by Mike Strumpf and Christopher Schooley, photos by Swiss Water Process and Christopher Schooley

What Makes a Great Decaf - Mike Strumpf - Swiss Water Process

Mike Strumpf - SWPMike Strumpf - SWP

When thinking about how to make an excellent decaffeinated coffee you have to first focus on the coffee before decaffeination. That's right, we said "excellent decaf", a term reserved for coffees you'd be hard-pressed to know are decaf at all. We find these exceptions most with coffees we've sent off for decaffeination ourselves, lots that were selected for high cup quality to begin with. It turns out, the original quality of the green coffee before decaffeination is extremely important, surprise surprise.

In-depth source information on where green coffee comes from is one of the tenants of Coffee Shrub coffees, and custom decaffeination affords us this same insight on non-decaf counterparts too. Deciding whether or not you want traceable information is an important aspect of buying any green coffee, and with decafs, knowing the origin info is very helpful.

We like to think of decaf drinkers as simply "coffee drinkers", in that each person has their own preference for flavor, acidity, body, and all of the other sensory aspects of a coffee. This wasn't top consideration with decafs of the past, flavor being secondary to inexpensive processing. Plus, flavor matters little if the coffee is roasted dark in the end, right? With new much gentler decaf processing technics (such as water processing), volatile compounds are less disturbed, the raw ingredients going into the decaf coffee need to be reconsidered. There is not a best coffee farm or country for decaffeination. The best coffee for decaffeination is the coffee with the flavor profile that you enjoy! Having multiple decaffeinated coffee offerings means you can provide excellent decaffeinated coffee with many different flavor profiles.

The Swiss Water Process provides great clarity of flavor between the "before and after" decaffeination results. In our process, a decaffeinated coffee should taste like the original green coffee and little else. After each decaffeination run, we sample roast and cup the before and after decaffeination samples side by side, focusing primarily on any differences in cup qualities between the two. This clarity means that an exceptional coffee will make an exceptional decaf, and that is what most of us are looking for.

Outside of cup quality, physical bean characteristics can be important in selecting coffees for decaffeination. We analyze all coffees for their moisture content (percentage of the bean that is water), water activity (the state of energy of the water in the bean), and density (mass/volume). These three aspects of green beans are an important trifecta for both roasters and decaffeinators alike, though we might use the information differently. Knowing the relationship between those three physical characteristics can tell us if a green coffee is or is not viable for decaffeination, and as long as a coffee is fresh and sound there are generally not problems.

Roasting and Tasting Decafs Christopher Schooley

Roasting DecafsRoasting Decafs

The classic decaf flavors that most people think of are the overwhelming maltiness, and in the worst cases, wet cardboard, but these flavors are generally the result of the original quality of the coffee itself or the intensity of the decaf processing. When the right coffee is selected and the process is carefully monitored, a good deal of the coffee's volatile compounds that effect characteristics such as flavor and aroma should survive. As Mike says, a really great decaf should resemble the original non-decaf coffee.

The same holds true for how the coffee behaves in the roaster, for the most part. A well processed decaf Ethiopia should behave more or less like a regular Ethiopia, except that the decaffeination process does affect the coffee's density. Because of this you want to be sensitive to how you use your energy input during the roast, especially during the initial drying stage and after the 1st crack has really started to roll so it doesn't get away from you. Basically the more you process a decaf, the more you break it down, and also if a coffee is already in poor shape, you're going to break it down even more. I think a good rule of thumb is to try pulling back on heat as you near 1st snaps to minimize violent bean fracturing, and let the charge carry roast through to your final targeted roast development. On our Probat L-12 fully loaded (23 lb batch size), this means dropping the heat from 75% to 25% about 10 - 20 degrees before first cracks occur. This varies from one roaster to the next and will depend on batch size as well.

The major difference in roasting a decaf are the color change indicators. Color change is a big part of monitoring roast development in regular coffees, but because the decaffeination process alters the color of the raw coffee so drastically, the same color change indicators are no longer present. One of the areas where this is the most problematic is at the very end of the roast. Decafs can appear much darker than what their actual roast levels are, and even begin to sweat some oils as the cellular structure is weaker from decaffeination. Even though a decaf may look dark, it might not actually be as dark as it looks since it started out a darker shade to begin with.

Same Coffee, One Reg One Decaf, Same Roast Level, reallySame Coffee, One Reg One Decaf, Same Roast Level, really

Most other physical and chemical changes are similar in decafs as in regular coffees, such as bean expansion, the 1st and 2nd cracks, as well as aroma indicators. The initial pops of 1st crack may be a little softer, but any well developed roast should have a distinctive finish to 1st crack. The roast aromas during and after the 1st crack are some of the most telling indicators of roast development during this period. You should move past the cereal and bread-like aromas and begin to smell some pungency, almost vinegar-like aromas, but with sweetness to it. Timing past the end of 1st crack is also crucial here, use it along with your aromas to tell you when the coffee has reached your desired roast target. If you roast the regular version of that coffee to an end point of 20 seconds after the end of first crack, then do the same with the decaf version, and adjust from there. Again and Again, great decafs should taste fairly similarly to the regular counterparts

Just because the coffee color is darker and some oils may be present, this doesn't mean that you've engaged in dry distillation or are developing roasty flavors. This is one more reason why when we talk about roast level that the conversation has to be about more than just roast color.

This is more or less a guide to what you can expect from the Swiss Water decafs you buy from us, and elements to consider when roasting. With regard to roast approach, our instructions are on the general side as each roasting machine handles differently, and factors such as batch size will impact roast shaping possibilities. Whatever the case, starting with high quality raw material is one of the best assurances to yielding great results, which for us means starting with a great non-decaf coffee. Add to this equation the gentle decaffeination system of Swiss Water Processing, and you're rewarded with the makings of an excellent decaf cup.

by Dan Wood

1950s Probat B3 - Capable of consistency, this one sees daily use1950s Probat B3 - Capable of consistency, this one sees daily use

We are officially hitting the tail end of the busiest time of year for receiving samples in our cupping lab. It’s no secret that the bulk of our coffees come from Central America and East Africa, and as such, we’ve received more ‘offer’ samples in the past few months than all of the rest of the year combined. This last year in Guatemala alone we cupped over 600 farm samples. Now, to be honest, some of that number was roasted and cupped at origin - maybe 200 total. But the bulk was evaluated right here in our lab in West Oakland. As such, it seems like an appropriate time for us to talk about our process of green coffee evaluation, and why it’s important to have an evaluation program in place.

If you run a roastery, you’re probably well versed in the exchange of coffee samples (often unsolicited!). Whether you’re buying a sample from us, getting ‘spot’ offers from importers, or something direct from farmers, you’re receiving a pretty small amount of coffee that you will theoretically be able to extrapolate enough information regarding quality in order to make a purchasing decision. It can be tricky, especially when the sample is under 300 grams. If it is 300 grams, you generally can get two roasts out of it(on most sample roasting equipment), take a moisture reading (you need 250 grams for most machines), and give it a good visual check for defects. But if the sample is only 100 grams, well, then roasting and cupping will be the two most important tools you use in order to effectively judge your samples.

We use many tools for judging green coffee, but I’m focusing on roasting for this first article. Some of the other evaluation methods are tied to amount, whereas regardless of size, we always roast and cup all our green samples - even when there’s not quite enough for one full batch (because ultimately it’s about cup quality, right?). But even when there is enough for the standard Q grade check (350g), for the sake of efficiency I usually save a thorough visual check for only those coffees I’m considering buying. We get a lot of samples here, and so running every test on each coffee would be much more than a full-time job. But in the end, roasting always happens for every single sample that comes through our doors.

So What IS Sample Roasting?

3-barrel sample roaster, or Friday night at the movies?3-barrel sample roaster, or Friday night at the movies?

For those not totally familiar with sample roasting, the first question is usually “what’s the difference between sample and production roasting?”. One of the main differences is batch size. With sample roasting we’re looking at roasting somewhere in the 100 - 150 grams of green coffee, or enough to make 7 - 10 cups of coffee. With such a small bean mass, roast development happens more rapidly, and so your overall roasting benchmarks, including finish time, will be abbreviated. In general, we shoot for yellowing around 3:30, 1st Crack around 7 - 8 min, and ending the roast anywhere from 8:30 - 10 minutes. This is much shorter than most production roast profiles on multiple KG roasters.

Another difference is that with sample roasting, ‘profiling’ takes a back seat. This also has a lot to do with bean mass. Roasting 100 grams in a steel drum that’s 8” in diameter is very different than roasting 20 LBS in a Probat 12K drum roaster. Heat absorption, convection, conduction, are all greatly affected by the bean bed, the ambient air in the drum, drum material, and on and on.

It’s very difficult, if not impossible to transfer a ‘profile’ you come up with sample roasting to a large production roaster. If we isolate just one of the many factors unique to sample roasting, the small batch size, it becomes apparent that you can’t simply “scale up” a roast technique from a small machine to a large one. The thermodynamics of every aspect are different with a small charge of green coffee in a roast chamber; the turnaround time when the coffee starts to accept heat, the “rate of rise” in temperature in the yellow warming stages of the bean, the bean-to-bean convective and conductive heat transfer, etc.

The only aspect that may be the same are the environmental temperatures of the roast machine, and the set points at which water content in the bean becomes steam, and when the cell matrix of the coffee begins to fracture. What you can do though (and what we do when writing reviews) is get an idea of how a coffee will taste at various roast levels. This is especially useful once you’ve already bought a coffee and are figuring out how it’s best utilized at your shop.

So for us, the use of sample roasting changes with the different type of sample we are evaluating. First it is used to evaluate offer samples by doing our best to roast the coffee(s) to a point where we can effectively judge the quality. And then once we make a purchase, we roast small samples of the landed coffee to different roast levels in order to get a feel for how the coffee tastes at different ends of the roast spectrum.

What Makes a “Good” Sample Roaster?

Quest M3 available here, fully manual, and worthy of handling one sample at a timeQuest M3 available here, fully manual, and worthy of handling one sample at a time

Roasting can be a lot like listening to music, in that if you’re used to playing records with the “loudness” button on, it’s probably best to keep it on when judging fidelity (even though neutral speakers are usually recommended). Similarly, if you’re used to roasting and drinking coffee from a home roaster, and are able to keep roast times within a reasonable range, then it might not make sense to trade out your setup for a fancy multi barrel machine. I’m not saying that if you prefer dark roasted coffee, that’s the best measure to judge a coffee’s quality by. But rather, you can get pretty good at roasting samples using less than ideal (maybe ‘professional’ is a better adjective than ‘ideal’) roasters, and in a lot of cases, it’s enough to get a sample roasting program started. Many shops use home roasting equipment to test samples, and it’s not entirely unheard of to even use a popper!

Finding a roaster that works for you will really depend on your needs, and one major factor to consider is sample volume. How many samples do you plan on inspecting each week? If you’re roasting for a small shop, or only have a few wholesale accounts, maybe a roaster that handles one batch at a time will suffice. You’re probably not looking at too many samples at any one time and shouldn’t expect to spend too much time at the roaster. But if you have several shops, lots of wholesale customers, and perhaps most importantly an ever changing menu, you’re probably evaluating many samples and need a machine that roasts multiple samples at once (and if this is you, I’m sure you already have this). Roasting 100 samples a week on a single barrel machine would be excruciating.

Another factor to consider is the importance of the samples you’re evaluating. Of course, all samples are important when considering a coffee for your business. But how much coffee does that sample represent? It might represent 50 LBS, or a full container (40,000 LBS), two very different ends of the purchase spectrum. And while most fall somewhere in between this huge range, the point is that having a fully manual roaster, and one with a quality build, makes a lot of sense when it comes to precision roasting.

The most precise sample roasters are fully manual. That is, you’re able to control heat, airflow, and sometimes even drum speed. Heat sources are a thing of preference, but we have both electric and gas sample roasters, and while heat transfer is very different, both are more than capable of producing very consistent roasts. Our sample roasters are both 3-barrel roasters, which as I said earlier are necessary in order to handle a large amount of samples in a reasonable amount of time. But there are also manually operated, single-barrel options as well (check out our Quest, electric roaster HERE). And don’t discount home roasting machines. You can get a great home roaster for well under $1K (most are less than half) that will be more than efficient for most small shops.

Consistency is KEY

Cup after cup after cup...dont let roast affect decision making!Cup after cup after cup...dont let roast affect decision making!

So then, for us, the main function of the sample roaster is roast consistency - consistently developing coffees to the same level, just enough to taste as much of that coffee’s ‘potential’ without obfuscating good and bad qualities with flavors of roast. When roasting multiple samples, this becomes increasingly important as roast can be the variable that influences your purchase decision one way or the other. We regularly receive multiple samples from the same micro-region, same varietals, and using the same processing methods. In a case like this, we’re looking for minute differences that ultimately make a coffee preferable over another. This is where roast consistency is very important, as under or over development can hide or highlight certain notes. For example, under development can boost the perceived acidity of a coffee, give off a green/grassy flavor, or lend to paper/drying aspects in a coffee’s finish. So in the case of under development, each of these characteristics is directly tied to roast, and could lead to poor decision making.

Our electric Probat is a very consistent roaster, and while you can’t make sweeping changes in heat, once warmed, it’s fairly easy to maintain roasting benchmarks from one sample to the next. And one benefit to it being a three barrel is we’re able to track the roasts simultaneously, making sure each drum remains in relative sync with it’s neighbor. But there are other ways of tracking consistency than visual cues. Some folks use dataloggers, tracking roast curves and identifying inconsistencies.

From time to time, we will use a very basic manual data logging system to track roast consistency. The first part is determining a percentage of weight loss by simply weighing the batches before and after, and then dividing the pre-weight by roasted weight. I’ll also write down what time the coffee yellows, hits first crack, and is then pulled. This is partly because I want to replicate my roasts from one to the next. But the information is very valuable at the cupping table too. For instance, if we’re cupping several day lot separations from a single producer and one or more roasted samples are out of sync with the rest, we can look at these data sets to see if roast may be influencing our conclusion.

The "Value" in Evaluation

Evaluating the sample is your opportunity to judge a coffee’s potential, isolate “problem” or damaged coffees, or just plain pick the best coffee on your cupping table! So it’s important that you’re able to give each sample the fairest shake possible. The most important part of a sample assessment plan, is having one in the first place. And it’s pretty much a guarantee that sample roasting and cupping will be the tools you use the most, and the two which hold the most weight in purchasing decisions. So as long as you have a roasting machine that you’re comfortable with, can repeatedly achieve a certain roast development on, and that efficiently handles the sample volume, you’re in good shape. The last thing you want is an under utilized beast or over utilized popper! There are other evaluation methods used to measure the more “hidden” enemies of green coffee, like moisture content, water activity, etc...but I’ll save that for the next article.

The pinnacle of achievement in roasting samples is uniformity and repeatability, which are somewhat different than the goals of roasting for consumption; to produce the tastiest cup possible from a given green coffee. But all roasting shares a common thread when it comes to improving your results, that is, tasting. Beyond specific roasting techniques on sundry machines, you improve your results by checking them with a habitualness that might make friends think you have a serious case of OCD. Cross-checking sample roasts with the same coffee roasted on other machines, in particular other small roasters, leads to infinite opportunities to tweak your process and improve.

--Dan Wood

The conflict developing in Ethiopia has been but a footnote in the papers, recently marked by a horrific stampede at a political rally and the declaration of a 6 month national "state of emergency" on October 10 2016. Beyond the specific interest in the wonderful coffees we source from Ethiopia, there's a broader concern here. How can we enjoy a coffee when there is conflict behind the production of the crop?

The dramatic militarized situation has been long in the making, and as a visitor to Ethiopia I cannot pretend to understand all of the history and it's complexities. While Ethiopia has a booming economy and evidence of many development projects can be seen all over the capital of Addis Ababa, development in the faraway rural areas in much more modest. While Addis boasts a new light rail line, rural regions are lucky to have their roads re-graded or potholes fixed. Development seems intricately linked to the interests of investors. Powerful foreign investment comes from Saudi Arabia (mainly by billionare Mohammed al-Amoudi) and, to a much greater extent in recent years, China. Nigeria and India invest extensively in projects here, as well as a host of others including wealthy Ethiopians from the global diaspora.

Large tracks of prime arable land are dedicated to projects by these foreign investor groups, and some feel the land grants are giveaways without fair compensation benefiting local populations, aside from some job creation. In fact, student demonstrations around the country have centered around this issue; what is seen as a government land-grab. This was evidenced by the move to annex lands surrounding Addis Ababa into the domain of the capital, and event that escalating protest activities.

A root cause is the fact that Ethiopia is a confederation of many old kingdoms which represented the various ethnic groups of the region, united under one Empire until 1974, yet it has been dominated by one group. The Tigray minority makes up only 7% of the population but by some estimates controls over 70% of the economy, and over 95% of top military/security positions of power. While the constitution is designed for power-sharing and autonomy for the ethnic zones of the country, this is not the de facto situation. The coalition in power since 1991 includes 4 parties representing different ethnicities (including the Oromo and Amhara) but it is said the TPLF (Tigray) party possesses all the influence. And it seems the other parties in the ruling group lack legitimacy amongst their own people who are on the protest lines, as they are seen as impotent to enact the agendas of those they represent.

Local protest sign - Lake Merritt, OaklandLocal protest sign - Lake Merritt, Oakland

Oromo and Amhara peoples constitute over 70% of the Ethiopian population, but travel through these areas is quite different than the developed urban centers. It's more than just an urban-rural divide, and in fact when there are tensions in the country, or a key meeting is held in Addis, I have experienced an intentional shut-down of the internet in the rural areas I have been traveling. This type of heavy-handed, autocratic control is typical of Ethiopia, where telecommunications and other critical industries are state controlled (which means Tigray-controlled).

The coffee industry in the country expresses such a divide. We focus almost entirely on coffee areas farmer by the Oromo people. That's not surprising as they are by far the dominant group in the Western areas and the South where we source our coffee. There are many smaller ethnic groups that farm coffee that we buy as well, the Sidama people, Harare, Welayta, Kafina, Guji, (and others which are subgroups of the Oromo or Sidama). But the trade in Addis is not conducted by these people, but by a more elite clique, those with connections secure needed bank financing. I don't claim to understand the nuances here, but there are deep levels of corruption in Ethiopia with corresponding deep levels of mistrust. While evidence of development is all around, it seems focused to benefit urban elites. While educational opportunities have expanded, those with degrees find they lack political connections to land appropriate jobs. While Ethiopia takes in enormous levels of food aid and other funds from donor groups, it also ropes off valuable land for food farming to connected locals or foreign firms.

All of this is why the crossed arm symbol of protest by Feyisa Lilesa at the Olympics was such a charged gesture. What we hope to see is a meaningful dialogue open up between the government and protestors, but for now, travel in Ethiopia is a greater risk, and ultimately the farmers will suffer under the limitations imposed by the state of heightened security. What will it take to defuse this tense situation?

Panorama of the back half of our new warehousePanorama of the back half of our new warehouse


As most of you already know, Coffee Shrub and Sweet Maria's moved to our new warehouse all of last week. The move's gone well, and we're working to shore things up this week. In reality, we'll likely be putting on the "final touches" for weeks to come, but we expect our order fulfillment to be back up to full capacity middle of the week (Wednesday August 31).

This is the first move for Shrub, but for Sweet Maria's, this is the fourth relocation in 17 years. A few years after opening shop in an office space in Columbus, OH, selling small bags of green coffee and brewing cups for the occasional passerby, Sweet Maria's packed up and headed to the sunny West Coast landing in a small warehouse space in Emeryville, CA. We soon outgrew that location, picking up and moving operations to an improved 7000 square foot space in lovely West Oakland where we've spent the last 8 years. We had a good run at location 3.0, where Shrub was born 7 years ago. But if inventory is any indication of growth, we've been bursting at the seem for some time now, and so this move does a lot to relieve the pressure.

Loading dock deliveries to the right, Shrub walk-ins to the leftLoading dock deliveries to the right, Shrub walk-ins to the left

At 15,000 square feet, our new Adeline Street location affords us much more room for green coffee and product storage, as well as additional spaces for hosting demos and cup tasting in the near future. And just as important, we're able to set up the warehouse workflow around working smarter, with less requirement for the strenuous physical labor that comes with constantly trying to fit a boulder into a teacup (or perhaps demitasse is more appropriate!).

To illustrate, last year we purchased and processed 50+ full container loads of coffee in a warehouse that can hold about 1.5 containers max. This meant many, many trips to an offsite storage facility, accompanied by much physical labor organizing 60+ kg bags of coffees in order to have backstock on hand for all of the coffees we sell. Doubling our square footage allows us to change our footprint of how we store coffee, actually quadrupling our storage capacity. Of equal importance is the addition of our very first loading dock, which means we can increase our use of forklifts and other machinery for moving coffee in and out of our warehouse, further decreasing our reliance on the literal backs of employees. We value our bodies, and so lowering the lifting requirements is a huge plus!

Marcos tests out our new filling stationsMarcos tests out our new filling stations

We didn't build the walls or pour the concrete (well, not all of them at least), but just about everything else has been completely DIY. From dealing with City permits and coordinating building plans on the part of Maria (no small feat!), to Tom's tiling the bathrooms, and to every single employee here taking part in moving, cleaning, and building the infrastructure (which is a HUGE job), this has been a collaborative effort with little to no outside help. This is very much in the spirit of both Sweet Maria's and Shrub as businesses.

It goes without saying that we are excited for this move, and all the possibilities and promise that comes with it. More than anyone, we want to be moved and completely set up today....last week even. But these things take time, this milestone move now 17 years in the making. So for now, I have to get back to unloading a box truck full of coffee, mylar bags, and packing equipment. One step closer to the finish line. -Dan

Rwanda + Burundi = Espresso PerfectionRwanda + Burundi = Espresso Perfection

When considering "African coffees", I tend to think of exotic flavor profiles and pronounced acidity, and rightfully so. So many of coffee's crown jewels are produced in equatorial regions in East Africa and near the Great Horn, where Coffea Arabica was born, so to speak. These coffees shine in light roasting, often the featured cup at a slow bar, and have changed the minds of so many coffee drinkers who once thought that all coffees taste the same.

Rwanda and Burundi stand out, due in part to the massive plantings of the bourbon cultivar. Brought to the region by missionaries in the 19th C, bourbon is known for it syrupy sweetness and nuanced cup that comes with growing in the higher elevations. We find that the coffees from both countries produce an extremely diverse range of cup flavors: from the heady floral and spice characteristics of competition-level lots, to the dense (almost "chewy") raw sugar sweetness that we think of as much more akin to our best Central American coffees.

And while often the center piece of a café brew bar, Rwanda and Burundi coffees aren't considered nearly as often as they should for espresso application. Bourbon beans can be quite dense, making them a more than viable option for dark roasting, and also espresso. They produce compact sweetness, along with moderate floral and acidity levels, and more are more often than not are a near perfect single origin espresso option in our opinion.

For this week's production roasting, we chose Rwanda Nyamasheke Mutovu and Burundi Murambi Rubanda as our coffees for espresso (if you didn't already know, we do offer a coffee subscription service every other week). Our approach in the roaster was to finish on the inside edge of 2nd snaps, no oil present on the bean exterior. As you can see in our roast graphs, we tried for a gradual ramp-up in heat, slightly extending the time between the beginnings of first snaps and finish in order to tone down acidity, thus producing a much more rounded cup profile.

In fact, the goal was to produce a roast that's works well as both espresso and brewed coffee, which these do, especially for those who are partial to the bittersweetness that comes with deeper roast tone. Both coffees are intensely sweet at this roast level, which I'd say is dead center on the Full City roast spectrum. When brewed as coffee, a smokey cacao-nib flavor is one of the dominant characteristics in both coffees, but with a counterbalancing sweetness, and subtle fruit hints as the cup cools. Acidity is compromised with a stretched roast, which is something to keep in mind when deciding on your own roast approach. But our intention was to mute the acidity to keep from puckering brightness that often comes with African SO espresso.

We don't have fancy logging software, and so some pertinant info is missing above. Other relavent data: 1st crack @ 11:55, finish @ 15 minutes, with 14.8% weight loss

Burundi Murambi Rubanda: It always takes a few shots to get the grind dialed in, and we like to taste them all, for better or for worse. My first really tasty shot was with 22 grams of coffee going in, and 18 grams coming out in roughly 20 seconds. Even at this fast extraction the bittersweetness is so intense. Up front flavors are like Hershey syrup, with a lemon juice tartness that rings loud, but is cut short by the ushering in of roast tone, a flavor that plays out like roasted cacao nibs. The second shot was quite different, 17.5 grams of coffee in, 28 second extraction, and 29 grams of liquid coming out. The acidity is much more integrated into the overall profile, and the bittersweet chocolate tones are up front, and linger (we noted a "rooty" flavor in the long aftertaste). We did one last pass with a slightly tighter grind, 18 grams of coffee in, and 22 grams out over the course of 32 seconds. This is the one for me: sweetness fully realized, a lemonade-like top note, and extremely viscous mouthfeel.

Other relavent data: 1st crack @ 11:45, finish @ 15 minutes/425 F (forgot to plot that final point!), with 14.6% weight loss

Rwanda Nyamasheke Mutovu: Having good luck with our final Burundi shot, we decided to use the same parameters from the get go: 17.5 grams in, 24 grams out, and 32 second extraction. This is a slightly brighter coffee, from lemon juice tartness to a rindy orange peel bittering quality. The sweetness is moderate but convincing in this extraction, and a counterbalance to a Baker's cocoa powder that adds to a touch more bittering in the finish. Adding just a hair more coffee on a second pass, but same time and liquid out, pushed the sweetness as well as acidity, culminating in a shot that reminded me of dark chocolate covered lemon drops. I pick up on some spice and fresh herb-like accents too in the finish, that give off an impression of a hoppy ale.

Between these two origins, we currently have three coffees that are well worth their weight in espresso. Staying north of 2nd snaps, you can expect profiles to follow a similar construct as the ones in this review. See the full list of HERE (we actually have an 8 lb Rwanda/Burundi sampler on our sister site, Sweet Maria's, if you'd like to check out a wider representation of coffees from the regions - HERE).

It's worth adding that the main reason cafes have trepidation around these two origins is the potato defect, which like all other coffee flavor compounds, is intensified in espresso extraction. Thankfully, the tide seems to be shifting a bit. Tom was at Blue Bottle recently, and noticed that they were serving a Rwanda as espresso. To us their reasoning is sound, and right in line with our feelings on the matter as well: Burundi and Rwanda coffees are just too damn good to let an infrequent potato cup negate these origins altogether. -Dan 

The New Quest M3sThe New Quest M3s

Quest recently released their new M3s roaster, a revamp of the original M3 model, but with a couple of new features. At 7 1/8" across, on it's face, the upgrades appear to be minor. But a closer look reveals a chaff drawer at the bottom, an extra analog thermometer for measuring bean temperature, and perhaps the biggest but least visible changes are the improvements to both the airflow and the drum insulation. Another improvement is that you can now thoroughly clean the roaster without removing the outer shell. We'll break down these new features as well as share test results of side by side comparisons.

If you're not familiar with the Quest M3, then I've probably already confused you. They're snazzy little hand-made stainless steel drum roasters. The Quest functions great as a sample roaster, but is more "kitchen appliance" in size than your typical single barrel setup. Heat is delivered by two electric heating elements to the bottom right and left of the drum. Both heat and airflow are controlled manually, and the roaster has a built-in cooling compartment in the rear that effectively cools your roast batch completely in less than 3 minutes. For all intents and purposes, this roaster is ideal for shops who need to assess a handful of coffee samples at a time since you're still looking at 8 - 10 minute roast time from start to finish.

Quest M3s AirflowQuest M3s Airflow

Airflow on both roasters starts by pulling outside air in through access holes at the back of the roasting chamber. This ambient air flows across the drum, up the front "batch input" duct, through the top tube, and finally out the back of the machine via a variable speed fan in the cooling tray (the above diagram illustrates M3 airflow). On the old Quest M3, the air inlet is a quarter-sized hole just behind the drum that doubles as a cleaning access hole. One potential problem with this design is that the large hole creates little air resistance, significantly reducing suction for pulling chaff. In addition, the air coming in is ambient (in my case, 70 degrees today), and the more you pull across the coffee, the higher the risk of reducing roast charge and stalling. That said, finding potential weak spots design-wise is all part of figuring out how to use any roaster new to you, and we found these to be fairly easy to work around.

The design of the new M3s addresses the airflow inconsistency. They've done away with the large access hole, replacing with three steel air-inlet tubes, approximately 3" in length, and 1/4" in diameter. They are positioned between each of the two heating coils at the sides of the drum, and one along the top of the drum, naturally heating up with the roaster. Much like a heat exchange water heater is reliant on a small reservoir, the small diameter of the tubes rapidly warms the incoming ambient air, appreciably reducing the risk of a stalled roast. The intake holes that feed into these tubes are even smaller in diameter, which also promotes suction by creating greater resistance. These tubes provide added thermal mass as well, taking on a significant amount of heat, helping with overall heat retention.

Steel "heat" tubes located next to the coilsSteel "heat" tubes located next to the coils

Heat retention is also reinforced with an extra layer of metal attached to the exterior. If you've removed the outer shell on your Quest, you've probably noticed a lack of insulation altogether. While the new model doesn't include insulating material, the extra layer of metal adds to the overall barrier, helping to minimize heat transfer between inside the drum and the outside air. The outer layer rests approximately 1/16" above the pre-existing outside of the chassis (which has not changed), the air space in between facilitating some thermal resistance as well. It also affords you the opportunity to make a simple modification, adding an insulating material like fiberglass, or silica to the cavity in between. 

I did a side by side comparison of heat retention in both machines, and was surprised by the difference in cool down times. The test was rather simple, and I imagine there will be some variance if run multiple times, however I expect the M3s to always outperform the M3 because of the aforementioned modifications. First I brought both machines up to roast temperature by roasting three 100 gram batches. After cooling the final batch, I closed the front door at 400 degrees, cut the heat and turned the fan to high, tracking the drop in temperature over a 6 minute period. During that time, the M3s lost 78 degrees, compared to a 125 degree loss from the M3. I imagine you could widen this divide significantly with the addition of insulation between the two outer metal layers.

Face assembly and drum are removed in a matter of minutes with an allen wrenchFace assembly and drum are removed in a matter of minutes with an allen wrench

Both Quests are incredibly simple to take apart, requiring nothing more than an allen key set and about a half hour to fully disassemble. This was especially handy for the first generation model in order to clean out chaff that collects under the roast chamber. The chaff tray on the new model nearly eliminates this need, catching much of the wayward chaff, and giving you access to vacuum anything that hasn't collected in the tray. 

The extra analog thermometer in the front just above the door is supposed to be used as a bean probe. I imagine beans might make contact if roasting larger batches (150 grams or so), but with 100 grams, it still seems out of reach. I find the analog thermometers to be pretty clumsy, and not entirely accurate. I would ditch the lower position thermometer right out of the box in favor of a digital thermocouple, in order to be able to more accurately track roast development. 

Two thermacouples in the face of the M3sTwo thermacouples in the face of the M3s

    So how does it roast? I've logged a couple dozen roasts on the M3s over the past month or so, and find that like the M3, once you figure out the best settings to achieve a desired roast profile, you won't stray far from them trying to replicate results from one batch to the next. But finding them can be a bit tricky, and so I've included a few tips to help set you off in the right direction.

  • I prefer a 100 gram batch size, because in most cases, importers send us 200 gram samples so this gives you two chances to get the roast right! I warm up the machine with the amps set to 7.5 - 8, and airflow at 2.
  • The first batch roasts fairly quickly, in most cases finish times will be in the 4 - 6 minute range. It takes a couple roasts for heat to stabilize. That is, batch 3 is usually the precedent for the roasts that follow.
  • I keep the heat right around 7.5 amps, and air at 2 for the majority of my roasting, switching the air to full blast just before dropping into the cooling tray in order to remove chaff. This gets me 1st crack somewhere between 6 - 8 minutes depending on bean density, moisture, etc., and finish times between 8 and 10 minutes.
  • The temp readings read a little low on my digital thermometer; around 385 for 1st crack, and I'm pulling City roasts right around 405 - 410 F. The analog seemed to read within a couple degrees of this as well, but as stated earlier, it's hard to track incremental change on the analog.
  • Try cutting the heat while cooling the roast, which with the M3s takes about 2 minutes (about 1 full minute faster than the older M3). After cooling I return the heat and air to the initial settings and start roasting the next batch.
  • The heat range on these machines is fairly tight, meaning I don't generally wander outside 7 - 8.5 amps period. In my experience, below 7 amps won't push 100 grams to 1st crack, and anything above 8 gets the coffee popping well under 6 minutes.

  • The M3s's upgraded air flow and added insulation greatly assist heat consistency and retention, allowing you to make fewer adjustments to keep the roast progressing. As a matter of fact, other than cutting heat when cooling a batch, I like to pretty much keep the heat locked in at one setting all the way through from green to finish, much like how I use our electric Probat 3-barrel sample roaster. That's how I think this machine functions best: as a small-batch, single-barrel, shop sample roaster. Additional information is provided on the Quest M3s product page, along with detailed photos, and ordering info.

We used this machine as a test model about 6 times while deciding if we were going to carry Sonofrescos. We really like it but it's starting to get a little dusty, so we decided to discount the price and find it a nice home. It's in prefect working order...we just don't have any use for it. Here's the catch...the roaster is available for an in-person sale only. This means you will need to visit to our warehouse in Oakland, CA to purchase it.

We'll include the barely used propane tank and hose needed to get you started.  We can fire it up for you to show you that it works but due to time constraints, we can't allow you to test it here at the warehouse. You will be responsible for transporting from our warehouse.

Please email with any questions or to schedule a time to take a look at it before committing.

- Sonfresco Profile Coffee Roaster

- 2 pound capacity

- Color: Black

- 13.25×20.5×28.75in

- Sale price: $3400

I like to take pictures, I like to travel, and I sell coffee. On its face, myself and many others do the same in a straightforward way, especially when we go to a specific farm or mill where we are buying. We point our cameras at the farmer, at their trees, and their dog, at their wet-pulper machine, at their family members, and we take a picture.

Use of "origin" pictures has some implicit baggage. For me, it's less specious when they are a diverse set of pictures, and when they seek to inform about broader issues. The photos take on a different meaning when used directly to sell a product. Why choose one particular image out of hundreds? What is it about the images I don't choose that makes them less than ideal? What is the ideal?

I feel that posing these questions is a good part of any creative process. They are not a means to stop creative production, or making the enjoyment of a good-lookin' coffee photo somehow an act of bad conscience ...not at all! But the value is recognize the way in which photographs are being used, what might motivate editing choices, and open up alternatives where I didn't see them before. There are benefits to these forms of critical thinking, yet it seems somehow taboo, as if the only aim was to find fault with others or oneself. That's a shame because it's nearly impossible to form an understanding of what's at stake without context; Google images provided me with a nice backdrop for looking at some of my photo editing decisions...


A couple months ago we needed a new postcard to send with orders and I chose this one from San Gaspar Guatemala of a farmer who I really liked, Herculano. That's all good - the image was a reminder of a very positive encounter with a person I had good feelings toward. Something about this image just begged to be featured on the front of the card, but it was so pat, bordering on cliche, reminiscent of so many "coffee farmer pictures" I had seen. It was unchallenging. I decided to use it because another I liked better had focus issues. But something about it continued to bother me. And since we put these up at SM and I see it all the time, it kept bothering me.

For coffee buyers and sellers in general, we don't take "origin" images for our own edification, or to show our loved ones where we just went. We take these pictures to use along with descriptions of a product, with a price attached. People buy the product, what will ultimately go inside the cup; they don't buy the pictures. And yet we don't sell coffee without a description, and at SM we don't often sell it without imagery too. Whether a coffee business puts this additional content, pictures and words, on a bag of coffee for sale, or on a web site, on a wall, the imagery has found an important place in communicating the quality and social goodness of what we sell.

At this point in coffee retailing, it would seem odd not to have these add-ons There was a point in the so-called specialty coffee movement when the roasted bean itself was the image. Coffee was sold whole bean and that somehow had some meaning, a return to the "truth" of the substance, something honest evidenced by a barrel and a scoop of "whole bean coffee". And to keep the bins looking full and that dark oily coffee looking as it should, the rack of false-front polycarbonate plastic bulk bean bins became standard fare at supermarkets, always full.

But in few retail environments, or online, would it suffice to just show the coffee itself without some explicit or implied narrative about "origin," because all the coffee comes from somewhere, and for some reason we must tell about it.

Why? I would advance the idea it comes from an era of greater suspicion about fairness in global trade, which was at its height in the crash of New York C Market coffee prices in the early 2000s, at a time when the economies in buying countries peaked (very roughly speaking). There was also an intensification of a sense of global disparity that peaked at the Battle for Seattle the year before, protests of the WTO meetings. Before then, there was an emerging narrative about "estate coffee", an unabashedly elitist notion that good quality came from the idyllic "haciendas" of the third-world's colonialist old guard, a romance that was impossible to maintain alongside this new sense that U.S. consumerism was funding poverty and violent suppression in the coffee-growing nations.

Fear and Guilt

Many consumers have always had a general concern about where things they buy come from, sometimes out of a low-level fear of the purity and safety of products (lead paint in toys, e-coli, BPA). But there is also a sense that consumer goods might be produced in exploitative environments, and the retail price paid is not shared with the producers of goods. Fair Trade and other pricing models certified the "goodness" of a product in this regard, even if consumers didn't fully understand what the FT logo on the bag actually meant. It also allayed fears of exploitation and conferred an aura of general "goodness" on those who opted to buy certified items. The product purity they assured was that of conscience, and it wasn't evident in the "whole beans" or the taste, but in the FT logo (...or Rain Forest Alliance, or Organic Certification, or in that of the company such as Starbucks*).

If you consider that coffee is a non-essential luxury good, a small added perk to the day, it is indeed hard to imagine many US consumers deeply enjoying a sip of their coffee with the image of women being beaten and malnourished child-laborers attached to the production of their morning cup. It sounds ridiculous, but those images (and more gruesome) exist in the awareness of many with a connection to Ethiopia (famine), India (Bhopal), Nicaragua (the Contras), or Colombia (Guerrilla Warfare). The disparity between a relatively stable and fruitful life in the US in contrast to this imagery of global strife in countries that produce raw material for our enjoyment is a powerful force that often has implicit concern and guilt attached to it.

In our coffee merchandising, there are two basic threads to communicate: the story of where the coffee comes from and the qualities of the substance itself. In our reviews this takes the form of "farm notes", and a mix of taste notes with numerical measurements of quality.

At one time it might have been good enough to sell your bulk oily whole bean coffee with an origin description like "Guatemala." That was enough. People could use whatever experience they had with the descriptor "Guatemala" as a differentiator of "taste" quality and make a buying decision. Now, when you hear people say such open-ended judgements of taste like "Guatemala coffee is so good", it's hard to understand what they mean. And in fact, the idea of coffee trees having nationalities is more than a little farcical. (And yet current trends in micro-descriptors are no more or less farcical as these function to distinguish classes of people, of "tasters", as much as actual factors of differences in coffee).

Now the story of coffee origin is compartmentalized into small chunks that talk about altitudes and latitudes, micro-regions, soils and climate, co-ops and farms, individual farmers, their personal relations with community and kin.


Perhaps more significant, and the title of this here article, is the photographic imagery. It might be true that the photographer simply went to the place a coffee came from and took pictures. But photography is not the naively direct showing of "the way things are". It never has been and cannot be, as it is a mechanical form of representation. Example: If I could rip up a coffee tree and bring it to show you, I would be presenting it. If I take a picture of the tree and show it, I am representing it. I stood in one place for the photo, not another. I made a rectangle around what I wanted to include to show you. When I did that I made a decision to exlude around 260 degrees of surrounding context, what I didn't want to show in order to focus my lens on what I wanted you to see. Even if the photographer has little intention (if you have seen photos by a 5 year old you know this type of imagery!) besides pointing the camera and shooting a picture, the act of choosing and displaying some images, not others, involves representational selection.

When it comes to showing the source of coffee, the farm and farmer, there is a concentration of themes. A reading of the visual elements of these images is interesting, both in the meta-themes they suggest, and how they stand in contrast to the dramatic images of crisis and poverty in countries that produce raw materials.

Here is a screenshot of the top results in Google Images for "Coffee Farmer":

The general theme here is a the peaceful collection of nature's bounty. Coffee is uniformly ripe in rich, luscious red, carefully foregrounded. The work is easy, as if coffee ripened just at the perfect height for easy picking. No "farmer" needs to squat or extend themselves much or otherwise contort their bodies in their harvest labor. Generally, the work seems pleasing, and they harvest and hold the coffee in an almost sensuous way. When the farmers hold the coffee, they offer it up in a willing, unguarded way, implying a kind of complicity in their labor. In only one image is there a sense of tension, because the faces of labor are obscured (yet the coffee is still offered up in baskets, willingly). In other all other cases, recognizing the faces of the farmer in their contentment seems strategically important, signifying that producing coffee is pleasing, and is work toward their happiness.

The intense greens and rich reds, the saturated sunlight, the cultural objects like baskets, hats, and dresses all communicate a vibrant and fertile environment: Perhaps this seems like a compensation in itself above the actual payment for coffee? A privilege to live in a beautiful place, one worth photographing and romancing, all demonstrated in the photographs as if "that's they way it is", rather than something constructed by photographic choices and by editing. For me, this situates these coffee farmer photos in a history of exoticism, a soft-focus idealization of the faraway in the broadest terms.

Coffee Farm

The Google image search for "coffee farm" communicates a verdant lushness of plentitude as well, with the surprising presence of overview, landscape images of softly rolling hills. In one image you can see mechanical harvesters. The "coffee farm" search results show images of a crop more akin to rolling fields of grain or corn, North American harvests, a farm method more familiar the rural midwest US (in fact a few images are Hawaii).

I am not really sure of what to make about the stunning absence of people in the "coffee farm" search. Suddenly they just don't exist. Labor isn't hidden, it's largely gone, except in the oddly repeated image of faceless, disembodied hands holding up their harvest.

This shows another a desire for familiarity as well in the image of the farm. This is what struck me in my own image of Herculano as well, how much he appears as a square-jawed cowboy, resolutely and contentedly surveying his land in this saturated evening light. His hat is tipped back, he looks like he could fit in as an extra in a John Wayne film (if there was a John Wayne film on a coffee farm, ha!) What's wrong with the image is the extent to which nothing is wrong, how well it meets expectations, how familiar it is, how this coffee comes from a sqaure-jawed cowboy that one might really want to meet, not a culturally exotic person, not the other, but one of "us".

In contrast, there was a very beautiful image of a coffee pulper machine operator in Kenya we used recently on a different postcard. It has the hallmarks of many other cliches as well, so I am not going to call it a "challenging" image (aka Man and Machine). But his gaze is straight on, dead set, and could even be read as confrontational. Although at rest, he looks like someone who has been doing hard physical work, in contrast to the placid images of coffee labor in the "Coffee Farmer" Google result. He stands a little too upright, a bit formal and apprehensive. He is grimacing a bit, as if the pose is painful for him. It begs the question, does he want to be photographed working, in his work clothes, with sleeves rolled up? Is this how he wants to be seen? This draws a contrast against the ease and complicity of smiling farmer images framed with their lush red coffee cherry or offering up their handfulls or baskets of fruit.

While reading the visual vernacular of an image, bringing it into language, might be something for advertising campaign managers or for academics, I think it's clear to consumers when an image is not "right", either because is ineptly chosen, but also because it might run contrary to the most effective narrative used to sell coffee.

These infractions suggest how dominant the "standard" images are. While a focus on ripe coffee cherry emphasizes contact with nature, freshness and quality of the coffee product, the images of workers in coffee production seems to have promise of hope and contentment (smiles, lots of smiles), but also latent anxiety. The anxiety helps to produce the problem that the consumptive act will alleviate, especially in the case of Fair Trade coffee.

Did Fair Trade Make the Mould?

Whether a coffee is Fair Trade or not, I think of the visual language around depictions of coffee farmers as greatly shaped by the Fair Trade marketing efforts. It's worth a look at the language to see what the photograph's role is in the cycle of ethical consumption.

On Fair Trade USA site, the coffee introduction reads:

"Your rich cup of Fair Trade coffee can help farmers escape poverty. Most small-scale family farmers live in remote locations and lack access to credit, so they are vulnerable to middlemen who offer cash for their coffee at a fraction of its value. Fair Trade guarantees farmers a minimum price, and links farmers directly with importers, creating long-term sustainability. Through Fair Trade, farmers earn better incomes, allowing them to hold on to their land and invest in quality."

To break this down ... you can enjoy your "rich" cup, use your wealth to indulge yourself without action on your part (you pay your way out with a slightly higher price), as it is offset by "helping" the poor, via an "escape", the way out of poverty opened up by Fair Trade, and funded by you, the consumer. Rest assured, you didn't perpetrate this against the poor (whew ...not guilty!), but if you do not help the farmer who is vulnerable to preying middlemen (who are guilty) due to their geographical remoteness, then you are taking this rich cup, yet shutting the door to giving. The terms of this exchange establish a clear "us," the consumer being spoken to, and "them", the farmer in their remote, faraway place. We esentially pay them to stay there on their farm, preserving our distance. The two circular arrows of FT logos signify this return cycle of a simplified view of global trade, givers and takers, winners and losers. Your choice to purchase a FT product means that, incorporated into the price, is a dose of good conscience, one that purports to prevent an economic crime by "middlemen" (which you are party to if you are buying non-FT coffee?) and a second travesty, the potential loss of farm (and home).

My search for Fair Trade Coffee included this pair of images side by side, which communicated this consumptive and redemptive cycle quite well:

(The imagery of children in Fair Trade campaigns has been a powerful connection for consumers, as the powerlessness of a child invokes the need to care, and to provide institutions of caring, schooling, as well as prevent exploitation. It's now uncommon, perhaps because it's too manipulative, to use pictures of child labor in coffee fields, which is in fact common during peak harvest. In coffee, it's more common to see the "comforting" image of smiling children in these contexts. But I saw a video recently that struck me as extremely exploitative in a different way, because it typecasts "our children", priveleged ones who have the advantaged lives that allow charitable caring to be possible, making strongly "shaming" statements that, in other media narratives, adults would not be allowed to say. These lines would read as blatantly righteous things from adults, and easy to reject, but somehow okay for children to repeat: It's quite a "use" for kids.)

Focus on the (Smiling) Farmer

The Google Image search for "Fair Trade Coffee farmer" has an amazing concentration of images of farmers in easy, untaxed work poses.

The repeat appearances by the same farmer, from the same photo shoot are noteworthy as these are basically stock images for sale that have been tagged "Fair Trade Coffee Farmer". There's no actual identification of the farmer by name, or if they are a member of a FT coop. If they are not a member, then they don't get a FT premium, nor a "second payment" distribution if a coffee sells as Fair Trade. (Only a portion of the coffee produced by FT coops sells as FT, and it seems to be a dwindling percentage as there is a glut of FT coffee on the market. FT is overproduced). Scrolling down these Google search results, the uniformity of images, the hands offering up the coffee with pleasure and willingness, the ease of work and smiles of pleasure, the happiness to pose during work, is remarkable. Even the search for Fair Trade Coffee Farm, which just shows farmland mostly without the FT, is loaded with the "content producer" theme, as this serves a proxy assurance that the critical act, the consumer opting for the FT product, has it's promised result. The purchaser can't be sure s/he actually made anyone happy buying the pound of coffee, if anyone was delivered from poverty, or was able to keep their farm. So the image is the connective presence that offsets the alienating remoteness of buying global products. It makes sense that farmer images are so important in the ethical consumer act. It's that telegraphed answer from afar.

Anxiety Ads In General

None of this is new, but coffee seems peculiar to me. I'm really unqualified to launch into this ...but here it is anyway: The most prosaic mode of advertising imagery was simple association, to increase the allure of the product by positioning it amongst desirable or attractive stuff. (Well usually that stuff was 'women objectified', if the market was male buyers). So basic media criticism that advanced the "reading of photographic signifiers" was developed looked at dominant media sources. Extending Roland Barthes Camera Lucida, I was exposed to writers like Stuart Hall on media criticism.

It seems that ubiquitous close-up image of ripe coffee cherry belongs to this level of association. It's a little but like canned fruit/vegetable labels. It's deceptiveas the fruit on a label of Del Monte canned tomatoes, for example, is not the what's inside, that the image is impossibly good. The pictured fruit is supposed to represent the taste quality of the contents. In coffee, the picture might be taken by the coffee buyer of the company, might be at the farm location, so it has some added authority, perhaps. Yet the same process of manipulation occurs as the cherry photo is framed, cropping out the rest of the world to form a simple association with something attractive that adds luster to the product.

But in the case of marketing the coffee farmers, especially to address the possible anxiety of the consumer due to this global gap and resulting anxiety of a "right to enjoyment", it is more difficult for me to come up with analagous products. Marketing to consumer anxiety has a long history of course. Coffee brand advertising capitalized on fear of domestic turmoil, laying blame on women for lack of coffee-making skill (as an obviously lame stand-in for sexual pleasure). Most ads targeted body image of all genders, especially women and teens. These cash in on personal anxieties promulgated in the culture, and the anxiety between self and other: I cannot see myself as others see me, and they may think I am fat, so this garment will reshape me in to the 'me-as-I-want-others-to-see-me.' Here too, classic media criticism was and is an effective tool to expose the mechanism that exploits and heightens fears.

But what of this anxiety of a world where we don't deserve our enjoyment unless we offset it with a "conscience premium"? Is it simply another aspect of our concern for our own well-being, that a global product might not be substantially tainted (i.e. BPA), but could infect our conscience similarily? Does the imagery and what is implied by it bring us closer to this "producer" or fix them into a cast, the role of a faraway person in a remote, exotic locale, doing work to make this product, and now that we have an image of their contentment, we are okay with our power to buy and enjoy these luxury items? What kind of images don't work along these lines, but perhaps bring more depth to the relationship of production and consumption? And how does the role of media-critical techniques shift when the target is "ethical consumerism," and industries that claim to provide a measure of economic justice, and general social goodness?

The End Is Disappointing

I write this because I followed an isolated train of thought that started at the coffee conference in Atlanta, and continued, but honestly I have no idea how to end this article. I guess it's because, outside of academic writing (which I know little about), you end with some sort of dumb answer or "next steps." I feel gratified just to acknowledge issues I sense in my own image decisions for SM, and what I see around me in my coffee dealings, things I feel are surrounded by a kind of muteness. It's not judgement on practices, but an alternate description of them.

While morals are invoked in marketing coffee, to influence consumer practice, the substance of the exchange is not moral, which is not to say it is ideal, or even good. Really bad deceptive practices might be represented by effective, inspiring imagery (or logos), and thoughtful, opportunity-generating efforts in coffee work might be described by terrible, lame text and photos.

If I had to advocate for action, it would be to broaden the types of language and imagery used to sell coffee, to avoid the easy material and risk challenging consumers because (I believe) they can handle it! And image use has totally different implications in different contexts in meaning and scale, from illustrating the informative article or editorial, to a small company sharing pictures from an exciting trip they just took, to a Starbucks full page spread in New York Times.

The effort to look critically is toward opening up new passages and possibilities, not to close down options, nor to imply or enforce a "right" or "wrong" approach, or to make moral judgments behind that approach. For myself I had a note I wrote on my phone from 3 years ago that I keep there as a reminder, a call out to myself I guess, that reads "challenge your photo sensibilities." Embarrassing ...but useful.

I will still take pictures of farmers and macro pictures of coffee, as well as everything that inspires thought around me as I travel. And I'll try to surprise myself and those who look around our site. We who buy and sell coffee can't change to global nature of this trade, we are not saviours, and buying coffee from producers isn't some morally "good" thing we do. We sell coffee, right? So we need to buy it as well. We can do that in a decent manner, in an eye-to-eye way with producers, without making a huge deal about our own goodness. We with small coffee businesses are lucky to have our own sphere of influence, decisions we make in how we represent what we do, and we can play with that to promote an informed awareness. Plus, mess with things and have fun. -T.O.

PS #1: I looked around at some coffee sites listed as "top coffee roasters" and found a trend away from using "origin photographs" as the central imagery to sell specific coffees. What I saw was pictures of packaged coffee, whether straight-forward labeled bags with certain design pretensions, or bags/boxes against beautiful retail backdrops. So it seems like the brand is back, and that we are being asked to 'just believe' in the brand again. Just as someone might have said "I'm a Folgers person" then, it's "I buy Blue Bottle now" but obviously with completely different implications of "taste" and class associations. For examples of these "package picture" sites, try Sightglass, Stumptown, Blue Bottle, etc.

PS #2: Along with this move, some sites have shifted the focus to blends in a big way, which is also their gambit to shift toward brand trust. Its logistically easier in buying, packaging and marketing, you can cut costs on coffees, and it builds your name. It's also a move away from transparency toward the opaqueness of the past.

*PS #3: Intellectual spazs and fake coffee drinker Slavoj Zizek had comments on the ideological "extra" sold with each cup of Starbucks from the film Perverts Guide to Ideology: Here is the clip on youtube. While claiming to be an old Hegelian Communist (?) his broader criticism of neo-liberal Western ideology is fresh stuff most of the time.

PS #4: I suppose I can't go back and add this to my already-bloated piece, but it's so creatively amusing to consider all those images "on the cutting room floor" and even more-so, those never taken. It's trendy for to talk about "the coffee industry" and the "coffee supply chain" to imply a sense of real, bare-bones 'businessiness'. But when we focus on that chain, or show that industry, we only open a peephole into life on the farm, or a close-up macro shot of espresso oozing out, or a vignette of a beautiful coffee bag. Details ... not the actual industrial factors that moves coffee (and nearly every other commodity and finished product), not the shipyards, not the jute processing factory in India, not the diesel pumping station for those container ships, not tarmac roads in Tanzania, not the offices at Maersk, not the plastics factory, not the shop where the Izusu local truck gets repaired, not the contracts, not the shipping documents etc etc. Of course we wouldn't and we can't in most cases. But at the SCAA show I see all the manufacturers of global goods that wrap, strap, pack and move coffee, true "industrial" factors in the coffee supply chain, making their meetings quietly off on the side, while the throwdowns, competitions, cuppings might be seen as a new veneer. This is really a different article tho...

PS #5: There is an article The Problems With Fair Trade Coffee to download on this page which I read in writing this. It's more about FLO vs. FT-USA. I didn't really mean to focus on certified coffee here, but the imagery lead me to look at FT marketing. I am writing here about the FT marketing material, not on the benefits (or deficiencies) on what FT delivers. That is a different thing completely.

PS #6: I keep messing with this article. I don't know why. If you have comments or contradictions,

Taste and Price: When Values Shift

I miss a lot of things that happen in the coffee press. There's just too much out there. But I recently caught glimpse of this and found it very thought-provoking.

Posting the image above to Instagram and asking for comments lead to a huge range of reactions. So I thought I would post my own thoughts in a better-suited format here.

The image above is a screen shot of the top-rated coffees in the feature about single origin coffees on supermarket shelves. It's important to read their introduction to understand the process they use. At the end of the article, there's a stress on package and freshness factors that softens the bluntness of the top 4 winners in the image here.

But in any case the results of their cuppings is what is so provocative. Looking at the relationship between the scores and the prices, and what we know about the roasters/companies, this is quite an inversion of expectations. A small local roaster tops the list, but a quasi-fancy-food market comes in with coffee just 1 point shy, and less than half the price! Next a we find a large specialty roaster, and then McDonald's McCafe?

The responses to my Instagram post and responses elsewhere span a broad gamut. While there are balanced responses, indifferent shrugs, or people who announce proudly "McCafe is my jam!", the more unilateral ones help map out what is at stake here, not only in this article but the broader issues.

After reading of the range of comments, here's my own interpretation. Some people definitely feel the review, the site and the scores are questionable. Some state that Coffee Review is somehow compromised (I don't think any of these top 4 companies are paid Coffeereview advertisers), or their scoring system/procedure is at fault.

There's a broader critique moving in the opposite direction, that perhaps the whole fancy-coffee, micro-lot, hip cafe thing is a charade, and those who pay twice as much, for coffee not much better than fairly standard fare, are rubes. Or maybe the big roasters and distributors behind McCafe and Trader Joes (I believe that is Farmers Bros and Mountanos respectively) have closed the gap with fancy coffee for real.

Or maybe it is that the cupping system is really about creating distinctions that are not significant. If the differences are not substantial, is this about delineating social tiers, classes of people, cultural differences? Are the "Haves" who presumed to have greater access to (what they believe to be) "good coffee" in fact just paying more for something available cheaply to a broader audience?

In any case, the Coffee Review article wants, and deserves attention. I'll share what I know, and my opinions about their article.

Coffee Review is the project of Kenneth Davids who has brought a lot of descriptive language to coffee tasting that, I believe, wasn't there before. It's a site that monetizes his years of work through advertising, and the scores for the coffees they rate highly are quite high. And these high range of scores is sometimes a source of humor among roasters. I don’t think the commercialness of the site, seen by subscription, or the scoring invalidates anything about the results. Every taster and every company has a range, and generally you can calibrate one person's 94 score to your own 90, for example.

Perhaps a high score range has some implications when you recommend or sell coffee to consumers, but if we rate coffees lower in general, I don't find that a greater measure of "truth." After all, tasting is quantifying a subjective experience, that, when linked to selling something as I do, or as Coffeereview does in a different way, is mostly about trust. If you have a sense as a reader or buyer that there is real work put into the process behind sourcing and reviewing coffees, then the empirical aspects of each judgment, which is just moderately “sciencey” anyway, has validity. It’s most similar to taking a knowledgable friend's recommendation on wine, or a waiter's or chef's tip on what to order from the menu. If you have a good experience, you might trust the advice. In that light, judging solely from any single instance is a bit myopic.

If one accepts the validity of these scores, then perhaps the coffee consumer might direct their invective at those who seem to offer the least price/taste value in the article, which is generally the companies with high prices, even if they scored high. These seems to invoke a cultural backlash against the hip, urban companies and customers, and the elitism they possibly engender. Or is the gap closing as giant roasters and distributors are able to attain the quality of the small-batch shop? (We were able to buy the Trader Joes Kenya AA at our local store and will add a postscript after we cup it, along with current and new crop Kenyas we have).

Such a backlash against high-end retail might be similar to the Mast Brothers revelations in the bean-to-bar cocoa world. But here, it’s not the notion that someone has defrauded anyone by not doing what they claim (buying bulk slab chocolate rather that roasting/processing it from bean 100% of the time). Here it might be a resentful “corrective” response to the narcissism of the coffee purveyor, that what they say in that ubiquitous 3 term description on the coffee bag is too self-flattering, and that the narrative of direct trade is too self-congratulatory. You probably aren’t going to get that in McCafe marketing. But you will get something else I am sure. While these resentments of high versus low culture, urban versus rural, etc seem more relevant than ever in the election year, it’s a whole different banana really. And whether blind tasting can really be an impartial measure of all the heterogenous ways coffee companies evaluate themselves and their coffees is iffy at best. But cupping does have potential power, and it goes back to it’s emergence in the coffee trade.

Coffee was exchanged solely by name of origin country or port, and grade/appearance in the 19th century, and this lasted well into current times. Tasting the coffee was not part of valuing it until certain companies (J. Aron I believe) advanced it as a better way to judge true value. After all, people do buy coffee to drink it, not to look at it. Cupping turned coffee valuation on its head. Java or Mocha that arrived a year or two after it shipped, and may or may not have truly been Java or Mocha, lost its luster. Fresher, wet-processed coffees from Central America, with clean and bright cup flavors became more valuable based on taste. Judging each cup on the merits of aroma and taste, without deference to pedigree, has always been an act with the possibility of changing habits, questioning preconceptions. In this light, I feel the Coffee Review post, independent of whether I would have the same results if I had sat right beside them at the cupping table, to be a welcome part of a conversation about coffee quality and value in our day-to-day work at SM.

Justifying taste and value is actually a conversation we have often, like… all the time, at Sweet Maria’s, and that manifests itself on nearly every cupping table on every day. We use calibration samples to create baselines for scoring, which not only helps us find our way when we might be sensorially lost (or just had a burrito for lunch) but also to ground our sense of value for each lot. While being truly “blind” while cupping is hard (no not literally, but we might often know we are cupping Guatemalas for example, even if we don’t know specific lot IDs) it is the goal. I think this value-discovery act is seminal to the identity of a coffee company, allowing us to scrutinize ourselves, be honestly self-critical, and further define what we are and what we do. I joke that as a coffee buyer I am basically personal shopper for those who chose to use us as a source. I’m sticking with that.

The fact is that coffee tasting, no matter how much we try to make it a simple act focused on the cup in front of us, is an act of taste-making with a social dimension. And our credibility as "arbiters of taste" is always an open question, especially if it is justified by terms only recognized by small social castes, by prices that make the experience less accessible, or by increasingly arcane self-referential language and techniques.

“Good coffee” is whatever coffee a person tastes and enjoys. That might be Nescafe Instant. Or McCafe. As we seek to define “goodness” in coffee for others (not the basic cleanly and healthful aspects of a coffee, but determining its qualitative values) we take on much, much more, in a cultural and economic sense. It’s arguable by some, but coffee is a luxury with little nutritional value. It’s an affordable extra. In that way it becomes loaded with signification, and when it’s heavily branded, it becomes as symbolic as fashion or other auspicious signs of class.

For me, I negotiate this by looking at who initiates, who is curious, who finds who: I would never intervene in someones enjoyment to assert what I think “good” is, in this respect. But when people extend themselves to Sweet Maria’s with an interest in how we define goodness in coffee, I feel it’s fine to have a well-defined and justified answer. That’s not an adequate reponse to the bigger issues, but it gives me some space I can work with.


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PS-1: I know, this post is OTT, but its simply how I read things, or you might say, read into things. I am not saying this is "the" interpretation, just mine my reaction. Ridiculous, yes! If you have interest in a real study of taste and class, check out the very dated but very relevant book by Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. It's tres Roasted Coffee Pictorial Guide. ">French.

PS-2: Had a great exchange with a guy on a plane, a Banana QA expert who had worked for Dole. He ran the Banana Lab! Bananas are graded only on appearance. There is no liquified banana cupping. After recovering from this sad fact, I found the reason is that bananas are sold by appearance and they are the most sold item in the produce section os US Supermarkets. The logistics of banana shipping to have them arrive at peak appearance is unbelievable, and the volumes that are sold is staggering. I saw pictures of Whole Foods distribution center's ripening rooms. Unbelievable.

PS-3: I'll add notes right here from cupping Trader Joes Kenya AA against a range of fresh and older offerings that we scored 89-92. Just for fun.

PS-4: Okay, the Trader Joes Kenya AA Medium roast is in a paper foil-lined can. The date on the bottom is "Best by 3/15/17" so I am guessing with the (ridiculous) 1 year freshness period used by mega roasters, this might mean it was roasted about a month ago from today. Not too old, but looking at the coffee it is well oiled-up on the exterior. It's not that dark but it is Full City and darker than our cupping roast. So when we line up this TJ coffee blind with 4 other Kenyas from the SM stock, it't kinda obvious which is the TJ. So much for blind. We tried. Besides knowing which was the TJ coffee by appearance, it was difficult to consider alongside good fresh-roasted samples. The coffee is ashy to the extreme. I can taste the Kenya character in the form of acidity and prune-like fruit, but the stale ashy roast taste is overwhelming. The point of tasting this wasn't to take on CoffeeReviews 92 point score, as they might have had a complete fluke and obtained a fresh can of this coffee. Actually I really wanted this coffee to be amazing! I like surprises! But for us, even if it was fresh, I couldn't get this coffee to 92 points on any cupping form, unless I was fall-over drunk, which I am not.

My score: 78 Dan's score: 80. We imagine we are 6 to 8 points lower than Coffeereview, so we still can't get to a 92 factoring that difference. So we must be tasting something other than what they obtained. It's hard to know because I am not a paid scubscriber to the CR site so all I can see is this list. The coffee was $6.99 for 13 ounces! I can't imagine what this green coffee must cost! Even on a large production scale, it must be incredibly low to allow this to retail at $6.99. We also noted the TJ Coffee Site is taking on an upscale tone with "field notes" and taste comments. Notes from the cupping:

Review Notes

Branches filled to what seems like the limit, with green cherry for the upcoming harvest; Urrao, ColombiaBranches filled to what seems like the limit, with green cherry for the upcoming harvest; Urrao, Colombia

In relation to other coffee-producing origins, Colombia stands out in that coffee is being harvested practically year-round. Most other origins we buy from tend to have a single harvest lasting a couple of months. This means that after all the coffee's been picked, there will be nothing fresh to be found for the better part of the year. Not the case in Colombia, where a wide range of micro-climates and close proximity to the equator make for a seemingly steady stream of fresh green.

Two regions in particular that we buy from, Urrao, Antioquia in the north, and Inzá, Cauca in the south, get an incredible amount of annual precipitation. This may make drying coffee outdoors on open patios dicey at best (one of several reasons covered beds are used - "parabolicos"), but it also lends to regular flowering coffee trees and healthy harvests. Both regions have the equivalent of two "main" harvests, and in the case of Urrao, there are several mini-harvests in between. Because of all this, we tend to have Colombia coffee shipments spread out throughout the year, and in some cases close to piggy-back. For example, our most recent container arrived at the end of March, only 3 months after the previous container.

Pouring the first flight at Shrub headquarters, West Oakland

Last week we invited a few of our local customers to come taste an assortment of these fresh arrivals from three of the growing regions we buy from: Antioquia, Huila, and Cauca. Despite all of the coffees being wet-processed Colombian, the cup profiles were very different, showcasing just how unique Colombian coffee can be from one growing area to the next, and even one neighbor the next. Clean sugary sweetness, fresh fruits flavors, bittersweetness, pointed acidity; stark contrast in cup flavors, shifting in level of intensity as the cups cooled. We'd love to have you all at our table, but obviously there are space limitations, and of course the bulk of our customers are far outside the Bay Area!

We've done the next best thing, putting together a sample set of 6 fresh Colombia options for little more than the price of shipping. You'll receive coffee from Urrao, Timaná, and Inzá - basically the same coffee grouping we showcased for customers last week. Only two are listed on Coffee Shrub, so this is also a chance to pick up coffee from the proverbial "back room". Check out the full run-down of coffees, and order your "Colombia Back Room Sample Set" HERE. SOLD OUT

***Orders for any "offline" coffees will have to placed direct via