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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