Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I want to live in a world where Sweet Maria's replaces Starbucks

Particularly in light of the bitingly negative tone of my last post, I thought I'd share a bit about what life might look like if America's best retailer of roasters could be magically transformed into America's leading roaster-retailer.

In the 16 years since I published Coffee Basics one of the biggest changes in the U.S. specialty coffee industry from a qualitative and consumer empowerment perspective has been the rise of home roasting specialist Sweet Maria's and its companion business, Coffee Shrub, that caters to retail microroasters.

During my years as a roaster and buyer coffees of the quality that these folks now routinely offer were simply not available in green form to anyone but a select group of roasters, let alone by the pound to individual consumers. Ditto with the level of coffee education available on the Sweet Maria's site, which is so fantastic that it pretty much removes the need for anymore generalist coffee books like the one I wrote.

Beyond the quality of the coffees and great write ups and videos on roasting and brewing, what I really love about Sweet Maria's is their informed catholicity of perspective about roast degrees and brewing methods. SM's main man, Thompson Owen, fully understands what is missed by just about every leading Third Wave roaster: that roasting is an interpretation of green coffee and that multiple interpretations are equally valid, all depending on the intended brewing method and which aspects of a coffee's flavor you want to highlight.  Have a look at these recent coffee offerings to get a sense of what I mean:

We were very excited to receive more great samples from the Chelelektu washing station this year. This lot is made up of several small lots from around the small town of Ch'elelek'tu in the Kochere Woreda of Yirga Cheffe. This lot was prepared to Grade 1 standards, and the altitudes of area farms range from 1800 to 2000 meters, with approximately 600 small holder farmers contributing to this lot.

This is one of those coffees that you feel like you can't throw enough adjectives at - intense, floral, beautiful, bracing...yes, the list is very long, and the coffee is deserving! The cup has amazing sweetness and body.. City to City+ roasts are honeyed, and have sweet citrus juice notes like orange juice and lemonade. Fruited note flourish at City+ roast with apricot, white peach, and Rainier cherry. Roasting closer to full city brings out tropical fruits such as pineapple, dragon fruit, and cherimoya. This coffee's finish is so sweet, and with a clean, hibiscus tea element. It also makes a great as SO espresso.

We have looked at a lot of wet-process coffees from the Southern zones of Sidama and Yirga Cheffe areas this year. There were so many nice coffees that we could be quite selective, and we passed up on some lots that likely, in other years, we would have jumped at. There were some very nice washed coffees from stations like Aricha and Wote Konga (private stations) as well as cooperatives like Beloya and Hama. But this coffee here was a jewel that shone a bit brighter than all. This lot is from a particular region within the Kochere kebele, a part of the Yirga Cheffe region. It comes from the Alemu washing station. We were simply amazed by the clarity of flavors, brightness, and refined finish. It's a competition class coffee. Seriously.

This coffee has a delicate cup profile that shines on the lighter end of the roast spectrum. At City+, there is black tea lightly sweetened with honey sweetness. The acidity is lively and well defined, like essence of lemon. Citrus pervades the cup profile but without any of the harsh or tart aspects that can come along with it. It's very much like a juice called "calamansi" made from fruit of the same name (it's like lime without the harsh acidic snap. It's from the Philippines, and available in the USA too). The finish has a floral element that is like Japanese "Botan" rice candies.

This takes me back to the old days at Allegro Coffee where we offered, for example, two roasts of Kenya and of Guatemala: one a classic full city roast (i.e. no second pop, Agtron number in the high 60's) for drip and vacuum pot brewing, and a darker Vienna roast that corraled these coffee's acidity enough to produce great espresso and opulent plunger pot coffee. George Howell did this at The Coffee Connection and subsequently at Terroir - quite a contrast to what we see going on now, with cinnamon-to-city roasted beans being run through espresso machines!

Getting back to Sweet Maria's, the aforementioned broad-mindedness goes way beyond roasting to include a breadth of green coffee selections which unfortunately has no retail equivalent. They have the great washed Central and South American coffees of course, washed Kenyas, Yergacheffes and Sidamos galore, but are also the premier source for rustic Yemen Mochas, suave-to-rustic Sumatras of both the current crop and aged persuasions and dazzlingly fruity Ethiopian naturals. 

The bottom line for a consumer willing to tie up a few hundred dollars in a Behmor roaster and a modest green bean inventory is that they can easily be enjoying coffee that is as good as - and most likely better than - that sold by any of America's great roasters for less than half the price, fresher, and with total control over the degree of roast and a selection of green coffees that simply blows away the absurdly limited, purportedly "seasonal" offerings of today's leading retailers. I just hope that in time more roasters will take a page from the Sweet Maria's playbook and offer a much broader range of origins and roasts. 


  1. Kevin, I have greatly enjoyed your post! As a young roaster just starting out, I've found the current coffee scene to be rather challenging...especially since I roast to the second crack! Is there a way to contact you because I would love to send you some samples. I know you are a busy individual so if you're not interested I completely understand.

    Thanks for what you do and I look forward to more post!

  2. You don't want to take a Behmor into french roast territory. Seriously.

  3. Hi Landon - I always enjoy tasting new coffees! I will try to get in touch with you outside the blog or you can reach me at ekknox (at)

    RichW as a Behmore owner I couldn't agree with you more. They have a hard enough time with Full City+. Personally I am generally happy with home roasts in the full city to + range and leaving the Peetsian roasts to Peets; otherwise I guess you'd have to spring for a Hot Top or the like.

  4. This made me smile real real big, Kevin.

  5. I go for second crack on a Behmor on each batch. No problem so far.

  6. If you keep the batch weight at 12 ounces or less and meticulously follow Behmor's cleaning instructions you can go into second crack a fair ways on the Behmor but nowhere near Peet's territory. It's roaster abuse, given that you are essentially dealing with a toaster oven with a drum in it. I love the Behmor but even in its optimal lighter roast range it is not a roaster for stop-on-a-dime roast intonation, and once you get into second pop things happen exponentially faster. You need a drum roaster with a trier - pure and simple - if you want that kind of control and/or insist on playing in deep roast territory. That kind of roasting wreaks havoc on commercial equipment too.

    Christopher Schooley thanks for your kind note. You and Tom are going to look back at what you've done the past many years and say "wow, we made a real difference - and had fun doing it." I wish you every success.

    1. 0.90 lbs every time. P3-D. two minutes warm up. Thanks for your article about Tom. I have been enjoying his coffees for the past decade and plus, from popcorn roasters through I-roast and Behmor...