“It tastes like a penny covered in baked beans covered in blood.”
Byard Duncan, a staffer at the Blue Bottle Coffee Company, is leaning casually against a table in the cupping room at the flagship store here on Webster Street in Oakland, California. It’s clear he’s done this before. It is not 100 percent clear whether he’s joking.
James Freeman, Blue Bottle’s founder, doesn’t miss a beat. He bobs his head up from his smartphone and feints a jab at no one in particular. “Like someone punched you in the nose?”
I think I’m glad we’re not here to try that one.
I know nothing important about coffee, but I’ve been invited to the inner sanctum of what is perhaps the most obsessive — and celebrated — coffee roaster in America. Freeman, a puckish forty-something former clarinetist, is said to know the exact progeny of every bean in his shops. Freshness is a science. Delicately roasted whole beans are delivered to buyers within forty-eight hours or they’re discarded. The difference in quality compared to plain old regular coffee can be inferred from the long lines at crowded Blue Bottle locations, like 66 Mint Street in San Francisco, where customers can wait for ten minutes or longer for a hot five-dollar drink.
It’s a formula that’s been eleven years in the making, from its origins at a tiny cart in Oakland to a full-blown movement that encompasses equally heralded rivals, like Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon. The obsessiveness might strike nonbelievers as cultish, but it’s not crazy enough to scare off investors (disclosure: Medium founder Ev Williams is one). Freeman sold a controlling stake in the company last summer for about twenty million dollars but remains closely involved.
He and the co-owners are currently planning to expand Blue Bottle beyond its ten existing stores by opening new shops, one in New York City (Hell’s Kitchen) and another in the Bay Area (SF’s Divisadero corridor — maybe — if the right spot could be found). With Blue Bottle’s sidelines in baking and book publishing, it’s easy to see the sturdy contours and reach of this handcrafted coffee empire.
My interest is indirect. A few weeks ago I’d assigned our Medium for Haiti collection editor, Tate Watkins, to write about Haitian coffee and investigate why it’s so hard to find in the giant export market right on Haiti’s doorstep, the United States (see our related article, “Selling Haitian Coffee to American Hipsters”).
Does Haitian coffee taste any good? And by good, I mean good enough for beard-stroking urban hipsters to request it by name…
Coffee is a lucrative crop for many developing countries, and Haiti has cultivated it for centuries. It was a significant exporter of coffee beans in the late 1700s, and again during WWII, but then production collapsed. In the wake of the the devastating 2010 earthquake that flattened Port-au-Prince and killed over a hundred thousand people, it remains desperate for cash and economic opportunity of any kind. Could these beans on the counter in front of us, four small bags in all, offer a way out?
It’s no secret that Haitian coffee exporters face some daunting hurdles. “You need a lot of infrastructure,” deadpans Freeman, looking up from his smartphone once again. “How long before the beans get to market? How many chickens shit on the bags in the trucks on the way?”
I have no ideas about how to fix such problems. I’m basically here to find out one thing: Does Haitian coffee taste any good? And by good, I mean good enough for beard-stroking urban hipsters to request it by name from specialty-shop blackboards filled with enticing varietals from Indonesia, Central America, East Africa, and Hawaii. Assuming the beans could get to market in reasonably good shape — a big if — would Haitian growers even stand a chance in the upscale contemporary world of coffee snobs?
If anyone could answer that question, I guessed, it would be James Freeman. A meeting was brokered. (All credit goes to my colleague Charlotte Druckman, Medium’s Living Editor, for making the introduction — thank you!) Beans are procured — the green kind that have been hulled and washed for the export market. Blue Bottle’s experts have them roasted and ground them to their exacting standards. So, on a recent afternoon, I arrived in Oakland to be schooled in — what, the science? the art? — screw it, the religion of coffee.
Stephen Vick, Blue Bottle’s green-coffee buyer, and Vick’s assistant, Bennett Cross, greet us. On the table, set out in little white bowls, are the four Haitian coffees we’d arranged to have shipped in, and three controls, from Ecuador, Indonesia, and, as we find out later, Ethiopia. The specific identities of the beans have been hidden, and the bowls are labeled simply A through G.
Vick travels the globe in search of amazing coffee, work that frequently takes him to places like East Africa, where he will go in the next few weeks on a new buying expedition. He’s also deeply interested in sustainable development in coffee-growing regions, many of which happen to be some of the poorest areas in the world.
Sporting a not-quite-Portlandia beard and fashionably nerdy glasses, he genially begins to walk us through the basics of what is about to transpire. First we’ll examine the roasts for color and possible defects in the preparation. Next we’ll smell the coffee dry and judge each for aroma. (“Open your mouth when you inhale to get the best results,” he instructs.) Then we’ll steep the grounds for several minutes, and smell it a second time while stirring the surface with a spoon, a process called breaking. This releases new aroma characteristics.
Once we are done smelling, we’ll move to tasting. To get the most flavor, we’ll aerate the liquid by slurping it profusely. This adds air to the mix and increases the character. Done the Vick way, it sounds like a sheet of paper getting torn in half. We wait another few minutes to allow the coffee to cool and new flavors to bloom, and then repeat the process.
Vick hands us clipboards and asks us to record our impressions on a scorecard as we go. “I find it’s very useful to hear raw reactions,” he says, graciously skirting the fact that no one on the Medium team is qualified to say anything at all about coffee’s worthiness. Vick, meanwhile, will go whole hog and assign a number grade to each one. To consider a coffee for commercial purchase, Blue Bottle requires a minimum score of 85 out of a possible 100, while anything below 80 for aspiring high-end specialty coffeeswould be a major failure.
Before we start, Freeman tells me to forget all that.
“You need to become an expert in your own preferences,” he says of the craft of tasting. He is utterly devoid of pretension. I believe him. “People get so caught up in what others in the coffee community might think. It’s more important to be happy and have coffee you like.”
We approach the table and look at the grounds. Vick spills a tablespoon or so on the counter, rubs them with his fingers, and declares the roasting a success. When we get to the third Haitian one he pauses. “This one looks overroasted,” he says, noting its relatively darker hue. Cross, his assistant, who did the roasting, looks embarrassed, but can’t explain it. All seven coffees got the same treatment, he says. We press on.
We start the smelling phase with an Ecuadorian. I take in a heady whiff of coffee. I want to say… ”Chocolate?” Vick heartily agrees, and I’m feeling pretty good until he reels off a string of other adjectives: “Citrus. Raspberry,” he says, before declaring it a classic Central American style.
I try to keep up. Freeman has already smelled all the samples. I’m just starting on the second one. I take a deep breath and clear my mind, waiting for adjectives to pop unbidden to my lips. Chocolate. Crap. Chocolate…. Chocolate. Earthy. I say nothing.
“High floral notes, pomegranate,” says Vick. Freeman nods.
Now we’re into the Haitians and I draw a complete blank. On my card I scrawl a note.
Vick dismisses this coffee. “It smells like old beans. Kind of musty.”
“You need to become an expert in your own preferences.”
— Blue Bottle founder James Freeman
I’m lost. We reach the sixth sample, which is the last of the Haitians. “Pepper,” I write, and I’m shocked when Vick asks if we can all smell that big hit of peppers.
“I actually did write that down,” I say, waving my notes.
We’re finally down to the last one, an Indonesian, and the scent of grapefruit is almost overpowering. I write down “fruit” with confidence. Everyone agrees. Vick calls it a really unique bean. It’s too unusual to stand on its own, but they’ve already ordered it in bulk for a blend they’re developing.
Score one for the Indonesians.
By now the beans have steeped, and we circle for the next round of aromas. Freeman calls out the second set. “I’m really surprised at how well that one opened up with the water,” he says.
Vick admits it’s an Ethiopian.
“Sneaky,” says Freeman.
We start the tasting and the room fills with the sounds of slurping. Everyone has a slightly different technique — call it a slurping personality. Vick’s is almost violent. Freeman’s is gentle by contrast.
We make our way through the line and finish with the distinctly fruity Indonesian. Freeman swings back and stands by sample D. “This one is my favorite Haitian,” he says decisively. Vick agrees, detecting berries and citrus. “This tastes like brown sugar…. A nice, sweet coffee.”
Vick starts handing out his number grades, more art than science. The Ecuadorian gets an 84. The Ethiopian scores an 87. Then the Haitians: 83, 84.5, 83, 81. Finally the Indonesian: 86. It feels like an Olympic gymnastics competition, where a half-point can be the difference between going home with a medal or with nothing at all.
Everyone is quiet. Freeman breaks the silence to offer his judgment. “There is no compelling reason why we have to have this coffee,” he says matter-of-factly. And with that, it’s clear these Haitian coffees won’t be coming to Blue Bottle any time soon. We exchange a few more pleasantries, and then he bids us farewell, checking his phone as he heads out the door.
I still haven’t fully absorbed the defeat. I turn to Vick. “So, I wanted to find out if these Haitian coffees could compete in the global coffee market, and it looks like the answer is maybe not,” I venture.
“Oh, no,” he says. “They’re absolutely ready to compete. These are all high-end specialty coffees. None of them has any defects. The second Haitian is very high quality, very interesting. People would buy that.”
“But the Ethiopian won,” I say, confused.
“Ethiopia always wins,” says Cross with a shrug. “It’s the altitude.”
We wander back to the table and look over the tiny bags of Haitian beans. Two are marked “Rebo,” the biggest coffee producer in Haiti. One says “Verte,” French for green, the style of washed bean normally used for export. The other says “Naturel.”
“Hey,” Cross calls over to Vick. “This one isn’t green. It’s a natural bean.” Recognition lights in his eyes. “So that’s why it didn’t roast the same as the others. It wasn’t me after all.”