How Starbucks didn’t kill the indie coffee shop

Everyone is being mean to Howard Schultz since he announced his presidential ambitions, so I wrote something a little nicer for the Washington Examiner. An excerpt:

Though it seems weird to think about now, there was a time when people genuinely worried that Starbucks would kill off all the local coffee shops. “Starbucks’ policy is to drop ‘clusters’ of outlets in urban areas already dotted with cafés and espresso bars,” warned Naomi Klein in her 1999 book No Logo. “This strategy relies just as heavily on an economy of scale as Wal-Mart’s does and the effect on competitors is much the same.” The company’s aggressive approach to real estate deals was seen as an unfair competitive advantage and brought on at least one antitrust lawsuit from an aggrieved coffee shop owner.

As recently as 2007, the idea that local shops could not only survive but even thrive in competition with Starbucks was taken as Slate-worthy contrarianism. But as was evident even then, America’s appetite for specialty coffee wasn’t a fixed pie to be divvied up between mom and pop shops and big corporations. Schultz’s company helped nurture a market that had barely existed before, introducing Americans to unfamiliar Italian (or at least Italian-ish) espresso drinks in a comfortable atmosphere.

For a longer, more detailed take, see also my 2008 piece from Doublethink.


Books about drinks for Christmas

As we approach the end of 2014, I have a stack of cocktail books awaiting review building up on my coffee table. This has been a better for year for books about drinking than any I can recall since I started writing about cocktails. A lot of these would make great last minute gifts for the drink lovers in your life. Of course one could also buy your friends my own book — waiting for its March 2015 release date will only add to their anticipation! — but impatient drinkers will also find joy in receiving the books below.

The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique, Jeffrey Morgenthaler with Martha Holmberg– Jeff’s new book has instantly become the top book I recommend to people wanting to learn about cocktails. There aren’t many recipes here, although the ones that do appear are very good. Instead the focus is on techniques, topics like stirring, shaking, juicing, making syrups, incorporating dairy products, and making high quality ice. Jeff goes into the reasons to do things in certain ways, busting bartender myths as he goes. Although the advice is drawn from working in a professional environment, it’s also very useful to know for any home bartender who wants to elevate their drink making. If you enjoy mixing cocktails, this book needs to be in your library.

Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times, Michael Dietsch — Michael Dietsch has his work cut out for him with this book. The first question potential readers will likely ask about shrubs is, “What are they?” When they find out that shrubs are infused, sweetened vinegars that you’re supposed to drink, I suspect their second question is, “Why?” But as craft bartenders have recently rediscovered, and as a few communities have known for years, shrubs are delicious. They’re a great way to preserve seasonal fruit and make easy, tasty drinks mixed with soda water or cocktails.

Dietsch’s book is sure to be the definitive source on the topic. It’s so new in my pile that I haven’t had a chance to try out the recipes yet, but the flavor combinations sound very good. His exploration of the history of using vinegar in drinks is interesting too. And though shrubs work great in cocktails, and Michael does include a chapter of cocktail recipes, this isn’t just a book for people who drink alcohol. Anyone who abstains in the long or short-term, but doesn’t want to give up imbibing drinks with complex flavors, would get a lot out of this book.

Proof: The Science of Booze, Adam Rogers — Wired editor Adam Rogers’ Proof is a good popular science book all about alcohol, tracing its journey from the yeasts that ferment it to the hangovers that all too often follow on the heels of its consumption. Mostly non-technical and an enjoyable read.

Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail, Dave Arnold — Even before this book came out, Dave Arnold was having a positive influence in my bars and kitchen. His technique for clarifying citrus juice with agar agar is one I picked up right away and incorporated into cocktail menus, and his Searzall culinary torch has been a welcome addition to my sous vide set up at home. Though I haven’t yet made it to his bar Booker and Dax in New York, it’s safe to say that I’m a fan.

In Liquid Intelligence, Arnold dives deep into the science of making cocktails better. Sometimes this requires tools beyond the reach of most bartenders, such as rotary evaporators or centrifuges, but he also makes an effort to make recipes replicable at home. Ultimately, though, I think I’ll be turning to this more for reference and inspiration than as a recipe book. There’s a lot to digest here and I’m only partially through it after skipping to some especially interesting parts. Highly recommended for the working pro or home enthusiast who wants to gain a much better understanding of how drinks work and how to use that knowledge to make them better.

Honorable mentions: The 12 Bottle Bar, which I wrote about earlier this year, would also make a great gift. Drink books from 2014 that I’ve not yet read, but that are on my list, include: Sherry: A Modern Guide by Talia Baiocchi; The Old Fashioned by Robert Simonson; Death and Co. by David Kaplan, Nick Fauchald, and Alex Day; The World Atlas of Coffee by James Hoffmann.


Quick Little Pick Me Up

Cocktail blogging has been slow here as I’m currently on break from working in bars and restaurants to focus on writing my beer cocktail book. It now has a publisher and will be coming out early next year from Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, with photography by the extremely talented David L. Reamer. We’ve completed about half the shots at this point and I can tell you already that the drinks are going to look fantastic.

That means I’m not doing much drink creation at the moment, but here’s one from a while back that I’ve been meaning to post. I got the idea of doing a coffee-infused amaro from Matthew Biancaniello in Los Angeles. I made an infusion of Stumptown Hairbender espresso beans and Ramazzotti amaro, then played around with it in several cocktails that I was never quite happy with. The infusion itself was delicious though, so I ended up just putting it on a big ice cube with a lemon twist. Sometimes easiest is best.

This drink started out on the Metrovino brunch menu, then migrated to the after dinner menu, and finally made it over to The Hop and Vine. I don’t think it’s available anywhere right now, but it’s simple to make at home.

8 oz Ramazzotti
10 grams coffee beans

Lightly muddle the coffee beans to crack (but not pulverize) them. Seal in a glass jar with Ramazzotti. Infuse for 24 hours, strain, and bottle. If you want to make more, just scale the recipe upward.

To serve, pour two ounces in a glass with a big rock and express a lemon peel over the drink. Garnish with the peel.

[Photo by Julia Raymond for The Hop and Vine.]

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Filtering tonic water with the Espro Press


Homemade tonic water is delicious. Homemade tonic water is also a real pain to make. The natural source of quinine, cinchona bark, usually comes in a very fine powder that’s difficult to filter out of the finished product. It can take hours to drip through coffee filters and leaves a sticky mess on the counter if you’re not careful. Difficulty of filtering is the number one reason many people I know buy commercial tonics, many of which are now quite good, instead of making their own. But there are still reasons one might like to make a homemade tonic, including lower cost and the freedom to flavor it exactly how one wants.


Happily, I recently stumbled onto a solution that makes filtering tonic water easy. One of the hit new products at this year’s Specialty Coffee Association of America show was the Espro Press, a new kind of French press developed in Vancouver, Canada. Two things make this press unique. One is that the brewing chamber is enclosed by double wall vacuum-insulated stainless steel, so that it retains heat very well. The second is that it uses not one but two filters on the plunger. The primary filter is much finer than that on a standard French press and the secondary filter is finer still. This allows it to brew French press coffee without the “sludge” that the brewing method tends to leave in the bottom of the cup. It makes a nice cup of joe and I’ve been using it fairly often for my morning coffee the past few weeks.



I realized that the same things that make the Espro Press good for brewing coffee could also make it good for making tonic water. The heat retention should make it possible to brew the entire tonic in the press without need of a stovetop pan. And the dual filters, if they don’t get clogged with cinchona, would be perfect for removing the fine powder. The Espro sold out quickly at the show but luckily I was able to buy their demo press. I brought it back to the bar to try it out. The experiment worked and I have to say that I was a little more excited than a grown man should be when the first runnings of nearly perfectly clarified tonic came pouring out of the press.

What follows is a sample recipe for making tonic with an Espro Press. The proportions aren’t meant to be definitive, as this isn’t something I’ve needed to make consistently for a menu item. My usual approach to tonic is to riff off a standard recipe with whatever citrus and spices I happen to have on hand. A couple recipes that I often work from are this one from Kevin Ludwig in Imbibe magazine and this one from Jeffrey Morgenthaler (whoever he is). Two notes before proceeding:

Note 1: Quinine has effects on the body and can be dangerous in high doses. Read up on the possible adverse effects before proceeding. I’ve never heard of anyone coming to harm from homemade tonic water but I’m a bartender, not a doctor. Proceed at your own risk!

Note 2: Contrary to what some recipes say, add the sugar and citric acid after you filter out everything else. These need to be dissolved but they don’t have flavors that need to be extracted with heat. Adding them early just makes the mixture more viscous and more difficult to filter. Make life easier and add them at the end.

That out of the way, here’s one of the recipes I used to make tonic with the Espro Press:

4 cups hot water
3 cups sugar
6 tablespoons citric acid
3 tablespoons cinchona bark
zest of one grapefruit
zest of one lime
6 oz grapefruit juice
2 oz lime juice
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon dill seeds

Step 1: Pre-heat the Espro Press with hot water so that the temperature will remain stable when you brew the tonic.

Step 2: Discard the water and place the cinchona bark, citrus zests, citrus juices, and spices into the press. Add the four cups of hot water and stir. Place the plunger on top of the press to seal in heat and let sit for twenty minutes.

Step 3: Lower the plunger to filter the tonic. The bark will offer significant resistance so you can’t just Hulk Smash the plunger into the chamber. Proceed slowly, using your weight to gently press the plunger down.

Step 4: Pour as much of the tonic out of the press as possible. When it stops flowing, rotate it and pour from a different angle; I think this gets around some blockage caused by the cinchona powder. Doing this a few times will maximize the yield.

Step 5: Beneath the filters there will still be some liquid remaining with all the powder and spices. You can filter this with some more labor-intensive method or simply discard it. This recipe being all about making things easy, I opt for the latter.

Step 6: Add the sugar and citric acid to the tonic to make a syrup. Stir to dissolve and pour into a bottle for storage.

That’s all there is to it. The syrup is ready to enjoy with soda water or mixed into a classic Gin and Tonic:

1 1/2 oz gin
3/4 oz tonic syrup
lime wedge

Combine all ingredients in a glass with ice, squeeze in the lime wedge, and stir.

A few additional notes…

I’ve made two batches of tonic with the Espro Press. It’s easy to clean afterwards and I don’t think repeated use would be a problem. However I haven’t put it up to the rigors of regular use in a busy bar, so if you’re buying one for that purpose I can’t guarantee that it will hold up. If you’re buying one for home use it should be fine and you’ll get a stylish coffee brewer too.

The Espro Press comes in two sizes. I bought the larger one, which at 30 oz is large indeed. The 8 oz one is intended for single servings of coffee. I haven’t tried it out for tonic. A list of retailers selling the Espro Press is here. It’s also available on Amazon (large; small). Cinchona powder can be purchased in bulk at herb shops such as this one.

Finally, in a surprising bit of synchronicity this isn’t the only post published this week about using coffee equipment to filter tonic water. Camper English of Alcademics features a method from Kevin Liu for using an Aeropress to accomplish the same thing. Check out that post too and keep following Camper’s blog for additional ideas.

[Photos of the Espro Press courtesy of Espro.]


Weissbanger on TV, brunch at Metrovino


Tuesday was Tax Day and our local FOX affiliate KPTV invited me into the studio to make viewers a Tax Day cocktail. Since taxes make me want to bang my head against the wall, this seemed the perfect time to present the Harvey Weissbanger. I don’t have tiny hands, Galliano bottles are just really big. (It’s a good thing there weren’t any wardrobe malfunctions…) Watch the clip here; autoplay warning!

Among other changes, Metrovino is now open for brunch on Sundays from 10 am to 2 pm. This has given me the opportunity to put my barista skills back into practice. I’m not quite where I used to be, but the latte art is coming along nicely.

I didn’t expect to get excited about brunch or brunch cocktails, but making a morning drink menu turned out to be surprisingly fun. Our most unusual cocktail is an East Indies Bloody Mary, made with Batavia Arrack, fish sauce, and a blend of Indonesian spices, then garnished with house pickles and a whole prawn. It sounds crazy but it’s selling just as much as our classic vodka Bloody Mary. Here’s our full brunch cocktail menu:

classic bloody mary 8

east indies bloody mary 11
batavia arrack, tomato juice, indonesian spices, prawn

quick little pick me up 7
espresso-infused ramazzotti, lemon twist, rocks

harvey weissbanger 9
boulevard wheat beer, galliano, orange juice

sherry cobbler 7
manzanilla sherry, orange, sugar, nutmeg

sparkling wine cocktails 8


Yirgacheffe Cooler


In the latest issue of my favorite drinks magazine, Imbibe, the editors asked me to provide an iced coffee cocktail for their “Distilled” Q&A column (not pictured). Despite the surge in popularity of both craft coffee and cocktails in recent years, the two drinks don’t show up in the same glass all that often, probably because most coffee shops don’t have liquor licenses and the coffee at most bars is terrible.

Iced coffee drinks are a good way to bridge the gap. It’s just as easy to make as hot coffee, but it’s more temperature stable so that a bar doesn’t have to worry about making it a la minute or letting it go stale during service. My favorite way to make it is the “Japanese method” popularized by Peter Giuliano of Counter Culture Coffee, in which very concentrated hot brew coffee is poured directly ice. The ice melts, cooling the coffee and bringing it to the proper level of dilution (just like stirring a cocktail). This preparation captures flavors and acidity that would be lost in a cold brew. It’s fantastic with East African or Central American coffees with bright fruit notes, making a refreshing drink reminiscent of iced tea. For details on this method, see Imbibe or the Counter Culture brewing guide.

For the cocktail, I picked ingredients to play off the citrus, fruit, and floral notes of African coffees:

1 1/2 oz pisco
3/4 oz Dimmi
1/4 oz lemon juice
4-5 oz iced Yirgacheffe coffee

Build in a rocks glass with ice. (The print recipe instructs to shake and strain, but that’s not necessary.)

Campo de Encanto is still my go-to choice for pisco. Dimmi is a Milanese liqueur flavored with grappa, herbs, and flowers, which I’ve paired with pisco once before. And for the coffee Yirgacheffe from a quality roaster is great, but any other coffee with a fruity flavor profile will do fine.

If you make a big batch of iced coffee, this can make a refreshing patio drink. Or if you want to serve an iced coffee cocktail at a bar, the coffee can be made before service and be good for the night.

For more iced coffee cocktails to explore, here are a couple from Elizabeth McElligott at Food Shed.


Get your tix: Portland Cocktail Week and GADF


My liver is already threatening to leave me as Portland Cocktail Week draws near. Next week the Great American Distiller’s Festival gets bigger than ever, preceded by several days and nights of fun events organized by the Oregon Bartenders Guild and the Drink.Write cocktail writers conference.

I’m personally involved with several of the events. First up is Thursday Drink Night Live, in which participants will improvise cocktails and compete for a spot at the Portland Cocktail Invitational. Somehow they’ve talked me into emceeing the event live on camera with no script and lots of alcohol in the room. This could be dangerous.

If I’m still alive on Saturday morning we’ll kickstart the day with coffee cocktails. I’m moderating a panel with guests from Intelligentsia, Water Avenue, and possibly a couple other roasters, discussing all aspects of coffee and its role behind the bar, and serving up a drink or two. They’re passionate about great coffee and promise to bring some fun things to demo, so I’m very excited to hear their thoughts. (Relatedly, here are my suggestions for seven spots to caffeinate during Portland Cocktail Week.)

On that same day is the first round of the Portland Cocktail Invitational. It’s a great group of bartenders competing and I’m thrilled to be invited back. This time I’m fortunate to be mixing with Encanto Pisco, which opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities. We’re changing the format to allow more sampling of the drinks by the audience, so this is guaranteed to be a good time.

Bols will be involved in a few events as well. On Wednesday, mixologists Chris Churilla and Adam Robinson will be pairing cocktails with a four course meal prepared by Chef Alyssa Gregg at Spints Alehouse, including cocktails made with Bols Genever and Galliano. This is not to be missed. Then on Saturday, experience the history of gin and genever at the Juniperlooza! seminar.

That’s just the beginning of events going on next week. There’s also a masquerade ball, a March for Mezcal, a tiki party, a full slate of informative seminars, and much more. Go get the full schedule and tickets here.


One siren, 3 billion cups

I won’t defend Starbucks for burning their coffee, but I will defend them against the charge that they don’t do enough to promote recycling of the 3 billion paper cups the company goes through each year. Over at the Examiner I take a look at some of the obstacles to finding uses for all those cups and wonder whether it’s worth making the effort.


CA Starbucks extend smoking ban outdoors

A commenter notes that Starbucks stores in California are prohibiting smoking outside their stores:

Starting Monday, Starbucks customers are welcome to sit outside and sip a while — as long as they don’t light up. The international coffee giant is extending its ban on indoor smoking to outdoor patios and dining areas in California.

The change was prompted by an increasing number of communities that have enacted smoking prohibitions in outdoor dining areas.

This is their right obviously, though I would have preferred their hand not be forced by excessive regulations. Previous coverage of Starbucks and smoking policies here and here.


Coffee cocktails get serious

Camper English has an interesting article in this weekend’s San Francisco Chronicle about the new wave of coffee cocktails and high-end coffee liqueurs finding their way onto bar menus:

The craze for organic, shade-grown, micro-roasted slow-drip coffee has percolated into the cocktail world. Bartenders are improving classic coffee drinks, finding ways to harness the beans’ bitter, aromatic qualities rather than just the caffeine kick. […]

Coffee liqueur got a good bit more serious with the April release of Firelit Spirits Coffee Liqueur, made with coffee from Oakland’s Blue Bottle coffee roasters and brandy from distiller Dave Smith of St. George Spirits in Alameda. Jeff Kessinger, the brand’s founder, says Firelit was inspired by a desire to create a better version of his wife’s family’s homemade coffee liqueur recipe. The original called for instant coffee.

The first batch of 1,800 bottles required several hundred pounds of coffee from Yemen and a multi-stage brewing, distilling and flavoring process, with about one-half to one-third the sugar in other liqueurs. “The goal was just to make a coffee liqueur that was about the coffee, not about the sugar,” Kessinger says.

The coffee bitters from me and Lance Mayhew get a mention as well. They’re simple to make and our recipe for them is here; for a cocktail to use them in, try the Antigua Old-Fashioned.

Other coffee cocktails on this blog include the Lebowski-inspired El Dude and the Dimmitude made with clarified coffee.


Fair Trade follow-up

Following up on last month’s post about libertarians and Fair Trade coffee, it’s worth noting that leading roaster Counter Culture Coffee has released its annual transparency report for its Direct Trade certified beans. It’s available here in PDF format and is very cool. For every coffee in the program it tells you which employee visited the farm, when they last visited, the price paid for the beans, the beans’ cupping score, the number of years CCC has been buying from that farm, and a paragraph-length description of their work at each location. You really can’t beat that level of transparency.

To put the numbers in context, here’s a quick summary: The minimum price required for Fair Trade certification is $1.26 per pound. Counter Culture’s Direct Trade certification has a minimum of $1.60. The actual lowest price the roaster paid last year was $1.65. They paid as high as $4.45, with many coffees falling somewhere above $2 or $3.

As I said before, I’m not reflexively against Fair Trade, but I don’t want consumers to think it’s the best or only game in town. When you put that program up against the Direct Trade programs of the best specialty roasters it’s easy to see why many coffee lovers prefer the latter model.

[Via @CoffeeGeek.]


A clarified coffee cocktail


As I discussed at Cocktail Camp a few weeks ago, one of my interests lately has been finding ways to use coffee in cocktails without having to brew on demand. Making coffee bitters is one solution. Clarifying coffee is another. This isn’t a perfected process yet but the results are interesting and I’m hoping this post will encourage others to try it out.

My goal with this was to create a cold coffee with a shelf life of at least a few days that could be kept in the refrigerator and used when needed. The easiest method would be to use a Toddy brewer to make a cold-brewed coffee concentrate. This certainly works but cold-brewing and hot-brewing have different flavor profiles. Cold-brewing pulls out dark, chocolaty, nutty flavors. Hot-brewing captures more of the acidity and fruit notes found in many great coffees. For making iced coffee I much prefer the Japanese hot-brewing method popularized by Counter Culture’s Peter Giuliano to Toddy and other cold methods. Hot-brewing produces more the flavor I was looking for.

That’s where gel clarification comes in. The basic idea is to create a web of gelatin to capture the oils and solids in a liquid so that only water soluble flavors remain in the final concentrate. It’s like making a consommé except that you’re adding gelatin to liquid instead of utilizing the gelatin that occurs naturally in meat. Harold McGee explained how the process can be used for all kinds of liquids in The New York Times a few years ago. Soon after World Barista Champion James Hoffmann applied it to coffee.

I’ve run two different coffees through the process so far: Stumptown’s Ecuador Quilanga and Counter Culture’s Sidama Michicha, a natural coffee from Ethiopia. I was really happy with the results. While I wouldn’t expect any cold coffee to match the aromatic complexity of a fresh hot cup, the two were distinctly different in flavor, with the fruit notes of the Michicha standing out surprisingly well. Cocktail ideas immediately started presenting themselves. How about a flight of drinks mixing neutral vodka and three different clarified coffees? Could be fascinating.

I tried several methods of clarification and none so far none have worked better than the one James originally posted. I’ll explain that briefly below but please visit his site for a full explanation. The good news is it’s easy to do. The bad news is it will take some time, about three days total (though I’ll discuss a faster alternative below), and space in a freezer and refrigerator. This will rule out its use on many professional cocktail menus, but it could still be something fun to keep behind the bar or for home experimentation.

Here’s the method I followed:

Step 1: Brew coffee and filter through paper. I brew at home in an Eva Solo which I then had to filter through an Aeropress. Ideally one would just use a pour-over or Chemex instead of this roundabout method.

Step 2: Bloom 8 grams leaf gelatin in water, then dissolve and whisk into 500 grams of the coffee (slightly more than a liter by volume).

Step 3: Allow to set for a few hours in a refrigerator.

Step 4: Transfer to a freezer and freeze into a solid block.

Step 5: Lay block in muslin, place in a colander, and suspend the colander in a bowl. Put everything back in the refrigerator until the ice thaws. I sped the melting by breaking the block into a few pieces, increasing its surface area as in the photo below.


Over two days the ice slowly melted through the muslin and colander, taking water soluble flavors with it. A thin layer of coffee gel was all that was left behind.


In the bowl was the clarified coffee. Obviously some coffee is lost in the clarification. I went from 500 grams down to 381 grams. As James notes you can increase the clarity even more by repeating the process, but you’ll lose more liquid too. I stopped at one run through since I’m going for clarity not complete lack of color. For comparison’s sake, here’s the clarified coffee next to a Toddy brew and coffee run through a paper filter.


After all that waiting I was ready for a drink. Here’s one I’ve been experimenting with and calling the Dimmitude cocktail, inspired by the traditional caffé corretto (espresso and grappa). I may play with this a bit more when I’ve made my next batch of clarified coffee but it was working well with the Michicha:

1.5 oz grappa
1 oz clarified natural coffee
1 oz Dimmi

Stir over ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

Dimmi is a light, floral, herbal liqueur blended with a touch of grappa. Natural coffees like the Michicha are dried with the cherry still on the bean, sometimes resulting in dramatic fruit or berry notes. Combining these with quality grappa makes a unique, lightly fruity cocktail with a gentle coffee bitterness. (If you saw my presentation at Cocktail Camp I made this drink with vodka there. Grappa is a better choice; I’m currently using Uva Viva di Poli.)

Is clarifying coffee for cocktails worth the effort? Probably not for regular use, given how much time and space it consumes. Using good iced coffee is more practical. However it is fun to work with and the clarified coffee looks great in a stirred drink, plus it seems to last for at least a few days if refrigerated.

Agar method: There is a faster way to clarify liquids using agar in place of gelatin. Agar sets at a higher temperature than gelatin, so one can follow a similar process to that above but melt the ice at room temperature instead of in a refrigerator. Indeed one can omit the freezing step altogether, gently squeezing agar curds through muslin. Obviously either of these methods will require less time than gelatin filtration.

The downside to using agar is that it also hydrates at a higher temperature. So while gelatin will work just fine in freshly brewed hot coffee, agar works best in boiling liquid. Unfortunately boiling brewed coffee will cause overextraction, resulting in a bitter cup.

To get around this one could theoretically boil agar in, say, 100 grams of water, then mix that into 400 grams of coffee brewed to a correspondingly higher strength and proceed with the freeze-thaw approach. Of the agar clarifications I tried that method came closest to the results with gelatin, however it was not quite as clear and the taste was a little off. It was close though and worth another try. (Using the fastest method of just squeezing the agar gel through muslin may leave some residual agar in the liquid. This is another time when an Aeropress comes in very handy for filtering it out.)

Coffee clarification is something I’m still experimenting with and I would love to hear from anyone else who tries it or incorporates it into cocktails. Perfecting an agar method would be ideal and I’m also curious to see what other drinks people create, either with coffee or with other clarified liquids.

[As with so many of these kinds of posts, thanks to David Barzelay for advice on using these different methods.]


Libertarians and Fair Trade coffee

Henry Farrell asks:

[…] why are so many libertarians opposed to fair trade coffee?

It would seem to me that fair trade coffee is fairly hard to argue with on the principles of consumer sovereignty (i.e. the claim that consumers know their own interests best, and are able to realize them through the market mechanism). If consumers want to pay a premium for coffee that has been produced ‘fairly,’ then this should be no more troubling for libertarians than consumers wanting to pay a premium for e.g. luxury chocolate (which often is made from the same basic material as very-good-but-not-horrendously-expensive chocolate), and arguably less troubling.

Then Jim Henley piles on too:

Where I was going with that when planning out the post is, if one isn’t careful, the appreciation of the ironic power of self-interest to fulfill social needs can slide into, first credulity – there’s got to be an irony in here somewhere! meaning, almost anywhere – and then decadence: mere contrarianism. At worst, contrarianism that isn’t just sloppy but smug: proud of itself for asserting ironical, “politically incorrect” claims that widely recognized beliefs and decencies are actually myths and vices. Tee hee! Look how upset everyone gets when I tell them how wrong they are to hold their comforting nostrums!

They’re both right that Fair Trade is just another form of voluntary free trade and that the hostility some libertarians express toward the idea of paying more for coffee to help poor farmers is distasteful at times. However at the risk of being one of those smug contrarians Henley dislikes so much, I’m going to defend the libertarians on this one. Partially, anyway.

The simplest reason to object to Fair Trade coffee is that it’s just a stupid name. It suggests that all other coffee is unfair and exploitative. As a sign at one coffee shop I visited put it, “Fair or Unfair? It’s that simple.” Well, it’s not that simple. And if, as I do, you think the insights of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and other economists are hard-won intellectual achievements, then a label that implicitly opposes those ideas is going to rub you the wrong way. This could have been avoided if we labeled Fair Trade as something like “Charity Coffee” instead, which would be more accurate and avoid disparaging any economic theories. But then it might not have caught on as well because buying it wouldn’t let people signal their opposition to globalization, which brings us back to why so many libertarians dislike Fair Trade in the first place.

That’s probably as far as your average capitalist goes in his reasons for disdaining Fair Trade coffee. But if you’re actually into coffee, you know that some of the smartest critiques of Fair Trade are coming from good-hearted liberals working in the industry. They’ll tell you that Fair Trade is out of step with the current market for specialty coffee.

The first complaint you’ll hear about Fair Trade is that it doesn’t do enough to encourage quality. I’ve had some very good Fair Trade coffee and I’ve had some that’s terrible; the label doesn’t promise anything. It sets a price floor without any real link to cultivating better beans or promise that the roaster knows how to handle them. Even worse, by mandating a co-op model of production, Fair Trade can reduce incentives for individual farmers to improve their crops. This may not matter if consumers are buying Fair Trade coffee just for charity, but over the long-term they may not continue paying more for the label if they’re not perceiving higher quality in the cup.

A bigger objection to Fair Trade is that it’s no longer the best deal for farmers. The Fair Trade minimum of $1.26 per green pound is often higher than commodity coffee prices but well below what premium coffee roasters will pay. For example, Counter Culture’s Direct Trade program pays a minimum of $1.60 per green pound with additional incentives for exceptional crops.

There’s much more one could say in criticism of how Fair Trade certification works; there’s no need to repeat them here but see this recent Guardian article or Kerry Howley’s excellent piece from Reason a few years ago if you’re interested.

What’s frustrating about the successful branding of Fair Trade is that it’s used as a cognitive shortcut by consumers for what qualifies as an ethical coffee purchase. I speak from experience selling coffee in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood. The type of customers some libertarians enjoy mocking would often come in asking for Fair Trade beans. Sometimes I could engage them and explain that what we were offering was better than Fair Trade, that farmers got more money for the beans and the quality of the coffee was outstanding. Other times I couldn’t and they walked out for another shop, likely ending up doing less good for farmers and with a worse cup of coffee. Customers’ loyalty to Fair Trade can be just as uninformed as some libertarians’ knee-jerk opposition to it.

Here’s Jim again on why Fair Trade seems like such a bad idea to people who’ve taken to heart Adam Smith’s lesson that following one’s self-interest is often the best way to do good in the world:

[…]something like Fair Trade will seem like it should be the kind of thing where there must be a catch. Here are people trying to act out of benevolence and still getting dinner! It would make perfect sense – and be a lot of fun! – if these do-gooders were actually doing harm.

But by this point, you can start getting lazy. Like, assuming that fair-traders must be screwing up “price signals” that are the market’s way of telling poor foreign farmers to stop farming.

I’m not convinced that buying Fair Trade actively does harm, though excess production is a legitimate concern. If you’re shopping at Costco and debating between a big bag of Procter and Gamble’s regular coffee or their Fair Trade beans, you’re probably making some farmer marginally better off by choosing the latter. Fair Trade may play a useful role in mass market coffee. However if you want to pass the maximum of your purchase price onto coffee farmers, your best bet is to buy the highest quality coffee you can from roasters like Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, or Stumptown (to name the usual three, though there are many others).

In fact, it doesn’t even matter whether you care about coffee farmers or not. If you selfishly pay for quality in the cup you’re very likely buying beans that brought more revenue to them than Fair Trade would have. Adam Smith was right and so, sometimes, is the libertarian’s ironic intuition.


How to make coffee bitters

Yesterday’s Cocktail Camp event at Portland’s New Deal Distillery was a lot of fun. My presentation was about the use of coffee and tea and cocktails, so I’ve been trying out some interesting experiments that I’ll be posting here later this week. My talk ended up coming in two parts. In the first I gave a quick Coffee 101 lecture, discussed the basics of brewing, and explained why coffee can be a difficult ingredient to work with in a bar setting. Many of us craft bartenders treat it horribly. We’d never serve citrus juice that we’d squeezed a week ago but we essentially do that with coffee by using stale beans, pre-grinding, or just not brewing properly. Many standard coffee cocktails could be improved simply by getting the fundamentals right.

However some bartenders may not have access to good coffee and we may not want to limit coffee cocktails to hot drinks, so in part two we got to the fun part: Actually making cocktails using coffee as an ingredient in other ways. One of these is by making coffee bitters. Lance Mayhew and I started working on our first batch of these in December and are really happy with the recipe we’ve developed since then. It’s fairly simple so we hope others will try them out as well. The ingredients are:

750 ml Lemonhart 151-proof rum
peel from two medium-sized oranges
24 g coffee, coarsely ground with a mortar and pestle
approximately 2.5 g orris root*
1 star anise

Combine all ingredients in a jar and let steep, tasting daily to check their progress; 4 days to a week will probably be enough time. Decant through a fine mesh strainer and transfer to a bitters bottle.

For the coffee we used Stumptown’s Costa Rica Herbazu in each batch for the sake of consistency. I’m curious to see how other coffees might affect the bitters, but I think any Central American coffee that hasn’t been too darkly roasted should be fine.

The above recipe makes a lot of bitters and uses an entire bottle of rum, so feel free to halve or quarter it for a smaller yield. And for a cocktail to use them in, try the Antigua Old-Fashioned featuring English Harbour rum.

* Update 4/18/10: Quick clarification: This is dried, chopped orris root, not powder.


Congratulations to Grape and Bean

Grape and Bean, a great coffee and wine shop in Alexandria, VA where I worked a couple years ago, is the subject of a new video by Caleb Brown:

The video is part of a contest highlighting free enterprise; vote by liking it here, and if you’re in Old Town drop in to visit David and Sheera at Grape and Bean. (Also, I’m glad to see that the Clover is still brewing good coffee!)

Minor rebellion
Grape and Bean opens in Alexandria


Last chance for CocktailCamp in PDX

I would have posted about this sooner had I known tickets were close to selling out, but on Sunday, April 11, I’ll be among the presenters at CocktailCamp PDX, an inaugural event for cocktail lovers in and around Portland, OR. I’ll be drawing on my barista experience to talk about ways to use coffee and tea in cocktails without destroying these wonderful products. Steve McCarthy from Clear Creek Distillery will also be presenting, as will blog pals Matt Robold, Blair Reynolds, and Craig Hermann. Check here for the complete list of presenters.

Tickets are only $10, but as of tonight there were only 10 seats remaining. Head over now to purchase one if you’d like to be a part of this fun event.


Starbucks as cargo cult

Greg Beato’s take on Starbucks in the new Reason is right on, acknowledging the company’s successes while recognizing that its attempts to reinvent itself with shops like the undercover 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea won’t restore its reputation as an innovator:

For all their ostensible authenticity, such adventures in interior design cannot match the truly radical act of installing espresso machines in bank lobbies. Like Seattle’s other great cultural export from the early 1990s, Nirvana, Starbucks has always been most vital, most interesting, most revolutionary when at its most commercial. […]

At [15th Avenue Coffee and Tea], the quest to cultivate highbrow customers continues. There’s a wall covered with excerpts from Plato’s dialogues. Blended drinks are banned from the premises, and you can safely assume that Bearista Bears, the highly sought-after plush toys that Starbucks has been selling since 1997, won’t ever appear here either.

But if Starbucks really hopes to re-establish its authority as an innovative, forward-thinking trailblazer, it should perhaps use its next experimental venue to honor its heritage as the first chain to take gourmet coffee culture beyond the narrow boundaries of traditional coffeehouse values and aesthetics. Imagine a place with matching chairs, clean tables, beverages that look like ice cream sundaes, Norah Jones on the sound system, and absolutely no horrid paintings from local artists decorating the walls. A place, that is, exactly like Starbucks!

I walked by 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea on my most recent visit to Seattle. It looks like a nice shop, but it’s a tiny part of the Starbucks empire and the coffee, of course, is still Starbucks. In a city that’s full of great coffee shops I’m not sure why anyone would seek it out.

On a related note, it looks like Starbucks is about to launch pour over brewers in some of its stores. There’s probably no better example of the company becoming an imitator than this. Pour over bars have become one of the leading trends in quality-oriented coffee shops as they shift toward brewing individual cups on demand. Part of the reason they’ve become so popular is that the high-tech Clover machine was bought up by Starbucks and taken off the market, forcing those shops to turn to alternative brewing methods. So it’s funny to see Starbucks copying low-tech pour overs now too. It’s as if the company believes installing all the accoutrements of an indie cafe will bring in the coffee lovers when its real problem is that it doesn’t have the systems in place to match the quality of its smaller, nimble competitors.

Nonetheless I hope that Starbucks succeeds at generating interest in individually brewed coffee; that would be a great step forward, though I find it hard to imagine that there will be a mass consumer shift from drip to pour over. I hope too that the customers who are introduced to the method at Starbucks will also try it at a shops with greater passion for the product and lighter roast profiles.

(And if you can’t tell, I’m still bitter about losing the Clover, which I’ve always preferred to pour overs anyway.)

[Pour over link via Starbucks Gossip.]