Saturday, June 11, 2005

   from trish

not so cinchy

Okay, maybe you all won't want to read a lot of belly aching about the difficulties of making good coffees....not to mention great ones, but I feel the need to continue the discussion that Peter and Chris have been working on here.
Espresso blending and roasting - and marketing, for that matter- is not so cinchy.

A lot of folks I have worked with and admire greatly are constantly disillusioned by the effort. It's like our dirty little secret in the business and no one really wants to talk seriously about it. Yeah, I know. It is a bit of a downer to get into, but there are promising signs in our future.
Espresso components are damned hard to come by and the demand for them has grown umpteen fold. I don't care who you are or what your espresso reputation is, your blend is not consistent. Some of us can pull it off better than others, but espresso truly is what Nick Cho called the "bikini contest" of coffee. Your blend is a continuously moving target. I have made a point of tasting some highly touted blends dozens of times. Some of them have not rocked my world as was promised. This is not an indictment on them because I know that was just a moment in time. Others have reported godshots with these same blends and I believe them. Still others float above the fray, never coming in contact with our terrestrial espresso pitfalls...who the hell do these coffees think they are? God's gift? (Dammit I guess they are.)

It is nerve racking to go to a friend's shop and not be able to give them the thumbs up on the shot...and then they ask, "...really, what do you think?" All I can say is, "I think you haven't tasted it recently."
But you see, I *know*! I know what is happening. I have been there, we all have.

It's nerve racking to get a sample from an importer...tiny tiny these samples are. They need to know, like yesterday, if you want the coffee and how much. How can you test blends with these itty bitty samples? You need to trust that you understand how the crema will really perform after degassing....2 days, 4 days, 10 days? Who knows, but you don't really have the time needed to try it out, you have to act because the importer wants to sell it to someone today.

Enough poor me venting...can you hear my violins? Here comes the promising future for the big finish:

The conventional wisdom about espresso is now being examined and either accepted or debunked. In some case, both at the same time. Weird, huh? Just as we have religiously logged our roasts, some baristas are brewing everything all different ways. To me, it seems more than ever that the brewing will be matched to the coffee not the other way around. That means that there will be even more reason to say that espresso is anything you want it to be. If you have a hard time defining Third Wave, this would be one of its cornerstones: You can make coffee anything and any way you want to so long as it works. But that means we have a responsibility.
A little Star Wars symbolism...... Black= absence of all light
White is the presence of all light


Blogger Peter G said...

Trish, I think we must be psychically linked or something. Or maybe it is the time of year....but this topic has been on my mind!

I actually gave a tirade about this subject to Alice as we were sitting on our bed the other night (she is so patient with me!) Some highlights:

-Wine drinkers are prepared to accept that great growths from great winemakers are inherently variable. This is part of their charm. Consistency=mediocrity in wine (there is a great article on this topic in this month's Wine Spectator). However, many coffee consumers are still expecting consistency of the greatest coffee blends. I'm ready to go on record: if your blend is consistent, you're choosing to average out the highs and the lows.

-Naturally, people's expectations of a coffee or a blend are based on their best experience of it. Passionate coffeepeople are constantly seeking to catch that star again. Problem is, you can't have it. Remember that feeling of falling in love for the first time? You can't have that anymore either. I still remember this lot of Harrar in 2000; the best Harrar I have ever tasted. Problem is, if I use that as the minimum benchmark, I will be constantly disappointed and probably miss some great coffees in the meantime.

-Espresso blending has an inherent problem: in a given day, you can only taste maybe 5-8 shots before suffering real palate fatigue, even if you are spitting. Probably fewer if you want real accuracy.

Thanks for the great topic, Trish.


6/11/2005 02:25:00 PM  
Blogger chris said...

personally, i think espresso should be ever-changing. it should reflect the realities of coffee, it should be dynamic. it should be vintage, season, lot specific. and that changable nature is desirable - it keeps us excited and interested. end of the day... it is all about the coffee.

6/11/2005 09:33:00 PM  
Blogger trish said...

that is all well and good in our nerdy world, but it creates a marketing problem.
You can argue that the end comsumer couldn´t care less because very few are actually tasting the shots in their pure form. And you can make that same arguement with wine. A small percentage is tasting for varietal and vintage....most just want to know that the Traminer will work with the first course or better with the dessert and that the red they choose will stand up to the beef dish. know, and those are the folks who say they are wine connoisseurs.
full disclosure: I have just described my own level of wine knowledge, but I would not characterize myself a wine expert!

6/12/2005 09:37:00 AM  
Blogger Peter G said...

Pursuant to this idea; I think this is where the Barista comes in- as the "Sommelier" of coffee. Just as you say, Trish! When the barista is able to adjust for variations in coffee with technique, and solve what he can't with technique by ingredient pairing and explaination, that is the real deal!

I can also envision a set of coffee-pairing skills where a Barista can reccomend coffee types and brewing methods for various occasions, food pairings, and environments, taking into account seasonal variations. This requires two things: baristi will have to become more capable as retailers/merchants (whole bean and equipment sales) and baristi will have to start being employed by superstar restaraunts, just as a somallier is. I believe that this is the key event; where a coffee specialist visits your table after or during a fantastic meal (perhaps ideally at brunch) and does a little coffee talk.

6/12/2005 10:26:00 AM  
Anonymous t o n x said...

I think it comes back again to the issue of transparency. Do the beans that constitute one of your brand named blends have to be a trade secret? I'm happy to tell the rare person who might care about the newest beans in the Streamline. More often than not a customer is surprised by the amount of care, knowledge and attention that goes into a process they may have never thought much about.

Much of the "success" of the Specialty Coffee Related Beverage Product Industry (or whatever we call ourselves) is built on obscuring these complexities, creating the illusion of consistency and aping the sheen of mass-market products.

Difficult as it may be to visualize the path, I think that coffee will move away from this outdated, faux-sophisticated marketing as we start to see a more educated customer. True connoisseurs are quality focused and brand agnostic and we need to be doing a better job of cultivating them. And this is not going to happen by sharpening the language of our glossy labels and brochures but through hands on experience of the coffees and disclosure of the process.

All of what I'm saying is well and good for a quality focused small roaster, but gets more challenging for roasters who do most of their espresso volume at wholesale and have built relationships based on the illusion of consistency or the illusion of simplicity. Finding a way to communicate the true and changing nature of espresso without putting fear into the customers whose businesses rely on you delivering a consistent product can be tricky. But that genie will be yanked out of its bottle sooner or later, ready or not.

6/12/2005 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger trish said...

thanks Peter, Chris, Tonx
music to my ears
I have to keep the faith, and it can be difficult.

(....Tonx, I was another one who thought you rhyme with Bronx)

6/12/2005 12:37:00 PM  
Blogger chris said...

I'd love to see Baristas not only able to but allowed to talk to customers about the coffees and to have the option to serve different coffees and different blends -- to become more like the sommelier mentioned above.

6/12/2005 07:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Tim P said...

I was in Santa Cruz over the weekend and had coffee at Coffee Cat in Scotts Valley on Saturday and Barefoot on Sunday. Thought I would share my impressions, as they may be relevant to this thread.

Coffee Cat roasts & blends their own coffee (Diedrich roaster & afterburner in-store), uses a 4-group LM and a Swift-like grinder (only saw the back). This turned out a nice espresso (not Victrola, or Hines, but nice) and I think shows what can be done when you start with quality coffee and a controlled environment. Nice people, I talked to three of them :)

Barefoot lives up to the nice people, good coffee slogan. 4-group LM, roaster in-store. Guest coffee was Victrola, very nice shot and then two shots of Barefoot's Redwood. Very nice again and good conversation about the blend with the barsiti who are enthusiastic about coffee as science and craft.

Getting to my point... I brought home a pound of the Redwood and made 3 shots this morning. After talking to the baristi yesterday about the Redwood I picked a starting point on the grinder and made shots in a hurry. Maybe I got lucky, but I made three really nice shots right off the bat. A little different from the shots yesterday, but really good. So I guess I am just trying to say that we home users can have success with commercial, or in-store blends, but our success will be higher with a point in the right direction. The conversation around roasters providing more information along with beans labeled for retail sale is a wonderful one (this information is always and enthusiastically available upon asking - I have asked many of you ;) ). I love trying different coffees and the barista as a somelier, or guide is also a wonderful idea. Thanks.

6/13/2005 11:49:00 AM  
Blogger onocoffee said...

You're going to hear me talk about this on the podcast so I might as well chime in in writing.

I'm not interesting in arguing the merits of the single-origin coffee. Each year and lot of a particular coffee will be different - that is truly exciting and should be celebrated. I love tasting the differences in the coffees from the same region, year to year.

However, when it comes to a particular "blend" I tend to disagree. A particular "blend" is popular because it demonstrates particular flavor characteristics. I want to know my Black Cat today tastes like my Black Cat in December. I want consistency in flavor. I want to know time and time again that I can return to my old fave.

It is my position that it is the roaster's responsibility to produce a consistent product day to day, month to month, year to year.

Some will argue about the changes in the bean from week to week and crop to crop but what does the average retailer care about that? They want their Black Cat to be the Black Cat they know and love. Just like the makers of Champagne who taste and blend their grapes each year to maintain a consistent flavor profile, our roasters should do the same.

But I remain open for consideration.

6/13/2005 05:38:00 PM  
Blogger chris said...

consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

to use your own metaphor... NV Champagne is a wonderful apertif. But vintage Champagne... well now... that's something is a whole different realm.

the only way to see true consistency of flavour in a blend is to "dumb it down" so that you never take risks like using a truly wonderful coffee ('cause it might not be wonderful next year) or something one of a kind. you cannot push the envelope, and there is no chance for evolution.

without change - there is no progress.

death to unchanging flavours.

6/13/2005 06:15:00 PM  
Blogger trish said...

Do you eat fresh tomatoes in December? They suck, right?
I can find no Black Trumpet Chanterelles in the forest in June.

You see, Jay, it is only very recently that people have eaten the way you describe the way you want your coffee. Ever since we have existed, we have consumed just what the season offered.

A blend changes. I think it will be harder and harder to make them consistent...and that is just as well.

6/13/2005 07:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Beto said...

If one is talking about the esoteric, eclectic market, they will understand and appreciate the differences from crop to crop and year to year.

But, in my opinion, if real espresso is to be taken outside of the geek world, it must be as consistent as possible.

6/14/2005 05:19:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Deferio said...

Hello portafilter people,
I think the retail environment needs to offer a product that has a constant flavor profile...people are creatures of habit and don't like change...but in the same breath...we need to offer something that is changing...vintage....special.
Seems to me that there is great skill needed for keeping a blends profile consistant considering the ever changing ingredients...and that can be celebrated by the Barista in how they relate the blends nuances to the customer. At the same time you can offer an estate coffee and celebrate the growers...and the roaster for the unique qualities in the coffee.
Any way. Both blends and S.O. espresso have their place of honor in the bar that truely cares. About educating all of their consumers...the creeatures of habit and adventurers alike.
-Chris Deferio

6/14/2005 06:53:00 AM  
Blogger Peter G said...

on the subject of blend consistency....

I will repeat my above declaration, in a slightly more strident tone:

You may want a great, absolutely consistent blend; but you can't have it. The two terms are mutually exclusive, in my experience. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but in my experience this is very true. In Italian, we have a saying: "Tomato sauce is like a woman, it's always changing." I would extend that saying to coffee.

There is a way to develop consistency, however: 1. choose mediocre, unspectacular ingredients- it is tougher to notice as they fade and 2. use MANY different coffees in your blend, grouped by flavor category. (body coffees, acidity coffees, sweetness coffees....) Legend says that certain big espresso companies dedicated to achieving consistency have upwards of thirty coffees in their blend, and are constantly swapping out lot for lot. This does not jibe with the quality roaster's habit of developing strong, consistent relationships with a few, great growers.

This is not to say that espresso blends are completely inconsistent. It IS the roaster's job to keep some consistency in the blend, and all quality roasters strive to do this. All quality roasters who I know strive to achieve a certain 'flavor profile' to the coffee, which they can articulate. However, the educated barista's palate has evolved to a point where they can percieve subtle changes in blends pretty easily, especially if they are tasting multiple shots daily, and keeping tight control of freshness.


6/14/2005 08:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Mark said...

On espresso taste changing, and esp. responding to the 2nd comment (Chris)... I'm rather infamous for constantly stating no single origin coffee can cut it as an espresso shot... except for Yemen Mokka.

Now I'm not trying to stir up a debate in this thread about whether or not I'm right on the single origin comment; but instead, not everyone *gets* why I like Yemen Mokka (mmm Matari or Ismiali) as an espresso shot... and what Chris wrote is the key to it: The taste is never quite the same, even shot to shot from the same roasted batch. I think everyone reading this knows why Yemen is all over the map in taste, but in case you don't - it's because it's one of the worst-sorted "famous" coffees on the market today. Screen sizes from 10 to 22, defects gallore, a roast that goes from cinnamon to light french in the same batch, yada yada.

And it's beauty is that even with all the defects, all the bean sizes, it produces an amazing cup. Pulled as an espresso, it is wild and different, almost every pull. Yes there's a baseline of flavours, but ever nicely pulled shot has a surprise or two for you.

As a guy who loves espresso, I like that in my espresso.

The problem with espresso blends, and consistency (trying to achieve it) in espresso blends, is that many roasters (no, not really any who are reading seem to think consistency means flatten it out and just make it taste like "coffee" and nothing else. That just plain sucks, and its stuff I never want to drink.

The high end roasters who do have superior (at times! sorry!) blends that sometimes go up and down... when the downtimes come, it always seems that the downtimes mean "sharp" or "too acidic" or "sour" or "flat" or "lacking body".

I almost never, ever get that kind of negative stuff from the occasional straight yemen shot pulled. Yemen's all over the map, but at least in my experience, it's always been good or better - all of the map should mean "this week we're getting more blueberry. last week we got more milk chocolate".

One thing I know - blending is a freakin' art, and a challenging one. It's easy for all of us to sit on the sidelines and criticise. But sometimes, I think this pursuit of "consistency" is often the biggest detriment to maintaining the quality of the beverage.

I would love consistency if a) the espresso was hitting all the high notes I personally want (but my taste likes is not necessarily your taste likes, so it's a catch 22), and b) it maintained those high notes always. But that never happens. So maybe aiming for consistency should be less of a goal when put next to "aiming for nothing but awesome taste", even if it became the "yemen" of the blend world - taste profile jumps all over the map. Make any sense?

6/15/2005 12:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Gee said...

after listening to the podcast and reading over the comments posted, i'd like to extend Jay's analogy to classical music, which i think offers up a lot.

suppose you are a composer, and you write a lovel concerto for an orchestra. You have a beautiful interplay between the brass, strings, winds, and percussion. it's everything you would want to hear. enthralling, beautiful, complex and nuanced. you put it in the hands of the new york philharmonic, resurrect bernstein and it's absolutely wonderful. it sounds exquisite. like manna from heaven. you sit in your seat and literally can't move because the music has taken you to a place you don't want to leave. fast forward a few months and you have bernstein doing tours around the country and they come to your town and your local symphony gets the chance to play being conducted by the maestro. and the performance is good. not as good as when you first saw it, but good none the just find something to be...lacking. and so you look to see what has happened. You have the same conductor (barista), the same music (the blend recipe), but a different orchestra (the individual coffees of the blend).

A piece of music should sound relatively the same no matter where you hear it or who performs it (discounting the free jazz movement...). With a good conductor, you should be able to pick out the parts that you particularly enjoy and not be distracted by the parts that are sub-par (say because of the tone deaf bassoon player). I think that this is what people expect from espresso as well. They expect a well crafted score, they expect an expert conductor, and they expect a top notch orchestra. The part where this analogy fails actually is the largest benefit to espresso; the conductor and composer can shift around the sections of the orchestra and make it still sound beautiful, while not completely losing the overall experience of the piece. In concert music this is basically unheard of, but roasters and baristas can make beautiful music together. and yes. that is about as cheesy as i'm going to let this get.

6/15/2005 03:28:00 PM  
Blogger trish said...

the problem with analogies is that they ar alalogies.... none really work for coffee. Even the wine and produce ones are a stretch.

Here's another one:
The cobbler down the street won't fix my clogs. He doesn't like mending shoes despite the fact that cobbler is defined as - one who mends shoes- in the dictionary.
He only likes to hand craft elaborate custom cowboy boots from people's foot prints. Each pair is one of a kind. They cost a fortune and he has more work than he can handle.
... he only fixed my clogs once and he'll never do it again.

6/15/2005 04:39:00 PM  
Blogger chris said...

I fundamentally believe that consistency of flavour year in year out (or even month to month) and a pursuit of "the perfect espresso" are mutually exclusive goals.

6/15/2005 04:43:00 PM  
Anonymous gee said...


if that's your belief, then can you explain why "the perfect espresso" should be an exclusive and wholly unique experience?

if that is your belief, then you are stating that once a person has perceived "the perfect espresso" then they can never achieve this perfection again.

6/15/2005 09:49:00 PM  
Blogger onocoffee said...


Somewhere along the way it seems to me that some people have equated "consistent" with "bland crappy coffee." And I don't understand why.

Is it beyond our realm to produce a consistent espresso blend that rocks? And rocks in the same way throughout the year? Granted, I'm stuck in my little island in the middle of a coffee wasteland, so I have very little interaction or exposure to coffee as the rest of you, but I find my roaster's espresso blend to be quite consistent over the past year. Sure, there have been some missteps along the way, but I'm almost always sure that our shots are going to demonstrate the same tones and notes day in and day out.

That's what I want as a retailer - consistency.

And to see some of the most quality oriented friends claim that consistency is a "hobgoblin" just blows my mind. Let's just toss out the consistency thing and let our baristas make our espresso and our drinks willy-nilly. Nah, no need to tamp like last time, just pull the shot. 19 ounces or 12 ounces - it doesn't matter because you need to stop being a hobgoblin.

Yes, I'm very unabashed to say that I want and demand consistency throughout the company - from the techniques of my staff to the quality of the coffee and other products. My customers depend on my attention to detail and the consistency of their experience.

And I'm sorry but all this talk about "expecting the blend to change" paints a picture of the lazy roaster in my mind. The roaster who has decided that his Sweet Jesus Espresso Blend is going to be comprised of 25% Guatemala, 10% Mokka, 30% Colombian and 35% Sumatra - never ever to be changed or adjusted to compensate for changes in the bean. Just the "recipe" that will always be followed and, therefore, a blend that we should be conditioned to expect to change.

I don't know about the rest of you, but that sounds like crap coffee to me, and if consistency is truly the hobgoblin - then you can start calling me "OnoGoblin."

6/15/2005 09:54:00 PM  
Blogger trish said...

thanks, Jay, for not using another analogy!

The best espresso shot I had at the Seattle SCAA quite a huge margin - was Barefoot Element 41 (I think that's the name) pulled for me by Jeremy of Hotwire at the BGA booth... and it wasn't on the Synesso.
The shot did not really fit the description promised, but kicked ass none the less. Is there a failure there? Not sure.

Maybe our problem is that we are confusing "consistency" with "exactly the same". Maybe I should have never used the word consistent.
Okay, let's start this discussion again without using that word... that was a joke.... hmmm

6/16/2005 07:50:00 AM  
Blogger chris said...

If your ingredients change, the end result changes.
The reality is that coffees change.
The common two ways to achieve a blend that has a consistent profile is to either limit your bean selection (removing unusual, limited or unpredictable beans) or to use a huge number of beans.
Either compromises potential.

6/16/2005 08:14:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Inman said...

Trish, thank you for starting this thread. In many ways I think this conversation is just getting started and in the end, we may have a completely different understanding of espresso.

I strongly agree with the comments made by Jay, yet I understand the sentiment behind Peter and Chris, yet their comments do not answer the question at hand about blending and branding in a way that is realistic.

Here's the my 2 cents- for what it is worth:

The point of blending is to make a end product that is more complete than its parts-simple enough

The point of branding is to offer a product that they can count on all the time. A Big Mac needs to taste like a Big Mac no matter which McCrap you visit or what time of year you visit. The same goes for Godiva Chocolate, Camel Cigaretts and Eskimo Pies.

Single Origin, Topshelf, Private Reserve, Special Lot #? or whatever language you use is a great way of informing the consumer that this is a single experience and will not be the same next season, or even next lot. BUT, the lot you are selling needs to have consistancy during its offering or you have killed the point of it. ex: If one bottle of 2000 Nalle "Old Vine" Dry Creek Zinfandel tastes radically different than another bottle of 2000 Nalle "Old Vine" Dry Creek Zinfandel then the point of "Exclusive" or "Special" is lost. The product is instead, inconsistant or poorly made. If the 2000 tastes different than the 2001, then it is fine, because it is another year and another experience.

Espresso is very different from wine and other artisan products for the following reasons:

1. Unlike the Somelier, or the Cheese vendor, the Barista is processing the product further. The Somelier is not crushing grapes or controlling fermentation. The Barista can take a great coffee and make it taste like crap or can make it sing. Unfortunately, they can not make a crappy blend taste fantastic, but that is a different topic. Grind setting, tamp, temp, extraction time, cup's pre-heat, all have to be in perfect allingment to make espresso great. This is far more detaill and skill than a Somelier (and at a fraction of the labor cost!). If you know how to chat up the blend or the origin of the coffee used in the blend that is great, but if you hand the customer a crap shot, then you look like someone who can just talk up a good game, but doesn't have the skills. I have seen this too many times for comfort where a barista will chat their espresso up and down and then hand you a lame shot and blame it on the weather or the temp of the water, the "fading" of an ingredient in the blend or any number of external forces.

2. If you are going to brand something (ex: Black Cat, Element 41, Organic Panic) then it better taste the same or your branding efforts will fail. Blending for a branded product should hit some type of taste spec' or why brand it? What are you going for? If my Kit Kat bar had Almonds in it one month and Walnuts in it another month THEN IT ISN'T A KIT KAT! This is where vintage can play a part. If Black Cat 2004 tastes different than Black Cat 2005, then fine. But if Jay were to receive a shipment of Black Cat one month and the next month's shipment tasted different, then he would have cause for concern. They should just call it there "House" espresso, if they can not hit a spec. Remember all of us are pushing BRANDED blends. Jack Daniel's drinkers differ from Wild Turkey drinkers for a reason.

3. If you are offering SO espresso, then you have the luxury of inconsistency. You are now pushing a single experience with no claims of a year-round availability. This seems much more appropriate than trying to establish a branded blend if you want to showcase the "Highs and Lows." Wholesale customers who would purchase this coffee would know what to expect and market it accordingly.

4. A big criticisim of the espresso movement that has not been adequately answered is that you are selling an experience that can not be replicated at home. If I had a shot at Stumptown and enjoyed it and purchased a Lb. of espresso to take home without being warned to not expect the same flavor on my home espresso machine, then I am being misled.The strength of the specialty brewed (Drip, press pot, vacuum, etc.) market is that you can get the same experience at home or at the cafe. People can actually take the taste experience home with them. This IS similar to the wine model. This aspect needs to be addressed before the specialty espresso phenomenon or the "Third Wave" will ever become a full-fledged movement. At this point it is still too similar to the handmade custom computer or the alternative energy tech world. Their movements are very complex and not replicable on a nation-wide level. Costs, technical skills or product availability, are usual barriers.

5. Specialty or not, there are customers who want to be adventureous and there are many who do not. You, as coffee professionals, can choose to cater to each or both customer and your business size will reflect that decision. If you are a wholesale roaster and give the retail customer who needs a consistant blend, the "coffee can never acheive consistency" or "I am persuing a higher art" rap, then you really need to analyze your skill set. If you are the retail customer, then you should seek the wholesaler who can provide you with what you need. People hit taste profile spec's all the time. Granted, very few do in the espresso world, but that is the challenge. Why run from it? If not then go for the high art model and have the small but elite customer base. But dont rant and rave about the state of espresso in the U.S. or Europe and don't expect the whole specialty world to follow, because even you did not figure out to pull it off on a grand scale.

Man, I am tired. I'll wait to see the feedback to my rant before I say more.

6/16/2005 03:53:00 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Alright Mr. Inman... it's on like Donkey Kong.

I'm a big fan of analogies. and the coffee-is-like-wine analogy is always an interesting one.

You're right about the fact that consistency does need to exist within a particular 'vintage,' but the difference (as you know) is that in coffee, you don't get to bottle "Espresso Paladino 2004" at once, and then "Espresso Paladino 2005" the next year. It's more like, "Espresso Paladino 5/16/2005," and then "Espresso Paladino 5/17/2005." Granted, the components usually don't change too much in one day... but it's not the same roast.

As far as branding is concerned, here's one of my favorite topics. It's true in most cases: branding is only as useful as the product that it's associated with, and if the product isn't something the customer can count on as being consistent and reliable... then it's not worth much. Everyone's seen a shop or small business that seemed to have everything it needs, but it keeps changing things about itself so much that people don't "get it" and a confused customer is no customer at all.

On the other hand, we're not talking about a paradigm that needs to pervade the entire coffee industry... just a particular, perhaps "upper eschelon" segment of it. In this context, things are a little different. Whereas brands like McDonalds, Starbucks, and Nike demand a certain consistency in product... there are brands for which the product isn't the good itself... but the quality therein. Harry Winston. French Laundry. Vera Wang. There is no expectation of consistency, except for a consistent level of quality.

In certain ways, high-end coffee has more in common with fashion than it does with most other things it's compared to... like wine or food. I could go on and on with that. There are people who say, "I only wear Prada." Nobody says, "I only drink Columbia Crest wines." There are, however, people who say, "I only drink Intelligentsia coffee."

As for the "you can't replicate Stumptown espresso at home" thing... please refer to Eddie Murphy for his routine on "This isn't McDonalds!?!"

I just wanna reiterate something: as far as embracing this whole paradigm of coffee, I don't think that anyone is proposing that this should be the way everyone looks at coffee. I'll reiterate what I said on the Podcast #3: I think we all agree that a true consistency in a blend requires some compromises. The disagreement lies in whether or not the compromise is worth it.

6/16/2005 08:50:00 PM  
Blogger Peter G said...

Jay and Mark;

I actually think we agree on the substance of the argument, yet we disagree about what defines "consistency". Both of you object to radical differences in a blend, and I think we would all agree. Nobody is defending a situation where a particular espresso varies radically from month to month, or year to year. That's not what we are talking about here. Agreed, blends should hit a 'taste spec', obviously. Nobody is talking about almonds in a Kit Kat, silly. What we're talking about is subtle variations. Nobody is talking about willy-nilly. Please don't distort these arguments.

What I am speaking of is the finer, subtle points of an espresso blend. I will choose a practical example for Trish's sake:

Say you have developed an espresso blend that features a beautiful strawberry note contributed by a particular Natural Sidamo That note will be intense when the coffee is new (summer and fall) and fade over the course of the roasting year. At the moment, nothing the roaster can do will prevent the slow decline of flavor intensity over the course of a year. As the coffee fades, the roaster may choose to increase the proportion of that coffee to try to maintain some flavor intensity, or change coffees. In January, every Natural Ethiopian in the world is losing its fruit and taking on a different character. Still pleasant, but different, not so fruity, with some cedar notes. There are no new crop natural ethiopians in January, and no similar coffees from any other region in the world, that I know of. A roaster might choose to replace this coffee with a still-fruity washed African, but the fruit will express itself in a different way, perhaps as orange instead of strawberry. The percieved acidity is somewhat more intense. So, by January, the ingredients of the blend have changed, and the flavor profile is subtly different than the espresso blend in summertime. However it is still good, in a different way. It maintains its balance, but the flavor profile has become 'chocolate dipped candied orange peel' rather than 'chocolate covered strawberry'.

Here are my questions pertaining to the above example:
1. Is the espresso blend above consistent? I would argue no.
2. Should the roaster above have avoided using a Natural Sidamo in the first place, knowing that it would fade and he would be unable to find a perfect replacement come January? I would argue that if he does, he is choosing consistency over quality, and he misses out on the cool strawberry experience he had over the summer.
3. Is the above blend well-crafted, and does the roaster care about maintaining a flavor profile? I would argue yes.
4. Is the above roaster lazy or careless about his blend? I would argue the opposite, that by embracing the agricultural vagaries of coffee, he is delivering a taste experience to his customers unmatched by other espresso blenders. This is craftsmanship, to me.

Part of the craft of roasting and blending is balancing dozens of situations just like this every month. Part of the reality of being a coffee buyer is that if you are embracing special coffees, they are fleeting and changing, every year. You can find a Brazil that tastes like peanut butter at any moment. You can get a Colombian that is balanced, clean, and insipid at any time of the year.

Perhaps the argument is one of degree of resolution.


6/16/2005 08:59:00 PM  
Blogger onocoffee said...

Maybe I just don't have enough respect for the palates of my customer base, or maybe I just don't have a great palate myself - but I seriously question how large a percentage of my customer base would significantly notice the "subtle points" of an espresso blend.

I think Mark has sculpted the question better than I. If a roaster is marketing a brand of espresso, it needs to be the same. While I may think that the Strawberry intensity of the Sidamo is excellent in June and the orange peel absolutely wild in January - a consistent blend it does not make.

Going back to the Black Cat example (and I have no idea why I'm using Black Cat since it's a blend I'm wholly unfamiliar with and I mean no critique of the blend with these examples) - let's pretend that BC used the Sidamo and it demonstrated all of these changes. Then let's pretend that my customers noticed and that caused them to question (in their minds) the consistency of their experience and their continued patronage - then I would be seriously concerned about the situation.

Again, I'm still waiting for someone to explain how "consistency" in an espresso blend somehow means "poor quality."

While I do think it is very exciting to taste coffees as they change and develop, I don't want my espresso blend to change dramatically as well. It is the foundation for the majority of our drinks and a major reason we generate revenue. I want it to be a constant - hitting the desired flavor characteristics day in and day out. I think the craftsmanship of the roaster is exemplified by understanding the available coffees so well that the roaster can vary the components of the blend as they change to continuously delivery a consistent flavor profile.

Outside of the espresso blend, I'm all in favor of celebrating the changes and nuances in the coffee. Let's see how that Sidamo changes throughout the year whether as drip, press or SO espresso. That's something my staff and customers can get excited about. But I want my espresso consistent for the customer who wants it that way too.

6/16/2005 10:09:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Inman said...


Oh's on!

Peter, arguing with you is like Tip O'Niel arguing with glass of scotch. Nobody wins, but everyone witnessing the mele' is entertained. So here we go...let gLLLoves on! O.K


I would say that the example you bring up, while accurate and something we can relate to has little to do with this discussion. To take your example further, I would have asked the final question in your example:

5. Should the above roaster brand this blend ? Should he market this branded blend to a nationwide audience? Should he market this branded blend to the entire state of North Carolina? Should he offer this branded blend to Murky or Jay or (insert, quality cafe here) I would say no. This blend is changing far too much to develop a longterm reputation and will frustrate a good portion of your customer base.

Strawberries are not oranges and when selling a premium product to an upscale clientele you can not have your blend decription read:

"This wonderfully crafted blend offers hints of strawberry in August, transforming to a splash of orange and chocolate in January, offering something for everyone depending on the time of year and your taste preferences. Oh, and if it you have a shot on a LM it will offer more intense fruit while Rancillio's will accentuate the cedar notes..."

Finer, more subtle points defines the foodie as a target customer. They do not want flavors that smash their faces in, they will gladly pay a premium to go on an adventure. If you can not deliver a clearly defined and crafted adventure to this client, they will be ultimately dissappointed and loose faith in you as a fine craftsperson.

Nick, don't think I've forgotten about you....

I love analogies too and enjoyed your one about Zoka's Paladino except:

Aren't the blend components the same from one day to the next? If you are using specific lots (and, hopefully, you are not purchasing coffee lots that are too small for your annual/seasonal usage) the blend SHOULD taste the same on 5/16 and 5/17 unless you are using the same roasted coffee and it is staling. Why can't the roast be the same. I know for a fact that when ol' Pete and I used to man the helm of a roastin' machine back in the day, we could hit our marks like Deniro in a mob flick. You could pull our roasts from 5/17/2003 or 5/17/1989 and see little to no difference in roast color. Because if our goal was roast consistancy, we had profiles that would accomplish that goal. How often do you open a can of Illy and see a 50 agtron one day and a 44 the next?

As for your analogy of Harry Winston, Vera Wang and French Laundry, well..neither of those are branded products, they are branded companies. If you purchased a Mont Blanc pen, you would not expect an onyx and gold pen one month and then a onyx and galvanized steel pen the next. If Thomas Keller offered a signature Chocolate Chip Bicotti, he would hit the mark on consistancy because he knows it is important. If he is offering seasonal food (like he does) he does not brand the dishes...that is my entire point.

Do espresso- play with tastes- offer an adventure to the adventurous...just don't try to develop a branded product around it- develop a brand NAME around it. Call it by the season or the "catch o' the day." But don't call it Paladino, because Paladino becomes meaningless if it is Strawberries one month and Oranges the next.

Finally, you offer up the Eddie Murphy analogy..."This ain't McDonalds." but it confuses me. Did Eddie's Ma purchase her meat from Mc D's or the Buns to make the big ol' home burger? No she didn't. She made a huge ol' ball of meat from the A & P and smashed it in white bread when lil' Eddie was teased by his friends. In my example did not the customer drink and enjoy espresso at Stumptown and then purchase a Lb. of that same Stumptown espresso to go home with? And could this customer not replicate the taste? I would say, "It should be McDonalds if you purchased it there."

Thanks for this great forum! While I am not sure you all are happy I found it (Send your hate mail to Trish for tellin me about it), I am sure happy I found you!

Nitey night......

6/16/2005 10:41:00 PM  
Blogger trish said...

dude, I can't believe you said Kit Kats..
send your signature homemade kit kats to Mark me for the address.

6/17/2005 08:10:00 AM  
Blogger chris said...

So don't brand the espresso. Brand the company.
You're setting arbitrary constraints that are limiting quality.
You absolutely SHOULD use the Sidamo. You should use every great coffee - regardless of how it changes, even if you only have one bag.
Brand loyalty is rarely to the product (iPod excepted).
Control your brand.
I hear far too many people saying, "our brand is all about not upsetting people. Our brand is safe." I hear far too few people saying "our brand is about excellence, quality and taste."

6/17/2005 09:18:00 AM  
Blogger Peter G said...

Can't believe I'm posting again. But I just can't help it!

As long as we're knee-deep in analogies, I feel about my blends the same way a chef feels about his dishes. At a local well-known restaurant, called Crook's Corner, they are famous for a signature dish called Shrimp and Grits. Chef Bill Smith has the responsibility to keep this dish great. (one could think of this dish name as a brand, I suppose) However, the shrimp, the cheese, the mushrooms, are ingredients that all change in flavor and quality over the course of the year. The dish still tastes largely the same, however the shrimp may be subtly sweeter one time, the mushrooms slightly more earthy the next. It retains it's "shrimp and grits-ness", but it is subtly different each week. Most folks don't detect a difference, but the sous chefs certainly notice, and those who are really into shrimp and grits notice.

Does this violate the consistency mandate? To me, this is the joy of fine food. It would be possible, I suppose, to buy frozen, farmed, graded shrimp, rather than the best shrimp available on the local/regional market; it would be possible to use kraft parmesan rather than real reggiano, which might vary over the course of the year. It would certainly make the dish more consistent, but it would make it worse.

I would agree that it would be inappropriate to use giant striped tiger prawns from singapore in this dish; it would violate the spirit of the dish. However, it is the chef's job to make the blend the best he can every single moment.

The strategy of Chili's on the other hand, is to have baby back ribs and fries taste exactly the same whether you are in Cincinnati or Bakersfield. To do this, they manage their supply chain tightly, choosing ingredients for their relative consistency rather than their quality.

Consistent doesn't mean "horrible", Jay, it just means that you may be passing on some special coffee experiences along the way.

It should be said, that at CCC we DO strive for consistency in our blends. We work hard to make the blends consistently meet the flavor profile. 'simply sweet, like the caffe dolce of Siena'; that's Toscano. 'intense, bittersweet, and complex, dark chocolate and fruit' that's Forte. However, remember that Sidamo story? The truth is, every coffee is like that. Coffee is harvested in a given country either once or twice a year. This means a give coffee's qualities vary quite a bit from month to month, from year to year, from lot to lot. The hardest-working roasters in this industry prefer to embrace the best lots, and craft them into a blend that represents its spirit and flavor well. (you can tell I'm still smarting from Jay's "lazy roaster" remark)

Jay, I write on the presumption that the readers of this website are the most sophisticated coffee drinkers. Most daily coffee drinkers might not notice the subtle differences in a coffee blend over the course of the year. But I do, and I bet the kind of person who reads a site called 'portafilter' notices too.


6/19/2005 01:43:00 AM  
Blogger onocoffee said...


Considering you are on the other side of the planet, I'm seriously impressed by your level of participation here.

But I think we're starting to make headway and find common discussion. Blends that consistently meet the flavor profile - that's what I'm looking for. The blend we use at the shop is supposed to be sweet, with slight nuttiness and a chocolate-y finish. I'm a devout fan of our espresso blend and of our roaster. To be honest, I'm not too attentive to the actual coffee components of the blend as long as it meets the flavor profile and always rocks. That's what's important to me because that's part of the experience we are providing to our customers.

But back to the branding thing - I can accept the notion that coffee is a changing thing and that the components of your blend change, but to brand the coffee with a name is a messy game in my mind. Our blend doesn't have a branded name, so if it changes slightly, we can play along and inform our customer that the blend has changed a little. The lack of a name brand makes that transition easier in the mind of the consumer.

But while a blend may change slightly, like a chef's dish - let that dish/blend change too much from the expected or for too long, and it looses it's luster. As a restaurant customer myself, if my fav dish has changed too much for too long - why bother eating at the restaurant anymore? I'd prefer my customers to think differently.

And while the participants of this board are indeed some very sophisticated drinkers, I think it's important to remember that our customers are not quite to this level of sophistication - and I don't want to lose sight of that. The bottom line is that I'm depending on our coffee bringing in our customers on a regular basis to support my life. And while it's very exciting to showcase different coffees throughout the year, my customers and my business depend on the consistency of our most basic coffees.

6/19/2005 01:30:00 PM  
Blogger deCadmus said...

Lots of solid, well-considered and well-structured arguments. Deep ideas, too. Hope I can do so well...

To begin, I think it's a matter of expectations...

After years of being exposed to branded products of all sorts, our customers (yours and mine) have been tutored (read, brainwashed) to expect consistency in the package, whether that's a jug of bleach, a cup of noodles or a can (or a stand-up, nitrogen-flushed one-way-valve bag) of coffee. Our customer is both target and end-product of a packaged-goods culture, where a brand is a "promise of consistency." Billions and billions of television, radio, magazine, newspaper, billboard and -- much more recently -- web ads, have made this so.

By extension, most any company that offers a product that puts consistency first is a packaged goods company in the eyes of their customer. McDonalds? Packaged goods. Nike? Packaged goods. Starbucks? Packaged goods.
It's only when you put the experience first, that you break the mold. BMW? Driving experience. French Laundry? Culinary experience. Disney vacation? Whoah... that's both an experience and a packaged good... damn, they're good. ;)

My point -- and I do have one -- is this: specialty coffee has only just begun to turn the corner from packaged goods to culinary experience. (Insert your favorite "third wave" idiom here.) It's an especially difficult corner to turn when the Mermaid -- the folks who own the majority of corners in your town -- appears to be doing the same thing that you're doing, and they're selling packaged goods.

Even if yours is a tiny roaster / retailer that has wholly embraced the culinary goodness and ever-changing nature of coffee, your ability to sell a culinary experience will be only as effective as your customers' capacity to believe. There's a lot of packaged goods inertia to overcome, and it's gonna take some time.

So what to do about consistency vs. the chameleon qualities of coffee?

First, realize that not all your customers are the same... in fact, they're all individuals, but it's virtually impossible to market to individuals... so we market to segments, instead. We have to clear camps identified already, so let's explore them.

The Traditionalist - Here's your packaged goods icon... let's call her Martha. Martha buys name brands because she's been taught through the years that they're consistently better and she believes it. She craves consistency... to her it's a little bit of certainty in an uncertain world. Martha is more than willing to sacrifice some amount of quality to get that consistency (though, of course, she'd never phrase it quite that way.)

The Sensationalist - Here's your lover of all things experiencial... let's call him Miles. He's the guy in the office everybody points at when they talk about the movie Sideways, and he knows it. Miles is always looking for new taste sensations; he's willing to try anything once. Probably twice. Miles is who you might think you want as a consumer, but on the other hand he can be so mercurial he really has no brand loyalty at all.

Back in its early, most predatory days, Microsoft had a simple plan of attack -- embrace and extend. It's still a killer strategy, today. First, embrace each of these customers... give them what they want.

Give Martha a blend she can count on. Brand it. Bland it, even. So maybe you have to "dumb-down" a blend with a large number of beans that you can source consistently, or substitute seasonally. Do it. Giver her the means and opportunity to love your consistently great coffee. Embrace her needs, and then expose her to new things like seasonally available coffees and new and different origins.

Give Miles the experience he craves. Make sure he knows how exceptional and ephemeral it is... But before you wear out even Miles' prodigious appetite for new things, expose him to the consistency of Martha's favorite blend. Think of it as a palate cleanser... a little R&R between the exotic sensations. He might thank you for it... and he probably won't think of it as pedestrian at all.

In short...
Give them what they want. That's solid advice. But take a small step further out and you get, "Give them what they want today, and then lead them to new possibilities." Embrace and extend. That's how you turn the corner... how we all will.

6/21/2005 12:09:00 PM  
Anonymous t o n x said...

very well said deCadmus!

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