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A lot of my coffee education took place at the Fire Roasted Coffee Company in London, Canada. I’ll never forget walking up to their “wall” of coffees from around the world, and being overwhelmed by the selection. I didn’t know at the time that the world of coffee was so vast. I was fortunate that a well-educated employee approached me with questions that helped him decide which coffees to recommend.
A few months later, my brother asked me if any kind of tool existed online that helped connect the coffee lover with the right coffee for them. It reminded me of my own experience at Fire Roasted.
The Coffee Quiz was born!
With a little input from the coffee drinker, I felt that intelligent suggestions could be made to help guide that person to coffees they should try based on their preferences.
Think about the coffees you’ve really enjoyed. Did they have the smoky flavor of a dark roast? Or the brightness and variety of a lighter roast? If you’re not sure, start in the middle. You can always take the Coffee Quiz over again.
Acidity is tricky and misunderstood. Don’t think of acid as in pH content of coffee, or acid reflux (heartburn). Think of it this way…a banana and a raspberry both have unique flavors, but which one has more “pop”? If you answered raspberry, it’s the same concept behind acidity. How much “pop” would you like in your coffee? A lot can be too much, but not enough can be boring.
Go for it! Try the Coffee Quiz and find the coffee match that’s right for you.
In 2013, I was very fortunate to get published in Roast Magazine. David Cook, owner of the Fire Roasted Coffee Company, and I traveled to Hawaii and saw firsthand just how much the borer beetle was devastating and impacting coffee growing on Hawaii’s Big Island.
When we returned home, Roast Magazine agreed to let us tell the story of what we saw, and how it could affect the coffee world.
I was recently approached by Terri Moats of the University of Hawaii Kauai Agricultural Research Center. Terri had read my article in Roast Magazine, and asked me to keep up awareness of the problem. Terri reiterated that Coffee Berry Borer (CBB) is a serious threat to Hawaii’s coffee farms. The University of Hawaii CTAHR (College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources) have a project to educate visitors and local residents about the importance of “clean visits” when touring Big Island and Oahu coffee farms.
Terri asked me to publish the following letter by CTAHR entomologist, Dr. Russell Messing, which was recently printed in West Hawaii Today newspaper.
Help protect Hawaii coffee
Kona coffee is world-renowned. Local farmers have rightfully earned an outstanding reputation for producing a top quality product. This helps attract thousands of tourists annually; farm tours (in addition to wholesale and retail coffee sales) all contribute substantially to west Hawaii’s economy.
It is less well known that more than half the coffee acreage in the state is grown on other islands (Kauai, Maui, Molokai and Oahu). Big Island growers work hard to manage the damaging invasive beetle called the coffee berry borer (CBB). So far Kauai, Maui and Molokai remain free from this pest, while CBB was recently found on a single farm on Oahu.
Visiting tourists are naturally curious to see how coffee is grown, and often stop to take photos and touch, smell, and sometimes pick coffee berries from the tree. A casually picked coffee berry may harbor (unseen) tiny beetles inside its seeds – if the berry or even a single seed is deliberately or inadvertently carried away, the CBB infestation can spread. A short plane ride could place these pests in close proximity to CBB-free coffee farms (beetles can live happily inside seeds for months at a time). Most entomologists agree that this is the manner by which CBB will eventually reach the other islands.
We all want visitors to enjoy their farm tours, and to appreciate the fine coffee that is grown in the Islands. But, please, try to dissuade visitors from touching, handling or picking coffee berries in the field. Help protect coffee farms on the other islands from this damaging invasive species.
”You can derive great enjoyment simply by drinking a good cup of coffee, but your pleasure will be heightened if you can distinguish your impressions, appreciate and gauge the richness and complexity of the coffee.”
A few years ago, David Cook of the Fire Roasted Coffee Company introduced me to a kit of 36 coffee aromas known as Le Nez du Cafe (literally translated from French, “the nose of coffee”).
Its inventor Jean Lenoir had created a similar kit for wines, and followed it up years later with the coffee kit, “a collection of the most typical aromas found in the world’s top coffees”.
I finally decided to invest in this kit. I’m happy to say I’ve started my journey into better understanding coffee flavor. One of the keys of Le Nez du Cafe is that it not only isolates specific aromas of coffee, but it names them so that you can better remember the aroma, connect it with familiar aromas, and use common language when discussing it with others.
Take Vial #1: Earth. This is a vial carrying literally the distinct aroma of earth (dirt, mud). It is a very distinct aroma found in many coffees. On one hand, it is attributed to poor handling in the case of cheap robustas, or a coveted (and very intentional) flavor found in fine Ethiopian coffees. Combined with other information (and aromas), you could use this to determine a great deal about the coffee. And be able to identify it and discuss it with others.
My palette is admittedly weak. I know what I like and don’t like in a coffee, but have always lacked in being able to put words to it. Also, there are aromas to coffee that I just don’t know, or don’t know well. For instance, it is simpler for me to identify Vial #26: Dark Chocolate, because I eat a lot of dark chocolate and know the aroma well. By contrast, Vial #3: Garden Peas will take practice to identify, because I don’t eat them and don’t know the aroma as well.
Here is my training plan: I pulled vials #1-3 only, and smelled them over and over until I could put them in the correct order every time. Then, as you can see in the picture above, I added vials #4-6, and smelled them over and over until I could correctly identify all six of them blind. I plan to keep adding three vials at a time, until I can put them in the correct order without fail. I expect with each new addition of vials, it will take me longer to correctly identify them all, and that’s the point! Eventually, I’ll have all 36 in the mix, and I’ll know I’m a coffee tasting master when I can randomize and correctly identify them all. In fact, the highest certification of coffee taster in the world incorporates Le Nez du Cafe in its testing.
In addition, I’ll be looking for these aromas in the coffee I drink, now that I am able to identify them.
I’m so excited to share this experience with you. I have roasted my first commercial batch of coffee!
Up to this point, I’ve only dabbled in home coffee roasting. That started with a simple popcorn popper, which is the most basic form of a coffee roaster. In fact, it helps to think of advancements in the coffee roaster being improvements and scale-up of the popcorn popper.
From there, I invested in a small home coffee roaster for hobbyists, a definite improvement from the popcorn popper. The challenge with roasting coffee is in the ventilation since it creates so much smoke. My first home coffee roaster would set off the smoke alarm until I moved the operation to the garage. The last roaster I bought was yet another improvement, this one with a catalytic converter (same as your car’s exhaust system) to reduce smoke.
On a recent trip through Reno, NV, I made a point of stopping in at Coffee Per, manufacturer of the San Franciscan commercial coffee roaster. CEO Bill Kennedy gave me a great tour of the facility, and also invited me to roast a commercial batch of coffee, my first ever!
Bill let me do all the work, although he definitely helped. The roaster we used was the San Franciscan SF-25, 25 as in the number of pounds that it can roast at one time. Coffee Per is not only a manufacturer of roasting equipment, but they are also a wholesale coffee roaster, using their own equipment. Bill had an order to fill, and in his words, he was going to do all the talking, and I was going to do all the work.
Here’s a very quick rundown of what we did. Bill had the green unroasted coffee beans in a bin ready to be loaded into the hopper at the top of the roaster. I lifted the bin to the top of the roaster, and dumped the green coffee into the hopper. We then fired up the roaster by turning on the heat beneath the drum in which the coffee would be roasted, when dropped from the hopper. Gauges on the roaster identify the temperature inside the drum, and would also let us know the bean temperature as the roasting progresses.
On Bill’s signal, I released the green coffee from the hopper into the drum. A small circular window (see to the left, above) lets you see the beans turning in the drum so that you can keep your eyes on them as they roast. A small “trier” even lets you pull out a sample of the beans from inside the drum in case you want to take a better look at them without stopping the roast. As the beans are roasted, there are two audible “cracks” that help determine if they’re ready. Roasting past the “second crack” produces a dark roasted coffee.
Given an assessment of the color of the beans, the sound of the cracks, the smell of the roasting process, and the roaster’s experience with this particular bean, there’s a definitive point where they are considered “done”. At that point, they are dropped from the drum into a “cooling bin”. Coffee continues to roast from its internal temperature, even after it is dumped from the drum. The cooling bin agitates the beans while they are blown with cool air.
As a last stop on understanding this roasting equipment, I made the short drive from Coffee Per to a local roaster in Carson City, NV named San Rafael Coffee Company. Owner Landon purchased his roaster from Coffee Per, his is a 6-lb version. While at San Rafael, I enjoyed a brewed cup of fresh Nicaraguan coffee, roasted on the same machine that I was using earlier.
My first commercial coffee roasting – another very cool and eye-opening coffee experience!
Ahead of this trip, I contacted David Cook of the Fire Roasted Coffee Company in London, Canada. David had made an origin trip to Guatemala before, and I wanted to know who he thought I should see while there. One of his first recommendations was a roaster named Fernando in Antigua. As an unexpected surprise, my father and I happened to be in Antigua at the same time as a different friend named David, and his wife. They have friends who live near Antigua, and when they heard what my father and I were up to, they also recommended that we visit the roaster named Fernando in Antigua.
Two separate recommendations to meet the same coffee man. That’s all we needed to hear. We set up a time to meet Fernando himself to find out more. As I did some research ahead of meeting Fernando, I quickly checked his TripAdvisor rating – 170 reviews with an average 4.5 stars! Very intrigued. My father and I arrived shortly after it opened and had breakfast. When we were done, Fernando took a break from making chocolate to join us.
Fernando opened up shop originally in Guatemala City almost 15 years ago. He started as a coffee roaster, and eventually became interested in making chocolate as well. He could see that tourists to Guatemala had high hopes for coffee before they arrived, and were often disappointed by what they were served. He would do what he could to change this perception, particularly after relocating to the more touristy Antigua. He has the ability to work directly with coffee farmers for quality assurance, but there’s much more to this business than simply being in the right place.
I told Fernando how we found him, and brought up his TripAdvisor rating. I asked him quite simply why he was so well-known for what he did. The answer…”I don’t know why.”
I wouldn’t let him off with such a modest answer, so he considered a little deeper and brought up a few things that he feels has contributed to the success of his business among both locals and tourists to Antigua.
The Whole Experience
First of all, he offers much more of an experience than simply roasted coffee. He offers chocolate, a full menu for any meal of the day, a very comforting ambiance. It is spacious, so it never feels noisy or crowded.
Fernando: “People come here for all that. It’s the kind of cafe where you can come and meet people from all over the world. You can disagree with everything everyone is saying, and still agree that you’re having a nice time.”
He takes pride in what he does well, but also takes accountability for what he knows he could do better. Fernando makes amazing dark chocolate, and yet still admits how far he still has to go in order to learn more and continue improving. There is a modesty that drives the constant improvement of his product. Fernando’s commitment to quality even extends to your kitchen – he will not sell you ground coffee. Why? Because it will go stale faster, so that by the time you make it at home, it will not taste as good as what you had in his cafe. If you want to buy his coffee, you’ll need to buy a grinder. It’s his small part of ensuring where his name appears, good coffee is being made.
And finally, Fernando himself is very accessible. He told us, “I live here. I just happen to sleep at home.”
Over the years, I’ve met many roasters in the United States and Canada. This was the first time that I met a roaster outside of North America. It’s amazing that rather than be struck by the differences, I was struck by the similarities. Like any successful North American roaster that I’ve met, Fernando’s same accessibility to his customers, passion for improvement, and quality standard has been the key to his success in Guatemala.
Coffee lovers, join me as I walk through the cobblestone streets of the coffee capital of Central America, if not the world (sorry, Portland Oregon).
My father and I just returned from a trip through Central America, in part to visit coffee roasters and farmers in Guatemala. After spending a couple days on Guatemala’s breathtaking Lake Atitlan, we proceeded by bus to Antigua. My father has made this trip before. It would be my first trip to Guatemala, and to the amazing city of Antigua.
Antigua is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, well-known for the ruins of colonial churches that remain standing throughout the city today. Around and between these ruins, a city and popular tourist destination has grown, including restaurants, cafes, shopping, and a central park square. There are less than 40,000 people that live in Antigua, down from its peak when it was once the country’s capital – Antigua Guatemala translates to “Ancient Guatemala”. Earthquakes destroyed much of the town in the 18th century.
My father and I arrived in this vibrant city of bilingual shop owners and employees, local shoppers, and tourists. I was struck by the number of independent cafes on every block. I think there may be more cafes per capita in this city than in any other, and great news, not a Starbucks in sight to diminish the experience! Not so great news, they allowed a few American fast food places in that are limited in how big or colorful their sign is allowed to be – smaller in size and less flashier than local shop owners. That includes a Burger King and McDonalds with its McCafe sign.
Antigua is also well-known for its chocolate makers and while there, my father and I toured Choco Museo, both a chocolate shop as well as a museum teaching the history of chocolate and how its made, with emphasis on its Mayan roots.
Among the many cafes that we visited was Fernando’s Kaffee, that I will write about separately. Fernando was recommended to me by two people, my friend and roaster extraordinaire Dave Cook of the Fire Roasted Coffee Company, and a friend’s cousin who lives in Antigua. Fernando was gracious enough to give us some time for an interview, and it was a pleasure to meet an Antigua coffee man in person.
Due to its popularity among tourists, Antigua is usually accessible from any cruise that stops in Guatemala from both the Atlantic and Pacific.
If you love coffee and ever get the opportunity, make a point of visiting Antigua, Guatemala. Naturally, a country’s tourism department can only promote themselves in so many places, and Guatemala has not focused on the North American tourism industry. Don’t let that deter you. Tourists abound in Guatemala, and it is a truly beautiful country and people. If you’re a coffee lover, you need to see Antigua for yourself. I’m also told that Easter is an especially impressive celebration, where local parishes organize processions through the streets.
2013 was a big year at MakeGoodCoffee.com. Let’s take a look at what went down.
- Published in Roast Magazine
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
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
Some of you may have heard that yesterday, September 29th, was National Coffee Day. I’ll be honest and confess that it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve even heard of the event. Well, guess what? It’s real and it’s been around for at least 30 years. And here are six more facts about National Coffee Day…
- It’s actually International Coffee Day, but each participating country celebrates it as National Coffee Day. This struck me when I noticed chains in the US giving away free coffee to celebrate, while friends of mine in Canada were also celebrating it as “National“.
- There are actually a total of six countries that celebrate National Coffee Day on September 29th. In addition to the US and Canada, they are England, Ethiopia, Malaysia, and Sweden.
- The first known celebration of an International Coffee Day was in Japan in 1983, celebrated on October 1st.
- The purpose of the day? To celebrate the delicious beverage we all love. The tragedy of it? It is also meant to recognize the plight of coffee farmers in poor countries, a message that tends to get lost when in practice, it seems more about McDonalds and Starbucks giving out free coffee samples.
- The first known reference to National Coffee Day in the US was in 2005, so if you’re getting the news late, don’t worry – it’s less than a ten year old tradition. Start gearing up now for next year!
- Coffee producing countries that celebrate Coffee Day in addition to Ethiopia are Brazil (May 24th) and Costa Rica (September 12th).
As David Cook, owner of Fire Roasted Coffee, says, “Happy International Coffee Day! or as we like to call it…Sunday.”