Barista Magazine

DEC 2018 - JAN 2019

Serving People Serving Coffee Since 2005

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doing well. People actually wanted to read about coffee. They wanted to learn along with me, which was cool. BMag: So how did you end up in the East Bay in Northern California from Ohio? TO: Eventually the business was doing better, and I paid myself a salary after two years. And Maria wasn't too happy with her job, so we started thinking about where we would like to live and have the business operate. Returning to the Bay Area, where we had lived before Ohio, seemed like the best option. It was defi nitely great to fi nd a warehouse in Emeryville, so close to the coffee importers I had been buying from, as well as the port. I felt like I was in the hub of the coffee world—[it was] completely different from Columbus, Ohio. I'm not sure how I felt about that after a while. I kind of preferred looking at the coffee trade from the hinterlands. BMag: How have you seen the home-roasting market change in the more than 20 years you've worked in it? Has the knowledge level of your customers changed and/or varieties/types of coffee that they've been looking to buy? TO: Home roasting has always seemed to me like this weird wart on the body of specialty coffee. It's not really hip. It's not very bespoke and crafty to roast in a popcorn popper. But it works well enough, and on a good day, very, very well. That's because, within reason, good roasting is about putting good green coffee into a machine that turns it brown, and using your experience to decide what to do with it given the limitations of the machine. I knew that you couldn't start with bad green coffee and make it taste good, just because it was fresh and you did it yourself. I knew that from experience, since on my fi rst green-coffee buy, I bought a bag of past-crop Ethiopia Jimma Grade 5. Nothing was going to make it taste good. I also knew that if the green coffee was good, and you roasted it OK, you could have amazing aroma and a really vibrant cup. If a person liked to explore fl avor, with not much time or investment, they could train themselves to produce the coffee they liked in this whole new arc of freshness. So it all made sense to me, but who exactly would want to do this—I didn't know. I fi gured college students and engineers. Or maybe people who moved from a coffee city like Seattle to Kokomo, Ind., and missed the coffee they had enjoyed. (Sorry, Kokomo.) One thing I knew was that I didn't want to convince people to roast their own coffee. I didn't want to sell [home roasting]. I just wanted them to fi nd the website and decide for themselves. I liked pointing out the downsides of things. It was hard right off though, as I found myself accidentally slipping into this schmaltzy language of superlatives, because specialty coffee is so fi lled with that crap: "the fi nest, most authentic, true Italian" blah, blah, blah. I also knew I needed to really focus on green coffee, and I had to do a lot better than past-crop Jimma Grade 5. What I found is that there was no place to learn at all. There was Ukers (Ukers' International Tea and Coffee Buyers' Guide) from 1936 and that little paperback and this book by Schapira in the '70s (The Book of Coffee and Tea). There were some coffee magazines and of course Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, which was a hoot. There was a column by a guy who wrote each month on a different European café. There was some basic info in there, but a lot of drivel. So I just started writing what I learned as I learned it, just kind of sharing everything. That could be embarrassing when it was wrong stuff, but I was doing my best. BMag: You're one of the early adopters as far as source travel and direct relationships with producers. It seems like the work that folks like you, Duane Sorenson from Stumptown, Geoff Watts from Intelligentsia, and others did back then really shaped the accessibility that exists for roast- ers/importers buying directly from producers. How did you establish those relationships, and how have you seen them evolve? TO: I have to credit the Cup of Excellence program with the jump- start on producer relationships, on separating small lots, and getting exporters to consider that as a real business. I think that was true with those other companies, too. We were able have a ton of coffees put in front of us despite the fact that all of us independently or collec- tively were small peanuts as coffee buyers. We could learn about the real quality potential of a country by tasting it, not through marketing material about coffee regions. It made small-lot importation and working with a smaller farmer seem possible. Before that, we had what I think of as the "estate era." People would get coffee from the old, established farms, and make sure the name had Hacienda or Estate in it. It was a reference to the romance of colonialism, or the pastoral life of ease of the old families—those endowed with prime land. It was very suspect. On the fl ip side, especially when coffee prices crashed below cost of pro- duction, there was a lot of momentum in the Fair Trade movement, and those all had "co-op" in the name, because "co-op" equaled good/ guilt-free. So it was interesting to see these competing representa- tions of this fi ction of origin. Anyhoo, Cup of Excellence really helped roasters get experience, and [it opened] doors. I'm not sure if it is relevant in the same way now, granting access to a new set of roasters, many in Asia. There were some other travel opportunities, too, like Royal would take a couple roasters on a trip with them. One of my fi rst was to Guatemala with Royal, and the second was to a nascent Best of Panama competition. I guess I am just tired of coffee improving itself via competitions in general, and felt like these events should have grown into something else, focused on helping small farmers get access to good prices from stable buyers. So parlaying the contacts of a cupping event into farm visits, and years of a buying relationship seems good. The same farm winning 10 times does not. Now you have a lot of young exporters, some are daughters and sons of fancy estates, doing that kind of work, spreading out to work with small farmers and link them to roasters. That seems positive. BMag: One other question: Is it true that you have a greenhouse of coffee plants in Emeryville? TO: I have a lot of coffee plants, but the greenhouse is no more. The ants liked it too much, and I disliked the ants even more. But I do grow many varieties of coffee I collect when traveling, and it's just for the joy of seeing something grow. I probably have about 25 varieties of coffee. But now I offer the plants at Sweet Maria's when I have them in exchange for donation money to charities. Lately, it all goes to Planned Parenthood. If you've read the Sweet Maria's blog—and if you haven't, you should—you'll understand that Tom gave us much, much more interesting discussion of the state of the special- ty-coffee industry, home roasting, and many years of direct producer relationships and travel than we have room to print here in Barista Magazine. No worries—you can read it all in a series of outtakes at Barista Mag Online in the fi rst half of December via Be sure to tune in for Tom's thoughts on the challenges facing coffee cultiva- tion, the role of origin travel, and the fallacy of focusing too much on the role of the founder or icons like himself in the specialty-coffee world. 104 barista magazine

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