by Kevin Knox
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.