Beans

Arguing and Criticism

arguing

Oh dear. I was involved in a bit of a Twitter kerfuffle over the last week. I think the Twitter medium compounded the agro, the limitations of Twitter really stifle any serious discussion or elaboration of points. Everything ends up being a soundbite. A little bit of hastiness on my part didn’t help either, in fairness. I think, and hope this post might add some clarity to the points I was trying to make.

It all started with Karl Purdy asking for suggestions for some “epiphany” coffees to present to some willing local journalists. The idea was to show them what flavours are possible in coffee, what the highest level of speciality coffee is like, and to promote some discussion in the yet developing Irish coffee community. He had done a somewhat impromtu tasting of Hasbean’s Wahana trilogy with some journalists, wine experts and some local enthusiasts and the feedback was really positive. Suggestions came back, Tekangu from Tim Wendelboe, Esmeralda from The Coffee Collective, and I offered to swap a bag of my recently ordered Guji from Supreme Roastworks in exchange for piggy-backing the TW and TCC orders.

When the coffees arrived, I was really quite shocked to find the Esmeralda from The Coffee Collective was almost two weeks post roast when it was shipped, and already about 9 days old on the day we ordered it. The Esmeralda was by far the most expensive coffee, €34 a bag when shipping was included (250g bag). I’ve ordered coffees from dozens of international roasters over the past couple of years, and this was by far the oldest a coffee has ever been shipped to me. The fact that it was also one of the more expensive, made it doubly disappointing.The other coffees were shipped the day or the day after they were roasted.

So I had a minor case of verbal premature ejaculation on twitter. On reflection, I was too quick to express my disappointment. Karl got in contact with Peter Dupont from TCC, whose one line response at being informed of our disappointment was “have you tasted it?”. The conversation evolved into an explanation that (a) Peter believed the coffee would be at it’s best 2-3 weeks post roast (!!!) and (b) they nitrogen flush their coffee, which prolongs the shelf life. I had tasted it, I brewed some the day it arrived. It was pretty good. Two days later, however, it was starting to taste relatively flat, muted and dull. This is consistent with my experiences of nitrogen flushing, once the bag remains sealed, the preservation appears to work very well. Once opened, perhaps there is a tendency to deteriorate much faster.

In any case, as a customer, I want to receive the coffee as soon as possible from roast date. It allows me the biggest possible window of enjoyment, of experiencing the most the coffee has to offer. I generally have anything from 3-8 different coffees on the go at any one time, 250g might last two weeks in my rotation. I don’t want to have to consume it all in 2 days, for fear of missing the peak flavours.

Of course, as pointed out by Rasmus Helgebostad, and confirmed by Klaus Thomsen, the Coffee Collective just don’t have the volume of Esmerelda sales to roast that coffee more than once every two weeks. That is a commercial / practical reality and I understand and appreciate that. There is an easy solution, however. Terroir, the excellent Massachusetts based roaster, George Howell’s company, have what they call limited edition roasts. On their website, they publish when these coffees will next be roasted. If you order one, it won’t be roasted and shipped until that date. Everyone’s happy.

To be completely honest, from the caliber of roasters I typically order from, I would be surprised to be sent anything more than a day post-roast. 99% of the coffees I have received in the last couple of years have conformed to this. I think it’s an expectation, a minimum expectation of modern speciality roasters. If it’s not going to be the case, it should be abundantly clear – especially for a coffee of that price.

Anyway, the purpose of this wasn’t to try to besmirch The Coffee Collective. I wouldn’t have spent the €34 if I didn’t have faith in their abilities. Between them, Klaus, Peter, Casper and Linus, have a colossal, enviable assembly of knowledge and skills. I remember greedily scavenging a bag of their Aricha competition espresso at the WBC in Atlanta. I brewed every last bean. It was superb. I get the impression that wholesale business is their mainstay, perhaps online retail sales just fit in around that…

Somewhat related to all this is a thought that has been rattling around in my head for a little while. It is to do with criticism within the coffee community, or more to the point, the lack thereof. It’s very easy to say when something is great, you see that a lot, but very often when things aren’t at their best, people tend to go quiet (speaking generally here). They tip toe around the subject, perhaps privately confiding their impressions. I don’t necessarily think it’s a healthy attitude. The “one big happy family” thing is nice, but it’s not helping raise standards and consistency. That leaves us with enthusiast community criticisms, which can be fleeting, contradictory and often have a low signal to noise ratio, and the near uniformly positive CoffeeReview. Honestly, I don’t see this changing in the short term, but in other comparable industries (wine, whiskey, beer) there are abundant sources of relevant, detailed, critical reviews. Are people in these industries always at one another’s throats? Do we need a new class of individuals in the coffee community, between consumer and industry? Or does it matter?

Anyway, away from these thoughts, on a happier note, the Tekangu we had is probably the best coffee I’ve had all year. In a year of amazing Kenyans (Tegu, Kanjathi, Gethumbwini, Ngunguru to name but a few), this one somehow managed to peek out above the rest. Paul Stack described it best, saying it was like opening a jar of jam (fruits of the forest I’d say). If last year was the year of the Ethiopian Natural (it certainly was for me), this has to be the year of the Kenyan.

I wholeheartedly recommend anyone who is yet to try it, order a bag, while it’s still around. You won’t regret it.

http://webshop.timwendelboe.no/

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14 thoughts on “Arguing and Criticism

  1. In an attempt to tenuously link both criticism and Tim Wendelboe – some of the best feedback we had was from Tim (and Tim and co) about a year ago. It was brutal – they were honest in what they liked, and honest in what they didn’t and why. It was invaluable and helped us improve what we did. It stung a little at first, but the crucial part of it was that there was no malice involved, no agenda other than sharing an opinion and I am extremely grateful to them for that.

  2. A post that’s close to my heart as some times the people passing comment do so often without the skills or knowledge to rule out they m,ay be doing something wrong. in this case that’s not an issue but it can be. I also prefer to let people make there own mind up when the cup is “at its best” as taste is subjective and should not be controlled by the roaster. What if you ordered the day it was roasted, would they sit on it so it will be “at its best”

    I think there is plenty of feedback out there, I get it every day, but normally via email rather than twitter and I try to fix it straight away. I think that the public discussion is the last resort. But I can also understand your disappointment.

    I know that you have had times where things haven’t been perfect with us, and I have always appreciated your kind feedback, without it I agree its a fluffy world. Customers vote with there feet and if its not good they ddont come back, the people doping a good job will keep there cusotmers the ones not so much wont.

    But I think the flurry of “tweets” that came at you and Karl was a little over protective.

    • Steve – I can give you criticism because our relationship is at that point. I don’t think I’d be as comfortable sending similar criticisms to other roasters. It’s not a case of intimacy breeds contempt, but it’s not far off. Having said that, I would like to see some fair, balanced public critical reviews. The twitter thing of the past week was just a bit messy. (I have to take some of the blame for that).

  3. i personally think this is a big deal. the tendency to tiptoe around hard truths, sober observations and valuable criticisms is probably one of the most frustrating things to me about specialty coffee, as a mostly outside observer. i know of few movements/communities like it. the touchiness seems to pop up everywhere, to be a part of the movement’s dna. ironically, the everyone-is-family mindset ends up being a hostile force when it comes to constructively culling out mistakes and building on strengths.

    a friend tasted a very short doubleshot at a well-known third wave shop and tweeted about its ristretto-ness — rather uncritically, i might add. simple taste notes, observations. the pushback he received was astounding. i attended the fascinating coffee conference in ohio last year and heard some counter-intuitive arguments about sustainability and pricing. the tsk-tsks i received simply for relaying this information and pondering (it contradicted the practices of most third-wave roasters) was rather forceful. it goes on and on. the publications tend to be rah-rah, the praise hyperbolic, the criticisms whispered, etc.

    obviously, it’s true that when it comes to brewing and tasting people sometimes aren’t experts. for this reason, i’d love to see thoughtful, informed criticism spring up — and actually receive support.

  4. I wasn’t very good at my last job. Whenever I messed up or wasn’t pilling the line my boss would tale me aside and talk to me privately about what I was doing wrong. At worst some error might be highlighted in a group email but generally it was kept in house.

    The problem with this little bubble of specialty coffee, and I accept it is of our own doing, is that any errors, failings or inadequacies become subject to a public trial often fueled by a few hangers on that don’t really have the authority to slate someone (not you Dave, you rock).

    If I mistakingly transferred money into the wrong account in my old job I wouldn’t get outed on Twitter or burned on a forum, but in this job I’d probably get slated for handing out a bad shot out of 400.

    I understand it’s of our own doing and comes with the territory but I also think it’s important to recognise.

    In saying all this I was shocked that a roastery such as TCC would send out coffee 2 weeks old without clearly stating that policy on their site. I am a big fan if their coffee and feel unqualified to tell them how to roast or treat their coffee but from a customers perspective I feel they could have forseen this problem arising given the standing they hold and the price of the coffee in question. In my opinion the coffee tasted a little tired when I tried it but it wouldn’t stop me from buying their coffee in future as long as I was guarenteed freshness.

  5. Working with Wendelboe means getting honest, straight forward feedback. The combination of the Norwegian ‘straight to the point’ demeanor and Tim’s no nonsense commentary policy, means i have learnt and developed much faster than if he had my feelings in mind.

    I absolutely agree with this method, and it needs to be more prevalent in the coffee community. There is nothing better than constructive criticism from your peers. Both us and TCC share the Kiawamururu (another cracking Kenyan), and we have shared back and forth feedback on this coffee – something i’d like to do with SQM too. It is very interesting to see the roasters interpretation of how best to display the coffee, and to then work to improve on it yourself.

    That said, Twitter isn’t the place for it.

  6. There has been a huge development when it comes to orderability as well as the perception of freshly roasted coffee. There are still a lot of cafés in the world who doesn’t even mark their bags with roast date. Some might even make it to my map of great scandinavian coffee bars.

    I have never really had any problems with giving negative feedback to roasters and even other café owners. When I do so however, I do feel obliged to back the claim up properly – which I think was the biggest mistake you made at this tasting.

    I don’t remember if it was you or @coffeeangel who stated that you were influenced by the date on the bag, the same way a customer might be when seing latteart in his/her drink. Which is exactly why I think blind cupping is the only way to go. As Tim Varney put it, if it tastes good, what does the roast date matter?

    • It was Karl who said that, which I wouldn’t happen to agree with.

      We all accept coffee is a perishable product. We all accept it deteriorates. From my experience the first week to two weeks post-roast is the peak of vibrancy, and perceptibility of nuances in coffee.

      Some may agree or disagree with that, but I feel that I, as the consumer, should be able to make that decision.

      If it tastes good what does the roast date matter?

      There is “good” and there is “best”. I want to taste coffee at its best, regardless of price. In this specific case, for a coffee whose price dictates it is truly an infrequent luxury, I want to be doubly certain I can taste everything it has to offer.

      I still don’t get your comments regarding the sacred need to cup it blind. We’re all well versed enough to know what to expect in a table that included a Guatemalan bourbon, a Kenyan, a naturally processed Ethiopian, and a washed Geisha. We kept an open mind, and our opinions, expressed by myself, Karl, and Colin (above) who was also present were made in good faith.

      I’m also surprised, given your reputation, Rasmus, that you would so staunchly defend something that surely has to be conceded is sub-optimal.

  7. The interpretation that I’m defending the coffee itself might be caused by my sub-optimal english abilities, what I’m trying to say is that I think you were influenced by the fact that you knew the roast date when you had it on the table.

    If you’re sure you can nail all those origins and varietals at any given cupping with coffee you haven’t had before then sir, you sure are a better man than me. My personal experience is that if i have Tekangu together with this year’s TCC esmeralda, even experienced cuppers might get them mixed up. And if you add a reference cup, say a washed Yirg or a second Kenya – the confusion is in enough cases total. Which is why I am so sure blind cupping is the way to go.

    Is the TCC Esmeralda worth €34? One could argue that you’re paying for it’s limited availability more than it’s actual quality. I know several norwegian roasters backed out of the auction this year for that spesific reason.

    There is a difference between “optimal” and “good”. But one could also argue that to get the “optimal” cup, you would have to travel to Copenhagen to get your cup of Esmeralda. The stress the bean suffers from it’s travel to Ireland isn’t exactly benificiary either. In most cases, that strategy would mean that most Irish citizens wouldn’t get to taste the Esmeralda at all, as there are no local roasters in Ireland selling it. And even if they did: You would have to find a retailer who would sell keep those incredibly expensive beans in stock. And if they are as most retailers, they wont accept a shelflife of only 1 week – that would mean throwing away lots and lots of coffee.

    The point is: If TCC didn’t source, roast and ship this coffee, you wouldn’t be able to taste it even if you wanted to. And you’re right, it’s your customer’s right to say that you don’t think you got your money’s worth. In fact, I’m pretty sure they would give you your money back if you ask them nicely(And maybe not through twitter). I’m just glad you have the opportunity at all. You woudn’t have just a few years ago.

  8. I am suggesting you are defending not the coffee, but the practice of selling coffee two weeks post roast to consumers. I am suggesting you are arguing that is appropriate for a roaster supposedly among the top international roasters.

    On the blind cupping – it doesn’t matter whether I or others can tell the Esmeralda apart from other coffees on the table, or whether they are better or worse than other coffees. Is it better or worse than itself 2 weeks younger is the question! (why don’t you cup/taste a 5 day old and a 19 day old and see?)

    I don’t expect compromises from roasters at this level.

    I don’t think any “so called” altruism on the part of the roaster in going to the effort of sourcing such a coffee should form part of an excuse.

    Also, there are plenty of US roasters who will ship to Ireland, such as Terroir and Stumptown, from whom I have had previous season’s Esmeralda. Of course, you yourself had some of this year’s crop from Intelligentsia. So it’s neither here nor there.

  9. I’ve been thinking a lot about your argument that you should be able to decide for yourself when to enjoy the coffee. We even considered changing our current standard of max 21 days past roast on shelf. But we concluded that most of our customers want to be able to prepare the coffee immidietaly after buying it in my shop. We need to sell coffee that is brewable right away. (If I were they’re wholesale-customer, it’s of course a completely different story)

    I am not saying that you’re statement is wrong, it might be very valid for you and probably me as well – but my guess would be that a lot of TCCs customers feel the same way as mine.

    The blind cupping matters because if you were to score the coffee low, you would know that it had nothing to do with your low expectations.

    If they feel it’s best between 14 and 21 days, are they really compromising? And do you know their coffee well enough to really argue that it isn’t? Personally I haven’t cupped enough nitrogen flushed coffees at all to take a stand against TCC when it comes to when it’s at it’s best. (Until recently none of the norwegian roasters were doing it) I have just like you experienced that while a sealed bag might last longer, an open bag will die faster. I believe that to be a discussion over wheither to flush or not, rather than a storage issue though.

    You’re right, it would be possible to get Esmeralda roasted in the US. But both the shipping and the degree of roast bothers me more than getting 14 days old coffee.

    • If you changed your current standards, say to 14 days, would you still not be able to offer your customers coffee that is brewable right away? I mean, when is it unbrewable, maybe in the first 2-3 days post roast? (We’re not talking for espresso, right?). Nonetheless, I think it’s acceptable for a retailer to sell coffee at that age. Not ideal, but acceptable. I don’t expect retailers to be able to supply coffee as fresh as a roaster. I don’t think people who buy bags off a shelf would expect it either.

      I don’t think you are understanding my point on the blind cupping. Perhaps if I had a table of Esmeralda it would be relevant However, 1. blind or not, the Esmeralda was obvious on the table and 2. It still won’t tell me if it is better or worse, than what I expected to receive, which was to be sent an Esmeralda 1-2 days post-roast.

      I think it’s a compromise. If I had ordered a week earlier, I would have gotten fresher Esmeralda. So the age it got sent to me was not an active decision, rather it suited their roasting schedule. Unless you want to tell me that TCC are holding on to roasted bags of Esmeralda until they are a certain age before posting them… I doubt it.

      On the US roasters – try Terroir.

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