Where to eat/drink in Houston?

I’ll be back in my hometown December 25-29. Obviously I want to stop in at Anvil, where bartender Bobby Heugel is serving up creative cocktails. And word is David Buehrer has finally brought great coffee to Houston with his Tuscany Coffee. Good Tex-Mex is a must and easy to find. I’d usually consider barbecue essential, but Podnah’s Pit in Portland is such a good fix that I might do without. Where else should I visit?


El Dude

El Dude

Mixology Monday returns today with a collection of cocktails that’s all about dairy, hosted by the eGullet forum:

Any drink using a dairy product is fair game: milk, cream, eggs, butter, cheese, yogurt, curds, you name it. Given the importance of dairy products in drinks dating back centuries, there are lots of opportunities for digging through vintage receipts for a taste of the past, and as always innovation is highly encouraged.

Not everyone is in to dairy drinks. Me, I love ’em. I’d drink straight heavy whipping cream if it weren’t so unhealthy. I’ve written frequently about raw milk. The Golden Cadillac is a guilty pleasure. That said, I don’t order milk-based drinks often and generally save them for the occasional dessert libation.

My drink for this month is a variation on the White Russian. The White Russian’s enjoyable as is, but it could be a lot more interesting. Kahlua’s a one-dimensional liqueur and vodka is, well, vodka. I decided to rehabilitate the drink with Patron XO Café, a tequila-based coffee liqueur, in place of the cloyingly sweet Kahlua, and then added a few other things to make El Dude:

1.25 reposado tequila
.75 oz Patron XO Café
.5 oz heavy whipping cream
.25 oz triple sec
cardamom tincture to taste*
wet whipped cream**

Combine the first five ingredients, shake over ice, and strain into a shot glass. Float wet whipping cream then finish by grating fresh cinnamon on top. It’s an indulgent drink, but it packs enough heat to balance the sweetness. And now that I’ve published it I really need to get around to finally watching The Big Lebowski.

For your added pleasure, here’s a bonus cocktail from the American Bartenders School that’s totally beyond hope of rehabilitation:

*Grain alcohol infused with cardamom seeds.

**The cream should be whipped just enough to float yet still be liquid enough to drink; the cream in the photo is actually a little too stiff. To make this on the fly pour cream in a cocktail shaker with the spring from a Hawthorne strainer and shake for 10 seconds.


Bloomberg bans free coffee

The latest bit of nanny state over-reaching comes from New York City, where authorities have decided to take yet another pleasure away from cigar smokers:

The owner of a Financial District tobacco shop was amazed to learn he was violating the law by offering his customers a free cup of joe while they legally puffed away on his cigars. […]

Health officials had no problem with all the cigars his customers were puffing on — a handful of businesses, including Nastri’s, are exempt from Mayor Bloomberg’s anti-smoking laws — but decided a $9,000 coffee machine was grounds for closing the place down. […]

Nastri found himself in a classic Catch-22 situation.

To serve coffee — even free coffee — he needs a permit to operate a food-service establishment. But smoking is banned in food-service establishments.

Realizing that resistance would be futile, Nastri had the machine removed.

The inspectors were presumably acting within the letter of the law, but this is clearly another attempt at harassing smoking businesses and making them as uncomfortable as possible for the people who frequent them.

[Hat tip to Jonathan Blanks.]


Aroma-Schutz durch rauchfreien Raum

Jim Romenesko at Starbucks Gossip links to a blog dedicated to replacing the aroma of tobacco smoke outside of Starbucks stores with the sweet smell of self-righteousness:

A blog established to encourage Starbucks (SBUX) to stop supporting smoking at their stores. SBUX, where it is legal, allows smoking outside of their stores. Not a very “socially conscious” policy. Not to mention, how does a business so closely tied to the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure (breast cancer), reconcile allowing smoking at their stores?

Yikes, giving people a place to smoke, even if that place is outside, now detracts from a business’s social consciousness? And wanting to find cures for cancer now requires taking control over customers’ personal behavior? Obviously Starbucks is a private business and if they decide to ban smoking outside their stores they have every right to do so, but:

1) It might be more reasonable to ban it only in some stores, such as those with small urban storefronts. Suburban stores with large patios could easily accommodate smokers and non-smokers.

2) A guy smoking a cigarette in open air isn’t going to give anybody cancer. He might be annoying but so is the guy with the portable radio, the guy who hasn’t bathed in three days, and the friends chatting too loudly about their sex lives. In a civil society we learn when to tolerate such things and when to ask the store to intervene and it’s not clear that a chain-wide ban is needed to deal with them. In any case, allowing people to smoke outside where they do harm only to themselves is perfectly compatible with raising money for cancer research.

3) This blogger’s “campaign” is part of the trend to demonize smokers, portraying their behavior not just as unhealthy but as anti-social. This kind of thinking is what has led to extending legislated smoking bans from indoor spaces to places like beaches, golf courses, and public parks, where it’s absurd to claim there are any deleterious health effects from secondhand smoke. Starbucks might reasonably decide that forbidding smoking would be good for business but this would not put them on moral high ground.

4) Yes, it’s rude to light up next to other people without asking their permission but where else are smokers supposed to go? Now that they’ve been exiled from indoor businesses, even from tobacco shops in some jurisdictions, one can understand why they feel entitled to the outdoor spaces they have remaining.

5) Starbucks actually deserves great credit for their non-smoking policies. As I wrote about in 2006, they’ve been a pioneer in international markets for creating smokefree cafes in countries where these were predicted to fail. (The title of this post is a translation of the signs they posted in Austria explaining their policy: “aroma protection through a smoke-free space.”) They’ve probably helped change expectations for American cafes too. Given all this, it’s a bit spiteful to call them socially irresponsible for accommodating their smoking customers outside.

6) Sitting outside on a summer day with coffee and a cigar can be a wonderful experience. If you can find a place to do so where you won’t impose on other customers I highly recommend it.


Counter Culture and East Coast coffee

The Washington Post has a great article today about Counter Culture Coffee and the company’s unique business model: No retail stores, no shipping past the East Coast, fully staffed training centers in major markets, and an emphasis on free coffee education for the public. There are other roasters producing comparably great coffees, but I don’t know if any have done more to raise the bar for coffee standards in the areas they serve. Check it out here.


Portland-NoVa food meld

Portland’s getting a little more like Northern Virginia and Northern Virginia’s getting a little more like Portland. The good news for Portland is four more Five Guys locations opening up soon. The local burger chain option here is ok, but it’s no match for Five Guys.

The good news for Clarendon is that Boccato Gelato and Espresso is now serving Stumptown coffee. The store had just received its Synesso when I moved away last summer. I haven’t tried their coffee, but the gelato is very good. With Murky closed a place to get well-crafted coffee drinks is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

[Thanks to Clarendon’s coffee-deprived Chad for the Boccato link!]


Starbucks vindicated

Last year Starbucks took a lot of heat in the press for an $86 million ruling against them for taking tips from baristas and giving them to management. In reality the “managers” in question were shift supervisors doing essentially the same job as baristas and customers leaving tips reasonably expected them to get their share. I defended Starbucks at the time and I’m glad to see that a California appeals court has reached the same conclusion [full decision in .DOC format here):

Specifically, the undisputed facts show: (1) the vast majority of the time shift supervisors and baristas perform the same jobs; (2) these employees rotate jobs and work as a “team” throughout the day; (3) customers intend that their tips placed in the collective tip boxes collectively reward all of these service employees; and (4) Starbucks’s manner of dividing the collective tip boxes among the service employees (based on the time worked by each employee) is fair and equitable. […]

Because the trial court’s interpretation of section 351 was not supported by the statutory language and led to a result contrary to the fundamental purpose of the statutory scheme, it is one that the Legislature could not have intended. We reverse the judgment in its entirety.

Cue allegation from amazingly persistent commenter Gary that the appeals court must have been bribed by Starbucks in 3… 2…

[Via Starbucks Gossip.]


The soft bigotry of high expectations

OC Latte

If you haven’t read the New York Times Magazine excerpt of Shop Class as Soulcraft, I’d urge you to do so. The original essay from The New Atlantis is one of my favorites and I’m thrilled to see that author Matthew Crawford has expanded it into a book. Crawford left an office job, academia, and public policy to open a motorcycle repair shop, finding the most satisfaction in the last endeavor. Few seem to understand his decision:

The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

This is because they miss the intellectual challenges of the job:

And it frequently requires complex thinking. In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire.

My own experience mirrors Crawford’s, right up to the failed experiment in working for think tanks (though unlike him, I have great respect for the work done by my previous employers — I simply didn’t want to remain a daily part of the institution). When I would tell people in DC that I was a barista, their response was almost always something along the lines of, “Oh, that’s nice, but what do you really want to do?” The idea that making coffee was what I really wanted to do was incomprehensible to them.

Yet the job had more intellectual challenge to it than outsiders realize. Coaxing a good shot of espresso out of whole coffee beans is a puzzle requiring knowledge of the product and the science of brewing, and also a sensory understanding and mastery of the equipment that only develops with experience. A change in grind, in dosage, in water temperature, or any of a dozen other factors could be the difference between a mediocre shot and a true expression of the coffee. Maintaining quality required constant thought and attention.

There is also the greater feeling of reality that comes with doing manual work. Crawford describes his dawning disillusionment with his first cubicle job:

Those who work on the lower rungs of the information-age office hierarchy face their own kinds of unreality, as I learned some time ago. After earning a master’s degree in the early 1990s, I had a hard time finding work but eventually landed a job in the Bay Area writing brief summaries of academic journal articles, which were then sold on CD-ROMs to subscribing libraries. When I got the phone call offering me the job, I was excited. I felt I had grabbed hold of the passing world — miraculously, through the mere filament of a classified ad — and reeled myself into its current. My new bosses immediately took up residence in my imagination, where I often surprised them with my hidden depths. As I was shown to my cubicle, I felt a real sense of being honored. It seemed more than spacious enough. It was my desk, where I would think my thoughts — my unique contribution to a common enterprise, in a real company with hundreds of employees. The regularity of the cubicles made me feel I had found a place in the order of things. I was to be a knowledge worker.

But the feel of the job changed on my first day. The company had gotten its start by providing libraries with a subject index of popular magazines like Sports Illustrated. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, it now found itself offering not just indexes but also abstracts (that is, summaries), and of a very different kind of material: scholarly works in the physical and biological sciences, humanities, social sciences and law. Some of this stuff was simply incomprehensible to anyone but an expert in the particular field covered by the journal. I was reading articles in Classical Philology where practically every other word was in Greek. Some of the scientific journals were no less mysterious. Yet the categorical difference between, say, Sports Illustrated and Nature Genetics seemed not to have impressed itself on the company’s decision makers. In some of the titles I was assigned, articles began with an abstract written by the author. But even in such cases I was to write my own. The reason offered was that unless I did so, there would be no “value added” by our product. It was hard to believe I was going to add anything other than error and confusion to such material. But then, I hadn’t yet been trained.

There’s no denying that having a manual job like working in a coffee shop requires doing many tasks that aren’t at all intellectually stimulating: mopping floors, cleaning grinders, manning the cash register, etc. But there’s also no denying that this stuff has to get done and serves a clear purpose. This knowledge made these tasks much more satisfying than many pointless office routines I have performed, even if the latter required more intellectual effort.

Crawford writes, “A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world.” I would go a bit further and add that a good job offers opportunities for beauty. Though no Christian myself, I think there’s much truth in the fly-fishing theology of A River Runs Through It:

As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace. Somehow, I early developed the notion that he had done this by falling from a tree. As for my father, I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word “beautiful.” […]

My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.

Working an espresso machine offers many moments of beauty. My time condensing 30 page policy studies into 5 paragraph press releases was often challenging, but it was never beautiful. (There are occasionally beautiful moments at Cato, such as the awarding of the 2008 Friedman Prize to Venezuelan student activist Yon Goicoechea, but these never involved my work in media relations.)

I can’t imagine ever going back to office life and its rush hour commutes, enterprise software, and pointless dress codes. And yet I woudn’t be happy focusing entirely on craft, either. I still want to engage in public intellectual life and am painfully aware of how my hours behind the bar detract from my time to write and research. I feel very lucky to be living in a time in which the internet has made it so unnecessary to choose between the two paths, however difficult it can be to strike the right balance. Crawford does a great service dispelling the notion that mastery of a trade is something to be looked down upon or seen as a course suitable only for those unequipped for more esteemed professions.


Murky remembrances


I can still remember my first encounter with the coffee shop at 3211 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, VA, which is surprising since I didn’t actually go into it. I was visiting DC on college spring break — in those days that seemed to me a fun destination — and meeting a friend from the Institute for Humane Studies for dinner in Clarendon to talk about policy jobs in DC. He wasn’t a coffee drinker and so the place barely merited a mention from him as we walked briskly by, yet I felt an almost gravitational attraction to it. It was, I thought, the kind of shop where I could happily spend a lot of time.

It turns out I was very, very wrong for thinking I would enjoy working in public policy, but the coffee shop became more significant to me than I’d ever imagined. Back then it was called Common Grounds and when I returned to DC for my first internship a few months later I immediately sought it out. It became my escape from the depressing realization that I had no real interest in the career I’d been working towards. Nearly every night I’d come home, change out of my business attire, and walk the two miles uphill to relax with coffee and a couple of books. Though I was rarely joined by anyone I knew, I enjoyed the sense of community one feels in a busy cafe even when alone.

I returned to Virginia following college graduation for lack of any better plan, my new apartment just three blocks from Common Grounds. I applied for a job there following one more failed attempt at enjoying public policy. When I checked in a few weeks later, the manager admitted that they’d lost my application. This turned out to be a moot point, for the shop was about to be sold to Nick Cho of Murky Coffee. For some reason Nick hired me.


Nick has an intense passion for coffee and he passed that on to me on my first day of training at his existing Capitol Hill location. He gave us new employees twenty bucks and sent us down the street to Starbucks to order whatever we liked. Then we came back to experience the same drinks the Murky way. I’d consumed thousands of coffee beverages and spent countless nights in coffee shops, but I’d never paid close attention to what was in the cups. This all changed when I watched Nick deftly pour perfectly textured milk into espresso, a lovely rosetta forming on the surface of the cappuccino as if by magic. I’d never seen or tasted anything like it. To this day the memory informs my work as a barista and bartender; the best gift I can give new customers is recreating that feeling of astonishment that comes from witnessing a mundane drink transformed into something wonderful.

I spent only eight months working at Murky but I continued as a customer far longer. The friendships and relationships that bloomed there are the reason I stayed in Virginia for as long as I did. Our cast of characters — a Pilates instructor, an opera singer, and a medical consultant, among others — formed a welcome community outside the cocooned world of politics. Every Sunday we gathered for coffee and a late lunch. This ritual was so valuable to me that for the year following when I worked at Open City my only requirement was that I claim the painfully early Sunday morning 5:30 am barista shift; I felt it necessary to get off in time to meet for coffee at Murky, despite spending the entire morning working the same model espresso machine and serving exactly the same blend.

I wrote above that I felt a gravitational pull to the shop. Looking back at the five apartments I lived in during my time in Virginia, I realize I was literally in orbit around it. Murky is in red, my various apartments in blue.


That’s no coincidence. Though I moved frequently and made many compromises, always being within a short walk or bike ride from my favorite coffee shop was an essential amenity.

Many people drifted in and out of our circle of regulars over the years. By the time I packed for Oregon just two of our original crew were left, meeting every Sunday to drink coffee and smoke cigars at the green light pole. Like many things at Murky, the pole was weathered and useless, existing mostly to annoy people trying to park their cars around it. Yet it was charming in its way and was the perfect place to prop up our feet and light a couple stogies in the breeze.

Hanging out at ye old green pole

If I could be there today, that’s exactly what I’d be doing. This Sunday was Murky’s last day open for business. Nick and his staff are opening a new shop, Wrecking Ball Coffee, in downtown DC. The space at 3211 Wilson Blvd. will soon become a bakery, the newest sleek addition to Clarendon’s redevelopment. Murky’s end removes one more of my tethers to the city. The thought of moving back to Arlington is now less tempting.

I could go on, but the important thing for me is saying thanks to Nick and the Murky community. Thanks for teaching me how to taste, for showing me the beauty in craft, and for giving me a place to call home in Virginia. You’ll be missed, and I wish you the best of luck in your new venture.


Greening the green giant

Starbucks’ new “Global Responsibility Report” is now online. It’s an interesting example of corporate transparency (or greenwashing depending on your level of skepticism) and provides some insight into how difficult it is for a company that size to go green, even when it wants to. Encouraging recycling, for example, isn’t as simple as just putting out proper bins:

The world of garbage and recycling is complicated. We’d like the solution to be as simple as putting recycling bins in all of our stores. Unfortunately, residential garbage collection and recycling is usually controlled by city or county governments who either manage it directly or contract it out to private haulers. These local authorities can provide subsidies and sometimes mandate whether or not the haulers have to collect paper, glass, plastics or compostable waste.

For commercial recycling (such as at a Starbucks store), the items that get collected are almost always driven by the open market. This means that if the haulers can get a good price for recyclable materials (cardboard, glass, plastic, food-contaminated paper products), they’ll collect it from local businesses. But if they can’t get a good price – or when there’s not a critical mass of materials to collect – they may not collect them because there’s no financial benefit for them.

One other significant challenge is the fact that half of our stores are located in leased spaces where we don’t control waste collection and recycling. Our landlords often determine whether tenants can recycle based on space availability and commercial recycling services.

Paper cups are another difficult problem. According to the report, they make up half the paper the company buys in a year. An easy change is encouraging stores to return to using ceramic mugs for in-store drinks, which would be nice regardless of the environmental impact. A harder change is making the cups themselves more environmentally friendly. Starbucks deserves from being a pioneer here, putting a lot of effort into innovation to get cups with recycled paper content approved by the FDA. From an old Marketplace story:

So Starbucks asked its suppliers to take up a new crusade: Get the FDA’s approval for a beverage cup that contained recycled paper, not just on the outside, but the inside as well.

GEORGE MATTHEWS: We worked on this for about four years.

George Matthews is executive VP at Mississippi River Corporation, one of Starbucks’ suppliers. His pulp company had to prove to the FDA it was safe to drink from a recycled-content cup. That meant eliminating any potentially harmful substances from the high-grade office paper in recycled pulp.

MATTHEWS: The new regulations that the FDA had come out with required testing to be done to really infinitesimal limits. So we not only had to test to those limits but in many cases had to develop the test protocol itself, because it hadn’t been done before.

The FDA finally approved. Starbucks is now selling coffee in paper cups with 10 percent post-consumer fiber.

The cups themselves are often not recyclable though because of their plastic liners. According to the report, that’s the next technological hurdle SBUX is trying to overcome.

A technological advance I’d like to see? Not using a stupid Flash webpage that I can’t link to directly. So if you’d like to customize your own report, go here and start from scratch.

[Via Starbucks Gossip and Coffee City.]

Cups and councils


How bad is the Ethiopian coffee situation?

Michaele Wiessman, author of God in a Cup, has the best summary yet:

Now the Ethiopian government is in effect re-nationalizing its coffee industry–coffee is Ethiopia’s most important export. The re-nationalization appears to be slamming the door on specialty buyers who in recent years have roamed Ethiopia in search of small lots of super high quality coffee from small Ethiopian farms and cooperatives for which they have paid $3 a pound and up. [JG: For comparison, Fair Trade guarantees only $1.26/pound.]

Under the new system private sellers are banned. These “privates” have had their licenses to operate taken from them. They are no longer legally allowed to buy, process and market small lots of super expensive coffee.

Instead, the government has created a controlled commodities market on which virtually all Ethiopian coffee will be sold. (Some large, government-friendly cooperatives will apparently continue to have some autonomy.) Under the new rules, coffees from 24 different geographic areas will be aggregated, cupped and graded together. All coffees from, say, Yirgacheffe Area A, Yirgacheffe Area B, Harar and so forth will be slotted into one of nine different quality grades and sold together. Which means that the farmers working in particular cooperatives will no longer be able to increase their earnings by adopting improved agricultural practices and growing better coffee.

This notion–that farmers who work harder and produce better coffee ought to be paid more is the core notion of the specialty coffee industry. Everything else that specialty buyers and roasters are attempting to accomplish flows from this basic premise.

Enjoy your Ethiopian microlots now, folks. It could take years to recover from this.


Skip the drip

Amanda at Metrocurean reports that a new coffee shop called Mid-City Cafe is coming to Logan Circle in DC. They’ll be serving Counter Culture Coffee and not brewing drip; all the coffee will be from pour overs or French presses.

The biggest advantage for the coffee in Portland over what I got at my favorite shops in DC is that many places here don’t brew drip at all. For about $1 a cup I can get fresh, full-bodied French press coffee any time of day. It’s a little more work for the shop, but the difference in quality is worth it and I actively avoid any cafe that defaults to drip. Hopefully this is the start of a trend in that direction in DC.


EU makes a bad brew

I am very amused by this story:

The European Union is adding a job position: coffee monitor. The move is not part of the latest stimulus plan, but a fittingly tasteful settlement to a particularly European dispute.

The union’s executive office, the European Commission, was embarrassed when The International Herald Tribune reported last December that the commission had bought 21 deluxe espresso makers costing 5,000 euros each, then about $7,500. […]

But the Italian maker of the machines was scandalized by something else: some of the most senior officials, their guests and employees complained that the coffee tasted bad, despite the machines’ pedigree.

Now, as part of the settlement with the maker, La Cimbali of Italy, the commission will receive not only new machines, but also training on their proper use, including for some of the European Union’s highest officials.

In a statement that could save face for La Cimbali, the commission hinted that the taste of the coffee might have been affected by the water in the Berlaymont Building, headquarters of the European Commission, and poor cleaning, rather than the quality of the machines.

I’d like to gloat and say this goes to prove the ineptitude of government officials, but the fact is this same kind of drama plays out every day at Williams-Sonoma and other gourmet stores. Customers spend ridiculous amounts of money on shiny new machines with lots of bells and whistles, only to find that the resulting coffee tastes nothing like what they get at a decent cafe. With a little bit of knowledge and a little more work, they could spend the same or less for a simpler machine and a good grinder and be making good espresso and cappuccinos in no time.

The EU and La Cimbali are taking steps to educate staffers on proper use of the machines to prevent future failure:

La Cimbali is organizing training for a representative from each commissioner’s office to enhance their “coffee knowledge, from beans to the cup,” La Cimbali wrote in an “action plan” obtained by The Herald Tribune.

Officials, informal coffee monitors, will be taught “coffee tasting theory and sensorial techniques,” “recipes and hints,” and “ordinary machine maintenance procedures.”

Mr. Kidd said the company was “open to anyone who is interested in learning how to make an optimal espresso.”

Unless you are dead set on having an espresso option (as many in the EU likely are), my own advice is to avoid it in an office environment. Skip the drip, too. A good grinder, a hot water source, and a few French presses or pour over setups will do far more to enable employees to make good coffee on the job.

[Thanks to Toby for the link!]


I should move to San Francisco

Portland has been named the nation’s most depressing city in the country and Oregon’s unemployment rate has hit 9.9%. But if I lived in SF I could work at Caffeinated Comics, a new comic book store featuring a La Marzocco espresso machine, Four Barrel Coffee, and free wi-fi. It’s hard to imagine a job for which I’m better qualified.

[Thanks to David for the link, even if he won’t let me move to the Mission and be his comic book reading roommate.]


Senseless threat to Ethiopian microlots

From George Howell via Tim Wendelboe:

[…] the Ethiopian government determined a few months ago that all availability and traceability of individual coffee lots be scrapped. Regional coffee lots were to be graded by the government’s designated authorities and then lump-blended into large trademarked lots. You could buy Yirgacheffe Grade X and know nothing more. This adds value? After strenuous protests from shocked exporters the government relented somewhat: cooperatives could operate independently and retain traceability but not so with any private mills – who often paid farmers for their cherry more than many coops! So this means, as things stand now, that the organic superb Ademe Bedane we currently have will not be available as new crop this year. Even if they produce a lot as refined and flavorful as the one we currently have, tough – it will be dropped into the leveling sea of other lots all ideally from the same region, but in no way required to be. This is commodity thinking at its worst, the very way to guarantee there are no “Ah-hah!” moments that really determine why certain regions become stars commanding higher prices. We pray Ethiopia will relent even at this late time in the current season. Specialty coffee exporters, when recently protesting, were told they were irrelevant because specialty represented 1% of Ethiopia’s sales. That’s vision!”

This is tragic if accurate. Ethiopia grows some of the finest coffees in the world, and even after years in the industry tasting a new microlot from, say, Aricha can be a mind-blowing experience. It’s senseless to dump them into aggregated lots that, even when very good, don’t have the distinct flavor profile of an outstanding microlot.

I haven’t seen much coverage of this issue so I’m at a loss as to why the Ethiopian government has implemented the policy. It might be part of its strategy for preventing dilution of its regional brands, or it might be that the market for distinguished microlots is just too small to care about. Regardless, the new rules will block trade between farmers and bean buyers who’d gladly pay them a premium for their coffees and deny consumers some of the best Ethiopia has to offer. In the long-run this seems likely to hurt the country’s reputation, giving a competitive advantage to origins that are more transparent and able to reward their highest quality growers. I hope exporters and farmers can apply enough pressure to force a change.


Taste-testing Via

A Wall Street Journal reporter did a taste test. She admits to not having a sophisticated coffee palate. Her verdict: not quite as good as freshly brewed Starbucks coffee, but significantly better than other instant coffee.

The big question is how management decided making instant coffee would be a good idea in the first place. Answer: A guy walked into the Pike Place location and had the barista sample a version he’d concocted:

Mr. Schultz then said he wanted to tell me a story. In 1993, a man named Don Valencia walked into the original Starbucks store in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Mr. Valencia was an immunologist who was a fan of Starbucks coffee. On his visit to the store, he gave a soluble coffee substance to a barista, told her to mix it with water and taste it. Mr. Valencia had created the concoction himself using Starbucks beans so he could drink Starbucks on camping trips. The barista was blown away by the taste, Mr. Schultz told me.

Two days later, Mr. Schultz invited Mr. Valencia to come to his office so Mr. Schultz could try the creation. Mr. Schultz was so impressed he hired Mr. Valencia to lead the company’s research and development department. That soluble extract morphed into the flavoring for Frappuccinos, ice creams and other coffee-flavored products Starbucks makes.

The reporter also explains some of the process that went into it:

From Mr. Schultz’s office, I went down the hall to the coffee tasting room and met with Anthony Carroll, Ann-Marie Kurtz and Andrew Linnemann — three coffee experts who helped develop the product. The process starts by roasting and brewing coffee from Starbucks beans, reducing that to a concentrate and then removing the water so they’re left with an intensely flavored coffee powder. Mr. Linnemann explained how they went through about 700 versions to find one that wouldn’t have the bad attributes of most instant coffees — hints of paper, cardboard and malt. He and his colleagues tried adding coffee oils to make it thicker, but it wouldn’t stay fresh. Fine-grinding the beans created so much heat that it burned off the flavor of the coffee.

Improving the taste of instant coffee is a good trick. Not destroying their brand image in the process would be an even better one.


Starbucks’ fast, hard fall

Early last year Starbucks took a few steps in the right direction to regain the reputation they’d tarnished when their focus shifted from quality coffee and espresso to Frappuccinos and retail products. They were retraining baristas on milk and shots, introduced a lighter roast, and rocked the coffee world by buying the Coffee Equipment Company (makers of the Clover brewer). These were positive steps to repair the brand.

That’s all changed in the recession. The company has closed several hundred stores and laid off thousands of employees. It dropped the quality control measure of pulling shots into glasses. It introduced combo meals, er, “pairings.” And now this:

Premium java giant Starbucks is venturing into what some would consider lowbrow territory with a soluble-coffee product called Via, according to three executives familiar with the matter.

Starbucks declined to comment on the launch, which is said to be a long-term pet project of Chief Executive Howard Schultz and as such will get a significant marketing push.

Starbucks will begin testing the soluble coffee — a term that conjures up images of instant brands such as Folgers, Sanka and Brim — by selling it in Starbucks cafes as early as next month. It’s unclear as yet whether the company will also extend the product to supermarkets, where it already has a presence with ground Starbucks-branded coffee.

A corporate memo to employees describes it this way:

We are hosting exclusive events next week in New York and other cities where we will unveil the product. We have been working on this project for over 20 years, and have a patent pending on the technology that enables us to absolutely replicate the taste of Starbucks coffee in an instant form. And as Howard has always said, “The proof is in the cup.”

Ouch. I realize Starbucks is in a bad way and Schultz’ goal of making his company the equal of leading indie shops was always a pipe dream, but this is completely throwing in the towel. There’s just no way to market your stores’ expertly sourced and roasted beans, high-tech brewing equipment, and skilled baristas while telling customers they can “absolutely replicate” the taste experience at home with an instant formula. This might be profitable in the short-term (SBUX stock is up today, in fact), but it’s brand suicide. Employees are justifiably furious; check the comments at Starbucks Gossip for some of their reactions.

I’m not writing this to gloat. As I’ve written before, I think Starbucks has helped advance the specialty coffee industry and I’m glad to see any shop, whether a corporate behemoth or a small independent, raise customers’ expectations. It would have been great if Starbucks continued in that role. Now, however, I’m more ticked than ever that this instant coffee company has exclusive access to the Clover. So much more could be done with it in better hands.

On the upside, an instant coffee cupping could make for a fun blog post.