2013 Coffee Year in Review

in Brewing Coffee, Buying Coffee, Coffee News, Coffee Travel, Coffees of the World

2013 was a big year at MakeGoodCoffee.com.  Let’s take a look at what went down.

THE GOOD

  • Published in Roast Magazine

IMG_0658     In 2012, I traveled to Hawaii’s Big Island with Dave Cook, friend and owner of Fire Roasted Coffee in London, Ontario, Canada.  While there, we saw first-hand the damage being done by the borer beetle (‘la broca’ in Spanish) on coffee farms.  La broca is a common pest hurting coffee crops around the world and was positively identified in Hawaii’s Kona region in 2012.  This has been hurting supply of Hawaiian Kona coffee, and Dave was even turned away at farms when trying to buy from them.  Roast Magazine picked up our story and we were published in this year’s May/June issue.  Click here to check out the article in Roast Magazine.

  • Official Media Blogger at CoffeeCON

IMG_1619     This year, I was invited to be an official media blogger at CoffeeCON in Chicago.  To my knowledge, it’s the only coffee show for the coffee lover rather than the coffee professional.  It’s OUR coffee show, featuring workshops on coffee tasting, coffee making, and coffee roasting.  It was a well attended and informative event.  At the show, I had the pleasure of meeting coffee giant George Howell, one of the founders of the international Cup of Excellence coffee competition, and founder of Terroir Coffee.  Terroir was eventually sold to Starbucks as their way of expanding into the Boston market.  My interview with George lead to literally months of content here on the site.  Check out the Trip Report CoffeeCON 2013, or click here for all of the articles that came of my talk with George Howell.

  • Central American Coffee Origin Trip

IMG_2790     I’ve recently returned from an amazing adventure with my father, visiting coffee farms and roasters in Guatemala.  We traveled Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize together by foot and chicken bus to learn more about the origins of coffee and chocolate.  Along the way, we enjoyed the freshest of each, and a great bonding experience.  I came back from that trip just a couple weeks before holiday travel started, so stay tuned for much more on this trip.  For now, check out my abbreviated summary of the trip, Our Trek Through Central American Coffee Country.

portland1     THE BAD

This year, it was with mixed emotions that I moved from Portland, Oregon, the coffee capital of North America as far as I’m concerned.  I’m not sure which city has more roasters per capita between Seattle and Portland, but Portland is a little warmer and it rains a little less, so I vote for Portland.  My home in Portland alone was a stone’s throw from three excellent roasters.  I can’t complain about my new home in San Diego, California.  Having said that, it’s never easy to move a little further from new friends and great roasters.

IMG_2951     THE UGLY

It pains me even to bring this up, but while my father and I were in Flores, Guatemala (see Central American Origin Trip above), we needed a coffee in a bad way and couldn’t find a cafe on the island.  We crossed the causeway to a Burger King that we could see from the island and we -gulp- had the coffees that you see pictured here.  Guatemala is one of the world’s producers of excellent coffee, and while there, we had coffee at Burger King.  It’s sad but true.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to coffee lovers everywhere!  I’m looking forward to new adventures in 2014, and sharing many, many cups of good coffee with you.  Make good coffee!

How to cross Central American borders…like a Boss

in Coffee Travel, Coffees of the World

—————————————————————————————————-
ex·tor·tion (ikˈstôrSHən/)

noun

  1. the practice of obtaining something, esp. money, through force or threats.
synonyms: blackmailshakedown;

—————————————————————————————————-

hondurasborder2     My father and I recently returned from Central America, where we went deep into coffee country, and enjoyed the freshest coffee we’ve ever had.

This was my first trip to the area, but my father has been there a few times before.  He was our guide.  The first time that he visited Central America, it was with a retired friend, and the two of them toured by mini van.  My father had told me that one problem is when you cross borders on foot, as opposed to flying into the country and dealing with customs officers at the airport.  Without the cameras, many other people, and management around, customs officers at the border crossings take advantage of the opportunity to ask tourists like us for a few extra bucks for themselves.

hondurasborder1     These extra bucks are not legit.  This is extortion, not an official charge that they are collecting.  From his first trip, my father tells stories of having to deal with many different officers at a single crossing, each one asking for 5 or 10 dollars.  At one crossing, he paid a total of $50 before noticing an English speaking woman talking to a priest.  He asked the woman if these payments were normal, and she was shocked at what he had paid.  She asked the priest to talk to the young officers about it.  When the priest came back, he said to my father, “The officer has to save face.  He insists he did not take any money from you, and will not give it to me.  But, you will not be paying money to any more officers at this crossing.”

This is all I could think about as our taxi driver from Punto Barrios, Guatemala dropped us off at the Honduran border.  There is an entry fee of 3 US dollars to enter Honduras, and we could see this clearly on a sign on the wall and a formal printout that the customs officer gave us.  I gave him $20 to cover both my father and I.  When he gave me $4 back instead of $14, I turned to my father to ask how we should handle it.  After all, I don’t need to get tossed into secondary inspection and have them take more than $10 of things out of my bag.  Maybe that’s harsh, but the guy did just stiff me 10 dollars.  Seeing that there was a sizable staff at this crossing, and many other people around (granted, we were the only non-locals), my father suggested I say something.

guatemalaborder1     I pointed out the mistake to the customs officer in Spanish.  Almost immediately, he acknowledged it and then created a bit of a scene behind the glass trying to find the right change in US dollars to give me.  He couldn’t find it, and was becoming flustered.  I suggested to him that he give me my change in Honduran Limpiras, since I’d need some.  In his frustration, he put his hand in the till, grabbed a random handful of Limpiras, and handed them to me.  There were so many hundreds of Limpiras, I didn’t know if he was giving me more or less money back.  My Dad said, “Good enough.”  As an aside, he gave me more change than he was supposed to.

The next hustler we’d encounter on our trip was at the Guatemalan border, as we made our way back from Honduras.  This time, it was a small crossing.  There were only two officers, an older experienced man, and a boy likely in training.  This poses a different kind of problem.  If you are asked to pay a bribe, the common advice is to ask for “el jefe” (the manager).  But if the guy asking for the bribe is el jefe, what do you do then?  As we waited in line, my father asked me to check if anybody ahead of us was being asked for money.  I let him know that nobody was paying any money to the officer.  We seriously did not have any money on us, and planned to hit an ATM in Guatemala City once we arrived there.  This ended up coming in handy.

guatemalaborder2     When my father stepped up to the glass for processing, el jefe asked him for 5 dollars.  My father pulled out his credit card, and indicated it was the only way he could pay.  El jefe told him he couldn’t take a credit card.  A Honduran boy behind me in line that spoke perfect English also told me that they wouldn’t be able to take a credit card.  And, of course!  This isn’t a legitimate charge, so they aren’t going to be able to process a credit card.  When my father reiterated that he had no cash, el jefe asked the other officer something, who looked out the door window at me.  I believe el jefe asked either if anybody was traveling with my father, or if there was anybody else in line that could see all this going down.

Whatever the boy answered, el jefe asked if my father was traveling alone.  I stepped up, said in Spanish that we were traveling together, and he asked for my passport.  He stamped both of them and gave them back.  I grabbed my father’s arm and told him we needed to walk away.  We realized we may have cracked the code.  If you don’t have the cash, they have no way to get money from you.

centralamerica     We had one more crossing on this trip before getting to Belize, and that was to exit Guatemala.  On our bus ride there, a couple American backpackers sitting behind us asked the bus driver if we would need to pay anything to leave Guatemala, since neither of them had any money.  The driver paused, then said no.  The pause was all I needed to hear – it meant they weren’t supposed to ask for money, but the bus driver wouldn’t know if they would or not when we got there.  One backpacker told the driver that she had heard that they ask for money at these crossings.  Again, the driver paused, then said no.

I had a few US dollars left, that I took out of my money clip and put into a different pocket.  I had a plan.

guatemalaborder3

When we walked into the border crossing, the two officers were a man in his 40s and a woman in her 50s.  We could hear that they were asking for 25 Guatemalan Quetzals from each tourist.  My father got the male officer, and I got the female officer.  Maybe I just want to think the best of people, but it felt to me like this woman didn’t even want to ask for the bribe.  I imagined that if her colleague was doing it, she felt pressured to do it as well.  If you’ve worked in a unionized environment, you know what happens if you grab a broom and try to clean up after yourself.  Your coworkers tell you to stop, and eventually, you just start doing whatever your coworkers are doing.

With my passport in hand, she very meekly asked for 25 Quetzals in Spanish without looking up at me.  Here was my plan.

IMG_2639     Because she asked so quietly, the first thing I was going to do was pretend that I didn’t hear her.  I thought that might make things awkward enough that she not ask again.

If she did ask again, my plan was to ask her “por que?”, why are you charging me this?  What is the name of this charge?  It doesn’t have a formal name, because it’s extortion.

If she came up with some reason to charge me this or if the male officer intervened (he seemed more assertive), then I would pull out my money clip so that they could see that it didn’t have any money in it, and ask her if she accepts Visa or Mastercard.  I already knew she couldn’t accept either.

The standoff began.  I didn’t answer her, and she was holding my passport without stamping it.

After a few awkward seconds, she finally looked up and quickly made eye contact with me before looking back down at my passport.  I maintained eye contact, without making any comments or asking any questions.  The standoff continued.

After another couple awkward seconds of no progress, she stamped my passport and handed it to me.  I said gracias, and walked away briskly.  I won!  Marc 3, crooks in customs 0.  We stood eye and eye, and she blinked.

The moral of the story: I am darned lucky we didn’t get tossed into secondary inspection and robbed at any of those three crossings!

Our Trek Through Central American Coffee Country

in Buying Coffee, Coffee and You, Coffee History, Coffees of the World, Fair Trade and the Environment

IMG_2730     I’ve spent the last ten days in Central America, touring Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The primary reason for the trip was the bonding experience with my father, who has done this trip before, and acted as our guide.  The other reason was to venture deep into coffee country.

As a coffee lover, it was appealing to me to go to its source, see it as it grows, talk to the people that make it possible for the rest of us, and educate myself on everything that happens before a professional roaster makes it available to me.  Prior to this trip, I had made three separate trips to the Hawaiian islands, in part to visit coffee farms there.  The difference is that when you’re in Mau’i or Kona on the Big Island, you’re still in the United States talking to Americans making American wages.  In Central America, there’s none of that luxury.

IMG_2758     At coffee’s origin are arguably its hardest-working and poorest people. 

In the weeks to come, I have so much information to share with you coffee lovers about what I saw and learned.  I’ll give you a synopsis now, and a summary of what updates are to come.

My father met me in Belize City and we took a puddle-jumper plane to spend the night in the Belizean town of Placencia.  Belize produces coffee but lacks the altitude to be counted among the world’s finest.  Still, we were treated to fresh coffee while we were there.

From there, we made our way to Honduras where we had hoped to visit a coffee farm, but due to the logistics of traveling these countries off the beaten path, had to leave before we could.  We arrived there late from alternate arrangements we had made to get there.  Our host was unable to make us the farm tour accommodations he had hoped to make.  Not to mention the following day was election day, and we thought better of sticking around to see how it turned out.

IMG_2625

Finally, we visited Guatemala.  For me, it is the coffee lover’s mecca.  Guatemalan coffee is my favorite coffee in the world!  We visited a coffee farm in San Juan, just off of the incredibly beautiful Lake Atitlan.  We toured the city of Antigua, just outside Guatemala’s largest area of coffee production.  Antigua is the unofficial coffee capital of Central America, if not the world, with its many cafes on every block.  Finally, we enjoyed farm-fresh coffee at every stop from Puerto Barrios to Flores.

Stay tuned!  The process by which coffee ends up in our kitchens is a long and arduous one, full of hard-working people who take incredible pride in what they give us, despite their poverty.  It was a very eye-opening experience for me, that I look forward to sharing with you in the weeks to come.

IMG_2818     I’ll take you on the Guatemalan coffee tour that my father and I were on, and do my best to translate the details from Spanish! 🙂  I’ll walk you through the cobblestone streets of Antigua, with its rich history and cafes on every block.  We’ll sit down with the owner of Kaffee Fernando’s, Antigua’s leading coffee roaster and chocolatier.  And we’ll have lots of fun too (the kind that’s fun after the fact), while I share my experiences on how to cross Central American borders on foot, riding the chicken bus to get around, and one night in the ‘murder capital of Honduras’.

Leaving for Central America Origin Trip

in Buying Coffee, Coffee and You, Coffees of the World, Fair Trade and the Environment

belize-city

     Tomorrow morning, I leave for Central America.

I will be flying out of everybody’s favorite airport LAX, to Belize City.  My father is already there, waiting for me to arrive.  No sooner do I land, will we be hopping on a small plane to Placencia, and from there, taking a water taxi to Puerto Cortes.  It should be a great tour of the less touristy part of the country of Belize.

Read: Preparing for my Coffee Origin Trip

Other than for some great bonding time with my father, this is a coffee origin trip.  From Belize, we will be traveling to Honduras and Guatemala, and stopping at coffee farms in each of those two countries.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

   I have now on three separate occasions visited coffee farms in Hawaii.  All three were great eye-opening experiences, particularly the most recent where I traveled with the owner and head roaster of Canada’s Fire Roasted Coffee.  What an incredibly unique experience for a coffee-lover to watch our favorite beverage come full circle with a professional roaster talking to a coffee farmer!

Read: Check out our article in Roast Magazine
Read: My Kona Hawaii Trip Report

The aspect of this trip that will make it unique is that I won’t be in the United States.  I’ll be in poorer countries where I expect the plight of coffee farmers and their cycle of poverty will hit close to home.  I’ve spent the last three months diligently learning Spanish, and I hope to conduct an interview with a coffee farmer in Spanish (recorder in hand, for everything he says that I will surely miss).

Wifi will be hard to come by.  I will take every advantage to keep you posted on my trip.  You can follow updates by liking our Facebook page, or following us on Twitter.  Check back here too! – I’m already excited to share the experience with you.  Going to the source of coffee, where it all comes from!

Finding the Coffee That’s Right For You

in Brewing Coffee, Buying Coffee

georgehowell     At CoffeeCON 2013, I had the good fortune to meet and interview coffee giant George Howell.

Check out: Trip Report CoffeeCON 2013

I presented George with the following scenario and asked him for his thoughts on how to help coffee lovers find the coffee that’s right for them:

“Suppose I am a coffee drinker.  I walk into a roaster’s shop.  Up until this point, I’ve only been drinking supermarket coffee.  I walk up to the wall of coffee, but don’t know where to begin.”

George responded outright that the coffee lover needs help, there’s no doubt about it.  When George talks to such a customer, he’ll ask what they’ve tried, what they liked, how they drink their coffee, where did they buy it, what kind of wine do they like, what kind of coffee maker do they use?  According to George, you have to think about the road that they’ve been on and where to take there from there.

And with what George said next, I had to let him know just what we were working on here at MakeGoodCoffee.com.  George said, if you could create a form that they could fill out, you could use the information to make a good guess.  Start them with a single origin, because George hardly has any blends.  George wants a website where the consumer identifies what they want, and the website guides them to a coffee.

That’s when I let George know that we were working on just such a tool.  And that tool is complete.  If you haven’t already, check out the MakeGoodCoffee.com Coffee Quiz.  You answer four simple questions, and the quiz directs you to an origin of coffee that you should try based on your answers.  Take the quiz and tell us what you think!

takethequiz

What is Acidity in Coffee?

in Brewing Coffee

3dbeans     Not to be confused with acid (as in pH content) or acid reflux (as in heartburn), acidity is a coffee term used to describe one of the elements of flavor in coffee.

Check out: Coffee Words and Terminology (to learn more about the language of tasting coffee)

I struggled with this word for so long, because I knew it was important in understanding the flavor of coffee, but couldn’t get my head around what it meant, and especially that it wasn’t referring to acid.  Because I used to get bad heartburn, I naturally assumed it was connected to the “acidity of my coffee”.

When I interviewed coffee giant George Howell at CoffeeCON 2013, I asked him how to describe acidity to the coffee layman.

Check out: Trip Report CoffeeCON 2013

burntcoffee     The word acid in “acidity” is misleading.  People hear it and think battery acid, corrosion, or acid reflux.  Oddly enough, we talk about acidity in wine without problems.  Acidity in coffee (or wine)  means liveliness or pizzazz.  Ask yourself what would a strawberry be without liveliness – it would be flat.  You want that strawberry to have some brightness and sweetness to it.  The sweetness takes edge off of the acidity, but you want both.

I used to define acidity as “what makes coffee coffee”, but this was a flawed way to look at it because acidity needs to be balanced.  There can be too much.  The strawberry at the grocery store could be perfect looking but missing flavor.

And then George gave me the best explanation of acidity that I’ve ever heard.  Take a banana and take a raspberry.  Which would you think is more acidic?  Both have flavor and are unique, but one clearly has more livelineness and pizzazz.  Analogies sometimes work where explanations!

How A Coffee Professional Makes Good Coffee

in Brewing Coffee, Coffee Gear

georgehowell     This year, I was fortunate at CoffeeCON 2013 to meet and interview coffee pioneer George Howell.  George was the founder of the Coffee Connection in Boston, which was acquired by Starbucks as a means of entering the Boston market.  He remains a leading coffee expert, and is also the founder of the George Howell Terroir Coffee Company.

Check out: Trip Report CoffeeCON 2013

I asked George something I like to ask every coffee professional I meet: how do you make your own good coffee at home?

My motivation to ask this question…the amount of human effort and dedication that goes into coffee from source to somebody’s home can all be for naught in the last five minutes that it’s handled.  A coffee professional understands this, so if I can make coffee the way that they do, I know I’m making it right.  George gave me three pieces of advice, and I’ll elaborate on where you can learn more here on MakeGoodCoffee.com.

1) Get the brew time right. Learn more about different brewing methods at our Brewing Coffee page.

2) Get the grind right. Just as important.  The type of brewing method you use dictates the ideal grind type you should be using.  Learn more about Grinding Coffee.

3) Get the ratio right.  The ratio of how much coffee and water to use depending on how much coffee you’re making.  This is a very popular question that often comes up, and that I’ve written about a few times.  Check out these blog posts to learn more:
– The “Scientific” Ratio of Coffee to Water
– Coffee to water ratio – answering the question of how much coffee to use
– I’m Confused, How Much Coffee Should I Use?

 

What is a Coffee Blend?

in Brewing Coffee, Buying Coffee

IMG_1088     When you factor marketing into the process of selling coffee, you end up seeing some weird names.  Artificial flavors give the impression that somehow nuts, berries, or Irish Cream figure into how coffee is made.  Names like French Roast or Greek Coffee might give the impression that coffee is grown anywhere in Europe.

Coffee blends might also cause some confusion, because they usually have unique names.  The basic definition of a coffee blend is that it’s a roaster’s mixture to recipe, of different varieties, roast levels, or flavor profiles of coffee.  It’s a roaster’s opportunity to create something new by blending coffees together.

The first blend I remember really enjoying was the Major Dickason’s Blend by Peet’s Coffee and Tea.  The story behind it will help you understand blends better, and the pride that a roaster can take in it.  Key Dickason was a retired army officer that was also a loyal customer of Peet’s at their original location in Berkeley, California, and a coffee aficianado.  The founder Alfred Peet experimented with Dickason at different combinations of coffee until they “bred” the one that they both loved.  Peet “promoted” Dickason to Major of this new coffee, and a new blend was born, also Peet’s Coffee‘s best-selling.

dickasonFor Peet’s, the blend represents an emotional tie to the long but enjoyable process of exploring the wide world of coffee and creating something new.  Where individual sources of coffee offer their own flavor profiles, the number of new combinations are endless.

My recommendation is to stay away from grocery store coffees that use the word “blend” along with another fancy word like “signature”.  However, from your local roaster or your online coffee roaster, you can trust the word “blend” because it generally means they created it themselves.  I enjoy taking a professional roaster up on the blend that they’ve poured themselves into.

In my interview with coffee giant George Howell at CoffeeCon 2013, I learned that not every roaster is interested in blending.  George only blends for restaurant customers that demand it.  As George describes it, to be a great painter with primary colors, you have to know the primary colors as well as possible.  George then learned they’re not primary colors, they’re very complex.  In pursuing the perfect blend, George realized he didn’t need blends.

Check out: Trip Report CoffeeCON 2013

This is of personal taste to the roaster.  If your roaster offers a “house blend”, “signature blend”, or a blend with a unique name, take them up on it.  They created that coffee and its flavor themselves.

 

What is Direct Trade coffee?

in Buying Coffee, Coffee and You, Fair Trade and the Environment

georgehowell

This year, I was fortunate at CoffeeCON 2013 to meet and interview coffee pioneer George Howell.  George was the founder of the Coffee Connection in Boston, which was acquired by Starbucks as a means of entering the Boston market.  He remains a leading coffee expert, and is also the founder of the George Howell Terroir Coffee Company.

Check out: Trip Report CoffeeCON 2013
Check out: What is the Cup of Excellence?

One of my questions to George was, what is direct trade coffee?  With little awareness among the coffee loving public of just how poor the living conditions are in coffee growing countries, I asked George to simplify this solution to the problem.

The event that helped set Direct Trade in motion was the 1999 Cup of Excellence in Brazil.  This coffee competition emphasizes single farms, asking farmers to put forward their best lot.  The jury became formed of professional specialty roasters from around the world, and they spent a week cupping those coffees.  Among early members of the jury were other coffee giants like Jeff Watts of Chicago’s Intelligentsia and Duane Sorenson of Portland’s Stumptown.

After the Cup of Excellence, Direct Trade began to take shape.  It introduced more roasters directly to the farmers, and encouraged roasters to visit farms and create direct relationships.

Roasters had gone on origin trips before, but the interaction of roasters as judges, and farmers, as well as the competition’s emphasis on single farms introduced direct trade relationships.  Existing programs like Fair Trade ensured that farmers received a fair price, but the Cup of Excellence emphasized relationship coffee from the standpoint of quality.

The fuzzy part about Direct Trade is that it’s not a true seal or standard, like Fair Trade.  Direct trade is different for everybody, and the key things are:

  • Knowing the farm where you’re buying the coffee, and its practices aimed at the utmost quality, and
  • Making sure you know what they are getting paid – you want to know they are independent of the commodity market.

Find out what your local roaster does to stay close to origin.  I accompanied Dave Cook, owner of Fire Roasted Coffee on an origin trip to meet farmers in Hawaii.  It was an amazing opportunity to observe Dave observing the quality of the process at the farm, before deciding what coffee to bring into his shop to serve you.

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