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.