I know many are obsessed with single origin varietals. The industry has done a great job of marketing these. How you brew that coffee is also getting to be widely known as important. Our Four-Way Flight class, originated by Marcus Boni at CoffeeCon is one of our most popular. The idea that coffee might taste different when brewed using a different coffee maker is well demonstrated in this presentation. Sometimes it’s dramatic.
The final frontier of coffee is freshness. It’s the biggest current weakness in coffee compared to say craft beer or wine. Beer is shelf stable for months. Wine is for years, although I know some wines age well, while others don’t. But, over a few months no problem. It’s therefore not unusual, and in fact it’s considered desirable for a wine enthusiast to stock multiple wines for food matching or just plain variety.
Just press a button to replace staling oxygen with preserving Co2.
How about coffee enthusiasts? Come on. Admit it. You culinary coffee relationships have been condemned to serial monogamy. You buy one, drink it repeatedly in its youth until it’s gone. Then move on to another. While this practice may seem like a good compromise, it limits your enjoyment. For one thing, your wine and beer buddies get to drink whatever kind of beer pleases them.
So, what can we as coffee enthusiasts do? Well, you can freeze coffee. “Oh, no!”, you say. Well some of us do this unashamedly, although much of the industry claims it results in everything from freezer burn to less-than-full flavor. “No one freezes oil” say the geeks. I’m not taking a side on this in this article, but let’s for the moment say that no one claims it’s a first choice, nor as good as fresh-roasted unfrozen coffee.
One-way valve bags were the industry’s great hope of the 90s. This invention, which basically lets gas escape, but no air in, was sold as The Answer. What many of us found, or at least I did, was it was better than nothing. The valve offers protection against outside competing scents. Yes, it allows bean de-gassing in an otherwise sealed bag. But, it slow, rather then prevents staling. Consensus seems to indicate it does a good job of prolonging a bag of beans for a few months, maybe as long as six. Best results are claimed if the beans are scrupulously packed in a nitrogen-flushed environment.
With cover removed it’s easy to replace cartridges, available at Target and Wal-Mart.
Good so far, right? However, when you purchased that six-month-old sack and break the seal, consensus is they stale quickly, like one-too-many facelifts on a Hollywood star. That fountain-of-youth pill suddenly wears off. I know people, I think sincere ones, in the coffee industry who swear by one-way valve bags, but those are often the same folks who don’t really believe in the whole “fourteen days from the roaster” dogma anyway. I suppose I do, so we gradually drift apart.
The Coffee Freshness System, or CFS for short, is a mechanical storage system consisting of a method of sealing a canister, which you fill with beans. After locking it tight, you simply place it on a mother unit, which draws all the oxygen from it. Meanwhile, Co2 from a replaceable can. This is the ingenious part as it effectively emulates the same effect as nitrogen. When you open the canister, up to a month or more later, to make coffee, the beans are still fresh, presumably as fresh to taste, smell and brew as when you sealed them. I must admit at first I was dubious, but intrigued.
The is of preserving one coffee is enough. But, suddenly it occurs to me that we have a potential revolution on our hands. As individual canisters are sold separately, it is possible to stock several coffees in your home, creating a coffee wine-cellar (coffee cellar?) so to speak. Imagine inviting a friend to drop over and have them pick their coffee the way a wine collector lets you pick a fine wine to open and share.
I knew I had to try this. I begged them to loan me a sample, which was easy.
Apparently the trade doesn’t see the value of this invention. My thought is, “Are they Crazy?” I can’t understand. I asked several of my roaster friends. None of them seemed very excited by it. It took me a while to analyze this but eventually I realized why. People who work at a coffee roasting plant, or even near a small shop roaster are deluged with fresh coffee. They likely aren’t wanting for fresh beans to take home each evening, so they just grab enough to fill tomorrow morning’s brew basket. I’ve even found doing my FB live video conversations with roasters that many do not even brew before coming to work. Why not just wait and sample some when they arrive each morning?
WELL, KEV? HOW WELL DOES IT WORK?
Enthusiast game-changer. Buy multiple canisters and collect coffees. Finally!
I’m going to tell you after testing for several months I consider the Coffee Freshness System a major breakthrough. I used it one canister several bags of beans, keeping it for a period of weeks each time, which no discernible aroma or scent reduction. It is amazing to have beans for a period past a month or two and break it open and brew it and have it foam up as the water first hits, just as you would with just-roasted coffee.
For a second canister, I grabbed a particularly tasty Kenya Coffee from Big Shoulders in Chicago. These beans were highly rated by the Coffee Review and had a particularly unique flavor footprint. I kept a small amount for nearly four months, then opened the canister and brewed. Again, no difference, at least none I could detect.
The end result. I took three-month old beans from my Coffee Freshness System canister and brewed a Hario V60 batch. Notice the gentle foam, signaling fresh coffee. Oh yeah. It tasted great!
I consider it a coffee enthusiast game changer. I literally did invite friends over and let them choose their bean, as I’ve let them choose which brewing method in the past. I am now considering amassing more canisters. Warning: You are going to want to do this to maximize the social potential of this invention.
THE COFFEE: HIGH BUT WORTH IT
The Coffee Freshness System is not cheap at $500. It is well-made. I’ve noticed no bugs with it, impressive especially for what must be an early generation product. Some larger companies with more to spend on R&D and tooling have far more tweaks in their early product issues. Robert Wallach, Coffee Freshness System’s primary inventor and founder, is to be congratulated on his invention. Wallach is a coffee enthusiast who likely created this product for his own use, hence his passion and resolve to make it right the first time. Frankly, coming from a video and audio hobbyist background, this price tag is high but not outrageous. I live in a world where hobbyists spend that much on turntables and styluses for their high-end turntables. Wine connoisseurs pay this much for a single bottle of an historic vintage. My older brother paid this much for his first CD player.
It’s an invention that finally makes it possible to collect coffees. Think about that!
I’ve waited forever to do this review. Why? I don’t know. Words fail me when discussing syphons, which used to be called vacuum makers, glass makers or sometimes percolators. You likely think I mean the dreaded pumping percolator, which became shortened to the single word designation, but I don’t. The two used to be distinguished from each other, but as the vacuum version got phased out, the pumping percolator got called a percolator. Since then, it’s been blamed for virtually taking the coffee industry down, but that’s another story… and blog post!
CoffeeCon Syphon class taught by long-time pal Charlie Sarin (thought not pictured). The Syphon is open-ended tech, with different presenters offering their individualized hacks and variations on the theme.
The Hario Syphon is one of two relatively popular and widely available syphon brewers. The other is made by Bodum and deserves its own review. Let’s take the Hario syphon and examine its strengths, and any potential weaknesses. It’s really not hard to understand a syphon. The lower bowl is really a kettle, where the water is heated in order to make coffee. The two bowls are fitted together. Once the water is heated to nearly a boil, hot air in the lower bowl expands, forcing the near-boiling water up through the upper bowl’s tube, through a filter where it starts bubbling as if it’s boiling – it’s not. At this point the barista (at home, you or me) adds finely ground coffee to the upper bowl and stirs it swiftly so it starts the extraction process. After roughly a minute, the siphon is removed from heat and the brewed coffee travels downward, as cooling air in the bowl below creates a vacuum (hence the original name) and drawing the coffee through the filter, where the spent grounds are trapped. When the coffee liquid is all down below, the two bowls are carefully detached (they’re hot!) and the lower bowl simply becomes a serving vessel.
At this point, lots of question should come to mind. For this reason, I’m inserting an FAQ here.
Does the syphon boil to make coffee? No, the water never boils. It remains at a near-ideal 200°F for the duration of the brewing contact time. The bubbles that appear are more expanding air being released as gas expands in the lower bowl. If just looks like it’s boiling.
Flame heat is slower, prone to wind, but otherwise effective. Call me a modernist, but I prefer Infrared bean heater for their consistency, ease of use and glamour effect. You simply pull this out when entertaining watch the jaws drop.
Why finer than drip grind? The siphon’s contact time between hot water and grounds is roughly two to three minutes, approximately half that of most drip brewers. You can grind finer, which reduces grounds surface area exposed to the hot water and the overall beverage strength will even out. Note: Automatic syphon brewers may take drip grind. Follow your maker’s recommendation.
How did we get so lucky that the temperature in the upper bowl happens to be 200°F? We didn’t. Truth is, the standards that recommend 200°F brewing temperatures were developed by observing a siphon brewer and measuring its temperature. That temperature became the de facto ideal recommended extraction temperature for various brewing methods. Note, the syphon naturally brews at 200F, but if for some reason you want a lower or higher temperature, you’d best choose another method.
Competitor’s syphon compared. All syphons are reliable at achieving 200F brewing temperatures. Differences are durability, capacity and ease of use. Hario’s excels at all three.
Why wait until the water all goes to the top before adding the ground coffee? It’s the most reliable way to time the contact time, which must be done for consistent results. But, you don’t have to. There are several ways to use a siphon. I’m just giving you the one I’ve found works best in my experience.
No matter how long I wait, all the water never really rises into the upper bowl. What am I doing wrong? Nothing. All the water will never rise into the bowl. Just understand, it doesn’t have to. All the water never needs to be in contact with the grounds. However, all of the grounds do need to be in contact with the water in the upper bowl.
Is stirring necessary? Yes, I think so. I realize so-called automatic syphons don’t require nor recommend it. These designed used a developed force to propel the water up into the upper bowl and agitate the grounds, which were added before pressing the on button. This simplified method seemed to work, but I think the manual glass method used by Hario (and others) works best when the end user waits for the water to be mostly up in the upper bowl, adding the grounds and immediately stirring to make sure all the grounds are enrolled in the extraction process. The second stir is done because, on occasion, the grounds re-clump together during the minute or so after the initial stir. I realize I’m insisting upon being thorough here, but you may as well learn to do it right. It happens to me often enough that I think it’s worth sharing as a step.
How Did We Test the Hario?
Note bubbling, boiling water in lower bowl during upper bowl brewing. This boiling water has no effect on brewing process, nor is it cause for concern that all the water never attends the extraction process. The syphon brewer is an excellent method.
I tested the Hario using it precisely as I described above. However, there are a few options for you to choose. The filter for instance. Hario supplies both a metal permanent filter and a cloth filter. As a long time syphon fan, to me there is no choice. I prefer cloth as the definitive filter of choice with this method. Metal is fine, but it does let some particulate through and into the final cup. While hardly objectionable and certainly never to the point of being described as sludge, I simply prefer the viscosity and taste of coffee filtered by cloth. To me it offers the ultimate coffee mouthfeel. While cloth filters are not permanent, they do last a month or more if carefully rinsed and stored. They take no more care than the metal permanent filter and they are renewable and inexpensive. I misplaced the one that came with the brewer and didn’t have the nerve to request more from Hario. I went online and purchased some from Amazon for around $5 shipped Prime. About a year’s supply for me. I can’t complain.
On the left is a fresh cloth filter, after its first use. Right is a two-week-old filter. Notice discoloration begins immediately and darkens with each use, regardless of scrubbing. Works fine regardless. I suggest not worrying about discoloration which seems to have little effect on cup taste.
Don’t be a Purist. The benefits of pre-heating water
One thing I recommend. Don’t pour cold water directly into the syphon for heating. Boil it in a separate kettle. It saves time and energy. I just used a nearby BonaVita kettle but any one will do. I set it to 203°, my normal drip set temperature and used its gooseneck to carefully pour the near-boiling water into the lower syphon bowl. Then I placed the syphon bowl on a heat source. I guess I qualify as a barista because Hario supplied me with an infrared beam heater. I do not know if these heaters are available to the public, but if they are, I highly suggest one if you are committed to syphon long-term. They are simply so easy to use. They also illuminate the process beautifully. Admit it. Part of the syphon’s allure is its theatrical visual as it does its stuff. The beam heater captures all this in its glory.
Looks like it’s boiling, but it’s not. The upper bowl, where extraction takes place, is typically within a few degrees of 200F. Many consider this ideal contact temperature.
Beam Heaters versus Flame
A check online of beam heaters tells me it’s at this writing a $250 option. Meanwhile a flame lamp is easy and inexpensive at around $30. Frankly, some baristas tell me they think it’s the ideal way to brew with the syphon. More responsive and direct heat using the flame. If you preheat it, it takes very little time. If you don’t, the beam heater is still too slow. Visually, the lamp gives very little to the beam heater. Both make great coffee. Your call.
Is the Syphon Hard to Use?
The Syphon is not hard to use. It does take some effort and attention, but it’s not hard. The method is actually very reliable and, assuming you agree with the industry’s standards, the syphon follows them perfectly. As I said, it was the model for those standards.
Here are a few potential cons to syphon brewing.
Thorough cleaning. Not dishwasher safe. As far as I know you cannot just pop the Hario syphon parts into our dishwasher. They require hand washing. You need to thoroughly rinse and perhaps use a little mild or unscented detergent to clean a syphon before putting it away after using. It’s not difficult. The Hario syphon is substantial. It is far better made tempered glass than most others I’ve tried over the years. Still, while hot all syphons are more fragile than cold.
Syphons get hot. I just finished teaching a syphon class at CoffeeCon NY in Brooklyn. There were two small children in the first row. I wasn’t worried at all, but know that I would always use care when brewing in a home with children. The parts get hot, near-boiling water if traveling up and down in the unit. The beam heater or lamp both get even hotter to do their job. It’s not a unit to ever leave unattended. However, I also made stovetop French fries the other evening when my family was over, and all the same risks remain. Same cautions.
A cloth filter takes an extra step. It must be thoroughly rinsed and a drop of detergent may be helpful as well to keep it free from oil buildup. It never looks clean after initial staining, but practical use has shown me this means little and doesn’t in my opinion compromise its effectiveness in the coffee making process.
Grind fineness depends upon contact time. The Hario typically takes a grind finer than drip coupled with a 3 minute contact time.
Do you need a syphon? Of course not. The question is akin to asking, “Do I really need an iPad? There’s virtually nothing you can do on an iPad you can’t accomplish on a laptop or other mobile device. The point is it’s ideal for some situations and uses. Same with a Syphon. I know of no better, more thorough and reliable extractor of coffee oils than the Syphon. It never needs to be de-limed with citric acid. Its filtration contains little or no plastic that can become smelly with time and use. The syphon is the best method of extracting from all the grounds. No matter how thoroughly you use drip, most drip cone designs contain some “trouble zones” where grounds in those areas are likely to be less extracted. The syphon’s natural bubbling acts as an extraction facilitator, using what Bunn Corporation calls “turbulence” throughout the contact time. The very dry spent grounds observed after the finished coffee beverage has been drawn down below is evidence of the effectiveness of the final separation of brew from grounds of the syphon.
I can’t imagine being a coffee enthusiast without owning a syphon. And, Hario makes one of the best; perhaps the best.
The Hario Syphon is perhaps the ultimate quality siphon, also long-known as a vacuum coffee maker. The Syphon works on the principal that near-boiling hot water in an enclosed lower vessel releases steam that expands, forces the hot water up through a tube into the upper bowl, where it is inherently the right temperature to brew coffee. As long as the lower bowl is kept heated, the water will stay up there, brewing coffee. The bubbling below causes the water in the upper bowl’s water to agitate the grounds, facilitating the extraction process. When the operator decides enough is enough, she simply removes all heat below and within about a minute the cooling and contracting vapors below cause the lower bowl to suck (hence the word vacuum) the finished brew back down into the lower bowl. Oh, did I mention there is always a filter between the two bowls? Haha, that alone is worth a patent. Siphons vary in the heating method (earliest samples were flame powered) material (glass is original and common, metal durable but no theater, plastic combines both benefits but it’s plastic) and filter type. The filter type is likely the most important of the variables to affect taste, and I’ll go into that later. Should history ever agree to repeat itself in a different order, I’ve long felt the siphon would have been the ideal brewer to replace drip. After all, the siphon fixes the following drip issues:
Grounds to Water Ratios remain constant when making different size batches.
Easy to maintain in-standard brewing temperature.
Grind is less critical because it has no effect on contact time.
There may be other benefits too. But, in an effort to keep this review from taking my record for the all-time windiest, let’s now cut to our Hario version on the test bench. It’s a beauty all right. I promise not to let looks intoxicate me, but as with my marriage, I’m a sucker for looks. And this one’s a knockout. But, can it make coffee? And how! The Hario Syphon and its companion infrared heater are amazingly competent in that ability. This is a completely professional kit for any barista. Best of all, for the well-heeled devotee, it offers perhaps the ultimate home siphon setup. You get:
A lower bowl on a sturdy metal stand. The glass is clearly a thick, robust, tempered type. The upper bowl’s stem (in my experience) is often prone to breakage, but with this unit so far, no such problem.
Two filter types. You get the original cloth filter, that is most effective and (I think) the original method, offering the cleanest, clearest coffee. You also get a Hario-designed metal filter which effectively filters and apparently matches the flow rate of the cloth one, so they are interchangeable. More sediment but that’s what metal filters do. Much more convenient.
Infrared heat. To me flames take too long, the liquid fuel is a hassle and flames vary in temperature due to air flow. To be honest, infrared still isn’t fast enough for me, but it looks beautiful and is wind resistant.
Say What You Think, Kev… I absolutely think this siphon is the best one I’ve yet used and I’ve used lots of them. It brews some of the best coffee I’ve ever had, which is saying a lot. But……… all siphon brewers I’ve yet tested have the following potential issues:
Variable contact time. Try though I may, I find the idea of shutting off the heat and then expecting the coffee to dutifully drop back through that filter to the bottom again varies a bit. I’ve done pretty well overall. After some practice with this unit I was able to get a four minute contact time within fifteen seconds most of the time… but, not always. Compared to drip or other full immersion methods such as French press, the siphon varies more and I see no solution to this. I made one last batch before starting to write this review and I had a nearly six minute extraction. The coffee still tasted fine, but it is worth noting for those to whom it matters.
The cloth filter is a hassle. Not this one in particular. All of them. If you’re an occasional user, it’s practically a no-go as storing the cloth filter requires cold water, a spot in the refrigerator to keep it cold, and frequent water replenishment. If you use the cloth filter often they are prone to absorbing built-up coffee tastes. The stainless filter, which I admit I used for most of my testing, allows fine sediment through. Paper, my personal filter material first choice is not an option. (Update: See below under tweaks for just such an option.)
Heating, even with the fancy infrared heat source, is not fast. Compared to coffee brewers such as Bunn’s Phase Brew, Kitchen Aid’s KCM0802, OXO’s 12-cup Barista Brain and others that get the water to SCAA certified brew temps before contact begins, the room-to-ideal temperature on this siphon brewer using the Infrared heater is roughly ten minutes. Too long. I learned quickly to heat the water in a separate kettle first. Solves the problem and not that big a hassle, but still an extra step.
So, recommended or not? I will never knowingly write anything but the truth in this blog. While I acknowledge that this brewer still requires more active concentration from the end user, I also know it makes some of the best coffee I’ve yet tasted. No getting around it. For ultra-fresh coffee, very good quality coffee, roasted to its more flavorful degree, the Hario Syphon does a unique job. Carefully used, you can get a very thorough extraction, full of fruit and complexity. You truly feel you are tasting deep into the coffee. So, yes, highly recommended, with the caveat that you must become part of the task of brewing it. It is not yet truly automated in this product, and if used in a way that is automated, you are, in my opinion, giving up flavor in exchange. How Do I Use It? There are lots of ways to use a siphon or vacuum brewer. Here’s my personal method.
Heat four cups of water in an electric kettle to 200°F.
Weigh 38 grams fresh roasted beans and grind them a coarser than auto-drip but a notch or two finer than for Chemex drip (coarse).
Once water is heated to 200°F, transfer it to the empty glass bottom half and place on infrared heater. Turn heater on to maximum or one notch less.
Place empty upper mixing vessel with filter inserted into lower half so that they fit snugly together.
After water has completely risen scoop or pour grounds into top half. Very gently stir near top to ensure all grounds are wet. Start timer.
At one minute begin another few seconds of stirring. Do not stir downward, as I found if you do, there’s a risk that some amount of brewed coffee will work itself down into the bottom half. Reduce heat a few notches after stirring.
At two minutes stir gently again. Lower heat a notch or two.
At three minutes, stir one last time.
At around three-twenty, turn off heat. After a few seconds, the coffee will begin its final descent into the lower bowl, which becomes a server upon completion.
When the coffee has completely returned to the bottom, carefully unplug the upper bowl, remove it and place it in the top coffee, which when upside down, becomes a holder for the spent grounds.
You should know that I notice a significant difference between using a cloth and metal filter. The cloth does a more thorough job removing grounds, some might say ideal, although I’ve been around coffee long enough to know that ideal is a subjective term. Let’s just say it’s my favorite. At the recent CoffeeCon NY festival I noticed Georgio’s Coffee’s Georgio Testarossa using a siphon to brew his own delicious fresh-roasted coffee. I also noticed the brew’s viscosity matched my own using the cloth filter. I asked if he was using cloth. “No, paper”, he responded. “Paper”, I exclaimed. Then he disassembled his filter to reveal how he’d cut matching circles from a Bunn filter. Some people use fine grind for vacuum. I used to, but lately I’ve found a coarser grind to work best. Siphons can use any grind as grind really does little to affect contact time. Of course surface area exposure affects the taste strength; that remains. Using the metal filter I find the coarse grind reduces particles in your cup. I use close to what I’d use for regular drip.
The Hario Syphon is a gorgeous brewer that can make state-of-the-art coffee. I had both the single-knob and digital control base units. I found each to work well. The digital control unit will appeal to anyone who enjoys its programmable features, although to be honest, I didn’t explore them. Different article. The filter options are enough to make me choose this vacuum unit. I never felt the glass was fragile and had no incidents nor near-incidents during my tests. About the only thing missing compared to drip pour-over such as a Hario V60 is the ease of controlling brewing temperature. Vacuum/siphon is high-temperature brewing, inherent in the process. But the results are impressive. Any time during my time with this unit that anyone came to visit they immediately noticed the unit. Whenever I offered to make coffee and asked if they had a preference, the unanimous response was to point directly at the Syphon and say, “That one!”
CoffeeCon is a lifelong dream to give consumers a chance to see and compare different coffees and coffeemaking gear. When I first started my interest in coffee, there were few coffeemakers. Now there are many. The internet’s role in this is obvious. It’s now easy to see and read about so many methods and bean varieties. But, the internet has one limitation: It is not possible to come face to face with these methods. Like shoes, loudspeakers or other products, the missing element is undeniable and huge. I’ve ordered so many coffees and coffee brewers, only to find they did not suit me. Sometimes just a taste will tell. Other times I’ve held off, only to find by chance that a given method was perfect for me.
Well, CoffeeCon answers this need. You simply come and compare. Have you wanted to see what the Chemex fuss is all about? Wondered if the vacuum method is too complex? Will the French press give you too many leftover grounds in your cup? Now you’ll know.
There’s a second reason for CoffeeCon. I’ve met a few experts during my quest, who know things, some big, some little, about how to brew with various methods. Coffee can easily produce as complex a beverage as wine, but wine comes to us as a finished product. Chill, open and drink. Coffee does not. Coffee requires some knowledge. It is really a cooking art. Not everyone wants to become a renown coffee chef, but to be able to brew a perfect cup is not really beyond the scope of anyone, but, like riding a bicycle, baking cookies or any other worthy creation, we need to be shown once by someone who knows how to do it. I say this as a published author of two books on the subject, a producer who created a how-to coffee video and writer of countless articles on the subject. None of it is as effective as seeing it performed by an expert, and then doing it yourself with some help. Again, the web cannot really do this. CoffeeCon can.
If you stop reading and sign up for CoffeeCon here, that’s fine. But, there are a couple more reasons I think CoffeeCon’s time has come.
Consumers are a powerful force in any industry. They are not organized and never meet. We are isolated and that prevents us from having the clout we need. I think people in the coffee business will benefit from meeting us. They need to hear our concerns. They try to buy focus groups and mimic other industries, but there’s not substitute for them hearing from us just what we think. A year ago, some people in the coffee business got together to discuss some important world coffee ecology issues. The attendance was several coffee roasters, a coffee importer, a brewing manufacturer and a trade organization administrator. Like Christ at the United Nations, not a single coffee farmer was invited, nor were any consumers. CoffeeCon changes this.
The final reason is so simple I’m surprised no one has considered it before. Coffee aficionados have something in common. I’ve attended wine tastings and one of the fun aspects is meeting other red wine enthusiasts and hearing their opinions, not just about wine, but where they come from, what their best experience so far was, that kind of thing. Again, the web does not really bring us together, well it does, but only so close.
Come be a part of CoffeeCon 2012. If nothing else, I want to meet you. I want to share a cup or two. I want to show off my favorite brewing method. What is it? Come and find out.
Starbucks has happily shocked a lot of us by introducing a new light roast. Like anything they do, it is accompanied by media hype. Frankly, I’m happy to see them benefit from doing the right thing. I’m happy that the coffee will taste better, which I think it will because they are capable. I wanted to get my genuine positive points out first, both because it is appropriate and because it’s the right decision and it will taste better. What it is not is good marketing, which may surprise a lot of people.
This was heightened for me reading a sound byte by Robert Passikoff of Brand Keys, a New York City (marketing?) consulting firm. He said, “”It’s just good marketing. If virtually half the people say that the more European, heavier-tasting coffee is not to their liking, why not (do it)?” I could take Mr Passikoff to task for calling it more European – not, the Starbucks roast originated in San Francisco (and Alfred Peet). But, what makes me bristle more is calling it marketing. It might be paying attention to consumer trends but that is not marketing.
Good marketing is leading. Roasters such as George Howell, Oren’s Daily Roast, Counter Culture and Intelligentsia are light roast’s marketing champs. They forged ahead when angel investment groups would have looked cross-eyed that any small-time coffee guys were bucking the Starbucks “secret sauce”, the black roasted product with umami (savoriness). Starbucks marketing was so good so early and it convinced people that overroasted coffee was a virtue, that the only reason it was light roasted was to save weight loss during roasting. Still, sometimes people unchurched in the nomenclature of the coffee industry would simply say Starbucks was too strong, and this was even true among some specialty coffee folks.
Coffee strength alone was never the real problem with Starbucks, although it might seem like it at first glance. Many years ago, after Starbucks first came to rule the Evil Empire of consumer coffee, they attempted briefly to follow the Specialty Coffee Association’s hefty brewing formulas. Consumers collectively gagged and, again in a response to consumers, Starbucks hastily backed off in the brew basket. They made it less strong, but it might be argued that consumers were less in angst about the strength than that they were really tasting the stuff for the first time under the full-strength taste spotlight. The reality and the the real problem was roast. Starbucks came out a while back with a Pikes Roast, which attempted to bring their roast up a few notches lighter. It goes to show just how dark was Starbucks roasting that some, including me, were unable to appreciate Pikes as anything approaching a light roast.
The coffee business likes to pat itself on the back for marketing. It’s as if it doesn’t really believe in its product and are privately saying, “Can you believe people actually like this stuff”? There are two areas where the market (not to say “marketing”) has gone and in both these directions, Starbucks is a follower. So-called slow brew methods, such as Chemex, Hario and other drip techniques have replaced espresso with coffee aficionados. Truthfully, Starbucks never sold espresso anyway but café lattes. Slow brew means filtered coffee, which is really the specialty coffee world’s “special sauce”. Not only is Starbucks burning off the most prized flavors in their roast. They finish it off using an espresso machine. Espresso was invented as a socialist experiment to shorten the Italian coffee break and to bring forth flavors from some of the world’s least costly coffees, not exactly in lock step with the flavor seduction a Chemex can achieve with high-end beans.
Lately, espresso has become the proletariat drink and single-origin slow-brew drip the beverage choice of the literati. Witness Oliver Strand’s precious New York Times columns. Slow brew drip using some single family farm’s beans is cool. This movement was started by high-end consumers, independent farmers who learned to market their coffees using direct trade and, lastly, those high-end coffee guys previously named who stuck it out after Starbucks had attacked them and taken a good portion of their market share. Now consumers flock to them and places like Grumpys, Blue Bottle, Stumptown, all delivering a much lighter roast, and most highlighting the virtues of a small personal pot of coffee brewed per guest or couple.
Meanwhile, Starbucks has done a great job creating community centers. They are modern suburbia’s equivalent of Target, with the same uniformity. They can rightfully claim to have invented or at least won in this competition. The new roast is different. It will allow consumers to have it their way, which is a lighter way. I wish Starbucks well in joining them with the Blonde roast. It might be considered flexible and a smart response. But, it was not a marketing coup.