee blender creates the finishing touch by assembling different roasts. This is very similar to what consulting winemakers do during the wine blending process. We talk about taste, aromas, flavors, acidity and body in coffee as we do in wine. The main difference between coffee and wine, taste aside, is that coffee is not rated by vintage. Unlike certain wines, roasted coffee does not keep for years. The fresher the roast, the more aromatic the coffee beverage will be. Let it age and you will create unpleasant tastes and aromas; this is especially true for the volatile aromas. The consumer also has an important hand in the outcome of her/his coffee experience as does the wine consumer. In wine, serving temperature, wine glass shape and proper food pairing play an important role in properly enjoying a wine. In coffee this process is a little different. The important factors are the grinding, blending and brewing process. The grinding size and the water temperature play major roles in the proper extraction of coffee aromas/flavors, as well as the quantity and quality of water used to prepare a good cup of coffee.  Ultimately, the coffee drinker puts her/his final touch to the coffee beverage.

    In coffee, over 850 volatile aromatic compounds have been catalogued to date. That said, most aromatic descriptions have been simplified or regrouped in terms of flavors and taste. Common flavors found in coffee are fruity, floral, earthy, buttery, caramel, nutty, spicy, smoky, etc. The classification of taste includes acid, bitter, body (thin, watery to thick, heavy). This simplification helps coffee drinkers express their preferences in a basic way. If one wants to gain further knowledge of coffee tasting, then it is imperative to recognize key aromas and flavors in coffee. Especially if you wish to narrow down the country of origin, variety and profile. One would then be able to differentiate between a Robusta from South East Asia with one from Brazil. This is something we have been doing for years with wine and which has been available to every wine aficionados for more than 30 years through le nez du vin (Wine Aroma Kits). Using the same methodology, Jean Lenoir, creator of the famous Wine Aroma kits, created two le nez du café (or make scents of coffee) kits. The first kit is an introduction that includes the 6 most commonly found coffee aromas:
    (1) Garden peas, 2) Blackcurrant-like, 3) Butter, 4) Caramel, 5) Roasted peanuts, 6) Roasted coffee. The second, a more advanced and complete kit, contains the 36 most commonly found coffee aromas:
    01) Earth , 02) Potato , 03) Garden peas, 04) Cucumber 05) Straw , 06) Cedar, 07) Clove-like , 08) Pepper, 09) Coriander seeds, 10) Vanilla, 11) Tea-roses/Redcurrant jelly, 12) Coffee blossom, 13) Coffee pulp, 14) Blackcurrant-like, 15) Lemon, 16)Apricot, 17) Apple, 18)Butter, 19) Honeyed, 20) Leather, 21) Basmati Rice, 22) Toast, 23) Malt, 24) Maple Syrup, 25) Caramel, 26) Dark chocolate, 27) Roasted almonds, 28) Roasted peanuts, 29) Roasted hazelnuts, 30) Walnuts, 31) Cooked beef, 32) Smoke, 33) Pipe Tobacco, 34) Roasted coffee, 35) Medicinal, 36) Rubber.
    This unique and extensive collection of aromas will help you train your sense of smell and improve your enjoyment of coffee. The le nez du café (make scents of coffee) kits provide a common vocabulary to describe coffee aromas, taste and flavors because coffee deserves the same attention as wine.

    It is no surprise that most coffee roasters and specialists from the world over use le nez du café to train their sense of smell and better understand the aromatics behind coffee.

    So if you are passionate about your coffee and would like to become a better taster, understand where aromas and flavors originate and how they are associated with the varieties, le nez du café (make scents of coffee) kits are fundamental to the development of your coffee expertise.


  • Quality: Passion, Process or Both?

  • July 25th, 2011

  • The challenge: The highest quality coffee is produced by large, technically sophisticated companies which do a much better job at delivering fresh, consistent, good-value coffees than do most of today’s smaller specialty roasting companies.

    I find I need to parse this lengthy and loaded sentence in order to comment on it.

    Quality in coffee is a multifaceted thing, in large measure because of what I called “the broken chain of custody” in my book Coffee Basics. The grower, who puts in the lion’s share of the work, can do everything right, only to have the coffee ruined during shipment. The roaster then optimizes the coffee’s potential – or ruins it through over- or under-roasting, blending, incorrect packaging or grinding. Even if all of these steps are done optimally, is the coffee sold fresh, brewed at the right dosage, in good equipment with soft water heated to ideal temperature, and if so is it consumed immediately? The chances of a given coffee reaching its full potential do indeed remind me of salmon swimming upstream!

    Starting near the beginning of the seed-to-cup path, sourcing the best quality green coffee depends on having extensive training in cupping so as to be able to recognize it, and then having sufficient funds to secure it in a competitive marketplace. Small start-ups typically are long on passion but short on both expertise and cash, while large, publicly-traded corporations have plenty of both but usually use them in the service of supplying coffees of consistent mediocrity.

    Freshness is something that needs to be defined, and it’s one of the biggest areas where small and large roasters alike tend to cut corners. If excellence is the standard – and it should be – then only whole bean coffee at room temperature within 5-7 days of roast deserves to be called “fresh,” and certainly only such coffee deserves the designation “freshly-roasted.”

    To preserve freshness beyond this very short time frame requires a large investment in technology and packaging and rigorous, consistent use thereof. One needs not only oxygen-impermeable bags with one-way degassing valves but also vacuum-packaging machine costing in excess of $50,000 to get the oxygen content within the bag below 1% before sealing, as well as an oxygen headspace meter to test packaged coffee and other equipment. Whole bean coffee thus packaged can be indistinguishable from freshly-roasted (as defined above) coffee for 2-3 months, but many roasters cut corners, either by just buying pre-formed bags and sealing them without drawing a vacuum or back-flushing with inert gas (in which case the shelf life is the same as unprotected whole beans), or by packaging their coffee correctly and then shooting themselves in the foot (and screwing their customers) through ridiculous “best by” dates of 6 months, a year, or even longer. The first practice is pervasive among small, “boutique” roasters, the others endemic among the larger players.

    As for ground coffee, if you are Nestlé you have the ability to take coffee from roasting all the way to a pressurized Nespresso capsule in a sub-1% oxygen environment, preserving almost all the coffee’s aroma through precise grinding on a state-of-the-art water-cooled roller mill grinder that by itself costs more than many craft roaster’s entire roasting plants. If, on the other hand, you’re buying great coffee but grinding it for your wholesale accounts on a well-worn Grindmaster or Ditting, quality for you is basically a fantasy, not the process with clearly defined and monitored parameters that is the definition of quality in a manufacturing context.

    Overall I would say that clearly the peak experiences in coffee are offered by roasters who employ experienced buyers with good access to capital and established buying relationships and who either roast and deliver their coffee on a purely local basis or have invested in (and know how to use) the equipment essential to preserve freshness. As for consistent quality, that is clearly the province of medium-to-large sized companies who buy in large enough quantities, understand the art of blending and, last not least, have made the investment in personnel and roasting, packaging, grinding and quality control equipment to deliver coffees of consistent quality. The Scandinavian countries, Germany and Japan have many such companies, Illycaffè in Italy is rightly revered for its standards, and of course here in the U.S. there are numerous mid-sized roasters who also deliver very good (and occasionally great) coffees of a consistent standard at prices consumers are happy to pay every day.

    In conclusion, being small, groovy, microlot-oriented and employing staff with the right number of piercings (and selling high-priced coffees) doesn’t guarantee quality, anymore than being medium-to-large sized and driven more by bottom-line considerations than raw passion guarantees mediocrity. As with most else in coffee, it’s much more complicated than that.

    For another perspective on this challenge, click here to see how Kenneth Davids responds


  • Regardless of Size, Only the Passionate Rule

  • July 25th, 2011

  • The challenge: The highest quality coffee is produced by large, technically sophisticated companies which do a much better job at delivering fresh, consistent, good-value coffees than do most of today’s smaller specialty roasting companies.

    Neither size nor technical sophistication assures quality. Only the obsessive and unrelenting commitment of a company’s leadership assures a steady output of high-quality, distinctive coffees. Some companies, regardless of size, produce such exceptional coffees on a regular basis; others produce good coffees always and exceptional ones now and then; far too many produce little but mediocrity.

    The original model for specialty coffee came courtesy of Alfred Peet in 1966, which is roasting fine, distinctive coffee at the back of the store and walking it up to the front to sell it fresh out of the roaster. Today there are small companies that have successfully revived this model, in some cases successfully updating it by selling via the Internet. They buy small lots of very fine coffee, roast them skillfully using skillful hands-on artisan roasting, and ship them fresh. Some of these companies have produced coffees that without a doubt are among the most memorable coffee experiences of my life, and rank as genuine triumphs of almost transcendent artisanry stretching from small producer through boutique importer to boutique roaster. On the other hand, second-rate versions of the archetypal boutique roaster abound, companies that buy mediocre green coffees on the bad advice of an importer and roast ‘em ‘til they’re brown – or, more usually, black. These companies are on the wane or changing, as they are pushed by the latest generation of smaller coffee roasting companies that buy with more precision and roast with a more careful and lighter hand, but there still are many of them around.

    And even the good boutique roasters face the challenge of growth. At a certain point volume increases until the small-scale, roast-and-sell-them-fresh model doesn’t work anymore, and the company either has to start buying expensive packaging equipment to assure a longer shelf life (see Kevin Knox’s excellent companion blog to this one for details), or slow down and stay small, which I can imagine is almost as difficult a business proposition as getting big enough to afford a minimum of about 70K of new packaging and testing equipment.

    Or these companies may be tempted to take the easy way out to expansion, which is packaging coffee in valve bags without equipment to properly evacuate oxygen and instruments to monitor it, subsequently allowing it to sit on store shelves or in back rooms until it’s half stale. There is a whole segment of the specialty coffee industry, new and old, that appears to handle coffee this way. These same companies often apply similar carelessness to buying green coffees and roasting them. They produce some of the least impressive whole bean coffees in the country, but you can’t tell that from reading the bags, which may be full of staling coffee on the inside but display a lot of fluff on the outside about buying the finest coffee and roasting it in small batches.

    Maybe the consistently best coffee in the country is produced by a handful of companies that are large enough to afford top-end packaging lines and obsessive enough to actually take the time to source top quality, distinctive green coffees. These companies range in size from medium-small to very large. The road to excellence is easier for the smaller ones because their volumes are smaller and they can be more selective in their green buying, but what remains most important, regardless of size, is the commitment leaders make to the demanding, unrelenting attention required to put out well-sourced, well-roasted, well-packaged coffee.

    Then there are the big commercial companies that turn out canned roast-and-ground coffees. These coffees are a clear case of garbage in and garbage out. Unless it is a 100% Colombia, the coffees that fill the plastic roast-and-ground supermarket cans are objectively and unarguably bad. But the companies that produce them have amazing technical capacity – for example, they can turn Robusta coffees that literally taste like stinking, two-week-old compost into dull, tasteless brown water. That is a genuine technical achievement. I’m quite serious. It is difficult to pull off, but it lets people on a severe coffee budget get stimulated relatively cheaply and without gagging while giving investors a decent return on their money.

    Finally, a word on what are probably the most technically sophisticated coffee companies in the world, the big European espresso roasters. To my taste, the best among these espresso giants is Nespresso, with its intimidatingly good and distinctively different range of espresso capsules. On the other hand, for me Illy Caffè is a triumph of technical sophistication aimed at a regrettably limited goal: a consistently characterless espresso, as technically perfect but as limply elegant as a French academic painting from the 19th century.


    For another perspective on this challenge, click here to see how Kevin Knox responds


  • Travel Less and Cup More

  • July 11th, 2011
  • The Challenge: Coffee buyers for roasting companies should be doing much less travel and much more cupping, quality control and customer education.

    Kevin Knox writes:

    I’d put this another way. The most important tools for buying great coffee are a well-trained palate, a well-equipped cupping room, relationships with the best importers and – last not least – sufficient capital to afford to buy top coffees in season and keep them in inventory for extended periods.

    I think it’s great that people in the trade want to know where coffee comes from, but I do see many small roasting companies allocating large sums of money, relative to their size and volume of coffee bought and roasted, to extensive origin travel that is clearly in lieu of – or at least at the expense of – much-needed attention to things at home.

    Wanting to have, or claiming to have, a personal relationship with every farm you buy coffee from makes for great marketing but it isn’t good business, nor is it actually possible unless one limits one’s buying to a handful of farms in a couple of countries.

    More important, if the goal is having the best coffee from each origin, the way to get there is to cup samples extensively and intensively in season from as broad a cross-section of farms as one can access, rather than limiting purchases to farms you bought from in previous years. In other words, “relationship” coffee or multi-year exclusives and having the best coffee are antithetical ideals. A more open approach also delivers much better value, allowing one to reward new and unknown farms doing a great job rather than over-paying for “name” coffees from farms bent on using the roaster as a vehicle to build their own brand with consumers.

    Cupping, QC and customer education are the responsibilities of roaster-retailers, while producing high quality coffee at origin is the domain of farmers and agronomists. From the point of view of delivering coffee of high quality and value as well as that of being environmentally responsible and minimizing one’s carbon footprint, I would suggest that buyers for all but the largest companies would indeed be much better off spending much more time doing their jobs while letting their partners at origin do theirs.


    For another perspective on this challenge, click here to see how Kenneth Davids responds


  • Making Coffee Travel Relevant

  • July 11th, 2011
  • The Challenge: Coffee buyers for roasting companies should be doing much less travel and much more cupping, quality control and customer education.

    Kenneth Davids writes:

    I guess my reservation with the challenge statement is the repetition of the “much” word. If the thrust of the challenge statement is to argue that coffee buyers should focus first and foremost on the actual character of the coffee they buy and sell and less on travel stories glamorizing a quest for perfect coffees, etc. then I would agree. This critique applies as well to the traditional, older-fashioned marketing apparatus for fine single-origin coffees, wherein imagery of samba dancers and giraffes seemed to figure more prominently in promotional materials than attempts to describe the character of the coffees and what made them taste that way.

    One of the reasons I like the latest trend in promotion of high-end coffee is that it tends to focus on what made the coffee taste the way it does – botanical variety, growing elevation, processing method, etc. – rather than on tourist hype or giraffes. True, the affectionate accounts of growers and their families one runs across on websites and packages may come off as a little irrelevant to how the coffee tastes, but I’ll go with it in the spirit of fairness, because if the media can turn hysterical cooks and pretentious winemakers into heroes I don’t see why we shouldn’t try to do the same for our own friends and collaborators in producing countries. True too, the tendency to brand coffee farms or coops and for roasters to buy green coffee by these brands rather than by the actual character of the coffee offered for sale in a given crop year is a little distressing from the point of view of coffee quality and authenticity, but again, if executives in soft-drink company board rooms can try to brand their stuff I can’t see why coffee growers can’t make the same attempt.

    Although that does take us back to the argument made in the challenge statement, which is that coffee buyers should focus on the cup in front of them in this time and space and crop year and not on hype, safari glamour, or even on genuine friendship and how great the ron Zacapa was that night in Huehuetenango.

    But finally, I think a certain kind of serious coffee travel undertaken over the long run is probably essential for coffee buyers. This is the kind that happens during harvest, and is slow, thorough in its observation, and ultimately focused on a better understanding of the cup itself and the almost infinite number of variables, both natural and deliberate, that go into determining its character. It is not the kind of touring in which a group hits three farms or coops per day and its all “we pick only ripe cherries and they go in here and come out there and our coffee is the greatest in the world, and we treat our workers well, and now let’s have a great lunch up at the house.” It’s a process of observing what actually happens during processing and drying, and talking a lot with the people who actually make it happen, and then following up with systematically cupping the results. And if at all possible continuing to cup the results through subsequent years and the changes those years bring. To me, newer roasters should have such an education, and as the money and time come available should spend time witnessing all of the major variations on processing method and drying. In other words, rather than four trips to Central America it might be better to make one trip to witness wet-hulling in Sumatra and another to some large hi-tech farm in Brazil where they do three different processing methods and another to some farm or coop that does both traditional wet process and small-scale dry process; in Ethiopia, for example.

    We in the fine coffee industry need to make these investigations ourselves with an open mind, because the traditional lore of the traditional coffee industry is out-of-date and useless and the empirical work of the scientists is necessarily narrow in focus and, it would seem, oblivious to subtle sensory variation in coffee, which is precisely where we, as students and teachers of fine coffee, need to focus our attention.

    For another perspective on this challenge, click here to see how Kevin Knox responds


  • Ken Davids and Kevin Knox exchange views on the microlot trend.

  • July 1st, 2011
  • The Challenge: The latest roaster emphasis on offering high-priced microlots without also offering a core lineup of good-tasting origin coffees at decent prices is a disservice to consumers.

    Kenneth Davids writes:

    I like “micro-lots,” if what is meant by that term are coffees that 1) are small, distinctive lots that have been purchased with particular precision and care by the roaster; 2) take advantage of seasonable opportunity to maximize quality and distinction; i.e. are not limited by the need to be repeatable from season to season, and 3) are described with precision on the package, particularly in respect to botanical variety and processing method.

    Whether that same roaster is obligated by industry tradition and consumer expectation to also offer a familiar lineup of fine coffee standards, i.e. a Kenya AA, a Sumatra Mandheling, a high-grown Central America, etc. is of no consequence to me. I think consumers speak for themselves through their patronage, and if a successful business can be built on nothing but fine microlots that take advantage of seasonal opportunities (and the roaster’s own taste in coffee) then I can only admire the savvy and persistence of whoever pulls that strategy off. Down the street or at another URL we can be sure that another roaster is competing on the basis of traditional coffee naming and sourcing. If a one-location roaster opens in some small market and succeeds with primarily microlots then we can be sure that there is Starbucks and other biggies like Peet’s or Green Mountain or Caribou lurking somewhere else on main street or a nearby strip mall offering the traditionalist the usual choices.

    It’s hard to say whether micro-lots typically are “better” than coffees offered with under traditional, more general nomenclature by larger roasters, mainly because some roasters specializing in micro-lots are much more consistent with their quality than others, just as some larger roasting companies are more consistent in quality than others. But I can vouch for the fact that the flexibility of the micro-lot concept – run across a smaller lot of great coffee, print a label, put up a paragraph on the website, roast it and sell it fresh until it’s gone – allows for considerably more freedom to experiment with unusual coffee types than allowed by the often ponderous, slow marketing systems of some larger roasters, where marketing departments may insist on literally months of notice to prepare marketing and packaging for some new offering. Meanwhile any opportunity to sell thirty bags or a hundred or even a container of a really exceptional or different coffee has vanished and that coffee is buried in the stream of more conventional products.


    Kevin Knox writes:

    I agree with the sentiment in the challenge statement but think one needs to define some of the terms in order to flesh it out and make it meaningful.

    Even among the purveyors of “microlots” there’s no consensus on what the term means. It’s rather like “roasted in small batches,” which has been used to refer to roasts ranging from a few ounces to a thousand pounds or more.

    A core lineup to me means excellent single origin coffees representing the four primary types of origin-derived (as opposed to roast-imparted) flavors: mild Latin American coffees, washed East Africans, dry-processed coffees from Ethiopia and Yemen, and the classic semi-washed arabicas from Indonesia. In recent years we’ve seen several well-regarded and influential “third wave” roasters restricting their offerings to a handful of washed Central American and East African coffees. Certainly cupping for clarity and refinement of flavor can lead to strong preferences in that direction, but in my extensive experience sampling coffees for both retail customers and highly-educated food and wine professionals the wine-like complexity and richness of a great Yemen Mocha or Ethiopian Harrar and the infinite depth of a first-rate Sumatra typically receive far higher accolades than the more familiar washed coffees. These are also coffees of great historical and commercial importance without which none of the newer types would exist, and I feel that their distinctive flavor and heritage make them essential offerings.

    “Decent prices” is clearly an elastic concept, but to me it certainly does not include pricing 12 ounces of coffee at a full pound price (a pervasive bit of trickery that has no place in specialty coffee and evokes the famous 13 ounce and smaller “shrinking can” and brick packs from Folger’s and the like). Alfred Peet used to mandate that at least 5 coffees be retailed at prices no more than $1 a pound over average supermarket whole bean prices in order to make sure customers knew Peet’s offered good value and wasn’t snobby. I wish more roasters thought this way.


  • Kevin Knox and KenDavids exchange views on the microlot trend.

  • July 1st, 2011
  • The Challenge: The latest roaster emphasis on offering high-priced microlots without also offering a core lineup of good-tasting origin coffees at decent prices is a disservice to consumers.

    Kevin Knox writes:

    I agree with the sentiment here but think one needs to define some of the terms in order to flesh it out and make it meaningful.

    Even among the purveyors of “microlots” there’s no consensus on what the term means. It’s rather like “roasted in small batches,” which has been used to refer to roasts ranging from a few ounces to a thousand pounds or more.

    A core lineup to me means excellent single origin coffees representing the four primary types of origin-derived (as opposed to roast-imparted) flavors: mild Latin American coffees, washed East Africans, dry-processed coffees from Ethiopia and Yemen, and the classic semi-washed arabicas from Indonesia. In recent years we’ve seen several well-regarded and influential “third wave” roasters restricting their offerings to a handful of washed Central American and East African coffees. Certainly cupping for clarity and refinement of flavor can lead to strong preferences in that direction, but in my extensive experience sampling coffees for both retail customers and highly-educated food and wine professionals the wine-like complexity and richness of a great Yemen Mocha or Ethiopian Harrar and the infinite depth of a first-rate Sumatra typically receive far higher accolades than the more familiar washed coffees. These are also coffees of great historical and commercial importance without which none of the newer types would exist, and I feel that their distinctive flavor and heritage make them essential offerings.

    “Decent prices” is clearly an elastic concept, but to me it certainly does not include pricing 12 ounces of coffee at a full pound price (a pervasive bit of trickery that has no place in specialty coffee and evokes the famous 13 ounce and smaller “shrinking can” and brick packs from Folger’s and the like). Alfred Peet used to mandate that at least 5 coffees be retailed at prices no more than $1 a pound over average supermarket whole bean prices in order to make sure customers knew Peet’s offered good value and wasn’t snobby. I wish more roasters thought this way.


    Kenneth Davids writes:

    I like “micro-lots,” if what is meant by that term are coffees that 1) are small, distinctive lots that have been purchased with particular precision and care by the roaster; 2) take advantage of seasonable opportunity to maximize quality and distinction; i.e. are not limited by the need to be repeatable from season to season, and 3) are described with precision on the package, particularly in respect to botanical variety and processing method.

    Whether that same roaster is obligated by industry tradition and consumer expectation to also offer a familiar lineup of fine coffee standards, i.e. a Kenya AA, a Sumatra Mandheling, a high-grown Central America, etc. is of no consequence to me. I think consumers speak for themselves through their patronage, and if a successful business can be built on nothing but fine microlots that take advantage of seasonal opportunities (and the roaster’s own taste in coffee) then I can only admire the savvy and persistence of whoever pulls that strategy off. Down the street or at another URL we can be sure that another roaster is competing on the basis of traditional coffee naming and sourcing. If a one-location roaster opens in some small market and succeeds with primarily microlots then we can be sure that there is Starbucks and other biggies like Peet’s or Green Mountain or Caribou lurking somewhere else on main street or a nearby strip mall offering the traditionalist the usual choices.

    It’s hard to say whether micro-lots typically are “better” than coffees offered with under traditional, more general nomenclature by larger roasters, mainly because some roasters specializing in micro-lots are much more consistent with their quality than others, just as some larger roasting companies are more consistent in quality than others. But I can vouch for the fact that the flexibility of the micro-lot concept – run across a smaller lot of great coffee, print a label, put up a paragraph on the website, roast it and sell it fresh until it’s gone – allows for considerably more freedom to experiment with unusual coffee types than allowed by the often ponderous, slow marketing systems of some larger roasters, where marketing departments may insist on literally months of notice to prepare marketing and packaging for some new offering. Meanwhile any opportunity to sell thirty bags or a hundred or even a container of a really exceptional or different coffee has vanished and that coffee is buried in the stream of more conventional products.