Thursday, November 6, 2014

Seasonal Teas for Coffee Lovers

Panyang Golden Tribute

I've been really appreciating being back in the U.S. full-time after several years spent living mostly in México - not least because of the easy availability of truly great coffee and tea.

On the coffee front, Sweet Maria's continues to be a reliable source of good-to-great green coffee for me to roast at home (pretty much the only choice as far as I can tell for anyone who wants classic full-city roasts), but as has been the case for decades now I still drink tea every other morning, both because I love it and because the more subtle and varied nature of tea helps to keep my tasting chops sharp for everything else.

While "seasonality" in the Third Wave coffee world is mostly an excuse for selling what you like rather than offering consumers a reasonable range of choices, in tea it really does mean something, and this is the time of year when most of the really exciting winter-weight teas arrive in the U.S.

There's so much emphasis in the press on green and white teas for their antioxidant content and health benefits that the kinds of teas that work well with Western cuisine - and that would appeal to coffee drinkers looking for a change of pace - are hardly mentioned. In doing tastings for consumers over the years I've consistently found that coffee drinkers who are - or who aspire to be - tea drinkers as well are usually most impressed with teas that have enough heft and density to be an easy transition from coffee. Here's a brief sketch of some top value current seasonal offerings from Upton Tea, far and away the best overall source for full leaf (which is to say real, not tea bag or instant) tea in the U.S.

Ceylons

Teas from Sri Lanka remain under-appreciated (and thus undervalued) in the U.S. There's a tremendous diversity of styles, with most of my favorites coming from lower elevations and from districts such as Rahuna that produce teas with heavier body, though there are plenty of exceptions.

TC42 Idulgashinna BOP: From one of the best (and oldest) organic producers in Sri Lanka this value-priced tea offers classic Uva district briskness with plenty of body to stand up to milk and sugar. A classic "tea tea" to get started with.

TC70 New Vithanakande FBOPF: Always one of the country's very best producers, offering teas with a complex aromatic and flavor profile that offers flavor notes of orange, maple and sweet spice complemented with intense, almost Assam-level tannins for a stout cup. This particular lot is priced for regular consumption, but to see what they are capable of (and just how great Ceylon tea can be) do spring for a small packet at least of the sister lot TC87.

TC07 Season's Pick FBOPF: This is an outstanding, dirt cheap tea that's part of an estimable series ("Season's Pick") of very high-value teas Upton originally started sourcing for its restaurant customers. For literally pennies per cup you get a deep, round, honeyed tea that's perfect for the coming shorter days.

China Blacks

Almost invariably when I've taught "Tea 101" classes to groups of coffee drinkers the great black teas of China have been the crowd favorites. There's an autumnal, foresty complexity to the aromas of these teas not found in any others.

ZY82 Yunnan Golden Tips Imperial: my favorite of a bunch of good-to-great Yunnans on Upton's list, this not-cheap tea offers the classic complex Yunnan flavors of apricot and peach offset with peppery spice, butter caramel sweetness and a wild mushroomy earthiness. A bit of sugar brings out the flavors, and it can certainly handle milk if need be.

ZP60 Panyang Golden Tribute: this just-arrived high end tea is one of my all-time favorites, with enough depth of flavor and opulence of body to please a dyed-in-the-wool Sumatra coffee drinker. It's as good as black tea gets.

ZP22 Panyang Select is a junior sibling to the Golden Tribute, priced for everyday consumption and much simpler in flavor, but far better than many Keemuns costing twice as much or more. There's a definite smoky note, good body and plenty of sweetness. In between this lot and the top end Tribute is another stunning tea, ZP91 Panyang Congou Supreme, which offers room-filling aroma and tremendous complexity of flavor, including a lovely note of fresh apple I find partiuclarly appealing at this time of year.

Assam

Teas from the Assam district are the classic winter-weight teas, traditionally used as the backbone for Irish and Scottish Breakfast blends. Teas from the top estates really deserve to be drunk unblended, and in recent decades have begun to fetch stratospheric prices, especially from tea-crazy Germany and other sophisticated markets.

While the original Assam cultivars came from Yunnan (the motherland of tea), several sophisticated producers have long since developed gorgeous, golden-tipped varieties that offer an intensity and complexity of flavor that make their teas well worth the relatively high prices they often command.

These are the Peet's Sulawesi (or Aged Sumatra) of teas, virtually requiring the addition of milk and sugar for most drinkers, at least at first. I have fond memories of cupping several tables of new crop Assams with Jim Reynolds, the original coffee buyer for Starbucks (and then Peets for many years) in the mid 1980's. We just used the standard 2.25 grams per cup but even for us, hard-core coffee tasters used to dark roasts, the tannins in a couple of tables full of Assams had us feel like our tongues had sprouted fur coats. Still, on a February morning with snow falling outside there's nothing I'd rather drink than one of these dark beauties.

TA21 Mokalbari East GFBOP: A high-value tea from an estate that has been producing teas with a particularly ferocious malty intensity for decades. The value-for-money here is off the charts.

TA51 Mangalam FTFFOP1: One of the most famous Assam estates, and certainly one of the most consistent. If you've never tasted a classic Assam, this is the place to start. Strength and smoothness are balanced here, and the leaf is so pretty it almost seems a shame to brew it.

TA57 Harmutty TGFOP: This new arrival has plenty of malty intensity but with more balance than the Mokalbari plus an enchanting note of wild cherry, or perhaps Amarone wine. Excellent value, too.

TA97 Halmari TGFBOP1: It's well-known among professional tea tasters that BOP grade Assams often out-cup the larger leaf sizes, and this is a perfect example. Over-the-top aromatic intensity but classic Assam through and through, and living proof of the wisdom of the old Mae West adage that "too much of a good thing can be wonderful.

Mangalam Estate Assam



Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Science of Crema at Nestlé



Peter Giuliano was very kind to share this article and linked video from last year's SCAA Symposium (the video is 16 minutes long and worth every minute you spend watching it):

Brita Folmer on Crema

Dr. Folmer's talk is a rare and really wonderful glimpse into defining, measuring and achieving high quality in coffee using the full complement of scientific and technological tools available. Sadly I doubt this talk will be viewed by those who most need to see it: specialty coffee folks who think that having a "passion" for quality, or over-paying for small lots of green coffee from farms you've visited, has something to do with actual quality, when it does not.

Think about all the theories about espresso and crema you've heard: it's the sign of truly fresh coffee; you need robusta in the blend in order for it to really last; it protects the aroma of your shot while drinking it; it needs to pour towards the rim of the demitasse and stay intact to be a good one - on and on. Then look at this video, which looks at what crema actually is, what consumers and expert tasters expect and perceive it to be, and how good crema can be part of not only straight shots of espresso but the drip-strength caffe lungo that dominates the market in much of Europe (and which deserves a much wider audience here).

There's so much to learn from, and to be impressed by, in this excellent presentation, but for me the most important aspect of all is how seamlessly this company integrates the technical aspect of coffee chemistry and the perspective of expert tasters with the needs, wants and preconceptions of its customers. The consumer hardly factors in to most discussions I hear among American microroasters: instead it's talk about how much we (behind the counter) like such-and-such microlot, how much we spent on the latest Rube Goldberg brewing contraption, or how we roast the coffee to our ideal profile based on what we find at the cupping table. That's coffee-as-hobby; this talk is about the coffee business. 


A retro rejoinder in Seattle


Nicaragua (left) and Guatemala from Fundamental Coffee


Two old hands in coffee - one of whom I had the pleasure of working with during my Starbucks years - have just opened a microroastery in Seattle called Fundamental Coffee. It's very early days yet for them, but I must say I'm delighted to see fresh, deep-roasted coffee in Seattle again.

The situation in Seattle over the past decade or more has truly become a case of "coffee everywhere, but nothing fit to drink." I can think of only two exceptions: Lighthouse Roasters up on Phinney Ridge, along with the rightly legendary Joe Kittay at The Good Coffee Company down on Post Alley (no web site, of course). Other than these guys, there's a veritable ocean of cinnamon-to-city roasted, screamingly acid, scandalously over-priced AND very frequently stale coffee from a bevy of Third Wave know-nothings, offset by a Starbucks on every street corner selling stale, incinerated beans from nowhere in particular if you can even find the whole bean coffee amidst the milk, flavorings and foods.

I tasted three of the six coffees currently on offer from Fundamental: their Humbucker Blend and a Guatemala Antigua Acate Estate,  and a Nicaragua Matagalpa. The Humbucker is seriously darkly roasted - think Peet's rather than Starbucks in its prime, but there's a whole lot more going on in the cup than roasty power, with deep dark chocolate, great balance and body that's nothing short of oceanic. It reminds me a bit of Peet's Top and Garuda Blends and even more of Starbucks Gold Coast Blend when we invented in in the late 80's.  It would make magnificent espresso.

The roast on the Guatemala was also quite Peetsian, and I didn't think the coffee quite handled it, but I was drinking it through the Aeropress and as drip and I have no doubt it would've shown me a lot more in a La Marzocco. My favorite of the bunch was the Nicaragua, roasted one significant notch lighter (putting it in the Starbucks-of-old [pre Scolari roasters]) range and offering luscious body supported by crisp acidity and considerable complexity of flavors.

While the coffees here and the roasts are clearly in the Peets and Starbucks lineage, what really took me on a trip to memory lane was freshness. When I first started working at Starbucks in 1984 we roasted coffee three days a week and delivered it to the stores the next day - in increments as small as two pounds - in order to guarantee every bean was sold within a week of roasting. The aroma in my house when I opened the bags from Fundamental was exactly that of every Starbucks store (or Peet's Vine Street for that matter) during the many years before a commercial espresso machine made its way into the stores.



Close-ups of the two degrees of roast

Check out Fundamental's web site - their blog in particular - and you'll get a very clear sense of their focus and the great depth of experience, product knowledge and passion supporting their perspective and product offerings. Note also their concern about delivering value-for-money from the outset, and their eagerness to engage their customers as partners in the business. These are coffees meant for the naturally soft water, grey days and pressurized brewing methods (from French Press to espresso) that were perfected in Seattle long ago, when the Starbucks mermaid was brown and had breasts, the coffee beans were fresh, and the scale of the business was human. It's my kind of retro.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Mandatory Third Wave coffee bar equipment


There's a great video out that shows the classic Balance Vacuum Coffee Maker in action. It's meant to look old-timey and fun and succeeds on both counts, but the first thing that struck me in watching it is that the brewing process shown is actually less tedious than watching your local barista brew a Hario pourover and the result is ever-so-much better: an actual pot of coffee, not a mere cup, that's hot instead of tepid.

Now the last time I was in an Intelligentsia store Doug Zell facetiously apologized for not having a Fetco installed (and of course the coffee would've been much better - and the wait in line infinitely shorter - if he had), but I think, in penance for the innumerable cups of under-extracted, papery and obscenely overpriced coffee made while you wait wait wait that all of the groovy Third Wave chains ought to brew on nothing but these ever-so-retro vacuum brewers.

That way - finally - I'd be able to get a cup of coffee that doesn't suck, from a brewer that does.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

You've gotta be sh$%!*ng me


Thanks to long-time reader of this blog Patrick Booth for sharing this story from NPR, about an entrepreneur who's decided that the way to improve Kopi Luwak (the notorious "recycled" coffee made by collecting beans that have been eaten and shat out by the palm civet) is to supersize things by feeding coffee to elephants and collecting what comes out the other end.

Kopi Luwak was perhaps excusable when it was a rare novelty made from beans found in the forests of Indonesia, but it has long since morphed into a hideous (on many levels) enterprise involving keeping the hapless civets in captivity. It was - and is - in George Howell's incomparably precise and concise summation, "coffee from assholes for assholes."

I wish I could come up with an equally witty summary for this new project, but "Enema & Ivory" sung to the old Michael Jackson tune just doesn't cut it. Perhaps what's needed is an insistence from consumers that, in the interests of animal welfare, they'll only buy elephant shit coffee from free range pachyderms. Then at least there's a fair chance of these noble beasts flattening their handlers-cum-bean-collectors into the ground, thereby putting an end to the enterprise and vindicating Darwin once again.

Friday, August 1, 2014

"The Future of Iced Coffee" leaves me cold



If this be coffee, give me.....coffee?

This well-written article in The Atlantic has been recommended enthusiastically by a couple of people (Peter Giuliano and Mark Inman) I have a lot of respect and affection for, but I think their enthusiasm is either misplaced entirely or a result of greatly diminished expectations for specialty coffee altogether. 

Sprudge entitled their link to this article "Can the Next Starbucks Actually Sell Good Coffee?," which speaks volumes about the level of ignorance of specialty coffee history that prevails on the internet. The product the Atlantic article is about is a coffee-and-chicory based milk-and-sugar drink in a milk carton, produced by a marketing-driven company (Blue Bottle) that is to coffee retailing what Patron Tequila (a brand started by hair stylist John Paul Mitchell) is to authentic small-producer tequila. 

Starbucks on the other hand was a superb roaster-retailer from 1971 through 1984, during which time it sold not just good but often truly great coffee. It was a product (not marketing) driven company from top to bottom, which of course made it ideal for the masterful job of co-optation and prostitution done by Howard Schultz from 1987 onwards. Blue Bottle, on the other hand, was marketing-driving from the beginning - it has no soul to lose. 

The appropriate frame of reference for discussing Blue Bottle's milk carton coffee would be a comparative tasting of that product with bottled and canned iced products from Starbucks, Illycaffe and the like. 

Fresh brewed iced coffee prepared Japanese style, as championed by the aforementioned Mr. Giuliano, is the only iced coffee beverage I know of that captures, to a considerable degree, the aroma and flavor of excellent origin coffees. As a summer complement to core offerings of hot, freshly-brewed coffee it makes all kinds of sense. 

Blue Bottle New Orleans Iced Coffee on the other hand, is in the same category as the other aforementioned bottled coffee products, and only one small step away from Nescafé flavored coffee creamers, Irish Creme flavored beans and other such swill that are all still very much part of the (meaningless but measured) "specialty" coffee category. 

Traditional New Orleans coffee, to begin with, starts with mediocre to out-and-out defective coffee beans incinerated (French Roasted) to mask their defects. The loveliness of that starting point is then compounded by adding roasted chicory root, a foul-tasting coffee extender, after which copious amounts of milk and sugar are added in order to make the brew drinkable. Apparently Mr. Freeman is hoping that "New Orleans style" will evoke just the right happy associations in the consumer's mind, but that particular kind of coffee marketing is the province of somewhat larger companies (surely we haven't forgotten that the best part of waking up is Folger's in your cup?). 

Over twenty years ago, during the heady early days of explosive growth at Howard Schultz era Starbucks, I had the pleasure of hosting the superb food writer Corby Kummer (of The Atlantic) at the Starbucks roasting plant in Seattle for tasting and lengthy discussion. Even then (this was the early 90's) I could see substantial erosion in the level of knowledge of, and passion for, the taste of unadulterated origin coffees among both our customer and employee bases, and when Corby said "but surely Seattle has the highest level of coffee connoisseurship in the country" I replied that that was equivalent to seeing a table full of women at a cocktail party drinking daiquiris and assuming they were all Vodka connoisseurs. The current Atlantic article is about exactly that kind of "connoisseurship," despite the fact that the quality of the coffee required for the product in question is utterly mediocre and the taste for sugary, milky coffee it both satiates and cultivates is anathema to the appreciation of the flavor of real coffee. 

If we have gotten to the point where industry leaders enthusiastically embrace "premium" coffee-based beverages that directly undermine the cultivation of a consumer base capable of appreciating (and paying for) the subtle aromas and flavors of great single origin coffee there's no hope. 

At the very least, I shouldn't be the only one with an industry background pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes - or rather, that there's (almost) no coffee in this "coffee." 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

"Doing for Tea What They Did for Coffee:" Threat or Promise?




In this post from awhile back I gave a bit of the back story of tea at Starbucks, which went from fabulous whole leaf single origins and blends to discontinued category during my time there. 

Only a few years later the company, after toying with acquiring Republic of Tea, instead bought Tazo out of Portland, largely on the strength of the creative brilliance of Steve Smith - someone I greatly admire. The back story for that can in part be found in this article.



The good old days: no espresso, great coffee, Hao Ya Keemun and Namring Darjeeling, and saffron for your paella


Fast forward to today and we have stories all over the press, including this piece in today's Forbes, about the joining of Starbuck's more recent tea acquisition, the Teavana chain, with the substantially more formidable brand that is Oprah Winfrey. Today both Starbucks and Teavana stores are awash with Oprah Chai Lattes and gift sets, and anyone who knows Howard's tastes can easily imagine some of the additional products and co-branding opportunities surely waiting in the wings. Chopra Oprah chai incense? The Color Purple Lavender Earl Grey? 

Bad jokes aside, those who care about the actual taste and aroma of origin tea probably ought to take very seriously Teavana/Starbucks promise (or threat), to "do for tea what they did for coffee." We already have a "specialty" tea business that, even more than specialty coffee, has almost no representation of the actual taste of the unadulterated thing itself, and is instead awash in chemical flavorings ("natural" or otherwise) and scents. 

Appropriately the core product in the Oprah Teavana line is Teavana Oprah Chai. Now the transformation of Indian chai - the lowest-grade of non-exportable tea heavily doused with spices and sugar for local consumption - into a "gourmet" beverage for wealthy white folks (sorry, Oprah) is itself the perfect example of what Agehananda Bharati called "the pizza effect" in which a humble product accorded no particular status in one country is exported to another, re visioned as an upscale or special thing, and then re-exported to its host country which then proudly claims to have invented it in its new and prestigious guise. 

Bharati himself cited the Hare Krishnas, Transcendental Meditation and yoga as perfect examples of the pizza effect, and Oprah with her enthusiasm for the likes of Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra has clearly been a masterful modern exponent, albeit unwittingly. 

Less amusing, and more to the point, is the simple fact that any sound, strong black tea will do as the base for this premium-priced tea product, just as any sound, dark-roasted arabica coffee will suffice as the base for the upscale beverages going out the door at your neighborhood Starbucks. In both cases there is a pervasive training or conditioning of the palates and perceptions of millions of consumers to associate premium pricing and value with products that are in fact mediocre in quality, and whose consumption over time almost guarantees that, in the unlikely event a great cup of actual origin coffee or tea crossed the customer's palate they'd spit it out. 

Third Wave Tea anybody?