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Saturday, April 15, 2006


while today began with the most beautiful pearly fog over wall st. -- and the usual delicious batdorf dancing goat cappuccini -- the afternoon turned into full summer. hot! sunny! hot!

i danced off to yoga. lya teaches a fun vinyasa in the dharma mittra style, and i knew that class on this day would pretty much thaw me out after what felt like what one of the longest, most depressing winters on record.

which it did. i returned a good 2/3s back to my "normal" non-winter self.

what to do on such an unexpectedly hot day? dear readers, it was obvious: brew up a cafetiére of oren's amazing finchwa yrg, and drink it iced.

yes, i have to say a nice tall glass of iced finchwa paired with a dark chocolate graham cracker makes an excellent post-yoga snack.

long time readers know that every year i pointedly re-link to one of the most important bccy posts ever: don schoenholt's instructions for iced coffee. and this year, no exception. . .

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posted by fortune | 2:01 PM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 0 comments

Friday, April 14, 2006

only because you asked

long-time readers here know that i'm always happy to talk about beautiful specialty coffee, which tends to come most reliably from those who are pro members of the scaa and roasters guild. i will on occasion mention the large chains, like the mermaid or dunkin.

truly devoted readers know that of the two, i actually prefer dunkin, because they have strictly enforced policies on brewed coffee freshness and beverage service quality, even tho' i'm not personally a big fan of the blend. it would be rare for me to discuss some place like mickey d.

but i have received several emails today regarding the recent news that improved coffee quality has resulted in big sales gains for the chain. this of course doesn't surprise me in the least.

who wouldn't like better quality coffee? it's always been my contention here that, in contradistinction to what the jaded say, americans do care about coffee, and they respond to better coffee -- simply because it tastes better.

as scaa chief ted lingle has long said, "coffee is the engine that pulls breakfast." if, like mickey d, you depend on a strong breakfast trade for sales, then improving the coffee will also improve your breakfast sales.

in the u.s.a., studies of consumer habits show that the prime coffee-consumption window slams shut at 11am. unless the industry moves more quickly to improve the taste of decaf, that probably won't change.

and so for the majority of americans, coffee is inevitably linked to breakfast or a late-morning snack. the truth of this is shown as well by the fact that while outside specialty beverage service is a hugely growing market, 75% of the coffee americans drink is still made at home in the morning.

thus clever retailers of all types, either cafes or roaster/retailers, should focus some innovation around the breakfast market -- and also realize that while those customers are in your store, you have a prime opportunity to sell them beans to make at home. if your retail locations are along a route primarily used by commuters, then definitely this is a way to make $$$ from your customers even when they stay at home on weekends.

i remain constantly surprised at how many shops i enter here in nyc that are obviously primarily filled with commuters and office workers have counter-monkeys who never seem to make an effort to sell the beans. often, there aren't even wall displays for the beans.

not necessarily that they'd be beans of quality, mind you. . .but am i missing something here, or is this a staff-training issue?

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posted by fortune | 8:27 AM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 4 comments

Thursday, April 13, 2006

sometimes you want to be sympathetic

but you just can't. case in point today, one of those standard, curmudgeonly articles against the mermaid:

"for as long as i've been swilling coffee, my philosophy on the stuff has remained constant: give me regular joe for regular joes.

i don't need all these fancy high-priced 'specialty' coffees strong enough to leave you twitching at your work cubicle for a week.

yep, just give me a basic cup of joe at a reasonable price and i'm a happy guy. give me your folgers, your maxwell house."

no news here, just thumb-sucking, right? and since long-time readers know me no big mermaid fan, you'd think i wouldn't comment.

but! the attitude displayed above is very distressing, and does deserve comment. consider its two assumptions: 1 - that folger's coffee is reasonably priced; 2 - that it's "regular joe," which i interpret to mean good, basic, sound coffee; and 3 - that the mermaid's coffee is higher naturally higher in caffeine, thus "leaving you twitching;" and 4 - that specialty coffee, by his use of quotes, is a scam in the way supposed "regular joe," what we here at bccy call commercial coffee, isn't.

long-time readers know he couldn't be more wrong on every count. let's walk this through.

at first, it seems you can't dispute him on price. for example, at a basic national retailer like walgreens, folgers sells online at US$9.99 for 39 oz., (about 2-1/2 lbs) or about US$0.26 an oz.

however, what do you get when you buy commercial coffee? long-time readers know what "grade 8" commercial-quality coffee looks like and it ain't purty. it is the very definition of taints, faults, and defects.

don't let me gross you out readers, but you may recall this picture of a sample of commercial quality coffee next to the once-proposed coffee-purity standard coffee. that's not roasted coffee on the right -- those blighted, blackened, blasted, bug-chewed uglies are what's in your supermarket-style coffee.

it shouldn't even be allowed to be called coffee; it's junk, trash, mere "coffee by-products." and that's what they're selling you in the diners and cheap greasy spoons; that's what "regular joe" actually looks like.

you shouldn't pay US$0.05 for this. actually, this stuff is so nasty, it probably shouldn't even be allowed in the country, just as we don't allow the import of rotten meat, imvho.

why would anyone want to drink this coffee, once they know what's in their cup? the writer above thinks he likes this, because the commercial coffees have hoodwinked him into thinking their coffee is pure and good, that it's "regular joe."

frankly, just looking at this is basically enough to turn me into a super-clean-cupper, à la george howell.

meanwhile, instead of paying US$0.26 for commercial-quality, um, stuff, you could run over to your local upscale market like nyc's fairway and get a much better grade of coffee -- altho' still not specialty -- for a competitive US$3.99 a pound, or about US$0.25 an oz.

that's right, folks -- you can get better coffee cheaper. it's fresh and available as whole bean, unlike the stale, pre-ground folgers.

plus of course there's the entire coffee crisis discussion; how seemingly cheap coffee actually is expensive in terms of the illegal immigration it causes.

i think this covers my first two objections. as to point three, the mermaid's coffee would only have such high caffeine levels if it's been poorly brewed, so that's a beverage-service quality issue on their part, not in the nature of specialty coffee itself.

specialty coffee is a high-quality grade, a grade without major or so-called primary defects, and only limited minor ones, unlike the commercial coffee pictured above. it's not a marketing scam; it's a quality point.

and it's that level of quality, in the green, in the processing, in the roasting, and in the beverage service, that the american public deserves. and should always demand.

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posted by fortune | 7:21 AM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 6 comments

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

taint that simple

long-time readers are familiar with my discussions about the scaa flavor wheel and also my much-used coffee-tasting glossary.

we specialty coffee lovers don't know it -- because we never see them in the high-quality coffee we drink -- but there are such things as taints and flavor faults in coffee. often they stick out like a wrong note in an otherwise nice melody, but sometimes they are bad enough to ruin the coffee completely.

usually only professional cuppers and roasters encounter coffee samples that contain these taints. it's a rare occasion indeed when we consumers would run into one; home roasters may see them if they buy green from a less-than-specialty source.

of course taints have their own wheel, and here it is: the scaa taint wheel. most of these taints are rather abstruse, as i said, but i did today want to take a moment to paraphrase from the lingle cupping handbook and mix in my own experiences to describe some of those that are (relatively) common:

  • acrid - the tar-like taste of 45-min old coffee sitting on that hotplate. everyone knows it and no one likes it.
  • baggy - coffee badly stored in burlap or grass bags start to taste like, well, mildewed burlap or dirty canvas. the fats in the coffee absorb the scent. also used for under-roasted coffee that's poorly stored.
  • baked - the taste of coffee that's roasted too slowly or at too low a temperature. usually described as "bready" or "biscuity" tasting.
    (you can often smell it in the coffee. brewed or cupped coffee shouldn't ever smell like grandma's biscuits baking. it's a pleasant enough odor, but indicates bad coffee.)
  • black - coffee beans that instead of being a nice jade or blue-green are actually black, as if they had been roasted. blacks are the defect standard used on the nybot exchange; x many defects equal a black bean. blacks can be caused by pickers including dead coffee cherries that fell off the tree in their baskets, or by insect damage. sometimes you see half-black or partial black beans too.
  • broken - just what it implies: snapped, broken, or badly chipped beans. sometimes the center of the beans fall out and the remaining empty portion is called a shell or elephant ear. it's not just a cosmetic problem as bacteria or mold can invade broken beans.
  • burnt - just that, ashy, carbony, yuck. the taste of coffee roasted too long.
    (i won't name names here. do i have to?)
  • dirty - the term used for coffee that reveals flavor taints, faults, and defects; the opposite of "clean." often heard in the term "dirty cup."
    (some cuppers will accept a slight amount of dirty in certain origins - for example, many cuppers won't object to a hint of earthiness in an indonesian as long as it isn't overwhelming to the other flavors and doesn't make you squinch your eyes when tasting. a tiny sense of "forest floor" is probably ok; a strong, muddy taste is all bad.)
  • earthy - just that, the taste of soil, dirt, or clay in the coffee. in many origins, the coffee is literally dried on the ground, meaning that the fats in the coffee can pick up flavors from the earth on which it sits.
  • flat - dull, stale, paper-y, cardboard-y taste. no appetizing aroma. in fact, an un-appetizing coffee aroma.
    (fresh-roasted, fresh-brewed coffee just smells delicious. if you brew coffee and it doesn't smell delicious and appetizing, bingo. flat, which means stale.)
  • floater/quakery - a raw unpleasant taste somewhat like green peanuts. it comes from poor picking practices, from mixing unripe coffee beans in with the ripe ones. these unripe beans doesn't roast well; they also float in water, thus the name.
  • fermented - an unpleasant fruity, almost alcohol, quality caused by the damp cherry staying in contact with the beans too long.
    (i think this smells like if you were to take very ripe, squishy apricots, put them in a plastic bag, and leave them to sit in the hot sun all day. open the bag the next morning and the smell and results ain't purty.)
  • foreign objects - just what it says. stuff that doesn't belong in the coffee: sticks, stones, insect parts(!), metal bits, chunks of concrete, hunks of rubber; materials like these can get into poorly handled coffee or coffee that's been dried on the ground or on village rooftops. you get the idea. foreign objects are so common in coffee many roasters actually have "de-stoning" machines to help get rid of 'em. the problem is that some of these foreign objects can impart a taste to the coffee even after they've been sorted out.
  • grassy - when the coffee smells like mushy alfalfa sprouts. this has two causes: either the beans were picked waaay too unripe or they were washed in nasty, rotting-smelling, algae-laden water. either way, all bad.
  • green - back we are to the unripe coffee. also sometimes used for under-roasted, unripe coffees. the coffee smells kinda like a raw cabbage leaf, imvho.
  • hidy - just that, coffee smells like a new pair of shoes, leather-y.
  • moldy - just that. and i don't mean in a nice blue-cheese kinda way; i mean in a disgusting, stomach-turning way.
  • musty - just that. think grandma's damp, musty, dusty attic.
  • past-crop - as green coffee sits around in the warehouse, oxygen attacks it over time. it loses organic matter and begins to taste the way old plywood smells.
    (oddly enough, this can sometimes happen in a good way if the coffee is well-stored, thus the cachet of "aged" sumatras among some coffee lovers. however, the term past crop means it didn't go well, and has aged badly. past crop coffees often go through a "straw-y" stage, then move onto "woody" before reaching the past crop grave.)
  • rancid - coffee beans are high in fats, and these can go bad, like any other oil. it's an instantly repulsive smell, like cheap, bad frying oil.
  • rio-y - an iodine-like smell or taste. it's caused by a bacteria that attacks the coffee, and used to be prevalent in coffees that shipped from brazil, thus the name rio.
  • rubbery - a clear sign of robusta, or at least, bad robusta. the coffee will display a smell like hot rubber that runs right down the tongue.
  • sourish - sour, astringent taste that makes the sides of your cheeks pucker up and dries out your mouth in a bad way. due to poor coffee processing.
  • stale - flat, paper-y, cardboard-y. everyone knows it and no one likes it.
  • stewed - the nasty flavor of reheated coffee.
    (never reheat coffee. never. stewed is coffee that tastes like it's been reheated in the microwave. another flavor everyone knows and no one likes.)
  • stinker - a unpleasant smell like raw potato. it smells to me exactly like when you're peeling potatoes and didn't quite wash them enough. potato-y and a little hint of soil.
  • strawy - just that. think halloween hay-ride. the coffee's on its way to woody, for sure.
  • tipped - coffee roasted too quickly at too high a heat results in burned edges and a raw interior. when brewed, it will also display that bready taste of under-roasted or under-developed coffee. look at the beans under a magnifying glass. the burnt edges and sides will be easily seen.
    (this is perhaps the most common taint specialty coffee lovers will encounter nowadays, as otherwise well-meaning but poorly-trained people who fancy themselves "roastmasters" after a single 2-day insta-roast seminar are apt to get themselves in trouble.)
  • woody - just that. i usually say plywood. the coffee's headed toward past crop.
    (in some rare cases, a touch of this can be ok, as in the above aged sumatras. sometimes you can see this in a spicy yemen, in which case the coffee has a sort of sandalwood feeling. i think a touch of this could be ok on rare occasion, but generally it's all bad and a cause to reject the coffee.)

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posted by fortune | 6:26 AM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 6 comments

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

valrhona le noir extra amer 85%

after running through the pouring rain to economy candy this weekend, i finally got around to opening up one of the valrhona bars i bought on sale there. the entire bar range was available, but i was interested particularly in the valrhona le noir extra amer 85%.

why? because it has received such polarized reviews! it seems many chocophiles just loathe this bar. i know one of the reviewers, the famed alex rast (here), so i was curious to see what my own experience would be.

as for the other reviewers on this site, i dunno that i trust 'em, given that they rate a mere lindt bar as number 2!

anyway, let me say that i agree with some of the complaints. the bar is too bright, and it does have a strong feeling of tart red fruits -- i'd say cassis/red currant -- which to the european people at valrhona would probably seem like a plus. red and black currants are much more popular in europe than in north america.

i also agree it has a strong coffee-like aftertaste, which i happen to like. the finish and silkly smooth mouthfeel of the bar are terrific.

so my conclusion is that the brightness and the sourish red currant flavor are what's causing these reviews. to balance out these intense flavors, i ate my square of this valrhona with small cups of oren's fantastic finchwa yrg brewed as turkish coffee.

and thus, dear readers, i had no complaints!

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posted by fortune | 7:55 AM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 2 comments

Monday, April 10, 2006

i told you so, i told you so

truly long-time readers know that i find politics extremely boring. however, coffee is interesting, and as it's the world's second most-traded commodity, it inevitably has political effects due to its economic footprint.

over the years, i suppose you all have grown accustomed to my quirky brand of reportage, but just because i'm idiosyncratic don't make me wrong. the prime example is today's hot political issue: illegal immigration.

even as i write this a large rally is being organized for nyc's city hall today, not mention the many that have occurred around this nation in the past 2 weeks or so. what's interesting is that the debate seems to focus almost exclusively on mexican and central american border-crossers, border-crossers from coffee-producing countries.

no one seems to be mentioning the illegal chinese, irish and eastern europeans. hmm. . .

(of course as a new yorker, i have to say we welcome all immigrants. as a rule, we just don't care how you got here as long as you start working once you do, which to judge by looking at all the messengers, subway musicians, garment-rack pushers, dishwashers, nannies, and delivery people on the streets, they certainly have.)

i've written about this so many times before it's tragic: for example, here, here and here. the so-called "coffee crisis" has led to the loss of as many as 600,000 coffee-sector jobs in central america, according to world bank estimates in 2002.

not to mention all the job losses since,which surely could be an equal number, altho' hard data on this is tough to find. where did all these people go?

they came north, of course, and crossed the border. those that didn't die in the desert or in boxcars have now been living here with us in the u.s.a. for 3 years at least.

what i'm telling is what the so-called mainstream media ain't. what cnn hasn't taken the time to figure out: why so many mexicans and central americans, many of them indigenous, have been forced north in recent years.

while coffee prices have risen a bit recently, and fallen back a bit too, those coffee jobs aren't coming back. the coffee crisis continues and keeps on continuing.

even if those jobs were re-created somehow, the workers aren't going home; they can't.

so they are here, and they will be here. what to do with this large underclass, that's not a discussion for bccy, but i suggest you look at the famed french riots of last year to where long-term neglect of this group will lead.

the discussion to have on this blog is how to prevent the problem from worsening, how to end rural disruption in mexico and central america, how to allow families there to stay together. if this focus on illegal immigration is actually going to bear any useful fruit and not just a short-term bandage that will eventually unravel, combined with pointless political grandstanding, one topic has to be included:

when is the american hemisphere going to get serious about the coffee situation? when are governments going to tackle the coffee crisis and its real causes head on?

of course, one fairly quick stop-gap solution is fair-trade coffee. this gives participating coffee farmers enough income to keep paying their workers, so more workers can stay home with their families.

and because in a market economy, demand creates supply, we have to enforce the minimum-wage laws. as long as employers of all sizes seek a black market in under-minimum-wage labor, the displaced will smuggle themselves here.

so another fairly quick solution is to move beyond just minimum wage to the so-called living wage. living wages will offer the pay incentive americans require to do these jobs.

and this in turn will end the excuse that americans can't be found to do them. once the demand for underpaid, illegal labor dries up, so will the supply.

but that doesn't mean we can then ignore the coffee sector to the south. it must remain a permanent item on america's foreign-policy agenda.

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posted by fortune | 7:35 AM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 0 comments

Sunday, April 09, 2006

the delights of the chocolate-covered graham cracker

i have to confess that i just love a dark-chocolate coated graham cracker. this is one reason i love going to economy candy, as i did yesterday.

these objects are just fantastic with the right coffee, which in this case was oren's finchwa yrg brewed in the cafetiére. some places charge US$16 for a pound of these; at economy, they are just US$8.

and quite fresh, because the turnover is quick. 1/2 pound is about 8 crackers, meaning they're just US$0.50 each; whereas if you were to go buy them at say, the mermaid in my nabe, you'd pay US$1.25.

let me also thank those of you who wrote to console me about my inability to go to the scaa conference in charlotte. i do have a spark of comfort, however: we have to admit that show coffee is usually bad.

not because the nice people who man "master brewing" are neglectful, but simply because the practicalities of the show often mean the coffee has to sit around for a while. and as long-time readers know, old coffee, no matter how well treated, just can't be good coffee.

brewed espresso fades noticeably in just 2 or 3 minutes, and is definitely undrinkable in 5; drip coffee doesn't last longer than 30.

often at the show you work like a dog, getting up at 6am, going to bed at midnite, and then all you have is 45-min.-old coffee. so i'm happy to drink my fresh dancing goat, my fresh finchwa, and enjoy today's sunshine with a chocolate-covered graham cracker.

when i was in economy candy, they were playing alan sherman -- that's their sense of humor -- so in the fun spirit, i told 'em about matisyahu. i think that's right up their alley and will definitely attract the nabe hipsters. . .

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posted by fortune | 2:47 PM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 0 comments

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