Looking for Direct Trade?

I’ve gotten a few inquiries on my travels about how farmers can either get paid more for their coffee, or establish relationships with U.S. buyers. I know a couple of roasters and one ex-U.S. importer, but not that many others who could help. If you know somebody looking for a new coffee to sample or origin relationship to start, please let me know.

The inquiries have come from a variety of people, ranging from world-class farms (actually, my favorite coffee ever, which I would love to be able to drink when I get back to the States) to collectors who want to raise prices for the farmers they work with, farmers that already know about specialty coffee but are trying to break into new markets like the U.S., and farmers who know nothing about specialty coffee, but know that they want a bigger slice of the pie for their labor.

If you or anybody you know is interested in starting new relationships and would like to be put in touch, please let me know. You can reach me by the contact page. I am not a broker and expect no payment, and I will try to match quality as my taste buds understand the term.

Coffee Map

In addition to the three posts those on the East Coast will wake up to, I’ve made some updates to the static pages on the blog. (See the menu in the upper right-hand corner.) I suspect what will be of the most interest to my friends and few subscribers, though, is the coffee map page, which shows the places I’ve had coffee along my travels. For now, most of the locations are simply city names, but I hope to get more granular as I go forward and also to go back and update the places I’ve been.

Check it out!

Pourover Lesson in Taoyuan

When Joan Obra at Rusty’s Hawaiian saw me try to make coffee using my Cafflano portable coffee brewing device, she knew I needed a lesson: the grind was too coarse and therefore the extraction time was too short, resulting in woefully underextracted coffee. (If only she had seen my previous attempts, in which I completely miscalculated the water to coffee ratio…)

As it happens, my first stop after Hawaii was Taipei, where Joan knows a coffee importer named Simon Hsieh who has top-notch technique. She put me in touch with Simon, who was kind enough to pick me up from the airport and show me around his climate-controlled warehouse in a super-secret location. Although I can’t disclose the location, I can say that the warehouse is near the airport, apparently because while many of Simon’s beans come in by sea, some of his best stuff is too good to risk losing to Somali pirates so it comes by plane. (Yes, really.)

Simon gave me a lesson in pourover technique, preparing the same freshly roasted Ethiopian Queen of Sheba natural-processed Ethiopian by pourover and then immersion. Because the coffee was only one day off roast, the immersion brewing really brought out the sweetness in the coffee. (If you’re in Taipei and want to try it, Simple Kaffa has the coffee on their menu, where they prepare it with a different immersion technique called the Clever.)

In case you’re wondering what I mean by pourover and immersion coffee, here’s a brief explanation. Immersion coffee works like a French press, where you steep coffee grinds in water and then filter them out. Pourover, by contrast, involves pouring water on top of coffee grinds and having the water pass through a filter. When coffee shops in the U.S. offer pourover coffee, they usually also mean to distinguish it from the “batch brew,” which is a similar method of brewing but in a bigger pot.  Like espresso, pourover is made on demand for each new order, but unlike espresso it takes more time. Whereas an espresso shot takes about 30 seconds from the time a barista pulls a switch to the time 9 bars of pressure squeeze the good stuff out of a little puck of coffee, pourover coffee takes between 2 and 4 minutes to produce a cup. For that reason and it because it’s usually using better beans, it costs more.

Now you might think, as I naively did, that there is not a lot of variety in how you pour water onto coffee in a filter, that if you’re pouring water onto coffee, the rate at which you do so or the shape of the grinds in the filter, or the pattern in which you pour, has little effect on the flavors that come out in the cup. It turns out that most people who work in coffee would think you’re wrong.

Simon has perfected a particular pourover technique that gives him a good extraction in 2 minutes. When I say “perfected,” I mean just that. He has stared at boiling water enough times that he can tell the temperature of it by the size of the bubbles. And while conventional wisdom would suggest that the grinder is the most important piece of machinery, he eschews the Porlexes sold in trendy coffee shops, which don’t have markings for the grind settings, and prefers to spend his equipment money on a kettle that gives him as much control over the stream of water as possible.

Here are the key principles I took away from my lesson:

  • The coffee should be wet first. I unfortunately didn’t write down whether Simon believes in the 20% rule (20% of the water), or the twice-the-weight rule (twice the weight of the coffee). I suspect he doesn’t think it makes a big difference.
  • The grind does not need to be as fine as most people recommend, but it should be adjusted based on the coffee and the pour so that the brewing time comes out right. (For Simon’s method, 2 minutes).
  • Lighter roasts need higher brewing temperatures.
  • The particular technique for pouring doesn’t matter too much, so long as it provides an even extraction. You can do this in concentric circles or in zig-zags, as long as you’re getting the same amount of water on each part of the coffee and controlling the agitation in the filter.
  • Depending on the shape of your filter, you should take care not to let water touch the edges of it, because it will break the crust that the coffee forms when you wet it initially.

He also gave me two pointers about tasting coffee, which I’ve been better at sticking to than I have his pouring pointers:

  • Smell the coffee around 70 degrees Celsius. When it’s too hot, you will have a hard time smelling the flavor aromas in the coffee.
  • Taste the coffee below 50 degrees Celsius. Body temperature is 37, so you still have plenty of time before the coffee gets cold.

I’ve noticed that with practice, some coffee drinkers can spot differences in coffee at higher temperatures, but I’m not there yet. I still need coffee to cool before I can taste what others taste sooner. That’s because differences are emphasized as a coffee cools. I’ve been told that defects in coffee are more apparent at colder temperatures. And, at the other end of the quality spectrum, I’ve noticed that a truly exceptional coffee can differentiate itself a lot more readily from the merely good coffees as they cool.

I had no kettle where I was staying in Taipei, but I’ve had some time in Australia and New Zealand to practice Simon’s principles with my Cafflano and also using a Kalita Wave dripper that I picked up in Japan. More ways to go, but there’s definite progress. Thanks, Simon!

My Favorite Coffee, Part 1

An interruption in my much-belated Taiwan posts to tell you about my favorite coffee.

People (almost entirely non-coffee people, mind you) keep asking me what my favorite coffee is. I think they’re expecting an answer in the form of a country or growing region, but coffee is more complex than that. Even two coffees from the same farm can taste completely different from one another. Moreover, it’s hard to compare coffees if you’re only having one cup of each, which I tend to do. Developing the kind of taste memory necessary for comparing coffees that way is certainly one of my goals, but for now it remains just that, a goal.

Which is all a very long-winded way of whining about the question because I don’t really have an answer. Until now: yesterday I attended Jakarta Coffee Week, and as I was getting ready to leave the event, I stopped at the booth for Smoking Barrels Coffee, a roaster based here in Jakarta, and I tried their Java Malabar, a washed coffee (which Indonesians confusingly call dry-hulled, more on that some other time) from the Mt. Malabar region of West Java. It smelled like  tobacco, but tasted wonderfully fruity. Seeing that I was impressed, the roaster, named Jon—Jakartans seem to have a lot of English names—suggested I try their  most popular coffee, which is from the same region, but grown at slightly higher altitude and using a different varietal of coffee. (Yellow Caturra instead of Sigarar Utang; I’d heard of the former but never before of the latter.)

It was love at first sip: there was a sudden explosion of flavors in my mouth, which Jon described as a variety of tropical fruits. In my opinion, that’s an even better description than the three particular tropical fruits that are listed on the bag (oranges, pineapples, and passionfruit).  To put it in my own words, it tasted like somebody took every Indonesian fruit except durian and put it in a coffee. The coffee was natural-processed, but the sweetness in the cup was remarkably clean, perhaps because the fruit flavors were so pronounced.

So now I finally do have an answer when people ask what my favorite coffee is: the Malabar Yellow Caturra from Smoking Barrels. In case (hope?) I get a new one along the way, though, I’ve called this post “Part 1.” Stay tuned.

 

 

Taipei Overview

Taipei has an incredible coffee scene, so I knew that with only four days there, I would hardly scratch the surface. I somehow managed to learn quite a lot, though. Here are the highlights:

  • Taiwan grows coffee. This is kind of basic, but I never realized it until somebody told me in Hawaii. I knew of course that Taiwan grows tea, but I didn’t know they also grow coffee. I was not in the country long enough to visit any of the farms in the south, but I did get to drink a cup of it at Fong Da.Don’t expect to see Taiwanese coffee in your supermarket, though: I’m told most of the cherry is bought underripe by Chinese cosmetics companies who want the antioxidants in the seed.
  • There are a ton of coffee shops in Taipei running a wide gamut in terms of quality. In the States, coffee shops fall pretty squarely into the categories of first, second, and third wave coffee. (Think roughly of Maxwell House/Folgers; Starbucks/Peet’s; indie shop serving Counter Culture/Intelligentsia/Stumptown.)  But even in the mere four days I spent in Taipei, I found everything from night market espresso—costs about $1 and tasted pretty good for the price point—to the $11 cup of Burundi natural that I wrote about earlier.

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    “Night market” espresso, $35 NTD (about $1 USD). I use air quotes, because it wasn’t at an official night market, just a booth set up alongside other street food. A solid shot.
  • I do mean everything:

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    Polar Bear Latte from the Polar Cafe. Not worth the $200 NTD (abut $6 USD), but I suppose you’re paying for the photo too.
  • A lot of the better shops only open in the afternoon. For example, Simple Kaffa, the home of World Barista Champion Berg Wu, only opens at 12:30. On the flip side, I wish I could get coffee that good late at night in New York. More on one late-night discovery in a forthcoming post.
  • “Specialty coffee” means something different in Taiwan. In the States, the term “specialty coffee” is usually used to differentiate quality coffee from commodity coffee. It is sometimes also used to differentiate a type of coffee shop, with cafes that serve espresso-based drinks, lattes, and mochas saying that they serve “specialty” drinks. In Taipei, that latter usage seemed more prevalent to me. I suppose the reason for it is because the term “specialty coffee” has more currency for the Taiwanese market, which seems to have consumers at every possible point along the spectrum of sophistication. To differentiate the actual “specialty” from the catchphrase, some coffee professionals will describe their coffee as “super specialty” or classify the other shops as “premium.”

    img_3190
    Trust me, it’s not.
  • Not everybody drinks coffee. As I heard more than one coffee professional complain, in the West, most people drink coffee, which means they are looking for, or at least interested in, a place to get their daily fix. In Taiwan, some people drink tea or milk tea in the morning, and others may drink soda or no caffeinated beverage at all. That makes it difficult for a coffee shop to develop a steady business. They are competing not just with other coffee shops, but also with other morning habits.
  • The average Taiwanese person has no idea that Taipei has become a huge coffee city. The friend of a friend who hosted me was genuinely shocked that I had come to Taipei for coffee. So too even some of the baristas at cafes I visited.
  • Everybody and their uncle roasts coffee in Taiwan. I kind of knew this already, but the numbers are astounding. Taipei alone is home to more than 1,000 roasters, and that doesn’t even count homeroasters. Part of the reason for the number of roasters in Taiwan is that even lower-tier shops will roast their own in a small roaster near the front window. Usually these do 0.3 kg batches, which are about as small as the batches I used to roast back in my tiny New York City apartment!

    img_3238
    Poor photo of a micro-roaster next to the store mascot in Cama, a multi-location cafe at a price/quality point that doesn’t really have an analog in the U.S.
  • The Taiwanese market prefers lighter roasts. It’s unclear to me whether the demand for light roasts is coming from the consumers or being imposed by the roasters. I saw some backlash to this, but the prevailing roast level was still pretty light, not much more than first crack. I saw a greater variety of roast levels in Japan.
  • Taiwan’s coffee culture comes from all over. I had assumed that most of the burgeoning coffee scene in Asia was prompted by Australians, who are obsessed with coffee. That’s not true, though. As I’ve since read online, and seen firsthand, Taiwan’s coffee culture has a mix of coffee influences, including the Japanese influence on pourover and siphon, North American third-wave coffee, as well as some European and Australian influence. (I saw more Aussie influence than this author suggests, but I would tend to defer to the local.) I was told by a few people that Starbucks, much as it did in the States, prompted a lot of the enthusiasm for coffee in Taiwan.
  • Coffee is expensive in Taiwan. I had the impression, largely confirmed during my visit to Shanghai before I began my travels, that coffee was priced in Asia as a luxury good, which like whisky or red wine, allows wealthy locals to demonstrate their  leisure and worldliness at the same time. I still think there is some of this in Taiwan—how else to explain the $11, or even $15 or $20 cups of coffee, that I saw. But I have been persuaded that a lot of the price issue in Taiwan is due to the logistics of importing beans and the taxes on coffee in Taiwan.Because the Taiwanese market is not big enough to do much direct importation, coffee is usually imported indirectly through countries like the United States, which means there is a double duty, and another set of importers and exporters, to pay. And even though the cost of living in Taipei is much lower than elsewhere, rent is quite high, especially in the nicer areas where a specialty coffee shop is ideally located. While some of the high prices do seem to be driven by price signalling instead of competition, it was difficult to tell how much, or how this price signalling compares to that in the States.

Natural Coffees in Taiwan

I’ve been seeing a lot of natural coffees on menus here in Taiwan over the last few days. I’ve only had four, but they seem to have embedded themselves in my understanding of Taiwan coffee. Perhaps that’s because I was warned that the Taiwanese market favors naturals. Perhaps it’s because I only started to learn how to appreciate and recognize a natural while I was staying at Rusty’s Hawaiian. Or perhaps it’s just because I’ve been having some really good naturals in Taiwan recently. In any event, by now you’re probably wondering what the heck a natural coffee is.

Natural refers to a method of processing coffee. Coffee is the fruit of the coffee tree/shrub and it needs to be processed from cherry to green bean (the seed of the fruit is green) before it can be roasted into what most people know and love as coffee. Classically, coffee is processed in one of two ways: washed and natural. (There’s also a whole lot of in-between, as well as a different method used nearly exclusively in Indonesia, but let’s keep things simple for now.)

In the washed process, the cherries are removed by a pulper, and the sweet, slimy stuff coating the bean inside the cherry (called the mucillage) is washed off through a fermentation process. The resulting coffee is dried in the sun and the parchment is removed to get green coffee, which is roasted. The top row of this nifty little box from the UCC farm tour in Kona illustrates the washed process by showing what red cherries, parchment, green beans, and roasted beans look like.

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The top row of this box from the UCC farm tour in Kona illustrates the washed process. I’m actually typing this caption text from a UCC cafe in Taipei.

By contrast, in the natural process, the bean dries inside the cherry, which allows the sugars in the mucillage and skin of the cherry ferment naturally and are imparted to the seed inside. The natural process therefore results in a sweeter cup of coffee, but one that is also more volatile and difficult to control. This is because there is more variability in the fermentation process. As a result, washed coffees are often described as tasting “cleaner” than naturals, which can sometimes have a funky or “fermenty” taste.

 

There is an excellent illustration of the natural process on the Hula Daddy tour, but my photo below unfortunately doesn’t do it justice. On the lower right-hand side are dried cherries. Like some other farms, Hula Daddy doesn’t let the skins go to waste, turning them into a fruit tea called cascara, and on these you can see some of the color of the dried cherries. What gets roasted, though, are the green beans, shown here on the upper left.

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I’m a bad photographer. You can see some of the color of the cherries in the cascara, but the light does a bad job of showing the rich burgundy color of the dried cherries on the far right.

If you’re still confused, you can try to think of washed vs. natural as similar to white vs. red wine. Like red wine, natural coffees get some of their flavor from the skin of the cherry. This makes for a more vibrant and complex drink. Washed coffees, by contrast, present a cleaner cup with less volatility or natural variation.  This is not a perfect analogy, but it’s helpful as a first illustration and I’m apparently not the only one who uses it.

Which brings me back to the coffee I’ve been drinking in Taipei. The better coffee shops here will tell you not just the origin of the coffee, but also how the coffees are processed, and I’ve been noticing a lot of naturals on the menus.

I’ve only had four naturals here, but two of those were among my more memorable cups. The first was an Ethiopian natural that Simon Hsieh, a coffee importer and roaster in Taiwan, prepared for me when he gave me a lesson in brewing techniques. (Taiwan baristas have excellent pourover technique, which I plan to post about once I edit some of my videos.) The coffee smelled like a natural even before tasting it, and in the cup it had the classic winy texture and sweet taste of a natural coffee, without any of the fermenty taste that I’ve been told some Taiwanese coffee drinkers love. Simon’s coffee was exceptionally restrained, but even the other naturals I’ve had here have been pretty clean, except for some of them on the last sip, where the sour acids seem to drop in the cup.

As it happens, the other memorable natural coffee I’ve had here was also the most expensive: Simon recommended that I check out Fika Fika Cafe, winner of the 2013 Nordic Roasters Championship, and while their espresso-based drinks are priced in line with what I’m used to seeing in New York, I wanted to check out their pourovers, which are unfortunately a bit pricey, as you can see below.

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Pourover menu at Fika Fika. 100 New Taiwan dollars is equal to about $3 USD. Note that the Kenya AB, which is washed, is just as expensive as the naturals on the list.

I was thankful that I had already had a cup of Taiwanese coffee at Fong Da, since if I hadn’t, I might have felt compelled to check out Fika Fika’s, which would have set me back about $16 instead of the $4 I had paid earlier in the day. I opted instead for the Burundi natural (second on the list), which was still a whopping $11.

The pricing of specialty coffee is an interesting and very complicated subject, and I had a lengthy discussion with Simon about the factors that go into it. I still don’t know whether the coffee I had was “worth” $11, and I certainly wouldn’t spend that on coffee every day, but the cup I did have was delicious and expertly prepared. The coffee had a sweet, caramelly taste without much acidity, and toward the end of the cup (which is saddeningly small for the price, see photo below), a pleasant nutty aftertaste developed. The very last sip had that sour fermenty taste that many people love in their natural coffees. I didn’t particularly like it, but I did enjoy the fainter version of that taste that lingered on my tongue even after I left the coffee shop.

IMG_3617
Burundi natural at Fika Fika. The coffee was served alongside a different, iced preparation of the same beans. (The alternate preparation involved brewing the coffee in an espresso machine without tamping and then pouring the resulting brew onto ice. It struck me as a waste of good coffee, as most iced specialty coffee drinks do. In any event, the pourover cup on the right was delicious, complex, and memorable.

 

 

Hawaii coffee recs

I’m about to start jumping out of order in my posts, so I wanted to throw up some coffee recs from my time in Hawaii before I start posting about Taiwan.

Buying beans

  • The best beans in Hawaii are grown and roasted not in Kona but Ka’u by Rusty’s Hawaiian. Literally every specialty coffee professional I spoke with asked if I was going to visit Rusty’s Hawaiian during my travels, and as it turned out I was lucky enough to stay there and work at the farm for a few days. (More on that later, of course.) The beans are sold throughout Hawaii, but the easiest place to find them is at the Curb in Honolulu, especially if that’s where you’re flying out of. If you’ve already left, Blue Bottle also buys the beans green and roasts them, or Rusty’s Hawaiian can ship them to you if you prefer to have them roasted at the farm.
  • If for whatever reason you need that Kona label, the best traditional option is to buy from Greenwell, which is experimenting with some new varietals but still primarily grows Kona typica, the classic Hawaiian coffee varietal that was introduced from Latin America in the 19th century. If you want something a little geekier but still grown in Kona, check out Hula Daddy or Buddha’s Cup. Daylight Mind is also a great place to taste different Kona coffees and pick up a bag of the one you like.
  • Other Hawaiian roasters — I did not get to visit them, but I heard great things about Big Island Roasters from the coffee professionals I spoke with. I can personally vouch for Paradise Roasters, whose tasting I went to in Hilo. Paradise is based in Ramsey, MN, but their coffee guru has been living on the Big Island for several years and they have a roastery on the island as well, where they roast Hawaiian beans as well as great beans sourced from around Asia and the rest of the world.

Coffee shops

  • The Curb (Honolulu, Oahu) — They’ve only been around for about two years, but everybody I talked to told me to go there, and I was not disappointed. The place even has groupies, one of whom drove me from their first location to their newest and then took me on a driving tour around Oahu. Excellent pourover coffee and very knowledgeable staff. (E.g., they close shop for coffee conventions on the mainland, so that all their staff can attend.)
  • Daylight Mind (Kailua-Kona, Oahu) — This is far and away the best coffee shop in Kona. They are starting to train some smaller shops, like the Sweet Spot and the Green Flash, but these guys are the originals and, in my opinion at least, still the best. They also have the best view from any coffee shop I’ve ever been in, since they’re right on the ocean. Yoga class in the mornings, if you like the idea of yoga on the ocean before or after your morning coffee.
  • 9bar HNL (Honolulu, Oahu) — My favorite espresso in Hawaii. Modern vibe, except their pastry box looks like it’s from a school bake sale.
  • Coffee Talk (Kapaa, Kauai) — Damn good espresso made with love by Ken, who’s from the island. Ken got the coffee bug working in a Borders on Kauai several years ago and clearly knows his stuff. He recommended some farms on the Big Island, but I had already left. 😦
  • Arvo Cafe (Honolulu, Oahu) — A cute Aussie-style coffee shop with excellent food. The coffee was fine, but I was expecting better. Still worth a visit for the food and the garden store it shares space with.
  • Java Kai (Kapaa, Kauai) — Great pastries and an easier place to sit down with friends than Coffee Talk. The coffee is solid.
  • Other Kauai shops — Cortado Coffee and Dark Roost are near each other and both are fun stops, set up in food trucks. I tried the iced Coco Loco at Cortado, but sadly made it out of Hawaii without ever trying a loco moco. Dark Roost is inside a fun little shopping center in a warehouse that becomes a bustling market on Fridays.

Kona farm tours

  • Greenwell — Start here: Kona old-school and a necessary stop if you’re into coffee enough to have read this far down.
  • Buddha’s Cup — They’re renovating, but the place will be really cool in a few months with a new visitor center and even an amphitheater (!).
  • Hula Daddy — Much easier to drive to than Buddha’s Cup, with a fun tour and excellent coffee. They know their coffee and invest in their staff’s coffee development. I got some cupping pointers from the owner and from their head roaster.
  • UCC and Doutor — Farms owned and operated by Japanese coffee chains. The coffee is fine, not great, but UCC had one of the most informative tours I went on, and they’ll even let you roast your own beans on-site. Doutor is next door and worth seeing just for their gardens. At the end of the self-directed tour, you can sample their coffees while enjoying a spectacular view of the ocean. If you’re not that into coffee but want to see how it’s traditionally grown, these two are a good alternative to Greenwell.