bogota possibly teetering between jon lewis, iron maiden

March 10, 2009 – 9:35 am

we’re sure that barista-poet jon lewis didn’t mean to start an iron maiden riot on his first trip to colombia. but hey, he’s new to this cup of excellence gig. give him a break!

lewis, of course, is in colombia for this week’s national coffee competition as CoE’s newly installed “membership liaison.” sources tell CI that he actually saw the iron maiden airplane on the bogota tarmac. (first of all: TEH IRON MAIDEN! TEH IRON MAIDEN! secondly: don’t look, jon! you’re here to liaise with, you know, members!)

within hours, police were arresting “malcontents” who wanted concert entry “without tickets.” coincidence? we think not!

the only way out of this mess, as far as this blog can see, is if jon could somehow claim he was safely ensconced at the time in front of his computer screen, watching the united states barista championship … hmmm. looking at the time stamps, it’s a plausible alibi!

UPDATE: key quote:

rioters will have to “assume the costs of the stoplights and traffic signs that they damaged without just cause.”

stiff! still, this policeman seems to be implying that there could, indeed, be a “just cause” for tearing down traffic lights. in colombia, this may be true! and so this blog asks you, if a band of heavily haired, jangly-armed 1970s british rockers isn’t just cause, then what is?!?!

sigh. sip. sigh.

March 9, 2009 – 11:18 am

if you’d spent the weekend on the bed with the blogchildren, mouths agape and venting stale fanboy fumes in the general direction of the u.s. barista competition live feed, you also might reasonably recover — and console yourself that liquid swords aren’t for breakfast — with that hand-built colombia 3-star espresso.

this blog’s devotion to the coffee is growing downright hyperbolic.


having obsessively twittered — or tweebled, let’s say — our taste impressions, we can authoritatively assert: nougat! also, soft overripe apple (in a way that you want in your, uh, spro cup). plus, terrasage in the misty finish.

what’s more, this coffee had to deal with, you know, FARC. heroic!

usbc: drink!

March 8, 2009 – 3:22 pm

still more incisive observation from the globe-trotting blogfather, who, in his brief stint on the mother turf, has now sampled a large array of the finest coffee establishments in these states co-joined:

high-end coffee people tend to be one of two types: exceptionally nice or total jerks.

funny ’cause it’s true! you might even host a shot-gulping game in front of today’s live video stream of the u.s. barista championship, indexing all the “i’s” and “me’s” against references to the, you know, actual coffee.

one shot of espresso per five self references, say. we’re shooting for an overall barista ego score of deliriously shaky!

UPDATE: nice guy wins.

coffeefest greenville?

March 6, 2009 – 1:49 am

you know the high-end coffee movement has become a bona fide cultural oddity when traveling latte artist and erstwhile blog acquaintance justin teisl shows up quoted in our local newspaper:


no, this blog had nothing to do with the placement of this story. it came via the chicago tribune‘s wire service, and apparently qualifies as vitally interesting to the local demographic. in greenville, south carolina. in march. on the section front. next to st. baldrick and the incontinence ad.

tale of two ‘fricsos

March 2, 2009 – 12:14 am


if a coffee customer feels like a moron, the hot salty shame will quickly drown out your hand-brewed floral notes. in which case, a fine coffee establishment contradicts itself — it’s not just a minor flaw — when it believes its swill to be so yummy that it tramples on the swiller. it suddenly doesn’t matter how good the coffee tastes. you’ve just smothered it in opprobrium.

the blogfamily, after a decade in remotest africa, must have made quite the sight traipsing around san francisco in their conservative bush-wear. children don’t appear in hipster coffee shops in cities like this — not to mention six children, one of them wielding a flashbulb. they’d been through seattle and l.a., veering out of their way to sample blog-recommended coffee joints and largely ignoring the stares. it wasn’t all that different: try being the only white people in an isolated village a day’s drive from a television set.

still, it’s safe to say they didn’t feel “comfortable” in the louche part of town where ritual coffee roasters exists, but it mattered little. they were there for the coffee, and genial “chris” at the register (baca? maybe?) easily bridged all cultural chasms. yep, here’s the deal with our coffee. hey, where you from? anything i can help you with, sir? all in all, a worthwhile detour, made so by the combination of fine brew and fine salesmanship. a relationship forged.

later in the day, a stop at bluebottle coffee in a decidedly more upscale section of town. “must try the siphon brew,” this blog had told them, on good authority. and so he asked the lady, and she grumbled something about it being after 4 p.m. and, thus, well past the siphon coffee window of opportunity. just so, said the blogfather, we’ve come recently from africa and probably won’t ever be here again. is it possible to procure one? hushed employee conversations ensued. pointing and staring. and eventually, an agreement was made. a exception to the siphon beverage rule!

flashes went off in the hands of the blogbrother. patrons stared. and the blogmother waited, late in the day, in the van. the siphon did its thing, and the blogfather, pressed for time, then turned to the lady and asked — brace for it — “could i have that in a paper cup?”

“haw, haw,” this blog said, upon hearing this point in the story. because, of course, we knew that porcelain would have been the vessel of choice at the famed blue bottle. what we didn’t know was that the lady would glare and say, “you want it in what?” she lived, apparently, in a perfect porcelain world where paper cups had never shoved their square pasty bottoms into her psyche. there was another, more agitated conversation with the manager. gesticulating and peering and annoyed discussions of Policy. and then the fellow came over, this new person, and said something like this: you know, when most people order this beverage they intend to appreciate it. properly. they sit down and have it in a porcelain cup. savor the Notes and such. we are against paper. etc.

he got his siphon in paper. but by this time, of course, the blogfather didn’t really want it so much — he merely wanted to exit the establishment and never come back. he wasn’t angry or hurt. he simply had little reason left to defer to coffee purveyors who were, essentially, ripping the customer’s attention away from the famed beverage — a coffee he had gone out of his way to find — and installing it instead on their cloddish version of service.

see, there was a cultural gap here too. but instead of bridging it, they turned it into a yawning chasm.

it’s worth noting here that if this blog were running the joint, it would most likely serve in porcelain. it would also seek to educate customers and impose standards on its siphon process. worthy goals! but then, we wouldn’t do these things because we cared so much for our coffee. we would do them because we cared about introducing people — as many as possible — to the coffee.

obviously, many western u.s. markets support a more elitist approach, and customers by and large support elite, self-affirming niches. but what if “the movement,” in some places, is so elite that it’s self limiting? what if, because one likes himself so much, he walls off segments of potential consumers? what if, outside any individual shop, “the coffee” is better served if we find ways to present it to anyone who walks in the door? and hey, it seems like that would kind of benefit the shop too.

“opiated adjacency” is what elaine scarry calls it. the effect when something beautiful transfixes you, and you become happy to gawk and marvel along with every one else, even if you’re outside your social class. a truly great sculpture or poem of cup of coffee, in other words, levels the playing field. it revolutionizes the masses. this, incidentally, isn’t that far removed from the definition of shakespearean genius.

we’re not down on any west coast coffee joints. and this isn’t about good ol’ customer service. it’s about highlighting the coffee in the way you interact with people. when innocent patrons are treated as morons, the coffee seems underserved.

the blogfam, unfazed, has traveled on to other and possibly odder coffee experiences at this blog’s urging. there was some charismatic arabic fellow somewhere in the northwest who bridged a much larger cultural divide as he captivated the blogfather with his turkish coffee brewing method (!). just today, in fact, we got some crackling call about some new and great caffeinated experience near yale.

“but wait!” you say. espressomap doesn’t show any fine coffee establishments near there!

right. exactly.


February 25, 2009 – 3:16 pm

Bridal Shower

by George Bilgere

Perhaps, in a distant café,
four or five people are talking
with the four or five people
who are chatting on their cell phones this morning
in my favorite café.

And perhaps someone there,
someone like me, is watching them as they frown,
or smile, or shrug
at their invisible friends or lovers,
jabbing the air for emphasis.

And, like me, he misses the old days,
when talking to yourself
meant you were crazy,
back when being crazy was a big deal,
not just an acronym
or something you could take a pill for.

I liked it
when people who were talking to themselves
might actually have been talking to God
or an angel.
You respected people like that.

You didn’t want to kill them,
as I want to kill the woman at the next table
with the little blue light on her ear
who has been telling the emptiness in front of her
about her daughter’s bridal shower
in astonishing detail
for the past thirty minutes.

O person like me,
phoneless in your distant café,
I wish we could meet to discuss this,
and perhaps you would help me
murder this woman on her cell phone,

after which we could have a cup of coffee,
maybe a bagel, and talk to each other,
face to face.

SERBC: CI hunts a mascot

February 22, 2009 – 12:13 pm

and so, you tell us, the southeast regional barista competition needs a mascot? some sort of ubiquitous presence with a cherubic face, representative barista hair and an adorable proclivity for nervousness on behalf of the competitors? huggable and pettable? universally esteemed? pedigreed?

this blog thinks it might have just the character:

mascot candidate ben helfen, with champeen danielle, chat up last weekend’s emcee. he’s a central character!

hopelessly nervous! note that ben here is ABSORBED with spiritual supplication, while behind him katie duris looks anxious in a heh-heh sort of way, and the girl in the background … not so much!

mascot ben: “arrgh!” the girls on the right: “ahh, whatevs.”

SERBC: the other 5

February 18, 2009 – 2:31 am


a small chorus of experts tells us that all the competitors in this year’s southeast competition did well. this blog is in no position to know. but it was easy to see that the professionalism, the deft smoothness and brisk certainty with which competitors approached their routines was greatly improved across the board. and every finalist four of the six finalists, it seems, were first-time competitors.

maybe it was the airy setting — a barista museum, it felt like — but all six were quite plainly a treat to watch. there was unforced narrative in the presentations that didn’t require an insider’s lingo. easy insight and definite artistry. tight, gleaming performances within easy view of the cheap seats.

that’s what we saw. herewith, a roundup of the best of the rest, intentionally photographed without any special access. just a junkie snapping from the public space.

if such a place hosts future competitions, it’ll be much easier for this blog to begin inviting its clueless friends in the general populace. in other words, it seemed as if something approaching public accessibility seemed, at long last, within the realm of possibility. witness:

runner-up crystal, of atlanta’s octane coffee bar, whose ‘do kept going all beatific halo in the streaming overhead sunlight. both peppy and concentrated. signature beverage involved espresso with carob, cardamom and cinnamon, with honey whipped cream floating atop.

third-place dale, of atlanta’s new method coffee bar, who appeared slam full of irony when he said, by way of explaining his unusual signature bev, “foodies are cool.” the drink involved espresso, pistachio syrup and a gelato-like pear cream. word is, requests are already flowing in at the shop.

octane’s josh, whose marked limp and prominent cane between competition rounds bespoke some mystery injury which easily enhanced what was already a genial everyman aura. the man had fans. sig bev involved the aforementioned habanero-tinged honey and espresso. risky!

word on the competition floor was that david, of 1000faces coffee in athens, was largely self taught. took a few skills classes, studied competitor videos, practiced a lot. clearly nervous, but in control. more hot stuff in the sig — cayenne pepper, chocolate, cinnamon and half-and-half, with self-roasted espresso.

travis, of virginia’s murky coffee, was the only non-georgia finalist and easily the quietest. it wasn’t awkward silence, really, just an obvious sign of focus. focus, austerity and a bowtie. served a deconstructed root beer float of elements with which not even his boss seemed overly familiar.

CI wildly rhapsodizes in an atlantan direction

February 16, 2009 – 1:42 am


danielle winning the southeast barista laurels — by a crushing margin, we hear — is like james winning the worlds: all is right in the earth. the axis tilteth correctly. there is a still point in the turning world, as the poet said, and danielle, it seemed, danced in it. by herself.

there was poise and polish vastly beyond what we saw last year, and significantly in addition to the confidence evident in her u.s. performance. there was, essentially, a resounding follow-through where nearly everyone, or at least all of the raucous home crowd, seemed to assume the title was likely hers to grab. there was that gelatinous cream and sarsparilla in kenyan espresso, dolloped together like stanzas in a villanelle, and the smiling, the clear belief, right out in public, that she was doing something really good.

during the finals routine, the blogchildren joined in the octane chorus — “police noises,” they called it — and savored the victory as much as tykes with the feel of a real heavy trophy and an exuberant round of hugging can savor such a thing. the culture of tony riffel’s octane, the guiding hand of the zombie and the urban sensibility of danielle herself all shewed forth, as it were. it was a win in a beautifully artistic space, by the main attraction herself. as it should have been.

the early crowd.

cool under scrutiny

‘just. like. work.’

down to the wire.

in the bag.

officially tops.

blogchildren are unanimous: it’s a keeper.

Serbc: glasky takes it

February 15, 2009 – 3:53 pm

Verdict: polish wins! Danielle was stunningly improved over last year. We’re enthralled.

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Serbc: noob

February 15, 2009 – 2:40 pm

This dave from athens is apparently self-taught. Video tapes n stuff. The internet wins!

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Serbc: austerity

February 15, 2009 – 2:06 pm

Is murky’s travis the quietest barista finalist ever? But oh, the deconstructed float.

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Serbc: habanero josh

February 15, 2009 – 12:21 pm

Did we mention finalist flail is crippled?! But the limp disappears while performing. Hm

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Serbc: nuts

February 15, 2009 – 12:19 pm

Dale of atlanta’s method sez: ‘it takes a lot of pistachios’ to make pistachio syrup. Revelatory!

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serbc: zounds

February 14, 2009 – 10:14 pm

this particular outpost on the interwoven webs happens to be bereft of a camera cable, meaning the imagery we have to back up this assertion will have to wait: the southeast regional barista competition is in a setting so fitting, so surprisingly good, so accessible to both artisans and the common man that it makes attending this year’s installment a rare relaxing pleasure. it’s an all-around aesthetic experience, as complementary of the baristi on the center stage as you might forbid yourself to hope.

as always, we’re not really versed on who’s behind it all, which is the way this blog prefers to keep it. all we know is, it’s been five years now, and never before have we felt truly pleased to be in a spectator seat. there’s light streaming in a high-mounted panel of paint-streaked warehouse panes. there’s epic, stare-worthy art holding up the four corners of a raffish space, and ramps and metal crosshatches and sumptuous arched doorways in their golden drapes and an ideally central stage for baristi who speak toward one side and are applauded from two others. there’s sunken space perfect for yakking, munching, slurping or chasing blogchildren, but not so far from the pit of action that you miss the thrum and thump.

we can’t wait until hudgens gets here. “see?!” we’ll say.

and of course, the burgeoning hotlanta juggernaut of hipster pain that is the octane barista staff is in the middle of it all, dominating the finals — three out of six — and drawing a live chorus that’s almost medieval in its raucousness. stalwart blogfriend danielle is in there, along with “habanero” josh flail and, uh, crystal. this blog bailed early with the restless progeny to try on suits at h&m, where it got the text: “danielle 3. crystal 6. josh 1.”

which we thought must be some sort of street code for someone’s monthly order of hasheesh, mistakenly sent to the blogphone.

none of the south carolina valiants are through. not jared of charleston’s admirable metto coffee, or dave the independent purveyor. both, it turns out, turned in distinctive performances.

and oh, the zombies showed up, which sort of offset this blog’s presence on the credibil-o-meter.

tomorrow’s final puck drop: dale donchey, dave delchamps and travis edwards appear to be the others in the mix. noise is expected.

Serbc: the six

February 14, 2009 – 8:03 pm

We hear There’s a half-octane final round. And habanero josh flail might be the guy to beat.

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February 14, 2009 – 2:23 pm

Octane’s josh flail – competing cooly – does the daring deed: mentions ‘habanero’ in the bev.

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What we’ll do…

February 14, 2009 – 10:35 am

Serbc day 1: rake leafs. day 2: drag our back-knots to atl for coffeewater magic.

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CI cultivates antiquity

February 11, 2009 – 11:16 pm


and suddenly, half-nuked water began to gush from the grouphead of our ancient lever espresso device, which, ever since the monumental refurb, had thus far continued to run with the alacrity of a spanked porker. no longer. to blame: a set of three obscenely worn gaskets around the spring-loaded piston that drives our antique shots of tiny italian spro.


thanks be to komos, there still exists in this country a be-all, end-all wizard of all things ancient and italian and lever-driven and espresso-related, the san francisco shop owner christopher cara. we just bet that if someone took pictures of the work space behind this man’s storefront and sent them to us, they’d be haphazard and dionysian and oily and artisan-like. just a hunch.

alas, cara has ceased to traffic in riviera grouphead gaskets, or the supplying manufacturer has. which left only a half-hour of genial commiserating talk and a free shipment, on a whim, of gaskets belonging to a different type of lever machine. “try them out,” says he. “if they don’t fit, never call me again!” or something to that effect.

and that is how this blog became a whittler, in the grand southern redneck whittling tradition: penknife in hand, evening lamps burning, pieces of whittled material flying all around the elbows. the inner surface of the gaskets fit perfectly on our piston, but the outer edges flared too far and failed to, ah, facilitate efficacious insertion.

but as you might imagine, suthin’-style whittling isn’t the best way to ensure a tight rubber seal:


and so, we turned to the fine norwegian art of rubber filing! donned a furry cap, grew a face full of morrissey hair and grabbed a cup of mellow glogg, hunkering over the offending projectile and swishing into the barren night …

we have no idea what we’re talking about. still, the result was not unserviceable!


our hack job reassembled, we discovered that the new and beefier gaskets now cause the piston to move up and down with all the dispatch of mellow glogg. which has, in turn, necessitated the double-pump brewing method, in which we yank on the crucial lever twice in the course of the a single espresso shot. turns out people have been doing this for many years — in the movies anyway. and that perhaps we are now operating our riviera treasure as it was initially intended.

but this seems like a WAY too fortunate turn of events for this lowly blog.


no idea where she gets it

February 9, 2009 – 11:32 pm


signs the blogdaughter might be a future coffee cupper:

walks in the house with one of those gnarly sweetgum balls.
takes a deep, stale whiff.

“smells like
gum and boiled eggs,
a little bit of honey bake,
snickerdoodle cookies
silver spears
and golden shiny

wait, wha?

reasons to marry

February 8, 2009 – 3:06 pm


then again, coffee reviews can be too easy. blog filler, often. which is why we’ve quarantined most of our ongoing taste impressions to the twitter feed to the right. always a good exercise for this blog, the 140-character limit.

an exception to this policy: when an espresso sits in your mouth like a shimmering peach compote and goes down the same. there was the feel of the layer, which was thick and compote-esque, then the thin-and-delicate taste, which we initially assumed was peach. conflationary error! instead, the sweetness was stronger. it glimmered louder. a musky cantaloupe? a light-toned papaya? shucks, rambutan?

this was of course the special-release matrimony coffee shipped by those zombies in advance of their march nuptials. what an invite. also, what was it saying? twas a honduras gem, from the moreno family, of high-altitude pacas and bourbon coffees. pulled, as we are wont to do, as a cool espresso — 1.8 ounces in 27 seconds at about 200f.

“sweet,” “soft” and “stonefruit,” the label said. and how. with a base of nutmeg swirling underneath and ice cold mountain flars floating on top. to us, it said, “worth getting married over.”


February 5, 2009 – 12:12 pm


like most people who do it, this blog has secret, ulterior reasons for homeschooling its progeny.

this blogpost: 27 stars!

February 4, 2009 – 10:55 pm


and so the surreptiti-blogger tacy made a rather pointy point while this blog was out about the black hole that is … well, it’s a black hole. thus lacking basic tenets of existence. and the hole that is, currently, black might otherwise be described — if it did exist — as a real authoritative resource on which to base your espresso purchases. a junkie’s black book of spro. an “espresso review,” if you will.

shockingly, this blog finds itself in abject agreement. alas, tacy’s blog seems only to want our cash tips, not our nods and comments.

perhaps many willing drinkers don’t immediately hew to the idea of quality coffee because quality is so elusive. not only does it vary within a single cafe, from barista to barista, but it varies amongst those espresso blends that this loose coalition of internet junkies recommends as “good.” much of this seems based on buzz. why not something a wee bit more empirical?

of course, taste is contextual. this blog can almost guarantee that your spro will taste worse if you’re studying for an exam about sock-drawer fungus, for example. still, we might just venture out and pay exorbitant shipping fees for a pound of someone’s ballyhooed house blend if a trusty rating agency told us it was, say, “better than cats! five thumbs up!”

we nominate standard & poor’s. oh, wait.

silence, blogged

February 2, 2009 – 12:37 am

the absurdly long holiday sabbatical (what is this blog, french?) involved more 25-person spro bashes, in-home roaster fires and vacant periods of zero-coffee-blog consumption than you are wont to be interested in. then there was the comments section, which continued to unspool, dripping with irony, through the dry weeks as if we’d never left.

we’ve discovered that if we let the unread coffee blog posts pile up in our rss reader — past 127, say — they start to disappear. goodbye, guilt! also, when you’re known to your acquaintances as a boil-brained coffee knave, there’s no telling what kind of gifts you might get:


the lever machine is now reconditioned. the southeast regional barista competition appears to be in swing, five months later than usual. and the blogfamily, with their shocking third-world coffee habits, have come and now gone. maybe we’ll see you around.

makes this blog want to stop start smoking

November 19, 2008 – 12:44 pm

who says specialty coffee doesn’t have an outsized influence on the broader consumer market? latte art, apparently, is now so culturally prevalent that it can be used for the sale of stop. smoking. lozenges.

CI‘s coffee moralizes the morning commute!

November 17, 2008 – 12:19 pm

this blog readily admits ways in which our concern for coffee at large falls short:


faced with a steaming, forlorn cuppa left on the bumper of an suv in morning traffic, this blog zoomed close to discern the brand — something along the lines of “french joe”! — and then, calling upon its evolved philosophical underpinnings, opted not to alert the driver.

justified taste snobbery, or a colossal failure to advance coffee consumption as a whole? this blog reports, you decide.

UPDATE: and perhaps even this post fails to adequately portray our moral self-righteousness! it’s true that we saw the cup and then sped diabolically away — but not before snapping this picture for triumphal use here!

UPDATE UPDATE: alas, had our sideview mirror not crept into the frame, we could have claimed here that we were riding the blogscooter on this morning commute. in order to, you know, cement our bulletproof feeling of moral superiority!

UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE: sparky. the weight of our strenuous holy rectitude is really wearing on this blog …

you don’t need this blog’s leaden words

November 15, 2008 – 3:00 pm

dominy unleashes videographic evidence from the charlotte bash that he can pour latte art while breakdancing on his head, that sexyfoam breathes grooves and that this blog’s bumbling pour closely resembled pancreatic cancer!

scroll to the 28th minute for lem’s spinning marvels.

i am, therefore i’m addicted

November 12, 2008 – 10:32 pm

perhaps it is when caffeine becomes an ingredient in oatmeal that you know the culture of consumption — the human churn rate for stuff — has mutated beyond mere individualistic pleasure. it has become inextricably linked to addiction.

this idea was perhaps the most agreeably scintillating slice of last week’s coffee conference. keynote speaker sidney mintz, a genial, snow-haired research professor in johns hopkins university’s department of anthropology and an expert on the role of sugar in the carribean, joked at the conference that he felt like a fly fisherman who had accidentally walked into a hunting convention. but his speech was an energetic tour of the social forces that push us toward addiction to psychoactive substances, your pantry staples included. it was such a cheery presentation that it almost seemed like an apologetic for addiction, but wasn’t quite.

mintz’s take raises the question of whether social forces — instead of, say, pure taste — is what largely drives people to drink coffee. i believe james hoffmann has blogged about this idea, exploring the effort it takes to push people over the initial hump of what, to them, often tastes quite bitter.

the question, mintz said, is under what circumstances will someone taste for a second time?

his idea is that habits don’t emerge in a vacuum. something else, a social force, is pushing at the same time, be it status seeking or self medication. when these habits form, he said, they tend to be in the spaces in which concentration rises or falls. this is evidenced in the way that “cues” often prompt your habits: a certain kind of music, a smell or a lighting change — cresting as you look up from a book — can trigger cravings.

this is enabled, so to speak, by modern consumption, which is qualitatively different from pre-capitalist consumption. individualism, mintz says, has received a new definition. it’s called customer satisfaction. this is so ingrained nowadays, that the notion that someone would put the group above self — that a culture group would starve together — barely seems like human behavior.

this is society in which material objects have come to play a defining role. your soy latte, your porsche cayenne or you tag heuer watch, is who you are. the problem is, objects never live up to such expectations. a society of individuals seeking identity in objects is a perpetually disappointed society. in this context, addictive substances have an enhanced appeal, mintz argues, because they hold your attention longer and seem more reliable by comparison.

coffee is always there when you want it. what it means to be an individual is simply a different thing now, and so addiction holds more sway.

it’s worth noting that two primary modern substances to which western society is hopelessly addicted — coffee and sugar — gained prominence on the backs of slaves. it was the triangular slave trade route that prompted ships to fill their holds with coffee on the leg from brazil to the u.s., said steven topik, a history professor at the university of california at irvine. meanwhile, 13 million slaves were shipped — 9 million actually arrived — in a burgeoning industry whose primary reason was sugar cane, mintz said, and whose human cost on behalf of a psychoactive substance is staggering.

it’s not hard to remember why i first tasted a coffee beverage: it was a frothy, mysterious concoction that the parents drank during their evenings together once we were in bed. the initial taste notwithstanding, we couldn’t get enough of this privileged elixir. cementing the dependency, five years later, was the regular prospect of toiling inside a windowless college newspaper office until 4 a.m.

without these and other social forces, it’s questionable whether i’d have ever been propelled toward “good” coffee. without the psychoactive component, it’s questionable that i’d drink it every day.

dominy’s patrociny!

November 10, 2008 – 11:20 pm

hudgens approaches a gravy-train of rancilios.

this blog breaks briefly from its mind-bending contemplations on the economic morality of the brew to note the extreme oddity — EDIT: the distinct charlotte-ness — of saturday’s barista bash. it’s not just that the southeastern scene is growing … it’s that it’s getting more diverse.

it could’ve been that the gregarious host won his own latte art smackdown (outpouring certified champions along the way), or that one extraordinarily, staggeringly, off-his-gourd drunk competitor severely tested our poker faces, or that mr. sexy foam himself was manning the party turntables or that this blog’s own free pour left such a vast chasm of longing between our lump of foam and the term “latte art.” in any case, we’ve never exeprienced a coffee party like it!

it wasn’t a “pour” we did, actually. more like a glug. suffice to say we were brand new to those rancilio steam wands and displayed our malpractice with commercial jet steam in general, flopping down some aerated milk like so much phlegm and sea-foam. meanwhile, greenville’s hudgens produced a doozy and held the lead much of the night, before taking third place behind two vets of this genre: ben helfen and jason dominy.

dominy, the exuberant booster of the charlotte coffee scene, is clearly attempting to extend what is a nascent community in these southeastern hinterlands. he’s got a loose coalition of shops to work with — those called “dilworth,” around charlotte, plus some indies — and appears to believe that this is a group that could thrive from more communal ties. props to him. and his new $700 home espresso machine. this blog has always firmly believed that, if you’re nervous about throwing a party, just make sure you win the grand prize! (EDIT: dear commenters, we’re not saying there’s anything wrong with this, the end.)

helfen emcee’d, the blogchildren lolled agreeably on one of the sofas, lemuel twisted and blasted away and this blog left hoping that this sort of thing ends up pushing people toward more excellent brew. sped home, chomping our gum in a rapid-fire, can’t believe-all-that-just-happened kind of way, checking out the leonids and occasionally weeping at the thought of our over-toasted latte glug.

we suspect there may be some video surfacing soon on dominy’s page. and the circle expands …

dominy’s two lips! (fun fact: the fellow looks daily at a poster of finely thrown latte art, and asks, “what would chris owens do?”)

hudgens amazes!

helfen’s near-miss.

it’s not our fault you can’t see lem butler throwing an uber-secret insider coffee gang sign in the murky reaches of the ‘tay.

Cup to Seed: Does specialty coffee help or hurt farmers?

November 6, 2008 – 3:59 pm

Note: This is a bloggy draft. It encapsulates the arguments put forth at last weekend’s staggeringly comprehensive Coffee Conference, on the moral, economic and social aspects of our second-largest commodity. It is likely to evolve. For now, it represents a series of unusual and unanswered questions for specialty coffee and the market as a whole. Feedback welcome. Related discussion here.

Carlos Roberto Sáenz remembers an incident, as a 10-year-old, when trucks carrying roughly 50 masked gunmen pulled up to his family’s third-generation coffee farm in the middle of Guatemala’s bloody, 36-year civil war. The visit made palpable a threat that anyone farming coffee in those days already knew — the farm could go away at any moment, burned to the ground, the farmers kidnapped, more of Guatemala’s storied plantations left smoldering. Nothing calamitous happened that day, though Sáenz’s family continued to pay arbitrary and exorbitant taxes in an effort to purchase their relative stability until the war ended in 1996.
Sáenz is now the fourth-generation operator of Finca Las Brisas, and has himself decimated what the armed band left untouched, torching acres of coffee plants and the environmentally ideal shade trees that covered them. It was a desperate effort to climb out of debt and sustain what’s left of a family and national legacy. The move clearly haunts Sáenz. But so do his farming loans, some of which carry interest rates of as high as 24 percent.
PowerPoint photos of his now-sparse landscapes flipped before a silent group of academics, economists and coffee industry stalwarts last weekend, to the soundtrack of a doleful Enya tune. Sáenz, in a speech jolting for both its dire assesment and matter-of-fact tone, explained how he has diversified to cattle and rubber trees, started offering coffee tours, explored hydroelectricity using local river water — anything to augment a shrinking revenue stream.
He also bought a small roaster, and began making money in way almost unheard-of until recently: by selling the stuff to locals, roasted and bagged and not at all the leftover dregs of the crop that they’re used to. Many coffee farmers have never tasted their product. Sáenz is being forced to take control of the entire coffee-making process, or give it up entirely.
Sáenz gives a double-barreled reason for this agonizing wane in his livelihood: the global fall-off in green coffee prices — which economists say was comparable to Great Depression rates as recently as 2004 — and the rise of higher-altitude coffee farms that cater to specialty coffee buyers, who pay a premium for crops that deliver exceptional quality and taste.

He can do little about either trend. The historically low market prices, in his view, are the fault of cheaply produced coffee in Brazil and Vietnam. And although much of Guatemala offers ideal mountain growing conditions, Sáenz’s farm isn’t as well situated as those where hard-bean crops develop more slowly and offer the subtle, fruited flavors so prized by American coffee snobs. He’s pursuing quality, Sáenz says, but there’s only so much he can do.

Playing with fire
Sáenz’s story, presented at Miami University’s conference on the “moral, economic and social life of coffee” last weekend, underscores some grave economic questions facing the coffee industry at large and the specialty market in particular, which has of late trumpeted a direct-trade coffee buying model that proponents say is the key to more fairly compensating farmers.
However, the picture that emerged from economic data, trade history, industry test cases and farmer accounts was of a specialty market whose strategy of cultivating sustainably good coffee is at best extremely limited and at worst perversely detrimental to the very slice of the coffee industry it aims to help: farmers.

Saenz’s predicament is echoed around the coffee-producing world, where growers are feeding a Starbucks-driven caffeine frenzy in consuming countries while getting prices so low they can barely stay afloat. Kennedy T. K. Gitonga, a research officer and economist in Kenya, said the average age of coffee farmers in his country, one of east Africa’s most successful and innovative exporters, is now 56, because the younger generation sees no future in it.

From a high of 3 million bags a year in the 1970s, Kenya now produces 850,000 a year, though the name Kenya AA may be more familiar now than it ever has been.

In Burundi, 67 percent of coffee farmers fall below the poverty line — defined as income of less than $1 per day — and fully half of all coffee-dependent households fail to see any profit, though in many cases they continue because coffee farming opens the door to things they need, like regular cash and fertilizer, said Quentin Wodon, a World Bank economist who specializes in coffee.

Wodon, a fast-talking Frenchman with a wealth of data on the tip of his tongue, dismisses high-end specialty coffee as a niche that offers a select few farmers unusual prices but that has no effect on the poverty of farmers overall.

Ernest Carman, a Costa Rican farmer, said the price he gets per 100 pounds of coffee has remained unmoved for years, though the cost of labor and pest control has skyrocketed. Even Price Peterson, whose fabled Panamanian farm produces the most expensive specialty coffee in the world at prices that exceed $100 a pound — unroasted — told conference attendees that in order to stay alive farmers have two options: find ways to grow cheaper, or shoot for the heady prices specialty buyers can bring.

Given all the quality benchmarks a farmer can pursue — proper picking, attentive processing and careful shipping — the one thing that still stands in the way of specialty coffee, Peterson said, is altitude.

On its face, this appears to rule out the great, struggling middle of coffee farmers, the Saenzes, who can neither produce high-altitude gems nor the cheap industrial commodity of the vast lowlands of Vietnam.

This may seem ideal, from a specialty standpoint. If there’s less middle-grade coffee, then the choice between specialty and commodity brew becomes more obvious, no? What’s at stake, however, is the balance of trade at large. You should care, said Stuart McCook, a coffee historian at Ontario’s University of Guelph, because specialty coffee is relatively small — 20 percent is a generous figure — and because low-grade, anonymously sourced coffee sustains millions of people and entire economies. In that sense, it also sustains specialty coffee.

Does trickle-down work?
McCook suggests that the “seductive trajectory” of the American coffee story is part of the problem, because it’s deceptive about the past and unrealistic about the future. The commonly told story arc has commodity-grade Folgers giving way to status-conscious Starbucks and then to responsible, high-quality estate brews, and assumes by implication that someday soon most coffee will be sustainable and “good.” A look at history suggests this is unlikely. McCook charted the spectacular rise of low-grade, or robusta, coffee (from zero percent of the trade in 1900 to 35 percent now) and compared it to a high-end movement dependent on a more finicky arabica coffee plant known for “chronic overproduction” and catastrophic disease. Such a market, by implication, is unlikely to put much of a dent in the broad patterns of societal consumption.

Indeed, one of the most powerful and dangerous pieces of propaganda for capitalists is the notion that a thing can start out as a rare luxury and move toward a democratically consumed “good” item, said Bruce Robbins, a literature professor at Columbia University who made few friends at the Miami conference by referring to the specialty pursuit of coffee as “pathological” and a “fetish.”

His point, however, bears scrutiny if for no other reason than it describes exactly what champions of the specialty coffee establishment see as their great social mission: find great, rare coffee where it exists, pay the farmer a premium and then sell the delicious taste married to an estate brand, creating a luxury market along the way that will revolutionize the masses the way high gravity beer and single-origin chocolate have changed consumption in those sectors.

This is trickle-down economics, whereby the dramatically higher prices paid by a few (customers) to a few (farmers) is assumed to have a broader effect on the market overall. The more customers willing to pay $4 for a cup of Panama Carmen estate, the more farmers can get in on those kinds of deals.

There could hardly be a more difficult time to defend trickle-down economics, given the economic impotence of the Bush Administration tax cuts and the origins of the current financial crisis. But if you were to defend such a maligned economic approach at a time of widespread unpopularity, you’d want George Howell on your team.

Howell is a storied figure and ripe for parody. He is slightly stooped and gregarious. Unlike many in the specialty business, he says he does drink poor coffee while traveling, masked heavily with cream and sugar. In speeches, he is so effusive in his promotion of “transparently” stunning coffees and his derision of lesser varieties that his hand-waving, sing-song delivery can sometimes seem gleefully condescending. (Kopi Luwak, the expensive coffee famous for its sojourn through the digestive tract of the Asian palm civet, is coffee “from assholes for assholes.” Barista competitions, where competitors are judged on the taste of their espresso beverages, are actually obscuring excellent coffee by promoting the latte “craze,” according to Howell.)

Howell presumably got rich by selling a highly successful Boston chain of coffee shops to Starbucks in 1994. He helped found the Cup of Excellence competitions that reward farmers in producing nations for high quality through competitive coffee auctions. He has pioneered lighter coffee roasts to uncover layers of flavor and is pushing to eliminate the traditional but disastrously porous jute coffee bags for green product traveling to the States. His contributions to the high-end market are virtually unparalleled.

Howell’s fundamental belief, as expressed at the Miami conference, is that a “luxury” coffee market analogous to that of top-shelf wine is “the answer” to the question of economic sustainability. “This is the answer!” he said repeatedly. To visualize this, Howell presented a slide show that included the simple animation of an arrow with a large, pyramid-like head. At the bottom of this pyramid is the wide base of commercial-grade coffee, with various strains of specialty coffee in the middle. At the top of the pyramid, at the point of the arrow, is luxury coffee — a tiny percentage of the whole but vital, he argues, to changing coffee’s economics. Without this point, the arrow doesn’t pierce the target.

Geoff Watts, a globetrotting coffee buyer for Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea in Chicago, espoused something similar in a presentation that highlighted his company’s widely recognized model for working directly with farmers. By creating a retail market for exquisite, accessible coffees — and charging more for the drinks — such buyers are able to pass more money through to the farmer.

Ken Davids, a longtime coffee author and reviewer of high-end offerings, bolstered the general argument by telling attendees that “prestige” coffee is the goal, the trigger for an economic tide that raises all boats.

This logic is so simple, so graspable and so commonly cited by advocates of sustainable agriculture, that it’s become sort of an article of faith. It’s also makes for compelling narrative, offering American coffee junkies the guilt-assuaging option of buying coffee that’s “fair” in both senses of the term — it’s equitable, and a beautiful thing to drink. However, advocates often use terms like “allow” — as in, “Charging more only allows us at the Organic Coffee Cartel to give back more.” And yet, how many will do this?

The approach doesn’t sit well with Wodon, whose job it is to study ways of lifting coffee farmers from extreme poverty in a country that produces no specialty product to speak of. The excitement generated by high-end direct trade can be good, he told Howell, but it has no impact on stricken Burundians whose livelihoods can be lifted through the smart development of less-than-stellar coffee.

Howell responded that the Burundian farmers are “burdens” that need to be made “contributors” — a classic argument of trickle-down economists and proponents of regulated capitalism. Wodon was incredulous. There were scowls all around.

Lower prices vs. higher prices
Perhaps the most devastating critique of the specialty coffee model came from Manoel Correa do Lago, a Rio de Janeiro exporter and economist whose droning, heavily accented argument and yellowed overhead transparencies must have passed right by many conference attendees who dozed off or left the room in the thick of the afternoon. The economists, in general, seemed to provoke little interest.

The crux of farmers’ well-being, Correa do Lago says, is consumer demand. Coffee farmers in Brazil can — and have — made extraordinary gains in productivity, he said, but if consumer demand doesn’t increase along with more efficient production, then farmers don’t see any benefit. Instead, wealth is transferred to consumers by way of oversupply and lower prices.

The way to benefit broad swaths of coffee farmers — and thus make the market as a whole more sustainable — is to increase consumer demand. This, of course, isn’t done by raising the price of a cappuccino; it’s done by lowering it. To that end, Correa do Lago also criticizes coffee industry groups that worry more about how to divide the coffee cake — specialty versus commodity, robusta versus arabica — instead of devoting their muscle to making the entire cake bigger.

I asked Correa do Lago if this is an argument for artificially lowering retail prices. He insists that it isn’t. Instead, he suggests that the open market for coffee be made more transparent. If green coffee prices were widely published the way Americans keep track of their other biggest import — the barrel price of crude oil — then consumers would come to expect a cheaper cup of coffee when those commodity prices tracked lower, and retailers would have to offer those savings the same way public pressure helps push down gasoline prices at the pump.

As it is, commodity coffee giants such as Nestle have the clout and market share to buy huge amounts of green coffee at the going price, then hold steady or increase what it charges consumers even while green prices plummet. This, of course, fattens company profits and could actually be abetted by a specialty coffee sector that’s helping to create the expectation for higher retail prices.

This vast inequality of wealth continues unfettered while direct-trade coffee relationships create the illusion that the industry has “arrived” at fair farmer compensation, Correa do Lago told me. What’s more, he believes that most direct-trade contracts actually provide only minimal gains for individual farmers, year-to-year.

One point he didn’t mention was that if retail prices trend higher, then consumers may be quicker to cut coffee spending when the economy gets tight. Such is our current climate of plummeting consumer spending, which could create even more volatility in demand for vulnerable farmers.

Knowledge first
No one in Miami offered a rebuttal to Correa do Lago’s central claim that these “inefficiencies” could be eliminated if consumers were made smarter and retail prices reflected the cost of green coffee. There was almost universal agreement, however, on part of this key point: Knowledge is power.

Watts, of Intelligentsia, outlined the extraordinary gains in coffee quality when farmers learn for the first time how to taste and discern their own product — an unheard-of development in many producing countries.

Robert Rice, of the Smithsonian Bird Project, explained how coffee studies in Mexico and Jamaica prove that shade-grown coffee reduces the major farming cost of insecticide, since shade trees harbor migratory birds and migratory birds feast on one coffee’s biggest threats, the borer beetle. An Ecuador study, however, showed that too much shade significantly reduces crop production.

Armed with the knowledge that a 40 to 45 percent shade cover marks the “sweet spot,” Rice says, farmers can cut costs and boost production.

It would be hard to find a more powerful example of knowledge-spreading than Rwanda, where a massive effort to rebuild coffee production as an economic catalyst in the wake of genocide focused on degree training for coffee scientists and outreach to farmers. They learn to pay exacting attention to coffee picking, hand sorting, washing, fermentation and tasting in a strategic effort to snag higher market prices, said Abdoul Murekezi, a PhD candidate at Michigan State University who is involved in Rwanda’s PEARL Project.

Certifications, Internet access, trade shows and buyer tours help spread the knowledge and eliminate barriers to open trade, said Anne Ottaway, also of PEARL, who adds that the approach has a proven trickle-down effect on the rest of the industry. Without a doubt, this effort has been transformative to coffee farmers and the Rwandan economy. PEARL, however, is heavily subsidized by USAID. And Murekezi is studying household impact on the working poor during the 2001 to 2007 transition from commodity coffee to a more specialty crop. The jury is still out, he said, on whether cooperative coffee production or sales to the traditional market have more of an impact. His conclusions, at least, will further empower Rwandan farmers.

Even Saenz, with his small-time roasting and selling operation, is educating Guatemalan consumers on how their national crop really tastes. Bizarrely, this is a vast frontier in coffee-producing countries and a relic of the coffee trade’s oppressive, colonial roots. Saenz is creating a new market for himself, and though it’s far from clear if this strategy will work for him it raises the prospect that perhaps someday American consumers will have to vie for premium coffee with Guatemalan, Kenyan and Brazilian consumers. This, more than anything, could be what makes coffee prices more “fair.”

Debunking coffee
If anything, the take-away lesson seems to be that the seductive arc of coffee’s legend — the Dark Ages melting into a glorious “good” future — has the potential to blind. Historians tell us there is no endless positive arc of improvement. Economists tell us that the romance of specialty coffee may not only exaggerate its present value but also overstate its future impact.

This intense romanticism is nothing new to coffee and may be why the economists were largely ignored last weekend.

Commenting as an outsider, Robbins, the Columbia literature professor, remarked to conference-goers on what he saw as the uneasy negotiation over what is “good” in a coffee beverage. Goodness, it turns out, is informed by a whole host of deceptive or simply untrue stories about coffee itself.

* America’s first coffee boom, for example, wasn’t sparked by the Boston Tea Party, as many history books have it, but instead was the byproduct of the slave trade, in which empty ships coming from South American had to carry something. In this way, it was actually the rapid expansion of coffee farms in Brazil that pushed down coffee prices and prompted its widespread use even among cowboys and on westward-bound covered wagons, said Steven Topik, a history professor at the University of California-Irvine.

This story is almost never told in the U.S., and it completely reframes coffee’s romantic underpinnings. It makes the “American” coffee story entirely different, and more sordid. It also happens to perfectly support Correa do Lago’s argument, in which lower coffee prices dramatically increase demand for a farmer’s product. This is, truly, a rising tide that lifts all boats.

* Or take espresso bars, the explosive popular edge of the quality movement. Jonathan Morris, a historian at the University of Hertfordshire in England, argues that Italian-invented cappuccinos first arrived in the U.S. as a way to help make Italian-style espresso — i.e. “good” coffee — more accessible to the masses, with all the shiny levers and knobs of the espresso machine and the exotic theater of those handcrafted, milky-sweet beverages. Alas, those cappuccinos never knew when to leave the party, and have became an end consumer product on a mass scale.

The Italians have taken notice, Morris said, and have proposed a bill currently pending in Parliament that would send agents around the world to check and certify if your cappuccinos deserve the Italian seal of approval. Even the government, it would seem, wishes to define “good” coffee, then overly romanticize it.

* One final example comes from Robert Thurston, a history professor at Miami, who strikingly compares the roughly parallel trends in U.S. advertising for soap and coffee from 1880 to 1935.

The contrast is revealing of the weakness for faulty coffee narratives Americans have always had. Soaps ads, it seems, carried an offensive air of whiteness during this era, suggesting the imperial west could export cleansing to more savage countries. Soap was a status symbol of the elite. It was evangelistic, prosaic and sometimes simply racist.

Coffee ads of the same period offered the philosophical opposite: It brought poetic, foreign pleasures into civilization. Coffee didn’t scrub away odors, but rather filled the nostrils with romantic scents. It was loose, and daring to consume. Coffee, in other words, was an exotic import, while soap represented a moralistic export.

Could our weakness for idyllic pseudo-narratives be any clearer?

Juan Valdez speaks
Fittingly, it was Davids, the author and taster, who offered the most incisive take on the foibles of specialty coffee by caricaturing the industry’s win-win optimism as the province of snobs and wannabes who, in search of excellence, get importers to play the game and force coffee farmers to either get rich or get out of the business.

It was a joke, and like all good jokes it hit a nerve. In one of his final slides, Davids flashed one of the hugely successful ads for Colombian coffee featuring the symbolic coffee stud, Juan Valdez. Juan is grinning, next to his donkey, and both are wearing faux-hip shades. The tagline could be modified by one word to fit the specialty coffee industry:

“Will the popularity of Colombian Specialty coffee go to their heads?” It’s possible that it already has.