Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Great coffee in Kansas City

I've had an off-and-on correspondence with Jonathan Cates Jr., who runs Broadway Café and Roasting in Kansas City, for a few years now, and he recently sent me four of his coffees to taste. I knew that Jonathan was a very intelligent guy, and noted with pleasure that his place had not only survived but thrived in the face of Starbucks opening up way too close by, but that was it.

Here are pics of the four coffees:

If you look closely you'll see these beans are packaged in plain old paper tin tie bags, carefully roast-dated (they arrived 2 days after roasting). That alone positively disposed me towards the coffees: no taped shut or heat-sealed (with no vacuum drawn nor nitrogen flush) valve bag promising shelf life that it couldn't deliver, but rather an inexpensive package that highlights the fleeting, highly perishable nature of coffee.

The coffees themselves are truly dazzling, reflecting a level of discrimination in green coffee selection and passionate precision in roasting that I haven't seen in many years. More than anything else I was reminded of Boston's The Coffee Connection in its prime, as the roast style here is classic Full City (what George Howell used to call "full flavor") - a "signature less" roast style, to steal wine writer Matt Kramer's characterization of a product that offers as transparent a taste of terroir as possible, with the roaster-cum-winemaker acting as midwife, not artiste. That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't say that Mr. Howell would probably have a heart attack if you put Mr. Cate's dry-processed Yirgacheffe on the cupping table (see below), but that (to my mind most admirable) greater catholicity of taste aside the roasts here are reference-standard Full City.

Where to start? The Guatemala Lake Atitlán San Miguel Tzampetey Co-op is arguably the most impressive coffee of the bunch, with blazing acidity, complex bittersweet chocolate and caramel flavor notes and a very lengthy finish. It has the kind of tightrope tension between acidity and sweetness that you find in grand cru Alsatian rieslings - and in the very best coffees. Given the challenges of wet and dry milling at the Lake (an areas I've spent a great deal of time at over the years) I'd have guessed this was a top estate-processed coffee from Huehuetenango or perhaps an out-of-the-park rarity from an old guard Antigua farm, rather than something from a co-op in one of the most challenging areas of the country.

The Kenya AA Gakuyu-ini was my least favorite of these coffees, which is saying something considering that it is quite lovely. It's a very good auction lot with typical intense acidity and the kind of rindy, tomato-juice style flavors that have pretty much entirely replaced the classic blackcurrant and brambles of 15-20 years ago. Still a great coffee and the roast was excellent, but Kenyas even at the most stratospheric prices simply are not the coffees they used to be. Utterly outrageous as it will sound (even coming from me) I've come to think lately that the best use of even the top lots is probably at Vienna or even somewhat darker roasts through pressurized brewing methods, as that combination of roast and extraction corrals the orange-rind-meets-V8 qualities and develops a plush blackberry-cherry fruit.

On to my personal favorite of the bunch, Ethiopia Natural Yirgacheffe Sun Dried Gr. 4. This is the coffee embodiment of the old Mae West quote: "too much of a good thing can be wonderful." The blueberry and wild strawberry aromatics in the dry grounds fill the room, and it just gets more intense when water hits grounds. My wife thought she'd been imprisoned in a Juicyfruit gum factory! This is seriously the most complex, intense, wild yet dialed-in dry processed Ethiopian I can ever recall having tasted. Thrilling, intoxicating stuff!

Last but not least there's Jonathan's Sumatra Mandheling Old School Grade 1, and if you were expecting (as I kind of was) "old school" in the West Coast moldy oldy we-just-scraped-this-off-the-tarmac style you'd be dead wrong. No, old school here hearkens to the manicured Grade 1 Sumtras of green importer The Supreme Bean, or the rare perfect lot of Pwani's from Erna Knutsen (via Jeremy Woods, of course) "back in the day." This is a tremendous rarity, classically Sumatran but with neither rough edges nor the soulless cleanliness of such washed Indonesians as Sulawesi Toarco. Many people will spend a lifetime in coffee without ever knowing that this kind of Sumatra exists.

With Jonathan doing his thing in Kansas City and arguably the world's greatest chocolatier, Shawn Askinosie just down the road a piece in Springfield I'm thinking that a Midwestern coffee and chocolate pilgrimage needs to be in my plans.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Briggo Brother is here

This article on the new Briggo automated coffee house, together with this fascinating Nespresso/handmade espresso taste-off, make for very worthwhile and timely reading. They're getting a good bit of plain in the mainstream media - as evidenced by the fact that I first read them as links from Andrew Sullivan's The Dish. It's very much worth your while if you're in the coffee business to read all of the articles linked to in the main article. You'll learn, among other things, just how high-caliber the Briggo team is, with several recruits from the heart of the Starbucks green sourcing team and many other serious players.

My old boss, mentor and Seattle espresso pioneer (founder and owner of Café Allegro, the city's first great espresso bar and co-inventor of the Starbucks Espresso Blend, among many other key contributions) bristled at the characterization of the jobs of the roaster or the barista as "art." He pointed out that they are neither art nor science, they are craft, and that the "art" of espresso in the traditional sense (the barista having to know about and monitor a slew of variables ranging from barometric pressure and humidity to grind size, tamping pressure and water temperature) is really just bad Italian engineering.

Coffee sourcing, roasting, packaging and brewing need not be automated but there's absolutely no excuse for them not being informed by deep knowledge of the key variables involved. These articles and the serious money behind not only these inventions but what Illy is doing, Keurig, Nespresso and all the rest speak to the giant gulf between the passionate but utterly uninformed handmade Luddites of the Third Wave and the world of professional coffee that understands that the consumer's notions of appropriate levels of ease, technology and convenience are formed by their interaction with their smartphone or iPad.

Some will argue that the theater of the barista on his or her pedestal are all-important, or will try to make lemonade out of the lemons of inconsistent preparation, attitude and sky-high prices, but those who do so remind me of Bill Gates saying that the iPad was a mere gimmick in the PC universe. We all know how that turned out.