Both of my parents were born in California, as were my grandparents on my mom’s side. My great-grandparents owned a cattle ranch in Arizona, which I visited often as a child. I therefore feel the blood of the Southwest in my veins, the dry, golden expanse where Spanish seems like it should be the native language. Though people associate wheat-growing with climes farther north, we have our own tradition of wheat agriculture here. The Spanish planted wheat sometime in the 18th century in the Mexican state of Sonora, and the wheat fields spread from there, through Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and the giant central valley of California. By the middle of the 19th century, the White Sonora cultivar- which had adapted to survive the dry climate of the Southwest- was providing food for the booming western expansion: the pancakes of the 49er gold miners and the giant flour tortillas of the Texas-Mexican border were made exclusively of White Sonora wheat. Soft and flavorful, the cultivar was perfect for these foods. During the 20th century, however, farmers started to cultivate more productive varieties, and White Sonora was almost forgotten by the 1950s.
Enter Norman Borlaug, a visionary plant breeder who was trying to breed new, better wheat cultivars. Desiring to breed draught resistance into his wheat, he naturally turned to White Sonora, and named one of his ‘green revolution’ varieties Sonora 64 after the majestic Southwestern wheat. Though the parent White Sonora ceased to be produced commercially, its drought-resistant genes provided many new varieties with an ability to survive harsh summers as far away as India and Pakistan.
With some effort, one can still find original White Sonora flour, saved by heirloom-grain enthusiasts and grown by dedicated farmers. It’s best for making tortillas and pancakes, and the soft texture accompanies an intense wheat flavor that will make you feel like you’ve never quite tasted wheat before. This flavor is the ancient echo of generations of Southwestern farmers, generations lost, who cultivated this golden land.
I’ve only tasted real wild strawberries- also called alpine strawberries- a couple of times. They are almost never sold since they go mushy in a few hours, so the ideal place to experience them is while traipsing through the forest, usually in Europe. Eating wild strawberries is a transcendent experience- the tiny fruits fill your entire head with an amazing perfume that is intoxicatingly compelling and heart-wrenching. Seriously, wild strawberries are the best thing ever.
The “garden strawberry”- which is the one you buy- is a different animal altogether. Bred from two species of strawberry native to North America, garden strawberries are pleasantly sweet, but lack the intensity and decadence of wild strawberries. Does this sound like an opportunity for a plant breeder? Well, French breeder Marionnet thought so, setting out to capture the compelling flavor of wild strawberries in a domesticated cultivar appropriate for the garden. In 1990, they wound up breeding four antique European cultivars, Gento, Ostara, Red Gauntlet and Korona, which together made magic: a tiny, velvety berry with that amazing wild strawberry aroma. They called it “Mara des Bois”, after the wild forest home of its untamed cousin. The thing is, garden strawberries usually last 10 days but Mara des Bois only will last 5, making them impossible to ship. Therefore, it’s rare to find these berries, even at farmers’ markets. I got a pint of Mara des Bois once at the secret-spot Chino Farms in Rancho Santa Fe, and ate them, warmed by the sun, while sitting on the grass of a nearby field- about the closest anyone can get to strawberry nirvana.
I’ll begin this one with a mind-blower. Ready? Broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, and kohlrabi are all cultivars of the same species, Brassica oleracea. Let that sink in for a minute. These diverse vegetables- which form the cornerstone of most everyone’s vegetable life- are all the same species; cultivated varieties of the wild mustard native to the northern shores of the Mediterranean. The beginnings of the domestication of this wild species are lost to history- even the ancient Greeks and Romans thought of them as prehistoric. Crazy.
My favorite cultivar within this species, however, has to be romanesco. Sometimes called broccoflower for its resemblance to it’s two sister cultivars, I actually think ‘psychedelic broccoli’ might be a better nickname. The flower buds of the plant emerge in fractal whorls, usually green, sometimes purple, always mind bending. Like everyone who cooks with romanesco, i have spent minutes staring, hypnotized by the very design of the vegetable while I should be washing or chopping or sauteing. It’s so crazy-techno looking, most people assume it’s a modern hybrid, a crazy broccoli-cauliflower techno mashup. It’s not- the romanesco was first identified in the 16th century, somewhere in central Italy (hence its name). It is therefore a product of the renaissance or even earlier, one of the wonderful myriad cultivars that are the product of Mediterranean traditional agriculture.
This cultivar story might turn out to be controversial. Let’s see! Papayas are native to the Americas, but have been grown in Hawaii for at least a hundred years. The best variety was known as the Kapoho Solo. Problem was, the variety- like all papayas- is susceptible to a disease called Papaya Ringspot Virus. Transmitted by aphids, the disease causes massive destruction in papaya crops. Outbreaks since the 1950s had essentially destroyed the Hawaiian papaya industry by the 1990s. Enter Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, a Hawaiian plant pathologist working with Cornell and the University of Hawaii, who- after trying older breeding techniques- turned to genetic engineering to address ringspot. Gonsalves and his colleagues wound up using a new technology called a “gene gun” to insert genes from the ringspot virus directly into the papaya’s genetic makeup, effectively conferring ringspot immunity to the plant. Crossed with Kapoho Solo, the result was called Rainbow Papaya. After years of testing, in 1998, seeds were distributed for free or at cost to Hawaiian farmers. Rainbow Papaya, a genetically engineered cultivar, has singlehandedly saved the Hawaiian papaya industry. April 6 is Dr. Dennis Gonsalves day in Hawaii.
Another cultivar story, about the best bean I have ever eaten. The common bean-Phaseolus vulgaris- is native to the Americas and was likely domesticated in Mesoamerica, in what is now Mexico. For the past seven thousand years or so, Native Americans have been cultivating and cooking beans, so by the time Europeans arrived there were hundreds of cultivars spread throughout the Americas. Enthusiasts and ethnobotanists have been collecting these beans for generations, and one variety was collected in 1935 from the Zuni tribe in New Mexico. It became known as Hopi Purple (the Hopi are the sister tribe of the Zuni) because of its distinct purple color: the dried beans are a kind of deep magenta with distinctive dark stripes running the length of the bean. These beans are beautiful in appearance, but they are also incredibly delicious: cooked as a soup bean like pintos, the liquid is sweet and compelling, the beans are at once delicate and robust. The first time I ate these beans I had the distinct feeling I would never think about beans the same way again.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. In the 1960s, archaeologists found a cave near the Rio Zape in Durango, Mexico. The cave was in a remote, dry area, and when explored revealed a chilling secret: the bodies of seven small children were buried within, sealed behind adobe along with offerings of food and precious items. Because of the climate, everything was well preserved, including the beans. The remains at the cave- now called la Cueva de los Muertos Chiquitos- were dated to about 600 CE, but archaeologists could clearly see that the ancient beans had a distinct purplish brown color and lateral stripe, just exactly like the Hopi Purple, collected a few hundred miles north and many hundreds of years later. Although we can’t yet know for sure, it seems like this cultivar may be at least 1400 years old! Since this discovery, the Hopi Purple is often called “Rio Zape” by bean enthusiasts who are both crazy for the flavor of it- as I am- and captivated by the idea that it seems to be a truly ancient cultivar. (Photo credit: Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo which is absolutely positively where you should buy Rio Zapes to cook for people you love)
If you’re uncomfortable with GMOs, imagine this: a new technique of plant breeding where instead of all the fussy precision of gene splicing, you just bombard the plant with radiation and see what random mutations arise, hoping for ones you like. Surprise! This technique exists, and it’s called radiation mutagenesis. Except it’s not new at all; it’s been around since the 1950s.
Texas has been growing grapefruit since the late 19th century, but these were white or pink cultivars. In the 20s, farmers started discovering red mutations, which were sweeter and more compelling. Texas “Ruby Red” grapefruit was the result. The only problem was, the red, sweet characteristic wasn’t super stable and could fade over time. Enter Dr. Richard Hensz, who decided to try radiation mutagenesis to develop new red grapefruit cultivars. He wound up creating a handful of new cultivars, including the Rio Ruby (aka Rio Sweet and Rio Star), which was ideal: super sweet, mouthwateringly delicious, and deep red in color. If you love Texas grapefruit as I do, you love Rio Ruby; it’s become the iconic Texas red grapefruit. So, thank you, Monsanto! Oh, except it wasn’t developed by Monsanto. Dr. Hensz worked for the Texas A&I Citrus Center (now known as the Texas A&M Citrus Center) and Rio Ruby seeds were given away for free to Texas farmers starting in 1984.
Strangely, though “GMOs” are forbidden by organic regulations and in Europe, radiation-bred mutations like Rio Ruby are not: you can (and I do!) buy these grapefruits certified organic, and they are a major cultivar grown in Spain. How’s that for a cultivar story?
People seemed to like that last cultivar story, so here is another:
The best thing about living in North Carolina were the tomatoes in summertime, which were markedly better than California tomatoes. The best tomato of all was the Cherokee Purple. Amazingly fragrant and complex and, well, tomato-y, I have never had a more compelling tomato than that one.
The story of the Cherokee Purple goes back only to 1990 when a Tennessean friend of amateur tomato enthusiast Craig LeHoullier sent him an envelope of seeds with a handwritten note, saying he had gotten them from an unnamed woman who in turn got them from her Cherokee neighbors. These mysterious seeds, when planted, developed fruits the color of “a bad leg bruise” but were delicious. Craig sent seeds out to some heirloom seed traders, and now the Cherokee Purple is super popular in home gardens, farmers markets and supermarkets as a perfect heirloom tomato. All of these descend from that one mysterious envelope of seeds with that one, mysterious, handwritten note. (is this sounding familiar?) Nobody knows who those neighbors were, or if there is actual Cherokee heritage here. What is for certain is that the variety is great.
If you’ve eaten an avocado and instantly fallen in love, it was probably a Hass. This cultivar of avocado is named after Rudolph Hass of La Habra, California, about 20 miles south of here. Rudolph, an amateur avocado grower, got three seeds from a friend, of mysterious origin. He planted them, and one made it into a seedling. Since the origin of seedling was unknown, Hass tried to graft other cultivars of avocado onto it. None worked. He decided to kill the tree, but another friend convinced him to let it grow. When it started to bear fruit, the avocados were black and nubbly, a clear failure. But they tasted kind of delicious, and Hass’ kids loved them. Soon, he started selling the unusual avos, and they caught on. By the 1930s he was selling them for $1 a piece, which today would be about $15 per avocado. Today, 80% of avocados grown worldwide are of the Hass variety, and every one is directly descended from that one tree in La Habra. Even today, nobody knows exactly where the Hass came from and why its fruits are so delicious. Imagine what life would be like had Hass successfully killed that seedling.
I pretty much never get tired of cultivar stories.
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.
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.