Monday, January 31, 2011

What Goes Up...

As the price of specialty coffee rises and hovers around $2.40 per pound, some coffee consumers tighten their belts... or perhaps more fittingly, shrink their morning consumption. Bloomberg's latest report on the subject was enlightening:
Coffee rose to the highest price since 1997 in New York and reached a 28-month high in London on signs that supplies will fail to keep up with demand.
 “The market expects a reduced mid-crop in Colombia due to rain in 2010, and now rainstorms in Brazil that may impact production are being focused on,” said Keith Flury, an analyst with Rabobank in London. “With outlook tight, any potential reduction in the harvest is likely to result in notable price movements, and the increases in the last couple of sessions reflect this.”
This sort of rise and fall of production, and correspondingly, of prices, is perfectly natural and expected. There are those out there who blow their "climate change" whistles too loudly and proclaim that our precious morning brew is in imminent danger, citing rainier seasons in producing countries as proof. Reality check: it rains heavier some years than others. Just like everything else in this fickle world, coffee production changes frequently. 

In times like these, many feel that preparing for the lean seasons during times of bounty would help mitigate high prices in times of shortage- like the epic Biblical tale of Joseph in Egypt storing up grain. I doubt they're suggesting we somehow store up green coffee seeds for 7+ years. They say, would it not make more sense to create a system within the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) that buffered the price? Set the price of coffee at a reasonable level for stable buying and selling. In bountiful years, the regulated price would be overly kind to the farmers, since high production brings with it increased supply, and normally, lower prices due to lower demand pressure. In lean years, the regulated price would protect buyers from painfully high purchase prices- almost the level we are achieving now. Regulated prices would also keep speculators out of the market, and therefore make coffee only about the growers, roasters, and consumers. Sounds good, right? 

Nope. Won't work. Here's the rub: When a farmer works his butt off and grows a truly fantastic crop, he should be rewarded with a fantastic price for his beans. Organizations like Cup of Excellence exist solely to determine the best coffees from each origin in each season. This reward system, paying more for better coffee, is the only way to motivate a farmer to produce better crops. Think about it, if you were to get paid the exact same amount every year for every pound of coffee you produce, would you not produce more and sacrifice quality to obtain higher production? The whole system is idealist and unrealistic. 

Instead, times of bountiful production that leave farmers underpaid (nobody delights in poverty-level pricing, thus enters Fair Trade pricing) are buffeted by times like the present- those of lean harvests and record-setting prices. As a reference, the TransFairUS base price for coffee is $1.26 per pound. Coffee has been hovering around $2.50 for a while now as is described here by Bloomberg:
Arabica coffee for March delivery advanced 5.35 cents, or 2.2 percent, to $2.5035 a pound at 8:24 a.m. on ICE Futures U.S. in New York after reaching $2.5075, the highest level since June 1997. Robusta coffee for March delivery climbed $58, or 2.7 percent, to $2,187 a metric ton on NYSE Liffe in London after touching $2,204, the highest price since Sept. 25, 2008.
Though there are some unsavory elements to the system, such as speculators that in large part, merely drive prices for purchasers upward, the system is inherently logical and realistic. The plight of farmers is not easy, and I think through organizations like TransFair and through direct trade relationships that some roasters make with farmers (paying higher than market price for higher than average quality beans), the living standard for coffee farmers can increase. 

Recently, Kenya's government bailed out some of its coffee farmers from massive debts. "Co-operatives minister Joseph Nyaga says cabinet has agreed to waive the debt which has continued to bog down coffee farmers in the country in order to give them a fresh lease of life." This news combined with the fact that "The $2.50 area seems to be a level where people are willing to take a little profit" and sell, Kenyan growers should see a pretty profit coming their way to get this new life rolling. 

I think the life lesson here is that when times are good, we should enjoy it, but be saving for the tough times to come- because they will. Prices are high now, but they'll return and probably sooner rather than later. After all, what goes up, must come down.

Lord, thank You for change. A static and unchanging life would be boring. Help us to enjoy the changes, knowing You will be there with us all the while. Keep my head deflated and on straight. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Use it or Lose it?

I've noticed that when it comes to fine skills, if you do not use them, you will soon lose them. This principle definitely translates to the preparation of great coffees, too.

A year ago, when I stopped working as a barista at Kaldi's Coffee Roasters, I began work on starting a new coffee shop on the University of Missouri's campus in Columbia, Missouri. After nine months of footwork and ground-breaking, Vida Coffee Co was born. This endeavor created in me many new skills through experiences I had not had prior.

When Vida opened at the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year in August, I took the position of Head Trainer and coffee orderer (Vida is supplied by Northwest Coffee Roasters in Saint Louis). I got back behind the bar for the first time in a year. I expected to pick up a portafilter, grind, dose, and tamp just like I had used to do. I thought unconciously, "I know how to grind perfectly, dose precisely 19-20 grams of espresso (for a double shot pull), and tamp at exactly 20 pounds body weight." These are all actions essential to pulling great shots of espresso- and this is all before you even have any water meet the ground coffee! I had assumed that since I had been able to do these actions hundreds of times, identically, and without fail, thanks to Kaldi's impressive training methods, I would be able to recall this same training a year later. I was wrong.
Chemex Drip Coffee Carafe - 6 Cup
Not only was it surprisingly difficult to replicate what I had used to be able to do easily, I could not perform other tasks that I had always considered simple- such as steaming milk or manual pouring the correct amounts of water into a Chemex Drip Coffee Carafe - 6 Cup. You would think that the lesson would have become clear then- if you do not use your skill, you will lose it- even in specialty coffee preparation.

On Tuesday, I received a new popcorn popper in the mail for roasting coffee at home. The last one I bought was super-charged or something. It took good grean means and burnt them into charcoal, or worse, Italian roast, in two minutes flat. My replacement works better. The problem with insanely fast roast times is that the beans do not have a chance to roast thoroughly all the way through. They become "tipped" and undrinkable.

So, with my new roaster, I felt invincible again. I roasted a practice batch of machine-harvested Brazilian coffee to make sure that the popper performed. Since it did, I switched to my favorite coffee of all time, Organic Honduras Marcala. I picked it up through Sweet Maria's. I had about a pound and a half left from September- right on the edge of it's lifetime- so, I roasted what was left.

It is significantly less-amazing. The beans looked a bit yellower than they had a few months ago, so I chalked that up to their added age. I began the roasting process and noticed at once that the beans were not behaving in the same way as they had previous. First crack almost never came. Months ago, first crack came at about 3 minutes in, then second at around 4 minutes and 15 seconds. I used to stop the roast at 3'55". This round had to last clear into 6 minutes. Even then, the coffee looked under-roasted. And let me tell you, it definitely tastes like it too! It was terribly astringent through my chemex. After another two days of aging, I tried it through my mokka pot. It was a bit better, but not dramatically. This morning, as a last ditch attempt, I brewed the Marcala through the French Press- my least favorite method. It worked the best yet, salvageable. "Salvageable" is not what I want what was my favorite coffee EVER to measure up to. Embarrassing.

Honestly, I think that the age of the coffee had something to do with the outcome. The change in popper could play a part in the slew of variables as well. Nevertheless, I feel that my two months out of the roasting game bore negative effects on the product as well. So, again, if you fail to use your fine skills, you could very well lose them. Fear not though, I have worked through my "roasters-block" and produced a very nice Tanzanian coffee, again, sourced through Sweet Maria's.

A great program idea that many specialty roasters are starting up is coffee education events. These are short tutorials or brewing exposes for both their baristas and interested customers. The Roasterie in Kansas City and Kaldi's in St. Louis held similar events just last night. Here's a graphic for Kaldi's event:
 And The Roasterie's event:
I encourage you to attend events like these if you wish to develop and maintain a strong skill of tasting and/or preparing specialty coffee yourself. If you're in Columbia, stop by Vida Coffee Co, or give me a call and we'll do something similar.

Lord, thank You for the ability to learn, especially from our mistakes. Please help me to learn more every day and sharpen my skill to use it, somehow, for Your glory. Keep my head deflated and on straight. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

My Body is Just a Filter

I don't usually do this, but the perfection of what I have run across causes me to act outside of the norm. I searched for "coffee comics" and came up with a lot of not very funny crap, with a few exceptions. There was one that stuck out in particular, though. This comic isn't necessarily hilarious, but fits me perfectly. I AM this comic strip. I do not know what other stuff this particular writer  has, but this comic stands alone. Enjoy:

  There were a few other decent ones out there:

And so that you haven't looked through this entire post without some tidbit of meaningful prose, here's this last image... Since it is somewhat intelligent, it isn't a comic, sorry.
Lord, thank You for humor and art. I pray You bless baristas with both. Keep my head deflated and on straight.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

My Review of Ethiopia Koke Yirgacheffe

I decided it was time for a good, old-fashioned coffee review. It just so happens that Kaldi's Coffee Roasters recently had a new coffee reviewed at the Coffee Review. Being that I am a verified reviewer for the CR, I targeted it as well. If you're close the the St. Louis area (or a city in Missouri for that matter), find one of their cafes and check this coffee out. Enjoy. 

Originally submitted at Coffee Review

An Ideal Yirgacheffe
By The Espresso Vein from Columbia, MO on 1/12/2011
4out of 5
Pros: Thick body, Attractive aftertaste, clean, Balanced Acidity, Roasted nut palate aroma
Cons: Not best total immersion, A tad too dark
Best Uses: Chemex, V60
After trying this coffee French Pressed, Chemexed, through a V60, and AeroPressed, I concluded that this coffee performs the best when contact with water is the most limited- the V60's product was what I described in my review. The Koke brewed through the Chemex was also good, but not quite as good as the V60- the body in the V60 was a little heavier than the Chemex, more like a nice whole milk rather than 2%. The heavier body added an unusual complexity to the Koke that I noticed and missed in the Chemex. The French Press produced an ugly, astringent cup. The AeroPress did not produce a desirable aftertaste with this coffee- it left me thinking that I didn't really NEED another sip. Overall though, with pour-overs, this was a very good cup. I agree with the rating.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Missions & Coffeevangelism, Unite!

My AeroPress and Hario Mini Mill performed well! I took them with me to Villa Union, Coahuila, Mexico for the last 6 days. I had no idea if I would be able to even make coffee on this year's Mizzou Christian Campus House mission trip. I had weaned myself completely off of coffee in preparation- I wanted to be of some use while there if pure water/ means for boiling were not available. When we arrived, I saw a mountain of purified water stacked against a small cinder-block shed awaiting us; necessito numero uno, el checko. The next miracle appeared shortly thereafter. I saw a fully functional propane powered stove WITH a small pot in the sleeping quarters (hallelujah). Ten minutes into our week-long mission, I knew large-scale success was inevitable- Where there is coffee (and the Lord), there is a way.

Every morning I busted out my AeroPress at 7am, and ground my Costa Rican coffee, from the Helsar de Zarcero farm, from Kaldi's Coffee Roasters. I became known as "Hombre del Cafe," the "Coffee Man." The ladies from the church there at the Villa Union Iglesia de Cristo asked me to prepare a cup for them on the last day, which was a big honor (they thought the coffee was "muy fuerte" or "very strong" and tasted divine). 

During the 25 (or so) hour drive back to Columbia, Missouri, we stopped at several gas stations and McDonald's restaurants. As one of the few drivers on this expedition, I thought staying awake was a priority; staying alert was not a job for something as insignificant as gas station or fast food coffee. Around 6:30 this morning, I asked the gas station attendants at one Oklahoma truck stop if I could simply use a styrofoam cup and hot water to make my own coffee. They told me it'd cost 49 cents. This was a rip-off, but a sale nonetheless. Around 10am, I bought a number two at Mickey D's on the Kansas Turnpike, near the godforsaken cesspool known as Lawrence, Kansas. Instead of taking the standard 'coffee' with the meal, I opted for a different beverage- no, not the $1.30 extra charge orange juice either. Rather, I asked for hot water. I whipped out the grinder and AeroPress again and made my own brew right then and there at the soda fountain counter. I caused a scene at both locations, but specialty coffee can do that sometimes. I'm sure most thought I was acting out a bit, being a tad dramatic, and overly zealous about coffee. I see it differently.

I am committed deeply to very few things. My faith, my family, my employer(s), and great coffee. I was on a mission trip of two kinds: Christian service and charity as well as Coffeevangelism. I would like to think I effectively practiced both on that trip, and hope to continue the practice daily hereafter.

I'm bummed I didn't take any pictures now that I'm blogging about it, but I'm more of a man of action, rather than detailed notation. Surely somebody on Facebook took a picture at some point. If so, I'll link to it.

Traveling? Get yourself a Hario Mini Mill Hand Grinder as well as an AeroPress. While you're at it, think about buying some solid coffee to take with you. There are many great specialty roasters out there (check the right side of my page if you don't know where to get started). Personally, if I had been able to roast my own (I couldn't since the last popper I bought was a dud) coffee, I would have.

This mission trip wasn't my first with coffee and I hope it isn't my last either. Coffee seems to be a cross-cultural bonding mechanism that nearly everyone can appreciate. It certainly gave me an inroad with the people we were serving in Villa Union. I think that most people who work in coffee would second my experiences- coffee unites.

Lord, thank You for the safe and successful journey to Villa Union. I pray the church there can fill the new sanctuary we build as well as use the baptistry that is now in place. Also Lord, I thank You for creating such an awesome drink that assists in the process of meeting people as well as keeping travelers safely alert (if not in need of more restroom breaks). Keep my head deflated and on straight.