Saturday, May 26, 2007


A follow-up to THE MEMO

So... in response to Howard Schultz's soul-searching memo from last February, John Moore - a former Starbucks marketing exec and current marketing consultant/blogger (who was kind enough to sit still and be interviewed for my film) - has collected a series of comments and advice about what Starbucks should do to get back to its former glory. The results are interesting. There's some wacky stuff in there, but a lot of it simply suggests that Starbucks should start caring about coffee quality...


Sunday, May 20, 2007


A Coffee Vacation in My Hometown, part 2

So… as I mentioned in my last post, a big part of the fun of having Brian Franklin in town for a few days was getting to spend so much time talking about coffee. (Well, we also talked about beer, sausages, sidewalk stencils, why people don’t say “hi” on the street in San Francisco, and whether and to what extent the government has a right to legislate people’s personal lives. But I’ll stick to the coffee.) You can hear some of our talking-about-coffee on upcoming episodes of Brian’s podcast, AAcafe. But the conversation that seems most relevant to this blog centered around this: is it OK to put milk in coffee?

I know this has been a burning question for a lot of you, so I’m proud to finally get around to discussing it.

Brian’s position in the debate is pretty simple: adding anything at all to coffee is either a heinous crime (if the coffee was roasted by Brian) or a sad, sorry attempt to cover up the coffee’s defects (if the coffee was roasted by someone else). Brian frowns upon it in all cases. Of course this includes things like chocolate, vanilla, and caramel. But it also includes milk, cream and sugar. So Brian and I had a big debate about whether the milk in a cappuccino could be said to be “covering up” the coffee taste – which is a crime if the coffee’s really good and just plain pathetic if the coffee’s bad, and why are you drinking bad coffee anyway?

There. I think I have summarized Brian’s point of view fairly enough. Here’s the thing: I mostly agree with him. Let’s take caramel syrup. It’s my considered opinion that caramel syrup belongs nowhere near good coffee. I guess it’s your right to put anything you want into any coffee you want, but I do view it as something of a disaster when someone wants to put caramel syrup into a very fine espresso drink. And there is something sad about using caramel syrup to hide that black, awful taste of bad espresso, although I think we’ve all done it as a coping mechanism. And who can blame us? Bad espresso is everywhere.

So given that I generally frown on caramel and the like, why don’t I think the same thing about milk? It’s undeniable that milk changes the flavor of whatever coffee you’re drinking. Sometimes it’s for the better, sometimes for the worse. I like to occasionally order a cappuccino and a shot of espresso on the side so that I can taste them side by side, and there’s no such thing as an espresso blend that tastes the same in a cappuccino as it does by itself. Milk is not taste neutral.

(OK, that sounds like an obvious point to make. But it’s funny how often people think that adding cream to their coffee does not fundamentally change the flavor of the coffee. They’re dead wrong! Especially with some of the delicate flavors and aromas to be found in medium-roasted coffees. I did some taste tests here in the Ferraris test kitchen a while back. I added some half and half to a Yirgacheffe from DoubleShot and a Kenya AA from Ritual, and I was literally FLOORED at the difference. I thought there would be some difference, of course. But I expected it to be minor. Boy, was I wrong. The half and half changed the mouthfeel, of course, but it absolutely killed all these delicate, wonderful aromas that were present in the black coffee.)

Anyway, back to my argument. Talking with Brian, I realized that I do not view the milk in a cappuccino with the same coffee-snob-horror that I view caramel syrup. I view the cappuccino as being a little culinary specialty all on its own, a combination of two very wonderful substances. I think this is primarily because the cappuccino involves both taste and texture. It’s the texture of a cappuccino that makes it supremely unique.

But still. I see the inconsistency in my point of view. Why is one adulteration of coffee acceptable and another one unacceptable? Brian and I had a pretty lengthy debate about this, and he was pretty hard on me. And I have to say, I admire the purity of his position, but I just don’t share it. I have drawn a line (maybe it’s an arbitrary line) at milk and sugar. I don’t view milk and sugar as being as bad as adding chocolate or caramel or hazelnut syrup to coffee. So, we were having this discussion, and I suddenly felt like we were having the abortion debate: where does life begin? It was like, if it’s OK to change the flavor or your coffee by adding one thing to it – milk – shouldn’t it be OK to add any old thing you want to it? And if not, why not? And where do you draw the line?

One answer to all of that is, of course it’s OK to add whatever you want to coffee. The answer to that is that the culinary arts are based around all kinds of combinations of flavors – both natural and unlikely. And who are we to say what people should and shouldn’t like, should and shouldn’t drink?

Do you see why I’m telling this long, convoluted story about me and Brian arguing about milk? Because it raises a question that is of serious interest to me: why does talking about our tastes matter? Why does criticism matter?

Because, really, on some level, who gives a shit? Isn’t it tiresome to put up with the coffee snob whose heart breaks every time somebody sips a caramel frappuccino? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as I’ve been editing my film and trying to synthesize my many years of cappuccino obsession into a relatively sensible 90-minute essay. Why do my tastes matter? I have spent the better part of my adult life in severe embarrassment over being “snobby” about the cappuccino. It’s an inconvenient curiosity to have when I am around just about anybody (except the fabulous Emily, who outdoes my curiosity and my drive to find a good cappuccino by a factor of 10, at least). And as I have worked on my film, I have often had to face this question of whether or not I am just being a wet blanket when I cringe every time I see someone ordering a white chocolate mocha. Or is there meaning behind caring about this stuff and discussing it?

I think there’s meaning behind it. At a minimum, criticism influences people. In my case, there is some hope (however unlikely) that if people start to understand what a good cappuccino is and can be, they will seek it out more actively. Consumer demand will grow. The market will respond. It will become easier to find a good cappuccino in the world. And I will be a happier person. That’s the selfish answer to why it’s important.

But are there larger reasons why it’s important? This is something I’m still chewing on. But what I’ve discovered, in the case of the cappuccino, is that there are all these real world consequences to settling for a white chocolate mocha instead of demanding a well-crafted cappuccino, or even a perfect shot of espresso.

Let’s start with you: a 16 or 20-ounce white chocolate mocha with whipped cream on top will clog your arteries and make you fat much, much faster than a properly-made traditional 6-ounce cappuccino will. But it won’t bring you more pleasure.

And then there’s the environment: a well-crafted cappuccino comes in a porcelain cup, so maybe we could cut down on using all those paper cups, plastic lids, stir sticks, sugar packets, etc.

And then there’s the fact that making a really good cappuccino takes attention and skill, two things that are usually associated with a well-trained, engaged labor force. The best baristas tend to be people who are in the coffee business for the long haul, people who are passionate about what they do. If we elevate coffee-making to a higher status – socially and financially – that has real meaning to people. It means that someone out there who loves coffee can actually make a real, grown-up living making it. And it means that their jobs can be sustainable for long periods of time, and less staff turnover makes it a little easier for communities to flourish in coffee shops. Wow. Imagine living in a community where you actually see the same friendly faces every day for years instead of months. Kind of unthinkable in our current world, isn’t it? I fantasize about it anyway, and I imagine (perhaps falsely – what do I know?) that this is what it used to be like in small town America, where there were certain people who were just fixtures – anchors in the community. I can dream.

And then there’s the coffee itself. There are real-world consequences to the way we consumers settle for drinking shit coffee all the time. The international coffee trade is a HUGE topic which I cannot even begin to cover in its entirety here, but suffice it to say that when we demand coffee that actually TASTES good without the addition of some kind of sugary syrup, we are subtly pushing coffee away from being a commodity and towards being a product in which quality has some relationship to price. And as far as I’ve been able to figure out, encouraging that relationship between quality and price has been the best way anybody has come up with thus far to make coffee cultivation a sustainable way of earning a living in all the poverty-stricken countries where coffee is grown. And, as I mentioned above, the collateral benefit is that we coffee drinkers get to experience pleasure on a more regular basis. And who doesn’t want that? (Well, OK, that was a rhetorical question. It’s my opinion that we in America associate pleasure with guilt and things that are bad for us and actually shun pleasure in all kinds of ways. And then we overcompensate for the self-denial and we overindulge. But that’s a discussion for another time.)

So there ARE consequences to ordering a fucking white chocolate mocha. And me wasting all this time talking about what makes a perfect cappuccino and bellyaching about the fact that it’s so hard to find one might actually add up to something more than the simple fact that I am a snob. Sheesh.

And don’t get me started on the dairy industry and the consequences of demanding better tasting milk.

I guess I’ve come to be one of those people who think that food and the physical pleasure it brings are so fundamental to the human experience that we ignore it – its meanings, its consequences, the role it plays in our lives – at our peril. So… I don’t know if Brian is right about milk and coffee or if I am right about it (although my taste buds tell me that I am right, and I will defer to them, especially since Brian can’t drink milk and therefore doesn’t have a rhetorical leg to stand on), but I do have a newly formed certainty that it’s a discussion that’s worth having.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007


A Coffee Vacation in My Hometown, part 1

Last week I had the great pleasure of hosting the world famous Brian Franklin – of doubleshot coffee company fame – when he visited San Francisco for a few days after his trip to the SCAA annual meeting in Long Beach. I set aside my work for the week, and it basically turned into three and a half days of tasting coffee, talking about coffee, thinking about coffee, podcasting about coffee… all day every day. I didn’t get much sleep, what with all the coffee drinking and with Brian’s presence on my couch doing his pitch-perfect imitation of a chain-saw all night long. But it was still the most fun I’ve had in a long time.

We started out by visiting the best espresso joints in town – the Blue Bottle and Ritual Coffee Roasters. (I’m sure Brian will blog about it himself, if you’re interested.) Highlights of these visits included shooting the breeze with some coffee people from Australia (in town visiting Ritual after having been to Long Beach too) and hearing Ritual’s co-owner, Jeremy Tooker, tell us his story of having been “attacked by a shark” while surfing. Listen to upcoming episodes of AAcafe for the full story, but for now I’ll just say this: Tooker has a unique talent for screaming like a woman.

I think my favorite part of Brian’s visit, though, was getting to go with him to cup some coffees at the offices of one of his green coffee brokers – Royal Coffee in Emeryville. (And incidentally, bay area people, this is the same company that used to own Royal Coffee on College Avenue in Rockridge – the one across from the Safeway a few blocks down from Alcatraz Avenue – the one that’s called something else now. I used to go there all the time due to its proximity to the apartment of the most recent fellow to fall in love with me and then run really fast in the opposite direction. (Motivated, no doubt, as so many others have been before him, by the one-of-a-kind, unforgettable Amy Suzanne Ferraris Brand Man-Repellent [patent pending].) Anyway, I used to go to Royal Coffee a lot, and they had a VERY large selection of single origin coffees that they would grind and brew by the cup, which is pretty unusual for these parts. But now that I know that they were owned by a specialty coffee broker, it all makes sense.)

Anyway. Sorry for the digression. So we went over to Royal and cupped some coffees - no big deal if you are a coffee professional, but if you are a coffee groupie like me, it is something special. A cupping is a formal coffee tasting that professionals use to evaluate a particular coffee’s qualities – dry fragrance, wet aroma, body, acidity, and flavor characteristics. From what I understand, a sample of the coffee in question is usually medium roasted, coarsely ground and then allowed to steep in hot water for a few minutes before it is thoroughly sniffed and then sucked off a deep, round spoon with a noisy slurp that is strong enough to aerate the coffee and get it to fill the mouth and really get the aromas up into the olfactory system. The pros do this with a slurp whose force is approximately equal to a jet engine firing up. No kidding. It’s startling to witness. Then they spit out the coffee into a spittoon and move on to the next cup.

I’ve seen cuppings before, and I’ve even filmed them, but I’ve never gotten the chance to scoot in there and taste some coffees. So it was really fun to get to taste so many different coffees in a row and identify some of the differences. And, as usual, it was a strong reminder of what a paltry vocabulary I have when it comes to finding words to describe the taste of a coffee. I still find it much easier to talk about the way a coffee moves around in my mouth rather than to compare its flavor to some other food. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to taste so many different coffees from different parts of the world one right after the other; I can’t think of any better way to really understand that coffee tastes like so much more than just coffee. I highly recommend doing amateur versions of this in your kitchen if you ever get the chance – taste a bunch of single origins next to each other, or, better yet, taste different roast levels. Or taste the difference between coffee that’s freshly ground and coffee that you ground last week and left sitting in a bag in your fridge. You’ll be shocked. I remember the day that I learned to identify the flavor of stale coffee and discovered that that particular taste was something I had just thought was inherent in coffee. HAHAHAHAHA!! Realizing that I had been drinking stale coffee my whole life was a discovery that was both tragic and joyous all at once.

So the visit to Royal was fascinating, and of course I did what I always do when I watch somebody else doing their job – I wondered what it would be like if I did this for a living. (As an aside, if you are someone who always does that too, I highly recommend the book “Gig.” Dozens of interviews with people about their jobs – all the dirty little secrets you ever wanted to know about what it’s like to be the UPS guy or a literary agent or a stripper. Awesome.) And after talking a little bit to Brian’s broker, Jeri, it struck me that being a specialty coffee broker is kind of like being a coffee matchmaker. I had always thought of it as a kind of dreary job, involving shipping and invoicing and warehousing and… yawn. But really, the job consists of getting to know what’s out there and then matching coffee roasters up with the coffees of their dreams. You get to be a big hub in a network that consists of thousands of producers and thousands of roasters. I could see that being a very interesting job for a detail-obsessed busybody like me. So thanks, Brian and Jeri, for letting me tag along on the cupping!

There’s more to say about Brian’s visit, but I think I better wrap this up. Stay tuned for part 2…

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