Conan’s Coffee Clip: Did He Nail It or What?

by Coffee Kevin on November 20, 2014

Conan and Dan in segmentBy now, everyone has likely seen the Conan coffee clip where his coffee snob employee snubs an Intelligentsia espresso. Don’t worry. Intelligentsia is laughing all the way to the bank, as the snub gave them an opportunity to put the dissenter in his place. Meanwhile, it warmed my heart to see coffee given its minute of fame (actually eight minutes of good air time). There were some genuinely funny moments in it.

Conan O’Brien is among my favorite on-air comics. He plays his everyman role well. Jordan Schlansky, plays the dour office coffee snob to perfection. An unfortunate side effect of becoming a connoisseur in any art appears to be the loss of humor, and he characterizes it nicely. This is all good. But, what, if anything did the segment accomplish in teaching a mass audience about coffee?

Single origin versus blends – Jordan points out that he prefers a traditional Italian espresso over the single origin American one prepared on camera by an Intelligentsia barista. Most Americans probably know that Starbucks did its own version of espresso, but likely some learned for the first time that the latest round using one coffee type is still very different from the original drink.  Jordan made a point that traditional espresso almost inherently contains both Arabica and Robusta coffee types, a blend which he thinks tastes better.

Roasts – After warming up by questioning the use of a single origin over a blend for espresso, Jordan challenges the holy grail of the Third Wave – its roast.  He taunts Sam and Eden, the two Intelligentsia employees by attacking their light roast’s suitability for espresso. Sam points out that they chose espresso since Jordan stated it was his interest. One of the things I like most about Third Wave is its return to brewed coffee to strut its stuff. I wished they’d brewed using a Chemex or Hario, myself. But, it’s a fun and still informative bit.

Brewing – Jordan finally takes issue with what he identifies as over-filling the coffee machine with grounds, creating a too-strong coffee, versus his nostalgia for a more pleasant (if weaker) 7 grams per 25 ml water (traditional espresso shot). He is here, in effect, really attacking the Americanization aspect of Third Wave espresso. Here, the Intelligentsia on-air staff, who do an overall admirable job keeping straight faces in what must have been a high-tension situation (all of professional coffeedom’s eyes were no doubt on them) had one of their lesser moments, in my opinion. Admittedly it’s a tough theological coffee question (I’m not sure who could have really answered it better) but when basically asked if their coffee is too strong, barista Eden answered that they have determined the strength using scientific measurements. Her words: “What we are looking for is the proper amount of extraction for each coffee particle”. Jordan retorts, “By whose criteria?” I know this is supposed to be fun, but in my opinion, this is a key question, one I hope resonates with the industry’s leaders, who should really be careful before they use numbers as arguments. In other words, it all really still starts, not with science, but with someone’s opinion. While I believe this is really how it should be (and in reality, must be), it should serve as a deterrent to the idea that somehow anyone has a definitive lock when it comes to these numbers. Meanwhile, to get consumers to even think about measuring a recipe is definitely good.

Third Wave identified – Just as in the 1960s most kids nationwide learned the Southern California surfing jargon in the Beach Boys song Surfin’ USA, there may be a million TV viewers who learned the term Third Wave for the first time in this segment, as well as got at least a partial definition of what it means. I refer of course to the description of coffee growth in the US (and elsewhere) as split into waves. First Wave (as I understand it) refers to the general explosion of a culinary coffee market after it was discovered that beans given extra farming and grading attention were special and the term Specialty Coffee (credited to San Francisco coffee importer Erna Knutsen) was coined. Second Wave is often given to Starbucks, Peet’s and other roasters’ emphasis on (darker) roasts that called attention to the roaster, with an emphasis on espresso extraction. Third Wave became a popular term (I heard it first from legendary coffee pioneer roaster George Howell) to describe single-origin coffee roasted (usually very lightly) to emphasize its origin characteristics at the expense of roast development and (in the extreme) any hint of caramel flavor. The best part of Third Wave coffee (to me) has been the emphasis on brewing, often using manual devices, and a return to filtered coffee over espresso as the preferred extraction method.

Identifying and introducing to mainstream conversation the term Third Wave might be the anthropologist’s desert. I know it made my heart skip! Having consumers learn what the heck some of this means, arguments and who’s right aside, is good for business. It does more to give people an understanding why they’re lining up and waiting ten minutes to get their morning coffee at Intelligentsia (and others) each day. Yes, there will be some who will have an epiphany that they really don’t like what they’re getting and may switch back to something plainer. But, there will also be water cooler coffee talk at work. Some will try the coffee minus cream and sweetener (Intelligentsia does offer it, as do most Third Wave coffee environs). Some will become super elitist and seek out the traditional espressos (ie: Bay Area’s Mr. Espresso) and decide for themselves. The important thing is they will have their coffee consciousness raised. And, yes, they may start questioning the standards, realizing that their own taste buds are entitled to be heard in the quest for the perfect cup.

If this was supposed to be a debate, I think everyone won, with Jordan winning some surprising points, no doubt in part because as a performer he was less nervous, but also because he was able to slip in some genuine questions many of us are asking, and I am overall a fan of Third Wave Coffee. Intelligentsia’s Sam Sabori and Eden-Marie Abramowicz handled their parts with aplomb and they were good at advancing their company’s image without themselves seeing too snobbish. It’s hard to be on the spot and they were really playing themselves, not roles, a far more self-conscious circumstance. The heat was on, and the TV people are always going to win, as Bill O’Reilly, Jon Stewart, Ellen DeGeneres prove each airing. Conan O’Brien himself, really played the straight man, giving his fellow player the main character role. Points were made, I think in the consumer’s behalf.

A glance at social media since shows the industry saying how important it is to get the word out there. I  hope behind closed doors they are also saying they need to listen to consumers, mainstream and also informed ones as the segment’s Jordan Schlansky, who I continuously find are raising questions about coffee. I keep saying the industry needs a healthy combination of leading and following consumer tastes. Most industry professionals would I think agree with this. There really are some high-end consumers out here who are as knowledgeable as the trade professionals.

Kudos to all who created the segment, and especially to the Conan O’Brien Show. They really gave coffee a boost in this entertaining segment.

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National Coffee Day Reflections

by Coffee Kevin on September 29, 2014

I saw several signs this morning: “Free Coffee in honor of National Coffee Day”. Instead of looking for a free cup of coffee today, I suggest you go the other way: Try a coffee a notch above what you usually purchase. You might be surprised by its taste, its aroma. If you like cream and sugar, go ahead. It should still taste better yet. According to inventor Alan Adler, this final press of foam is a mistake.

My thinking is this: The average coffee farmer lives hand-to-mouth, paycheck to paycheck. Actually, since more than half the world’s coffee is grown by small family farms, there really aren’t paychecks. There are no holidays, no sick days. The family works the farm every day. The farmer usually grows multiple crops. The coffee is a paycheck once it’s delivered.

It’s a tough business model. I doubt there are any hotel seminars in coffee growing countries teaching how to break into the profitable coffee growing business. The average coffee grower’s age is near 60. It is physical work. You and I might think of sustainability in terms of our wish to be able to obtain quality coffees in twenty years; the middle class “will our children know what a true Ethiopian Harar tastes like?” kind of concern. Whenever I’ve asked farmers what sustainability means to them, they wonder if they’ll be growing coffee next year. Period. No romance about keeping an heirloom coffee going for posterity. Most of the world is still stuck in survival mode.

All that free coffee being pedaled today is the lowest-quality coffee. It’s only a bargain because those who create it are not getting paid a fair wage. Since I know better than to preach morality, I’ll preach self-interest instead. If you taste a great coffee today, won’t you want it tomorrow? The coffees I’m talking about are more likely to be available because someone made money, their bills were paid and they will grow more next year.

Even if I’m just thinking of myself, I want to taste the best every year I have left on this planet. Speaking of sustainability, it goes further than growers. The folks who roast and then brew it in your local coffee hangout work for their wage, too. As someone who regularly pitches buying exhibit space at my traveling CoffeeCon event, I think they’re also facing sustainability issues. Most of them are following the 80/20 rule — 80% artist and 20% business, and they literally go into the red to get the top coffees you and I enjoy so much. Maybe toss an extra dollar in the tip jar to help keep the barista sustainable as well.

So, my advice: Splurge in honor of National Coffee Day. Give yourself one you’ll truly remember.

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What I Really Think of K-Cups

September 9, 2014

Recently, I reviewed every brewing format in the U.S. I freely admit I was previously strongly biased against pods in general and specifically the K-Cup, the number one pod format. My reasons weren’t simple connoisseur snobbery, but cool analysis based upon the following industry givens: Coffee must be brewed within two weeks from roasting. Drip […]

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Keurig 2.0 Debuts!

August 25, 2014

As I write this, the next generation Keurig machine is moments away from hitting American consumers. Keurig is doing everything to get the word out. I’ve had a sneak preview here and there, places such as SCAA’s recent Conference and the International Housewares Show, where prototypes were on display. I will disclose that they’ve even […]

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Aeropress: Little Coffeemaker that Could

July 8, 2014

The Aeropress marks the longest I’ve ever waited for formally review a product. I met inventor Alan Adler nine or more years ago. We were introduced by then Bunn VP Aimee Markelz. Just to show how gracious some people can be even in an industry with such hot competition as coffeemakers, Ms Markelz was walking […]

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Another Coffee is Wine Article

January 9, 2014

Oh, no! Not another coffee is wine article!! Ever since the coffee trade learned how much wine is marked up before you and I buy it, they’ve salivated over this analogy. Is coffee like wine? Of course it is, just like maple syrup, blueberries and salmon. There are grades and flavor differences based upon where […]

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Is Coffee Brewing a Science or an Art?

November 30, 2013
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Is brewing a science or an art? A colleague recently posted this article on Linked-In. http://www.ajcoffeeco.com/blog/coffee-brewing-science-or-art/?goback=%2Egde_43141_member_5796946764351184896#%21 It’s a fairly concise piece that attempts to answer its question, but along the way I find it gets confused. It makes the point that a true professional barista should not need to use a scale and that an accomplished […]

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Coffee For Congress: Coffee on The Hill Event 10/22/13

October 25, 2013
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During the recent National Coffee Association Summit in Philadelphia, I discovered the NCA planned a one-day coffee event for Congress to help bring attention to coffee and coffee issues.  The NCA’s Donna Pacheco seemed to have everything planned, but when I volunteered she graciously suggested I might be able to discuss coffee with the Congressional […]

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Should you Jump on the AeroPress Coffee Bandwagon?

August 18, 2013

Much like Coffee Kevin, our crew tests and evaluates every brewing gadget large or small and we share our feedback. Some equipment is strictly for commercial use: Does anyone need 240 cups of coffee per hour at home? Maybe, it depends on how many coffee drinkers live with you — I know that I could […]

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KitchenAid Personal Coffeemaker

June 25, 2013
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The KitchenAid Personal Coffeemaker is their entry into this competition and I am delighted. It does almost everything right and nothing wrong. Let’s look at each feature and then its measured performance.

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