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

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.

National Coffee Day Reflections

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.

What I Really Think of K-Cups

K-Cup La MinitaRecently, 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 coffee must be brewed over four-to-six minutes.
  • Small batch, top-end roasted coffee isn’t available in K-cups.

Oh, and don’t forget this one:

  • Anything too popular has to be bad.

With me so far? Good. Now, a few things happened since then to open my mind to at least the possibility that K-Cups might be a viable format. First, there is the Bunn My Café machine. In my tests this one machine was heads above the others in its ability to extract coffee. Keep in mind that for years Bunn has specialized in three-minute extraction through its almost-power-washing sprayhead design in traditional drip machines. The My Café gets the water up to industry-standard temperature heights and somehow (I’m not yet able to see into the brewing chamber) this results in a much better-than-average cup.

Second, the K-Cup patent expired. This means machinery entrepreneurs will be exploiting the format, perhaps even beyond what Bunn’s done (Bunn’s was developed through licensing prior to the expiration). The patent’s lapse also means a wider variety of coffee brands will be free to flood the market with K-Cups.

Third, new smaller-run K-Cup packaging machines have emerged to make it cost-effective for local roasters to make their own K-Cups. This has caused a virtual explosion. While some specialty roasters are still keeping their distance, several have announced top quality coffees in K-Cups to the general public.  This brings us the likelihood of neighborhood, fresh coffee.

Last but not least, there are new in-cup technologies. In some ways these are the hardest to understand, much less describe. Boyd Coffee introduced a new K-Cup of their own design at the 2014 SCAA Conference. Even with all the coffee samples I’d had that day, the Boyd’s design was night and day better than I’d previously tasted. Boyd’s has a new type of bottom to its pod that is closer to a traditional filter. While it seems like it would undermine the already-short contact time between hot water and ground coffee, it clearly resulted in a more thorough extraction.

This travel photo shows why this pods are important to good coffee.

This travel photo shows why this pods are important to good coffee.

I finally tasted close to coffee nirvana later at that same event when I had a La Minita K-Cup. This design, as explained by CEO Bill McAlpin, utilizes material obtained from the surgical profession that is both slow to release but allows greater transfer of flavor oils, thus coming closest yet to what the industry calls “Gold Cup” standards.

I realize McAlpin’s coffees are already pinnacle specialty coffees that score in the 90s among coffee reviewers, but this cup truly floored me. McAlpin, more than anyone else I’ve met, convinced me he truly understands the entire process. His K-Cup’s design takes full advantage of every second of contact time inside the K-Cup (something under one minute!) and then that special material at the K-Cup’s bottom makes sure the coffee essence exits the cup in its full glory and into your cup.

McAlpin claims he’s done blind tests among the top roasters and they are unable to distinguish between their roasts brewed using a traditional drip brewer versus the same coffee prepackaged in his K-Cups! I can only underscore that I believe this might be possible using this technology and a top quality K-Cup brewer!!!

I’m sure that some jaws will drop after reading this last paragraph and my having written it. My position is I try very hard to be a coffee objectivist in what surely must be understood to be a largely subjectivist world.

I am certainly not urging anyone to discard their Chemex, Hario or French press makers for K-Cups, nor for that matter their Technivorm, Bonavita or Behmor traditional automatic drip machines. What I am suggesting is to consider what this offers in terms of consumer choices and the possibility of getting a good-to-near-great cup of coffee fully automatically and conveniently. Even I must have an option for those times in my life where the process is not the goal, but a necessity of my real goal: getting a savory cup of coffee. Such times are quick morning starts, mornings when I am heading to an airport for an early flight. Sometimes a friend drops by and we want to share the coffee, but not the time it takes to make it the manual multiple step way.

Let’s remain open minded. Let’s also retain a healthy dose of skepticism. I am simply declaring that it’s now been proven to me that it IS possible to get a very good cup of coffee with a pod machine. Once it is POSSIBLE, it’s just a question of determining how it was done, then doing it that way. Remember, The Coffee Companion’s mission is great coffee, not labor, nor for that matter technology. Stay tuned!

Keurig 2.0 Debuts!

Keurig 2

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 brought me out here to Los Angeles to witness their opening night amidst a hand-selected group. To their credit, Keurig has not attempted to influence my view of the machine, which I have not of course, had enough experience with to review. I’m to offer tasting notes on some of their blends and discuss food pairing,  Actually, it’s refreshing to see a coffee maker manufacturer start off high be discussing both their machine and coffee, but of course this is a benefit of Keurig’s and Green Mountain’s marriage, a company large and sophisticated enough to really understand both the hardware and software aspects of their product.

The Keurig 2.0 has several interesting aspects. Most amazing is its ability to accommodate both the K-Cup and Vue pods. This is fortunate because the Vue was Keurig’s attempt to put forth an improved K-Cup that might appeal to high-end Third Wave coffee holdouts. It held more coffee grounds and used a different piercing technology to introduce water to the pod, with the result of more thoroughly extracting the coffee flavor. It failed as a standalone product only because it caused market confusion.  Potential Vue customers had last minute sales resistance about getting hardware that offered fewer software choices. That killed it for many, many enough that Keurig withdrew the Vue this past year.

The Keurig 2.0 employs a complex mechanism to allow their new 2.0 to use both K-Cups and Vue pods. This also offers the public who did invest in Vue hope that their format will continue to be supported. I’m hopeful that 2.0 will retain the Vue’s improved brewing temperature range.

Even more profound for consumers will be the 2.0’s offering an even larger batch size. Keurig realizes that the brewing public wants 1 to 4 cups, and they’ve done that. I viewed their approach and new pod sizes last night and I suspect this will really be well received. Flexibility, with none of the down sides to compromise taste, nor having to figure anything out.

My hobby is brewing coffee, but I’m enough of a realist to know that this is simply not true for most people. They simply want a good cup, quickly, with knowledge equivalent with their other consumer needs. The Keurig 2.0 appears to solve several needs for them. For many coffee drinkers, this introduction is exciting news.

 

Aeropress: Little Coffeemaker that Could

Aeropress 1 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 through the International Housewares show before showtime and spied this new coffeemaker. When I did my usual walkaround at Housewares she handed me a slip of paper with the Aeropress booth number on it. She told me she thought I’d find it interesting. I did. I do.

The reason I waited so long to review it? I guess I took it for granted. But now I feel a little guilty and negligent. Or it’s such an open-ended device it all depends on how you use it. Honestly, I can’t tell you why. Is it because it has no engine, no water heater? That can’t be. Neither does the Sowden SoftBrew nor does the Chemex. Is it due to it’s cost – as in low? Nope, I’ve reviewed the Melitta single cup, and I’ve packed three of them into knapsacks of my college bound sons.

So, let me stop the self analysis and proceed to make amends for my lengthy review time. The Aeropress, though wholly innovative and original in its design, seems to provide the features of all the world’s coffeemakers through time. Like a modern Hollywood film, it has elements of all that came before it in its genre. The Aeropress has some elements of the French press, namely the press, both in name and procedure. The Aeropress has elements of the Chemex, particularly in its filter and its brewing temperature recommendations. Finally it has elements with the vacuum or siphon coffeemaker, mainly its mass-compressed grounds puck.

The Aeropress is perhaps the ultimate flexible coffeemaker. It can be used conventionally, where it gives the impression of being a somewhat leaky manual drip maker. It can be inverted, placed upside down, its filter cap removed and it becomes a settling tank where coffee is steeped like a tea before its cap is replaced, it is flipped over and then pressed to completion. Which is it for me? I’ve spent several years in each camp. Finally (or just lately?)

I’ve settled on the conventional method. I believe I’d done this out of simplicity, and perhaps a little out of my desire to set the record straight on what I consider the Aeropress myth of being a leaky drip maker. When people pour a little hot water into the Aeropress and stir so that the grounds get plenty wet and are allowed to swell and settle before the press is used, a minute amount of water travels through the grounds and out through the filter and into your cup. There is nothing about this that is going to affect your coffee end result. It is no different than the initial drips of any drip coffee maker. Coffee is all about grounds/water contact time and nothing else.

Aeropress brewing temperature is, or should be, controversial. I know it’s manual so you can use whatever your lil’ water heatin’ vessel can provide. I have a fancy schmancy BonaVita kettle with dial and hold temperature settings. Inventor Alan Adler says Aeropress competitions tend to be won at brewing temps of 185°F for the super light roasted coffees and 175°F for medium to dark roasts. What does all this mean to the coffee industry, who’s fought so long and hard to convince us to brew hotter into their 10 degree (195F-205F) window? That’s a tough question and likely a subject for a different article. For the moment I’m going to use the ole’ reviewer copout #7 that we should view the Aeropress on its own terms. Of course you can use your Aeropress at whatever temperature you prefer, but after a number of tests in my kitchen, I’m inclined to operate mine at the light roast winning temperature: 185°F.

Speaking of roasts, here are some coffees that I tested:

  • George Howell Coffee’s La Minita I got spectacular results with this coffee. Man that is one complex beverage as brewed in the Aeropress. Like a great symphony orchestra, La Minita’s Bill McAlpin is unable to create a bad note. This coffee, third wave light roast and all, is just a perfect match for the Aeropress. Did I hear chocolate? I know most coffees give this note at this brewing temperature, but it’s the quality of chocolate note that this coffee provides.
  • Sight Glass Colombian Finca Alcatraz – I recently became smitten with this coffee in all brewing methods. I don’t know what to say except I just enjoyed its richness and cocoa and nougat notes. I admit I feel the lush fruit notes are boosted by moving the brewing temperature back into the 190°s.
  • Counter Culture Finca El Puente Honduras – I couldn’t resist trying some coffee farmed by CoffeeCon presenters Marysabel Caballero and Moisés Herrera and their latest coffee. Counter Culture roasted it at the light end, although to be fair, not too light, which I found to be a perfect match for Alan’s observed 185°F brewing temperature. Okay, I probably sneaked up to 190°F. I got that black cherry flavor kick right away.

Conclusion: The Aeropress is just a wonderful brewer. If you are caught between gigs, you likely can afford it. It is easy to use, to clean up. And, it delivers an ultra clean taste, with plenty of viscosity but virtually no sediment. If this is the cup you seek, the Aeropress is a brewer used must have in your brewing arsenal. Period.

Photo note: Aeropress Inventor Alan Adler says, “I do like clear glass which reveals the flow (drip), but recommend a wide-bottom, sturdy mug like the attached pic.”

Alan Adler recommends robust glass only.

 

 

 

 

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