Oren Bloostein is one of the founding specialty coffee roasters. He has spent his career so far in Manhattan. At its peak Oren’s Daily Roast also ran a dozen or more stores throughout America’s biggest city. Like the Superman logo, Oren’s memorable company meme depicts Oren zooming over the city skyline powered by his coffee. More than almost anyone, Oren personifies the original concept of the bean store, that is the specialty coffee store that sells an assortment of single-origin beans and blends, each with its own story, roast and taste. The in-store cup of coffee is almost an afterthought, which is, to me as absolute home coffee enthusiast, as it should be. It also shows Oren’s almost unique passion for his beans. As I’ve come to know him better over the years until I count him as a close friend; the first call I made on 9/11 was to Oren to make sure he and his family were okay.

Kevin What’s Oren’s origin story? What made you decide to become coffee store owner?

Oren I know this will shock some people, but initially I got into coffee by a virtual roll of the dice so to speak. I admit I did lots of research. I’d decided I wanted to go into retail. I knew it. My father was a retailer, at the May Company. But, after working on the training program at Saks Fifth Avenue I realized it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t manage upward. (laughs) That is, I couldn’t self-promote as one had to in a corporate environment to be successful. What I did learn there was that the top quality of any item was the easiest for me to sell. That alone was a valuable asset!  

I researched, researched, researched. I considered everything from shoes to dental supply. While I was doing all this research I began frequenting a local coffee place that was in the building where my wife Nancy and I lived. The guy who owned this place did a pretty good job. I liked the environment. The coffee was, while not probably knockout by my later standards, far and away better than I’d had anywhere else. He didn’t roast, but he was proud of his shop and he showed me an option that seemed to contain all the elements I was searching for in a career. I really liked the concept of finding all these () different coffees from around the world and making them available to people. While people were in the store, I would always be brewing coffee with my beans. The thing that made the concept work was doing my own roasting. That made the coffee unique. And you could smell the aroma down the block.  

Kevin Was in-store roasting still a rarity?

Oren Yes, it was rare. Most coffee stores bought from some larger local or regional roasters who had these old big roasters. They’d get coffee once a week, not daily. That’s part of the reason I chose to name my business Oren’s Daily Roast.

Kevin How come I taste a fuller flavor in beans, than those same beans roasted by other roasters?

Oren We don’t roast too light or too dark. I never have roasted as light as many third wave roasters do. I insist on a full roast.

Kevin In my ongoing quest to make great coffee accessible to my friends who own K-cup machines, is it possible to just grind superfine and use a refillable K-Cup? The Eckobrew one is certainly well made.

Oren Interesting you mention it, I’ve done a lot of testing to see if we could recommend Oren’s in just such a configuration. If you think it’s frustrating for consumers, it’s a huge segment. I know they love coffee. I know they really love Oren’s coffee. How can we provide them with it? The challenge is you need to grind fine for the K-cup’s flash contact time. I mean if you open a standard-issue K-cup, it’s close to espresso grind. Well, in all our tests we found if you grind too fine, it risks machine clogging and winding up with a tiny driblet of coffee. One thing you have learned over the years is I’m brutally honest. I won’t say it works so I can sell something. I remain unconvinced that refillable K-cups provide a good enough alternative at this point. I am however, still willing to try any new one that comes along. I’m certainly not disinterested in this huge market. Meanwhile, for just a small amount of money and minimal instruction, as you’ve done with online brewing tutorials, you can own a Chemex and taste the same cup Nancy (Oren’s wife) and I enjoy every morning, and that you and Pat do when you visit us.

Kevin Yeah, you’re preaching to the converted. But… there are loads of people who will say they need to brew a cup of coffee with automation. Is there an automatic brewer you’d say fills the bill and truly represents all the work you’ve spent tasting and selecting the beans, your roast, and in some cases your blending?

Oren Bonavita currently makes a $99 brewer that just blows away what was available in auto-drip just a short while ago. You may prefer another brewer’s design, a feature such as a timer, or the hand-made longevity of some costlier brewers, but you can definitely make coffee with the Bonavita that shows off all the work that the farmer and I put into it.

Kevin Speaking of farming, how about green. You’ve been one of the credible voices I’ve heard saying that green prices need to come up. As someone who recognizes the risk-taking and hard work of farmers I’m interested in seeing them get more, but it’s against my nature as a consumer to wish prices to rise. How do you want me and others to reconcile? Why should consumers support this?  

Oren One way to look at it is look at the price of coffee today and the price when I first started in 1985. I think the price for coffee Friday closed around $1.22. When I started planning my business in 1985 the price was $1.75. And that 1.22 is not adjusted for inflation. So the farmers are earning much less than they used to earn on coffee. 

And as far as not wanting to pay more, who wants to?  But by continuing to pay these prices we are keeping coffee farmers in an untenable situation. Many will simply stop growing coffee and that will be both devastating and by necessity increase prices as supply declines. 

Kevin I note you offer a number of blends. What is your approach to blending?

Oren Well, to start I take a different approach than most people think of when it comes to blends. Most blending done in the industry is finding a way to combine multiple price coffees an make them taste good. Believe it or not, I actually applaud the ability of these blenders. The guys at the various big brands are really amazing and are the unsung heroes of their companies. My passion is bringing great coffee to people. Single origins are fine. I am a fastidious cupper. If I divided up my time I’d say I devote a good part of my week, the most enjoyable and most important part, is spent cupping green samples.

Kevin So how about your blends?

Oren Where Oren’s differs from the majors is my idea of a blend is three or four terrific single origins. Each is thoroughly enjoyable by itself. However, when they are blended together, there’s a new and unique note that is worthy of its own name and identity. My original Oren’s Blend has two roasts of a Colombian coffee, plus one other coffee. My Canterbury Blend was pre-blended and then roasted. Others are roasted singly and then blended.

Kevin That makes a difference?

Oren It makes a significant difference.

Kevin How do you determine whether to preblend or roast separately?

Oren By taste. That’s the only reason I ever do anything.

Kevin What’s happening of interest in green coffee?

Oren Perhaps Anerobic processing. For the past few years, there’s been some experiments but so far, it hasn’t thrilled me. Over the past decade especially, producers have been seeking new and improved ways to differentiate themselves, moderate their coffee’s flavor profiles, and offer exciting and interesting flavors to roasters and consumers all over the world. Sometimes a little experimentation and ingenuity can go a long way without having to re-invent the wheel, which is why we’re interested in the increasing popularity of anaerobic-environment fermentation. I’m interested if not yet excited with the results.

Coffee production is already being affected by global warming causing more disease and more defects in the coffee.  Obviously this is a worldwide disaster. For specialty it means that top quality coffee is much harder to find under these new conditions. The farmer is caught by this with either lower production or lower quality or both. We need to always keep the farmer in mind and pay him, or her, what the true value of the coffee is, not the commodity price.

Kevin What’s next in your career?

Oren Well two years ago, I’d have a different answer. Covid has changed everything. Whatever anyone thinks about its impact on health, its impact on the coffee business, on all business is inestimable. It may be maddening but I suggest the most practical, survivable and healthy response is to embrace its dynamism and inevitability. There’s no doubt that home is now a much more popular place to brew. Yes, drive-throughs are doing well, but of course I live in one of many cities where this is just not practicable. Overnight, it puts you, Kevin and your Coffee Companion educational role in a new important position, but it also returns me to my role as a purveyor and procurer of beans and then roasting. That’s fine with me. I only want to discover where I’m best placed in the world to do just that and I’m basically a happy fellow.

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