May 2, 2014
A Response and a Contribution to James’ Post on How To Progress in Coffee

James Hoffmann’s articles are always worth their weight in gold, but this little meditation  is especially valuable to young coffee pros seeking to make a career in coffee. 

I was moved to add my own thoughts to the thread, and knowing that James invites blog-responses to his articles, I thought I’d add a little to his thoughts.

A preface: I was a young and enthusiastic coffee bar manager and aspiring trainer when I heard about an organization called SCAA which was teaching coffee classes at their headquarters, about 1.5 hours away from my house. In retrospect, deciding to attend that class was probably the turning point in my coffee career. Although learning the material itself was a big deal (it was my first exposure to the brewing chart) it was life-changing for another reason. The teachers became two of the most important coffee mentors for me. Through my activity with the association, I met other mentors, and these people became my teachers, my allies, my coaches, my friends, and they helped build the foundation of my coffee career.

The Importance of Mentorship

The only thing i have to add to James’ article is an extension of his third and fourth points. Once an aspiring coffee professional becomes active in the coffee community, they gain access to other coffee people. Ideally, the young professional might establish a relationship with more experienced coffee pros, and a mentorship can take root. These relationships are a significant way knowledge, wisdom, and values are passed from one coffee generation to another. Mentorships are a key element of a healthy community, and they can be hugely valuable to the individuals involved. In order to encourage and maximize the quality of these, I offer some advice- based on my own experience and observation- to young coffee professionals seeking to engage with mentors.

1. Don’t expect to be spoonfed knowledge.

I might’ve worded this a slightly different way, but I went with James’ phrasing for emphasis’ sake. The important thing to remember here is that mentorship is a two way street. The mentor provides time, information, caring, and advice to the mentee. But what does the mentee provide? One very important element is commitment. Commitment means taking the advice on offer seriously (you shouldn’t always follow the advice, just listen to it). It also means staying engaged with the process. It is quite commonplace for a mentee to disengage accidentally from a mentor, effectively stopping “showing up” for the relationship. In exchange for the wisdom and advice of a mentor, the least you can do is remain engaged and available. Cultivating these relationships is probably the best investment you can make in your career. In addition to commitment, a mentee can contribute to their mentor’s work through volunteering to help (if the mentor is working on a project). Often a good mentor is a leader, and leaders always need people to help achieve their vision. Sign up and help your mentor achieve their vision, and it will pay off in a multitude of ways: you’ll learn a ton in the process, you’ll be a part of something cool, and you’ll earn the right to ask for support when it’s time to execute your vision.

2. Ask for advice, then consider it.

I mentioned this above, but the powerful element here is to ask. This is hard to do, because our culture for some reason conditions us to be embarrassed about asking advice. There is no more powerful act in the world than to ask a question and listen to the answer. The “listen” part is important.

3. Practice humility.

One of the great things about coffee is the youthful energy that permeates our culture. One of the classic companions to youthful energy, however, is arrogance. Here’s a personal reflection. Pretty much every “original idea” I ever had as a young gun in the coffee industry, I later learned had been thought of and acted upon long before I ever got to the scene. Innovation is not an individual act, it is the slow, progressive building of intention and experiment. The energy that fills young coffee pros emboldened by their fresh ideas is amazing and powerful. It’s important for them to realize that the idea is 98% inherited. Don’t go around talking like a trailblazer, because it’s likely that those with more wisdom than you will find that comical. A little humility will make you much more available and welcoming to those who have critical information to share with you.

4. Your best mentor might not be who you expect.

I had a chat with a respected third wave coffee retailer recently, and he told me that he had developed a strong mentor relationship with a second waver in a nearby city. These two people have much different approaches to coffee and retail and service, but it’s a hugely valuable relationship for the third wave mentee. Part of the idea should be to seek out people with different perspectives than you, to challenge your beliefs and sharpen your ideas. 

5. Repay the generosity.

Part of being in a community is giving back to that community. My rule of thumb is that I try to put back 2x what I take out of any activity. If a mentor gives me an hour of her time, I try to give away two of my hours to them or to someone else or the community. This can take the form of in-turn mentorship, or better yet selfless, quiet acts of contribution.  I observed a long-term specialty coffee leader doing dishes at a barista competition one time. I asked what was up, and he said “these dishes needed doing.” That was it. I understood.

This is probably to be continued, as it’s something that I’m really passionate about. So, more to come.

April 4, 2014
The Nonverbals of Coffee

Ok. Play along with me here: imagine yourself outside of yourself, like you’re watching yourself enjoying coffee from across the room. I mean you’re really enjoying it. Now notice your body language: what are your hands doing? What are your shoulders doing? Your eyes? Your arms?

Body language- called kinesics by some researchers- is the part of nonverbal communication that relates to body motion and posture. I think it’s important for two reasons: it communicates feeling to another, and it also can reinforce one’s own emotion and perception: stand up straight, and you seem powerful to others, and you also feel powerful. What does this have to do with coffee?

I began to think about coffee kinesics when considering cup design. Could the shape of a cup; i.e. how it encourages the coffee drinker to hold it- affect the way the coffee drinker feels about the coffee they are drinking? Clearly, feeling is important: Tracy Ging’s amazing work (if you haven’t seen it yet, watch her Symposium talk here) explores the importance of emotion to coffee consumers, particularly feelings of love for coffee, and the feeling of power coffee gives people. But more about those feelings later.

So, could cup design guide the drinker into a posture that reflects and reinforces the desired emotional reaction to coffee? And what would that posture be? I had a guess on what the ideal coffee posture was, but I wanted to check. So I did a google image search for woman holding coffee. And there it was. My imagined “loving coffee” posture was reflected in the vast majority of the photos: hands cradling the coffee, almost embracing it. It’s the pose of someone holding something precious and special. I see this pose all the time, even in the wild. I snapped this photo in a cafe in New Zealand:

I call this the “cradling pose”. Shoulders up, hands cradling the coffee, face near the surface of the coffee to feel the warmth and smell the beautiful aroma. This is the posture of coffee love. Now: if this is the way people want to cradle their coffee, shouldn’t we serve coffee in cups designed to let them? It’s obvious that bowl shapes are perfect for this. I can’t help but think of the “Bowl of Soul” served by the great shop named Java in Sun Valley, Idaho: they have special bowls hand-thrown by a local ceramicist- complete with thumb-notch- to serve this warming and delicious coffee drink.

Could it be that the cradling pose is the ideal expression of coffee-drinking kinesics? Could be, I kind of think so. The ability to cradle, hunch my shoulders, smell the coffee, embrace it and bury myself in it is part of my daily ritual, and it’s the reason I drink from a classic, rounded coffee cup or a bowl. I tend to serve coffee to people that same way when I want them to feel the coffee is precious and special, and I model the posture (without saying anything, of course), myself holding the cup with two hands, smelling it deeply. It’s probably not a coincidence that it is the classic holding coffee cherries posture, and holding coffee beans posture.

But you no doubt noticed it was woman holding coffee I googled. Turns out there is another posture, easily seen by googling “man holding coffee”. Most of these images have the following kinesic posture: one hand gripping a cup by its handle or around its throat: this is what I call the “power posture”. The coffee drinker looks as if he might be clutching a weapon of some kind: like Gandalf clutches his staff, or Princess Leia grips her blaster. This is coffee as a source of power, of dominance, and of energy. This is literally “grabbing a coffee”. The mug (with its pistol-like grip) and the to-go cup (wielded like a sword) are perfect for this posture, and seem to mean “this coffee gives me power and energy for the dragons I am about to slay later today”. I would give people coffee in this kind of cup if I were sending them away to work, giving them fuel for the day. 

You’ve surely noticed a gender nuance here, which probably exists to some extent, but by no means is this effect gender-specific. Men are perfectly capable of cradling and loving coffee, and women use coffee as a power source just like anyone does. This isn’t about gender, it’s about posture.  Now: do you notice that the two coffee drinking postures I describe (cradling/loving coffee and the coffee power posture) correspond to two main groups of emotions described in the SCAA Consumer study (deep love of coffee and coffee as giver of energy). 

Can we use these observations to design better coffee experiences, that are more emotionally resonant and satisfying? Can we use this in our marketing?(hint: we already do) These things I ponder as I cradle my little porcelain cup.

April 2, 2014

Anonymous said: Hi Peter, Recently when I submitted two identical coffee beers to a competition, one was judged as having an intense bell pepper aroma and flavor, whereas the other did not. The only difference between the beers, was that one was submitted in a vessel purged with carbon dioxide before filling (no bell pepper), whereas the other was submitted in a vessel that was not purged before filling. Do you think the difference can be attributed to oxidation, or potentially roast level and exposure time?

I think it’s probably the first thing: I can imagine oxidation can smell like bell pepper!

March 13, 2014

Anonymous said: What the best roaster to order Ethiopian coffee with the option for them to grind ? I have an Aeropress. What the best grind and do you have a certain method to brew in Aeropress ?

Hi! Many of the best roasters don’t grind before shipping, because coffee is so much better when freshly ground! Aeropresses require fine grinding.

December 24, 2013
On the Geography of Coffee Bar Language - The Survey Results!

A few days ago, inspired by the awesome New York Times feature "How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk" I thought I might apply a small part of this idea to coffee. After all, there is a bunch of variation in coffee language across the United States: most people who travel for coffee at some point notice that there are variations in language (what do you call that drink?) in cities across our great country. I set out to find out if some of my own observations were true! So, I set up a little quiz:  ten questions off the top of my head based on things I’ve noticed over the years. A little over 400 people took the quiz, mostly from the U.S. but also in Europe, Austrailia, New Zealand and South Africa. Want results? Ok! Read on:

What is Brewed Coffee with Espresso Called?

You don’t have to work at a coffee bar very long before some maniac asks you to put an espresso in a cup of coffee. In the 80s and 90s, this combo began appearing on coffee bar menus, but because the drink was not “classic”, it earned a variety of names. Could it be that these names were geographically organized? Consult the map and see for yourself.

As is instantly apparent, the closer you are to New York, the more likely you are to call the drink a “Red Eye”, and the closer you are to Seattle, the more likely you are to call it a “Shot In The Dark”. How about that? There are a couple other names, too: shown in yellow, the term “Hammerhead” seems to be restricted to San Diego and the Bay Area (probably due to influence from my alma mater, the Pannikin). There were a  number of write-ins (shown in green) in the Midwest which called the drink a “Depth Charge”. Barista Seth Lester speculated that this might be because of Caribou Coffee’s influence. Indeed, research supports this theory: Caribou has in fact registered the name as their copyright! I would speculate that Shot in the Dark and Red Eye have similar single-shop origins, and center-of-origin data indicates these shops might be in Tacoma and Philadelphia, respectively.

The Mysterious Mocha.

This is an interesting one. First of all, I wanted to establish how people make the ubiquitous coffee-and-chocolate drink. Turns out, most everyone combines espresso, steamed milk, and chocolate syrup in the serving cup. Only a few in the Southwest and East Coast combine espresso and steamed hot chocolate, and a number of write ins (shown in yellow) specified “Chocolate Ganache”. Only a tiny handful make a mocha with brewed coffee. This leads to the next question, what do we call it? I was working on a theory: since the coffee-and-milk drink Café au Lait (from the French) is usually made with brewed coffee and the Caffè Latte (from the Italian) is made with espresso, I thought perhaps Mocha might follow the same pattern. It does not. (click here for map). The neutral term “Mocha” is most popular, followed in almost equal measure by “Café Mocha” (2nd most popular) and “Caffè Mocha” (3rd, but almost equal).  There does not appear to be any geographic influence in the U.S. However, check out Europe: only one respondent used ”Caffè Mocha” (someone from Luxenbourg). Since the drink was presumably invented in Vienna, let’s pay special attention to respondents from Austria: one says “Mocha” and the other “Café Mocha”.

Just Give Me The Regular

So, first off, apparently people from New England don’t like to take web surveys. This is disappointing, considering that perhaps the definitive regionally-specific coffee drink is “Coffee Regular”, which is said to be exclusive to the American Northeast. Though no actual New Englanders were available for comment, it’s clear that an order of “Coffee, regular” has a chance of getting you a cup of coffee with half and half and sugar in the Northeast, although usually you’ll just get a cup of black coffee. Charmingly, a handful of Europeans seem to know this tradition, or else it originated in Europe and made it across the Atlantic. Most write-ins were baristas who thought they might go deeper into the question with their customer.

A Cortado is not a minivan, neither is a Gibraltar

I thought a good one to address would be the cortado/gibraltar thing. Really gaining in popularity over the past few years, a teeny rocks glass with espresso and textured milk in it is a delicious thing. Famously christened a “Gibraltar” (after a brand of glassware) at Ritual Coffee in San Francisco, but also known as a “Cortado” (after a Spanish drink), I thought it would be interesting to see the geographic distribution of these names. It was! (map here)  Indeed, Cortado is more popular than Gibraltar everywhere except the San Francisco bay area, where Gibraltar trounced it, and for some reason Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have no explanation for this except that I’m pretty sure it has something to do with Noah Namowicz.

Porcelain or Glass?

I first learned to make Caffè Lattes in a tall glass (wrapped with a paper napkin for safety!) but now I see them mostly in giant porcelain cups. Of course, I wondered if there was a geographic connection and indeed there may be: Lattès in glass seems to be a San Francisco thing, where you stand a reasonable chance of getting served the drink that way. For some reason, North Carolina has a similar demographic, and New Orleans seems to accept the practice.

The noun is variety, you guys

Of course, everyone who knows me understands there is no way I could do a study on coffee language without my personal bête noire, the use of “varietal” as a noun instead of as an adjective. As such, this is the only question in the quiz that had a “wrong” answer. I know, I know, the wine guys do it. Anyhow, geographically, the East Coast showed their strength- and the Southeast in particular!- by having the highest percentage use “Coffee Variety”. I SALUTE YOU ON THAT FARAWAY COAST! Others sought extra credit by writing in “Cultivar” which I suppose is a pass. 

This was super fun you guys! I look forward to doing this again in the future.

September 30, 2013
"2-1B": Coffee Variety or Star Wars Character?

My heart stopped any number of times during Empire Strikes Back. By the way, have you noticed that a disproportionate number of the Star Wars characters I mention are from the Empire Strikes Back? That’s because it is by far the best Star Wars movie. Mostly because it made my heart stop any number of times.  The good thing was that 2-1B was there to get it going again, or rather he was there to fix up Luke Skywalker even though he got beat up pretty well in Empire.  After the whole ordeal on Hoth, 2-1B was the one who got Luke unfrozen and stitched up well enough to fly a snowspeeder, take down an AT-AT, and beat it to Dagobah.

Later in the movie, it was the same droid who got Luke fixed up with a mechanical hand after Vader chopped it off.

September 30, 2013
"IH-90": Coffee Variety or Star Wars Character?

One of the wonderful things about coffee is that coffee-producing countries create agricultural promotion organizations, whose job it is to help the coffee industry in that country flourish.  In Honduras, the organization is called the Instituto Hondureño del Café, aka IHCAFE.  Among many other things, IHCAFE works on coffee breeding, and in the 1980s developed a variety called IH-90, aka IHCAFE-90.  It is apparently a Catimor type, meaning that it has both Caturra (which is a dwarf Bourbon) and Variety Timor (which is an Arabica-Robusta hybrid) in its lineage. The Caturra gives it small, compact stature and high productivity, and the Timor gives it disease resistance. Great, right? Well, the problem is of course that Catimor types have a tendency to lower quality.  Once again, the tension between cup quality and farmer benefits rears its head. 

IH-90 from Tim Wendelboe

Coffee buyers have a prejudice against varieties like IH-90, on account of the quality thing. However, disease-resistant Catimors of this kind have been important in stemming the spread of Rust disease this year. It’s important to recognize the important positive effect organizations like IHCAFE and the varieties they produce have, at the same time that we advocate for better-tasting AND disease resistant AND highly productive varieties.

September 30, 2013
"IG-88", Coffee Variety or Star Wars Character?

Is there something about intergalactic bounty hunters that makes their name sound like a coffee variety?  In the heady days of Empire Strikes Back, my brother and I went into a frenzy of wanting Star Wars figures. I was more or less fixated on Boba Fett, and got an AMAZING 12 inch tall Boba Fett figure. My parents, wanting to spread out the bounty, got Paul a 12 inch IG-88.

IG-88 has a backstory, I’m sure, but the cool thing about him was that he was an assasin droid who LACKED EYES. He had a few lights and tubes up around his face, but they weren’t eyes. IG-88 was therefore a soulless badass robot carrying two machine guns and wearing a bandolier. That’s like a perfect recipe for a 12 year old kid. 


September 30, 2013
"SL-34", Coffee Variety or Star Wars Character?

Although SL-34 sounds like a droid, alas it is not. SL-34 is one of the famous varieties of Kenya.  Like its more famous Kenyan comrade SL-28, SL-34 is a relatively old-school Kenyan variety, apparently identified by a project by Scott Labs in the early 20th century.  These two varieties have an almost mystical reputation among coffee buyers, who see SL-28 and Sl-34 as two of the most glorious coffee varieties ever planted. Though I am inclined to agree, it’s a bit difficult since it’s so rare to taste these varieties by themselves. Sources in Kenya tell us, however, that indeed SL-24 is responsible for a lot of the greatness of Kenyan coffee and that it is a descendant of coffees brought from Bourbon by French Missionaries, which are therefore called “French Mission Bourbon” in Kenya.  

Photo of SL-34 from Coffee Collective’s flickr page.

The bad news about SL-34 is that, like SL-28, it’s susceptible to disease, especially the dreaded Coffee Berry Disease which is a giant problem in East Africa. This reality creates a palpable tension in East Africa: do farmers plant susceptible varieties with a reputation for high quality, or instead plant disease-resistant modern varieties with a lower quality reputation? This tension makes solid evaluation of quality (as opposed to rumor and reputation) of primary importance everywhere in the coffee world, particularly during variety development.

September 29, 2013
"Degu": Coffee variety or Star Wars Character?

This is kind of a weird one. So, everyone always lists “Ethiopian Heirloom Varieties” on their labels, partially because it is really hard to sort out the varieties that exist in Ethiopia.  Thing is, the varieties that are cultivated in Ethiopia are known and have names, just like everywhere else.  One year, I decided to learn all I could about Yirgacheffe, so I spent a number of days there, cruising around and talking to everyone  who would talk to me. I was trying to document all of the subregions of Yirgacheffe (each hamlet in that area has a name, and the coffees can vary dramatically even within that small Yirgacheffe area) and get some detail on the coffee culture of that area. When I would ask about varieties, one that would come up sometimes was called “Degu”. It seemed to me that Degu was more common to the East of Yirgacheffe than to the West, I finally got to see my first Degu tree when I visited the hamlet of Idido, a few miles due East of Yirgacheffe. When I saw it, I was shocked:

Here is a Degu cherry. See those little leaves growing out of the end of it? Each cherry had these wee leaves, growing out of the end of the cherry. Isn’t that weird? The cherries of Degu are big and round and beautiful, they look like plump grapes. They are a bright orangey-red, almost vermillion in color. On that trip, I developed the hypothesis that perhaps some of the variation we experience in flavor in different areas around Yirgacheffe is due to different proportions of varieties. It’s a pet hypothesis I maintain still.

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