Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Batdorf & Bronson Part 2: A Walk on the Wild Side

Today's morning cup couldn't be more different from yesterday's Costa Rica La Minita del Sol Tarrazu, yet both coffees are outstanding exemplars of their particular styles. One of my heroes, wine importer Kermit Lynch, would probably say they both "reek with typicité," while most professional cuppers would say the Ethiopian just reeks - period - of exactly the kind of funky, fruity ferment they go to such lengths to avoid in their buying.

During my nearly three decades in the coffee trade I took advantage of every opportunity that came my way to taste coffee with consumers and whenever I included a choice lot of either Ethiopian Harrar or Yemen Mocha it was the overwhelming favorite of most tasters - even alongside top Kenya auction lots, the best Guatemalans and clean but perfumed Ethiopia Yirgacheffes. The winy complexity and room-filling aroma of these coffees really is incomparable.

To be clear, there is a decisive difference between "fruity" and "rank ferment" and this lot of Ethiopia Gedeb is stunningly fruity but not fermented. That said, a fastidious fan of washed coffees (of whom there are many in the coffee trade) would say that due to the nature of dry-processed coffees one is playing with fire here, as it only takes one bad bean for a pot (or ground pound) of coffee to be thoroughly ruined.

Among my many mentors who abhorred natural-processed coffees two in particular come to mind: George Howell and Bill McAlpin. Just about the first thing George did when he got a large sample of Erna Knutsen's beloved Yemen Mocha Mattari was to roast it up, sort all of the quakers (unripe, light-colored beans) out and brew the sound beans and the quakers separately, pronouncing the former uninteresting and the latter undrinkable. As for Mr. McAlpin, I'd wager there wouldn't be a printable word in his description of a dry-processed Ethiopian like the one I'm drinking this morning, considering his answer to New York Times writer Florence Fabricant many years ago when she asked him about the then new-to-market dry-processed specialty coffees from Brazil. The exchange (all via phone) went like this:

"Mr. McAlpin, what do you think of the unwashed Brazilians?"

"I think they're great - as long as you're not talking about coffee."

Twisted humor aside, this particular Ethiopian, which (like yesterday's La Minita) I'd rate in the mid-90's on a cupping form, is an outstanding example of a truly dramatic improvement in coffee quality from that country for which leading specialty coffee importers and passionate buyers at leading Third Wave roasters deserve tbe credit. The use of Grain Pro bags, improved sorting of cherry, use of Kenya-style raised drying beds and expedited shipping from origin have pretty much done away with the all-too-common situation from years past where a pre-shipment sample FedExed from origin tasted fantastic while the same coffee on arrival at its U.S. port was a baggy, woody shadow of its former self. For at least the past 5-7 years, thanks to roasters like Batdorf & Bronson and home roasting supplier Sweet Maria's I've been consistently able to drink dry-processed Ethiopian coffees that are far better than anything from Ethiopia or Yemen in past decades. That's not true, by the way, of washed coffees from either Ethiopia or Kenya, which despite being beautifully processed and full of citric acidity are almost invariably lacking in the particular kind of fruit (lemony Apricot and jasmine in the case of Yirgacheffe, blackcurrant for Kenya) that used to be their signature.

Ethiopia Gedeb, Full City+ roast
It's not every coffee company who had the "bandwidth" to source a washed coffee as refined and subtle as the La Minita while also offering a natural coffee as funky and outrageous as Ethiopia Gedeb, which surely is a direct link to the taste of coffee as Kaldi the goatherder and his peers first experienced it thousands of years ago in coffee's motherland.

Monday, June 26, 2017

La Minita del Sol at Batdorf & Bronson: Old School at its Finest

This morning I'm drinking a cup of Costa Rica La Minita del Sol Tarrazu from Batdorf & Bronson. The first word out of my mouth after the first sip was "magnificent," and my wife Erin remarked "I haven't heard you use that word to describe coffee in a long time. Come to think of it, I've never heard you describe a coffee using that word."

As usual with La Minita, the greatness comes from perfect balance and ripeness, not show-stopping weirdness or intensity. The cup is the very definition of sweetness - as professional tasters use the word mind you (a perfect symmetry of acidity, flavor and body) rather than the popular meaning of simple sugariness.

If memory serves La Minita was first introduced to the market in 1987, meaning that this year marks three decades of consistent excellence. This is something that really deserves to be celebrated and appreciated in the specialty coffee trade. Perhaps it has been (at least among La Minita's many loyal customers) but I haven't seen any fanfare in the coffee press.

I was working at Starbucks when this coffee made its debut, and I think it was Tim Castle who sent us samples of it to cup. At the time our gold standard for Costa Rican coffee was Finca Bella Vista, and we bought a considerable amount of their production (Starbucks later went on to tie up the whole crop, much to the annoyance of Jim Reynolds at Peet's and many others), along with several other screamingly acidic Costa Ricans offered by our Hamburg-based green coffee brokers.

It fell on Mr. Castle and Bill McAlpin, the brilliant and often delightfully cantankerous owner of La Minita, to re-educate my palate to the virtues of fully ripe coffee cherries, as it turned out that in most cases the blazing, unbalanced acidity so doted upon in the Starbucks and Peet's world was due to picking cherry that was slightly unripe. No surprise that green coffee with acidity to burn would be doted upon when that's what you're going to do to the coffee in the roaster, but letting fully ripe coffee express itself through gentle, precise roasting was a lesson I had to learn from Mssrs. McAlpin and Castle, aided and abetted in no small measure by George Howell.

Enough time has elapsed that I'm quite sure I don't remember more than a small number of the ways that La Minita blazed the trail for what was to come, but here are a few:

1. The coffee was offered at an outright price (if memory serves it was $3.00 a pound - and remember this was 30 years ago!)  reflecting the work that went into it. What a novelty this was in a world where most top coffees sold for a differential (premium) of 20-50 cents over "C."

2. It was the original specialty coffee because its asking price and position in the marketplace was based on  doing everything required to achieve perfect cup quality, rather than on extraneous factors like rarity, exclusivity or country of origin (think Kona and Jamaican Blue Mountain: rare, expensive and utterly forgettable in the cup). Mr. McAlpin's sales pitch, whether at the farm or when offering you a sample of La Minita espresso at a trade show (no milk or sugar in sight) was invariably the same: "here, taste this."

3. Like Bill McAlpin himself, La Minita was fanatical about quality while also being about as un-PC and iconoclastic as is humanly possible. From the outset the farm was a showcase for the obvious fact that quality and quantity aren't mutually exclusive, producing considerable quantities of flawless coffee through attention to detail and clear standards. No "heirloom" varietals here but rather the caturra and catuai types that had already proven to be ideal for La Minita's Tarrazu terroir. Sustainably produced to be sure, with worker welfare and state-of-the-art agricultural practices, but without the slightest interest in certifications like organic or fair-trade which are as unsustainable as they are irrelevant (not to mention being a distraction from the pursuit of quality) in a Costa Rican context.

In today's specialty coffee market novelty and weirdness - think $100 a pound microlots made from oddball cultivars like Gesha whose flavor characteristics are more reminiscent of flavored tea than coffee - the only thing you're less likely to find than a coffee like La Minita that slays with subtlety and balance is the classic full city roast. As you can see from the photo of La Minita above that, too, is alive and well at Batdorf & Bronson, who've had a particularly close and fruitful relationship with this coffee for nearly thirty years.

A friend currently working there who like me has spent perhaps too long in the business reminded me that back when I was at Starbucks Batdorf was made fun of for roasting too light, while today many of their Third Wave competitors say they roast far too dark - when the reality is the default roast there - classic chestnut brown with no second pop and no oil (i.e. Full City) has remained the same for decades. For this particular coffee - at least for drip or Aeropress preparation - I'd describe full city as being truly "signature-less" roasting, using that term in exactly the way it's used in the wine trade: a degree of process that simply tries to let the terroir and the grower's work speak for itself without adding any style notes from the roaster-cum-winemaker.