the worst of coffee in 2011

Lists are great. There should be more lists. Here’s one with a negative tone:

1. The silent dishonesty of working in coffee. It is hard (and not very smart) to be publicly critical of friends,  clients, business partners etc. There is certainly a void in the world of progressive coffee for criticism. It is all over the wine world for example. Bad vintages happen all the time. Bad coffee crops, or below expectation coffee crops are never publicly acknowledged (not to mention poor roasts or brews). It is not an infrequent occurrence for a coffee to arrive at a roastery past its best, or for it to quickly diminish and remain in circulation for some time. It would be of benefit to the coffee industry for a one or (preferably) more independent, authoritative, honest critics to emerge. That way, great coffee which is still in the minority is recognised and is not lost in the sea of “everything is great, hooray for coffee” which seems to prevail. The same goes for the equipment end of the industry (although that seems to be more readily criticised).

2. Sumatra – I did not have any interesting coffee from Asia in 2011. I have low expectations for 2012. If I was a roaster I wouldn’t bother (hint: you don’t need to have a Sumatran on your books).

3. Manual brewing. To order, single cup brewing is a good thing in a retail setting. I fully accept that. The way it is commonly done is not (if you value a consistently near-optimal brew).

4. Filtration. Paper filters are still the best, despite still requiring a bucket of rinse water and still only delivering an acceptable but sub-optimal cup. My kingdom for a cloth filter that didn’t get stinky! (related: props to Coava for their efforts on this front – certainly in the direction of where we need to be in the future).

5. Grinders. Shit on a stick for a multitude of reasons, too many to enumerate. They will probably not have improved in a year’s time. The best innovation I saw in grinders this year was Mahlkonig’s RFID tag credit system, but purely for commercial reasons.

6. SCAE. It’s going to be a long haul if it is to turn around. It offers next to nothing to members. If it didn’t have rights of access to the WBC it would die. I will wait to see if the new education curriculum redresses some of the shortcomings. Here’s hoping for a new SCAE in 2012.

7. Quality vs Quantity of extraction. Both are important, it’s not one or the other. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath-water. Get a mojo, read Scott Rao’s book, use your own brain etc.

Is 7 enough?

Happy New Year.


14 thoughts on “the worst of coffee in 2011

  1. Thank you for not titling this “7 negative things in coffee in 2011” which would mean I would not be able to read this without falling into immediate rage….

    Criticism – I think starting with a good coffee critic, talking knowledgeably but accessibly for those actually buying coffee, would be a great thing. There are a few reviewers out there, but none are yet at the level of a great many wine critics.

    This is a very different thing from public criticism of your own industry which is far more problematic. I think there ought to be more feedback and honesty between people, so do please choose the option between being silent or being public.

    Filtration – I think I owe you one of the synthetic V60 cloths to play with, I shall send it over next week.

    Extraction – twitter makes this debate stupid.

  2. Offered in the good spirit of your post and in no way personal at all.

    Good to get the thought cogs going this morning, I took this post out in my head on my run this morning, and the more I thought about it the more I wanted to challenge it.

    1 The silent dishonesty

    What gives someone the ability/ credibility to criticise poor crops, poor roasts, “poor vintages”. I would never voice publicly my dislike of someone else’s coffee / style as I don’t feel I have enough experience / knowledge in coffee to do that. It would take a special person to have that level of credibility. And the danger is there would always be some suspicion (I’ve seen people all over the internet as “experts” who get kick backs and are not as independent as they seem). there is also personal preference (for instance we vote you to be king of coffee, Sumatra will be wiped off the planet because of what you like).

    And I would not stock something I didn’t 100% believe in. We have stepped away from a group of farms this year that I spent three years and a lot of time, energy and money building because of the “poor vintage”.

    I have to kiss a lot of frogs in my day to day life, far more than the princes (was going to change that to princesses but princes sounded better). Not my place to slag these coffees off when another roaster buys them, were all buying for our own market.

    If your using the bitter,sniping,backstabbing,snobby world of wine as the level to aim for I’m quite happy here with the love in of the coffee industry. I saw you talk about cameras and movies being reviewed why not coffee? This only works if there is more than one reviewer to make a much more balanced view of it. A Parkers wine guide is the last thing this industry needs. and from within the industry their is a distrust and dislike of parker and what its done for the wine industry, lets not jump where others have made mistakes)

    I know I am generally positive as I love coffee, I love whats happening in coffee at the moment. I can go anywhere in the Country and get a better coffee from 99% of shops that I could 5 years ago. I think thats across the board (even the chains even the tinniest back water cafe). I remember a couple of years ago I went into a local “cafe” and they used the steam wand to heat up instant coffee in milk for a cappuccino. Now they stock a very poor (by our standards) coffee from a very large huge roaster. I commend them for improving their offering.

    For the 1% that have not improved, I shall form an opinion and keep it to myself as what qualifies me to talk about what they want to do with their business? I do not understand why the world of the internet means we have to snipe and critaisie everything. I saw some one tweet if they can opt out of this kind of opinion, yes please. I take the positive praise we are lucky enough to receive far lighter than the negative, but view it with the same suspicion.

    Were a young,young industry and I think there is nothing wrong with feeding back to a roaster, if you don’t like something, I think you are quite within your rights to not like something (see number 2) to let them know, but I am not sure what gives someone the authority to say its good / its bad in a public arena without a right of reply. Hopefully you develop a trust and relationship with a roaster that fits your style and there is no need for this, and when they screw up (because they will) the 50 great coffees before this, you can forgive them and may still enjoy the experience of a different kind of coffee)

    2. Sumatra

    We get it you don’t like iced coffee, you don’t like sumatra 🙂

    Your not a roaster, there are plenty out there that follow your mantra and if this is what you believe you should follow and support them and make them the success you want them to be. As i said in my tweet companies will stand and die by their decisions on this.

    I could say Marco don’t need the glass filtro machines and manual fill boilers. I wouldn’t because I don’t know anything about that business and it would make me an arm chair commentator on an area I don’t know so much about. I am sure offering this equipment begins conversations with companies that means you can develop the range of products they buy, and from within improve their product range. Also it funds the business to do the fun stuff and to keep the coffee industry waiting for the next thing at the cutting edge.

    I have email evidence from June this year where you hoped a Sumatra would come back 🙂 Just sayin 🙂

    3,4,5,6,7 Im all behind you 🙂

    • The ability / credibility to criticise poor crops, poor roasts etc I would say is garnered through experience. In the same way as a roaster might build a reputation so too would a critic. I don’t think critics arrive in the world fully formed. It might take a special person or people, but so what, they exist. There would be room for a critic who had little time for Sumatrans, as much as there would be room for critics who see a place for them, it isn’t about having a “King of Coffee”, but as a consumer I would like to see honest, authoritative reviews which portray an accurate description of the variation in quality that is available in the market.

      If you 100% believe in all your products, then Raja Batak gets 100% and Machacamarca gets 100%. That’s fine if that’s your opinion. I’m not suggesting it is your job to slag off coffees per se. You work in this industry as I said it is difficult to pass comment – hence the requirement for an independent source.

      I would agree that there are certain products I would prefer Marco not to sell. I don’t think some of the products (such as the manual fill boilers) add value to the brand, if anything they cheapen it. The same comparison could be said for certain coffees and roasters. There is a line somewhere, a level of quality below which you will not go no matter what the potential revenue. Both Marco and Hasbean make their decisions on where that line should be and live with the consequences. ]

      I assume the email evidence is Sidikalang? That coffee is the exception unfortunately. A glorious exception.

  3. criticism is only good if it divides opinion and shed light on complex subjects. Guides, books and direction have the power to make the novice feel clever upon entering the speciality market. Personally I think the chemical romance the industry approach the public with is too much, mojos and other gimmicks should be the appendix not the essentials.

  4. Al says:

    I read Scot Rao’s book. . . in 1 hour. Hey Scott, ebook! Save a tree and having to have it shipped.

    Great book, but the smallest hard cover I have read in a long time.


  5. Mike Haggerton says:

    Re point 1, I believe there is a place for public criticism, but it should be reserved as a last resort when all attempts at private & constructive feedback and dialogue have failed. However, there is a big difference between
    – public criticism (damning and damaging), and
    – public critique (sharing both positive and negative experiences, which can be good for everyone)

    More of the latter would be good, and IMO would help address the issue of coffee providers using a combination of hyperbole and hero-worship to market coffees that sometimes don’t deserve the lavish praise in the product description/tasting notes. If a coffee doesn’t fulfill the promise of the blurb then I feel there should be more ways to regulate the overblown marketing… and that goes for the shops & roasters, not just the beans themselves. It seems too easy for some coffee providers to make a song and dance about how amazing they are, and makes it difficult for consumers to buy into speciality (/progressive) coffee when so often the product doesn’t match the hype. (A V60 and a bent bit of copper pipe does not a good coffee make.) Forums already enable this critique but we could do better.
    But I might balk at a new body of critics. Who will guard the guards?

  6. As both a coffee lover who roasts/grinds/brews (mostly espresso & cappuccino) for reguar home consumption and a critic who makes a small living out of QUOTE STEVE “the bitter,sniping,backstabbing,snobby world of wine” I think I should comment.
    Firstly, the need for critics and criticism stems from public interest. Which is why there are far more wine critics than coffee, crochet or croquet critics. As an outsider in the coffee world it’s hard to suspend the belief that the general public doesn’t really (a) give a damn or (b) think it’s necessary to learn about coffee. Contrast this with the huge expansion in wine education between 1998-2008.
    Secondly Steve’s description of the wine world is unfair and untrue. Parker, for example, did the wine world a lot of good by (a) persuading the industry to make better wines – more and better quality fruit, less green tannins etc (b) he actually democratised wine – there’s a lot wrong with his scoring system but at least it’s relatively easy to comprehend. What’s more a 92 pointer doesn’t need to be a megabucks wine, nor need it come from a famous chateau or domaine. Wine, after Parker is less snobbish, not more. That said, his disciples have rather warped things. Luckily we have people like Hugh Jonson and Jancis to redress the balance. Plus the vast ranks of less feted critics who save the big pronouncements and just carry on with assessing the bottles in front of them, many of whom I know and get on with.
    Amongst winemakers worldwide there is now considerable co-operation and exchange of technical info. The Aussies have always been good at this.
    Yes, there will be dissention between critics. Hardly surprising because you can divide them (and here I’m hugely generalising) Into (1) Those who see wine as romance, history, lore and legend
    (2) Those who see wine as a technical process and judge accordingly
    (3) Those who see wine as a collection of flavours.
    I’m sure, if coffee criticism developed you’d get a similar schism.
    Finally, I’ll be convinced of a ‘need’ for criticism if I ever see Paddy Joe and Mary Jane sending back their big milkfest. Till then let’s, as cynical old Bob (Dylan not Parker) said let’s just “keep on keeping on” at trying to make better coffee. And not play cards too close to chests. And making sure we don’t get bitter, sniping, backstabbing and snobby.
    (reading back there are so many more arguments I could make against Steve’s tirade against the wine guys but space and time forfends – I have 56 bottles to review).

  7. Thank you David, I wholeheartedly agree with practically everything you’ve said – especially the dishonestly and lack of measured critique in coffee.

    And thank you Ernie for your comments.

    I can’t wait for the day the coffee world has qualified reviewers/critics, as the wine and restaurant world, i can only imagine, has come leaps and bounds because of the critical appraisal imparted to them.

    Way, way too many roasters/cafes/producers get away with murder, and because of this the general public are terribly misinformed.

    We need to be kept on our toes; and we need to sort out the pretenders and celebrate those who are the real deal.

  8. The advantage wine has is there’s a fixed and definable moment when the critical process starts to take place. Discounting esoteric things like cask samples, the process begins when the cork is removed and a tasting measure poured. The critic, tasting either blind or with the advantage of some pre-knowledge (and there are things to be said for either approach) then noses/tastes/remembers and makes the assessment, subsequently presented to the critic’s marketplace – print/radio/TV/blog/competition or whatever.
    To assist in the process (and make a living) the critic organises tastings, gives tutorials/receives bottles /judges competions etc, etc and spends time developing his/her expertise – reading/education/vineyard visits etc.
    If coffee critcs are to enjoy similar regard, much the same process has to be put in place.
    The early wine critics were mostly rich kids, whose dads (and colleges) had good cellars. A private income and lots of leisure were other requirements. This had two effects, one good, one bad (a) it began a tradition of independence from the producers (b) it gave wine criticism that snob image that Steve alludes to in an earlier post. (a) is a tradition that endures laregly to this day. In my 25 years in Ireland I can only ever think of two critics I’d consider in thrall to the trade (no names, no pack drill…) . I’ve been in the deep doo-doo with the trade on at least two occasions – once when I slammed a cult producer of making over-priced rubbish and again when I described a major player’s new range as being “worse than the one it replaced”. I’d hope the coffee trade could withstand (informed) criticism of this nature.
    Well, it’s a blueprint of sorts.

  9. Cris says:

    As per #3, what did you mean when you said, “..single cup brewing is a good thing in a retail setting.. The way it is commonly done is not (if you value a consistently near-optimal brew).”

    When you say “it” in the second sentence, is it a reference to single cup brewing, poor single cup brewing, or something else?

  10. Heya, just stumbled across this blog of your’s – really great to see an Irish coffee blog! Whenever I’m over there visiting, I’m always discouraged that there isn’t much in the way of good coffee.

    Looking forward to reading more.

  11. «honest guy» says:

    I just had this thought: Maybe you all are putting too much energy in this thing. Instead of trying to generate so much (kind of meaningless) knowledge about coffee, you should make the world a better place. And please don’t say you make the world a better place by highering the coffee standards…
    signed: an anonymous barista

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