Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Source Washing and the Illusion of Transparency.

Not too long ago McDonald's determined they had an image problem and wanted to do something about it. No, they didn't want to address the issues that contributed to the problem, they wanted a PR campaign! The problem, as they saw it, was that too many people saw McDonald's as a huge, soulless, corporate monster hellbent on destroying the health of its consumers and the livelihoods of its suppliers, or something to that effect. The solution would be to put a face behind the product. One post featured a beef farmer, another a potato farmer. By focusing on the people who supply McDonald's they hoped to deflect the negative image the public held.

It would have been a successful campaign had they not decided to deploy it through social media that allowed for user comments. All went well for a short time until they were forced to take down the posts as negative comments began to dominate the discussion. By opening up the posts to comments they inadvertently exposed themselves to their own hypocrisy. Many users were not swayed by the campaign and called out the company on their practices.

This story reminded me of an experience I had recently during the Specialty Coffee Conference in Portland. I had accepted an invitation from a Brazilian coffee exporting firm to tour Portland area roasters and participate in a program that included a cupping of a number of Brazilian coffees. The invitation came from a long time friend in the coffee industry who got his start in Brazil. He knew of my long held unfavorable opinion of Brazilian coffee but he assured me that Brazilian specialty coffee had come a long way in the last decade and deserved a closer look. Knowing that I am highly opinionated but often wrong, I decided to keep an open mind and hear what they had to say.

The heart of the presentation centered around the transparency the program offered. Every roaster would be supplied with a tracking number that identified the background information of that particular lot. It was even tied into a Google Earth map that would pinpoint the exact location on the farm where that coffee was sourced. Moreover, it would pull up detailed information on the farm itself. This pop up included all the requisite info on the farm, i.e. type of coffee tree, harvest technique, elevation, and best of all, a picture of the farmer.

I found this information was somewhat problematic rather than having its intended effect of drawing me in. First off, the Google image showed what any ecologist would recognize as a "Green Dessert," a landscape of monoculture devoid of any other living organism. This form of industrial agriculture has been championed in the last sixty years as a revolution in production. But with it has come the dark side of run-away chemical inputs and runoffs, habitat destruction and loss of indigenous flora and fauna. The identification of the land owner as a coffee farmer (a third generation coffee farmer no less) was just as egregious, this guy is a coffee farmer about as much as Howard Schultz is a barista. All of this made for a complete example of what I have come to call source washing.

For the better part of its history, the coffee industry has been guilty of the exact opposite - purposely concealing the origins of the coffees used in mass-marketed blended brands. The advent of the Specialty Coffee market changes matters only a little. Many roasters, while promoting the idea of using only high quality Arabica coffee, still preferred marketing blends, partly to create a sense of exclusivity, partly because it was easier to sell coffee with catchy blend names that evoked exotic locales rather than the locales themselves.This practice had the added benefit of allowing the roaster to substitute particular coffees whenever availability or price dictated. When you have a blend with five or so components in it no one is going to notice that you switched a coffee from Colombia with one from Brazil.

Despite the prevalence of blends some origins were able to develop a value identity. Even before the Specialty Coffee movement, the Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers launched an incredibly successful campaign in the US market encouraging customers to look for "100% Colombian Coffee" using the now iconic Juan Valdez and his donkey as their model. Maybe because of this early success, Colombian coffee has not always had the reputation it deserves in the Specialty Trade, being perceived as somewhat passe' to the Specialty Coffee drinker. Other countries followed Colombia's lead and became early names in coffee, notably Kenya and Sumatra. While Kenya made a concerted effort to create a quality association with their coffee, Sumatra is a different matter altogether. Coffee from Kenya gained notoriety for its clean, winey flavor with big floral notes, and it represented a refined taste. Sumatra, on the other hand, was the Rolling Stones to Kenya's Beatles, dirty, musty, often over-roasted; it represented the hardcore coffee drinker.

As roasters and consumers became more sophisticated, so too coffee's specificity. Soon customers were familiar with more than just the country of origin - regional names entered the lexicon. Savvy consumers looked for Guatemala Antigua and Ethiopia Harrar. Before long, roasters distinguished themselves by the individual estates from a given region so one could find Costa Rica Tarrazu Hacienda La Minita.

Recently I have noticed that some roasters have begun identifying the particular variety of the coffee tree in an ever increasing quest to up the ante in sourcing. I dread the day when a customer comes in and when asked what they may be looking for responds, "Well, I was into pulped natural yellow caturras, but now I find I am leaning more toward honey processed pacamarcas." Source identity devolves into a narcissistic notion, as product identity becomes an individual referent rather than any relationship to the choices we make and their impact on the world.

All of this hyper-inflated source identification obscures a very harsh reality: that 70% of coffee is produced by about 10 million small producers. Any roaster who has made a trip to origin cannot escape the sheer magnitude of poverty that goes hand in hand with coffee's production. Some may recognize their own complicity in a system that too often exploits the most vulnerable in the course of global commerce.  These Roasters have come to recognize that who they sourced their coffee from is just as important as what coffee they sourced.  Many Roasters purposely sourced coffees from small-farmer cooperatives that followed traditional farming techniques. They participated in a cooperative movement that actively promoted community development in the most impoverished areas. This coalesced into what now is known as Fair Trade, a third-party verified certification program that provided consumers an opportunity to choose a product that reflected ethical considerations.  Other certification programs soon followed calling attention to environmental concerns and worker rights. Rainforest Alliance and Utz Certified are just two examples.

No industry likes to have its dirty laundry exposed, and the coffee industry has long nursed its romantic notions of idyllic mountains and rustic farmers. Much of the push back for certified coffee has come from roasters who otherwise have a reputation for quality. This has led to the very dubious practice of identifying coffee as "Direct Trade" to compete against certified trade marks. I have heard roasters respond to customers asking for Fair Trade that their Direct Trade is better than Fair Trade because they pay the farmer more than the Fair Trade price, reducing the issues of trade down to simply a dollar amount. This ignores the fact that Fair Trade sets a minimum price for coffee paid to farmers. Moreover, Maxwell House buys their coffee direct from origin but I don't think anyone would believe that stamping their own Direct Trade mark on the side of the package guarantees credibility. Without third party verification this remains an empty promise, an illusion of transparency.

So, too, having a Google image of a mono-crop coffee farm with a fact sheet promoting the land owner provides little in the way of real value. What it does is source wash over the reality of global trade and environmental concerns. It creates a false sense that quality is something separate from how that product is grown and the conditions of its production. We can make a difference in the world based on what we consume, but source washing blurs this choice and allows those who are unconcerned about their impact to profit from those who want to do good. Roasters who participate in source washing merely muddy the waters.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why Third Wave (Pour-over) Coffee Bars Fail.

Portland was a perfect venue for the 25th Annual Conference and Exhibition of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Perhaps, more than anywhere else in America, third wave coffee bars have stormed into existence. Third Wave Coffee Bars are notable by how they look and what they do. They are a direct facsimile of current fashion of SCAA Championships. It’s as if the participants are trying to reproduce in the real world the artificial world that exists during these championships. As a result, these new bars imitate one another in the type of equipment used and more importantly, what and how coffee is offered to customers. 

Now, I have been a big fan of the Barista Guild and their efforts to raise the perception of Baristas as a viable professional skill. This is long overdue and has helped our industry staunch the move to automated equipment and look-alike chain operators. But what I have noticed is a disturbing trend in these coffee bars that has more to do with being a part of a club rather than actually serving truly good coffee. These bars can be identified often by what they don't have: they don't have skim milk, or soy; they don't do flavors or 16 oz to go cups. And as far as I could tell, most don't have much in the way of customers, either. What they do have is seasonal single origin espressos from a number of the latest names in roasters, they have pour-over bars featuring Chemex's with metal filters, Hario V60 cones, or Siphon brewers; and they have an educated superiority that leave you degraded, dismissed, and otherwise not a member of the club. 

 I really would like to admire these coffee bars for their commitment to a vision, a vision predicated on coffee quality. But the concept of quality now seems to be more a sense of style rather than a discerning sense of taste. Coffees, and Roasters for that matter, are chosen based on their merits of who's hot right now. Brewing techniques are chosen in a similar fashion, pour over bars provide more theater and the illusion of choice. Never mind that the metal filter is an inappropriate application for the Chemex brewer and one has to adjust their brewing style to compensate resulting in an over-extracted brew. At least the coffee siphon provides excellent cup quality but it is a ten minute exercise and costs, in some cases, $9.00.

 I had debated whether to do a post about pour-over bars before going to Portland and decided to focus my attention on the pour-over experience. We had abandoned pour-over many years ago but I wondered if there had been significant improvements that warranted another look. What I found, aside from the one aforementioned coffee siphon episode, was brewed coffee that almost always was near undrinkable. The problem lies in the substitution of the metal cone for the Chemex or the use of the Hario v60 cones. In either case the issue centers on dwell time of the brew. Great coffee is a function of dwell time and brew rate.  Both the metal filter and the V60 cone allow the water to pass too quickly through the coffee grounds requiring the barista to slow the rate of pour in the center of the grounds. Never do all the grounds dwell in a solution, rather, the water passes through the middle over extracting the same grounds. It is a similar phenomena as cheap electric coffee brewers with inadequate heaters that heat a little water and send it through, heat a little water and send it through, and so on. 

The secret behind the Chemex isn't the carafe so much as the interaction of the carafe and the paper filter that allows the user to fill the funnel with hot water and have a full dwelling of water and coffee with the filter and grind dictating the rate of flow for the brew. The Hario V60 also has too large of an exit hole and the striated fins on the inside of the funnel allow water to channel through the filter requiring the user to adopt a similar pour technique as the metal filtered Chemex. Combine this slow pour with the fact that water temperature stability is thrown out the window. One operator was using the Marco Uberboiler for hot water, a precise controlled water boiler that can deliver accurate temperature, set at 210 degrees to allow for the rapid cooling while pouring. Most places make no effort at all water temperature stability. 

This was one of the major reasons we abandoned pour-over years ago. But what really made us abandon it were the incredible improvements in programmable commercial brewers. If pour-over produced better results than what we could get out of our Fetco Extractor then I would be on board, but the fact is it isn't remotely close to the same quality and moreover, I can make better coffee in my home using a paper filter Chemex or Aeropress without the condescending attitude as an added bonus.

At first I mistook the Third Wave Movement with its penchant for trade roasts and manual brewing techniques as a response to the like of Starbucks and the wannabe chains. Now I understand that it is an attempt to recreate the experience of the Barista Championships that take place at various convention centers around the world. A fabricated event designed to impress judges and their peers, that manufactures in-the-know celebrities of coffee culture. Customers were never the consideration.

I was asked the other day whether I thought Third Wave Coffee Bars are here to stay. If this is what this movement continues to serve, they won't be around for very long.