Coffee Notes from All Over

Super-size me? Not any more. Doug Zell and the gang at Intelligentsia Coffee are ‘just saying no’ to Big Gulp portions of brewed coffee, as they discontinue their 20-oz. serving size. Is it about the bottom line? Doug says no, it’s not that at all… “Drinking our coffee is not like drinking jug wine,” said Intelligentsia Coffee founder and Chief Executive Doug Zell on Tuesday. “We’re focused on intensity of flavors and providing coffee in the way it tastes best. And it’s not in that size.” As a coffee snob, I think it’s a good call… coffee does not want to be slurped in giant takeaway cups. As a commentator on the business of coffee, I worry about the timing: folks are minding their pennies these days, and “value shoppers” may migrate to someplace where they feel they get more caffeine for their buck. ‘Course, that might be offset by an increase in same-day sales… folks who used to buy a Venti to last them the morning may visit twice for two twelve ounce cups. Maybe. P.S. Speaking of Zell, have you seen his Amex ad? He’s the new Mr. Big, man. Rwanda preps for its first Cup of Excellence! Rwanda is rightly celebrating one coming out party after another… last year it hosted its first Golden Cup competition, and this year it’s joining the ranks of the prestigious Cup of Excellence program. “As the host country of the first Cup of Excellence competition in Africa, Rwanda will set the stage and create the benchmark for the rest of the quality coffee-producing countries on the continent where coffee was...

Starbucks’ Extreme Makeover Continues

Continuing its excruciatingly public extreme makeover, Starbucks does a full-court press (release) on… a new coffee blend. Oh, goody. Sure, while most every other coffee roaster in the land releases new roasts seasonally — you know, to align with new coffee crops and all that — Starbucks’ latest blend is different, apparently. Word is, it’s not… you know, burnt. More, Howie would have us believe this is a pivotal event in Starbucks’ history, even suggesting that it’s a peek into a future that isn’t steeped in an espresso + milk monoculture: “We’ve been so focused on espresso … that we haven’t done anything to reinvent brewed coffee,” Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz said in an interview. Profoundly true. Not only has Starbucks done virtually nothing to reinvent brewed coffee — or even support it — their general disregard for drip coffee, press coffee and the like spilled over into the marketplace, where thousands upon thousands of competing independents likewise ignored the possibilities of unique origin coffees. Unless, of course, they could chuck it in a portafilter with decent results. It’s fair to say that only very recently, I’d say the last five or six years — or a time line roughly consistent with the rise of the Cup of Excellence auction program — that the indie retailers have promoted non-espresso coffee with particular enthusiasm. Coincidence? I don’t think so. And then Howie slips in this dubious bit… Mr. Schultz says he believes Starbucks has underplayed its expertise in selecting and roasting coffees, something its main competitors don’t specialize in. It’s left as an exercise for the reader whether Schultz...

Intelligentsia Coffee’s Rwanda Golden Cup Melange

Rating: [rating:4/5] While I’d talked up Rwanda’s Golden Cup competition last September, I’ve only late come to realize that I hadn’t actually tasted any of the coffees from this competition. That couldn’t stand, of course. And so this week the coffee delivery man brought me a package from Intelligentisa Coffee. Intelligentsia’s greenie, Geoff Watts, was fortunate enough both to jury the competition, and to buy a number of lots… this coffee being an all Bourbon melange of coffees from three districts: Nyamasheke, Huye and Gakenke. Just ground, this blend’s aromas are clean and sweet, with brown sugar the dominant note. On brewing the sweetness continues with a bit of apple pie spice. In the cup, mango and caramel flavors are accentuated by a shimmering acidity, and buttery, syrupy body. The finish is long, and sweet, and leaves a taste of candied pecans on the tongue. Sweet. Balanced. Lyrical. This is Zen poetry in a cup. Recommended, and available at Intelligentsia...

Coffee Notes from All Over

It’s gotta come from somewhere… To the surprise of nobody at all, Starbucks is looking to double its coffee imports from Africa by 2009. “People are looking for something different, and East African coffee is very exotic in terms of its flavors and characteristics,” says Philip Gitao, director of the Eastern African Fine Coffees Association. The fine Arabica varieties found in East African highlands currently provide 18% of the world’s coffee, the largest share from Ethiopia, which claims to be the birthplace of coffee although Yemen disputes that claim. Says Gitao, “Starbucks is now taking African coffees very seriously.” I don’t know just when it started but I’ve taken to calling the collective of Stumptown, Intelligentsia and Counter Culture the usual suspects. Not only are they consistently purchasing the top lots at auction, but they’re also on the ground at origin wherever great coffee is to be found. Or is it that great coffee is getting found because they are on the ground at origin? Hmmm. In any case, they’re all getting some great press this week in the NYTimes in the feature, To Burundi and Beyond for Coffee’s Holy Grail, a piece that highlights the nascent Direct Trade model of coffee sourcing. “Direct trade — which also means intensive communication between the buyer and the grower — stands in stark contrast to the old (but still prevalent) model, in which international conglomerates buy coffee by the steamer ship, through brokers, for the lowest price the commodity market will bear. It also represents, at least for many in the specialty coffee world, an improvement on labels like Fair Trade,...

Rwanda’s Golden Cup — The Results Are In!

It’s Labor Day in these United States — a celebration of the working stiff, the last gasp of Summer — and to mark the event I’ll be… laboring on the garage. (sigh) I can’t help but take a moment, however, to mark the outstanding results of Rwanda’s Golden Cup competition and auction. In a few short years Rwanda has emerged from its national nightmare to become an increasingly prominent player in the specialty coffee trade, and perhaps nothing to-date has marked this more significantly than the results of the events of the past few days. The cupping jury has seen some phenomenal coffees, some scoring as high as 95 — even 98! — and the results of the auction itself are now in. The winning bidders? The usual suspects: Stumptown walks away with the top lot from the Muyongwe cooperative, at $25 per pound. Lots from Ngoma, Karaba and Kanzu fetched in the neighborhood of $15/lb. and winning bidders included Zoka, Counter Culture and Intelligentsia. Look for some of these stunning coffees at a winning roaster — perhaps even before the turn of the...

Shade Grown Coffee — Just How Shady Is It?

All third-party coffee certifications are not equal. I’ve touched upon this idea before, most recently in How Many Labels are Too Many Labels. I think it’s a point that bears repeating, and some critical examination, too. To our good fortune Coffee & Conservation is doing both, by digging deeper into some of those certifications. They’ve recently offered a closer look at two labels that certify shade-grown coffee — Rainforest Alliance, and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s “Bird Friendly” mark — and found that not all shade is equal, either. [T]he criteria having to do with vertical stratification — the number of layers of vegetation and the leaf volume in each — are critical components for preserving a rich mix of species. Many ecological studies support the key role of structural diversity (sometimes referred to technically as floristic heterogeneity) in increased biodiversity — of many types in many ecosystems well beyond the realm of coffee growing. — Coffee & Conservation If that’s a little hard to follow, then the pictures and tables you’ll find at Coffee & Conservation will help. 😉 For more, Intelligentsia’s RoastMaster Gerneral, Geoff Watts, has written a thoroughly accessible piece on the subject. In particular he compares and contrasts shade-grown certifications with Intelligentsia’s own Direct Trade model. Too many of the programs marketed as “solutions” are really just patchwork attempts to fix historical mistakes and seek immediate gratification without trying to rebuild the system from the ground up in a way that can be enduring and self-sustaining. At their worst they involve a lot of moral posturing without providing a great deal of benefit to anyone...
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