SOURCING - RESPECT & PERSPECTIVE
Respect I’ve spent the better part of two decades buying coffee; I figure I’ve bought well over a billion pounds, and I’ve traveled to over 20 coffee producing countries and visited probably 2,000 farms. The range of experiences I’ve had, which range from thrilling to terrifying to hilarious to heartbreaking (and that’s not even including the toilet-related incidents) leave me overwhelmed with respect for all the people (25 million plus, worldwide) in the coffee business.
Perspective Sourcing coffee is a tricky business with lots at risk for everyone in the supply chain, and lots of issues too. I’m convinced that there isn’t one way for Fundamental or any other company, no matter its size, to fix all the problems in the coffee industry, most especially the ones in producing countries. The best way to make a difference is to keep learning and keep buying the best coffee available – this is as true for you as a coffee drinker as it is for me as a coffee buyer.
SOURCING BASICS AT FUNDAMENTAL
When it comes to the coffee we buy, we make extraordinary demands on our suppliers in four key areas:
- Quality: we only buy coffee that is consistently excellent; this is the single most important thing a coffee company can do to ensure a viable, sustainable business for everyone involved.
- Fairness: we recognize the complexity of the coffee supply chain and work to ensure that everyone who helps get coffee from origin to our roastery is compensated fairly.
- Worker welfare: we expect producers to comply with all local health and safety standards, and to have the transparency necessary to prove it.
- Environment: we expect everyone in the supply chain to use Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) as appropriate.
Most of the world’s coffee is grown on small or very small farms; each country has a system that moves the coffee through a complex system of farms (large and small,) co-ops, wet and dry mills, exporters’ warehouses, and ultimately, to the port from which it is shipped.
Today, Fundamental is a small company and the coffee we buy comes through a long-established network of coffee growers and the exporters, importers, and brokers – many of whom work together to manage the risk and complexity of moving coffee thousands of miles – who make it possible for us to enjoy great coffee. We don’t take a position on certification – we buy based on quality and value. This means we may at times buy certified coffees, but our interest is in promoting good coffee, not certification schemes.
Please email me at email@example.com if you have specific questions about how we buy coffee
ROASTING - COURAGE AND PRECISION
Courage We knew before we even started the company or named it or bought coffee or really did anything substantive that if we were going to have a coffee company, we would roast coffee to taste like the coffee we grew to love early in our careers. That means roasting the coffee darker than what is currently the norm among the new “Third Wave” coffee roasters garnering attention these days.
Roasting the way we do isn’t courageous in the sense that running into traffic to save a kitten is courageous. But it does take a degree of commitment to what we believe in, which is the necessity of balance in every cup that can only occur if we allow the roast to proceed longer than many of our competitors would.
Precision Our roaster (the machine) is not a precision instrument. In fact, it hadn’t been used in about 15 years at the time it was given to us by a dear old coffee friend of Scott’s. As you can see from the pictures, it’s not even really fancy or shiny or even all that pretty. But we like it, and our roaster (the person, principally Scott,) is where we get our precision. Scott’s not a master roaster (whatever that is.) He’s not a technician or a mechanic or some sort of coffee whisperer. He’s a seasoned coffee buyer, blender, and taster who is incredibly picky about just about everything. He has mastered our little roaster, and you can count on our coffee to be both delicious and consistent.
The Coffee World Today
Roasting is in some ways incredibly complicated, and can be made more so by man and by machine. In other ways, though, it’s simple, maybe even primal: heat applied over time turns little green seeds into delicious coffee. Of course the roaster has to decide what he or she considers “delicious.”
Because we’re part of the Peet’s /Starbucks family tree, we believe that many roasters are buying really good coffee and dramatically -- even tragically-- under-roasting it. We say that because to our taste, much of it sits squarely in the tangy / tart / sour range.
Even as many of these roasters have narrowed their focus of coffee buying to smaller and smaller geographic areas, such as a specific section of a coffee farm, they’ve also begun describing coffee using terminology that manages to be both specific and obscure. A few examples, taken from their very own Web sites:
layered with vibrant blackberry and boysenberry notes that meld perfectly with the backbone of violet and rose
intense, buoyant, and well rounded, it offers complex tropical flavors of cantaloupe and kiwi up front, followed by decadent dark chocolate and plush chamomile
peanut butter, silky, red fruit, bright
It would be impolite to suggest that the authors of these descriptions cannot taste the exotic, esoteric flavors they ascribe to their coffees. No doubt all are lovingly sourced, roasted, and served. And they’re offered at prices ranging from $19 to $48 per pound.
Certainly taste – whether “sense of” or “personal preference” – is subjective and largely exists outside the realm of absolutes. But it’s also true that saying a coffee exhibits this or that flavor note does not magically imbue it with that flavor. Nor does it endow the purchaser with the ability to taste it -- though it can easily plant the idea of a flavor -- even one a person may never have experienced before and therefore render the drinker unable to verify, with certainty, its presence.
Just about any food undergoes a transformation as heat is applied to it. In the case of coffee, the heat (how it’s applied and for how long) determines what’s possible in the cup. And these possibilities are at the root of an awful lot of conversation about coffee.
In my early days at Starbucks (in the late 80s,) there were certain obvious differences about the coffee. The biggest was that the coffee was fresh. We’d order coffee on Monday, it would be roasted Tuesday and then delivered Wednesday, and that coffee would need to be sold or brewed by close of business the following Tuesday.
Another thing we talked about (and that was true) was that the coffee was 100% Arabica; over time that became less a meaningful claim as competitors discovered that was a relatively easy claim to make.
And then there was the roast. “Deep chestnut brown” was the standard language used to describe the coffee. And that’s an apt phrase; when we were testing our sweet little roaster, verifying that it could roast our Humbucker Blend the color we had in mind, those words came to my mind as we watched a load cooling. Just as I was thinking about that phrase, Scott said “the chestnut brown color is what I’m looking for. And the Sumatra needs to develop that almost orange-y color…I don’t like the mottled wrinkly look it has when the roast is too light.”
But it’s not just about color, of course. It’s about the cup. We’ve been amazed and impressed by much of what has gone on in coffee since we started. What some of the Third Wave roasters are doing is fantastic in terms of engaging with producers, helping consumers learn to pay good money for good coffee, and the sense of style they bring to the business. It’s unclear what’s driving the roast to the far light end of the spectrum. There’s historical precedent for it, especially in the Northeast. But it’s likely that out west, when Starbucks’s growth really irritated the locals in many cities, coffee entrepreneurs very rationally decided that not being like Starbucks was the way to succeed. That meant roasting light, slowing down, and quirking it up a bit.
Our perspective is that they’ve gone too far. The light-roasted coffee we’re seeing now is so light as to be one-dimensional. There may well be hints of everything from maple syrup to blackberries to peanut butter, but they are hints so subtle that they are utterly obscured by tartness. The flavor simply isn’t developed enough to offset the coffee’s native acidity.
So you’ll only see words like that in our descriptions if they really fit, because our Guatemala Antigua will taste like a fine Antigua, our Sumatra like a Sumatra. Because we’ll roast them to bring out the distinctive flavors they are known for, prompting you to reach for a second cup rather than a dictionary.
(We also promise that you will never have to Google any of the words we use to describe our coffee. I recently saw “fernet,” which Microsoft Word’s spellcheck doesn’t even recognize, used as a coffee descriptor. I’m a reasonably savvy person about food and drink, and Scott much more so than I, and neither of us knew what it was.)
ROAST INTONATION IN THE FUNDAMENTAL COFFEE LINEUP
While our coffee will be darker than a lot of what’s on the market now, that doesn’t mean that every coffee will be roasted exactly the same way, and its oversimplifying things to say all our coffees are “dark roasts”
The whole point of having different coffees is that not every coffee occasion is the same. We like different things at different times, we brew using different methods, and sometimes we just crave variety.
So we have a range. Single Coil Blend is the lightest roasted blend we offer. It’s not a light roast by any means, and it does see second pop. But we know the coffees that make up the blend have a story to tell, and it can’t really be told without there being a certain amount of brightness, or acidity, left in the coffee. We want this coffee to be tangy – but deliciously so, not aggressively so. Humbucker Blend, on the other hand, is meant to bepretty huge cup of coffee. Part of its hugeness comes from the coffees that comprise it, but part of it also comes from the roast, which is darker than Single Coil, because the roasting mutes the acidity somewhat and brings to the forefront the deeper flavors in the coffee. Between the two is Stemwinder Blend which is blended and roasted to perform especially well in espresso machines. (But it’s good lots of other ways too.)
Our single origin coffees are all darker than Single Coil but lighter than Humbucker. Each is roasted to make obvious the signature characteristics it possesses.
BLENDING - BALANCE AND CREATIVITY
Balance I learned a great deal about coffee and the art of blending from my mentor Alfred Peet. He was a tough and serious teacher who didn’t appreciate superfluous adjectives tied to coffee descriptions. Alfred had little patience for nonsense and was a big proponent of blending with balance. A well-balanced blend has a singular yet complex flavor. You may be able to pick out a component in a blend, but the overall taste is one not found in any single coffee, and no flavor dominates. If a blend I created didn’t hit the mark, Alfred would shake his head, point at the cup say “this one’s kicking under the sheets.” As a child in Holland, he explained, he shared a bed with siblings and when they didn’t get along, there was kicking under the sheets – just like the battle among incompatible coffees in a bad blend.
Creativity Once they learned to identify quality, specialty coffee roasters in the U.S. could always find great single-origin coffees – there was little demand in the market, and coffee brokers looking to grow their business saw the fledgling roasters like Peet’s, Starbucks, and Coffee Connection as high-potential customers. Due partly to Alfred’s influence, blending coffees became a legitimate expression of coffee goodness. Truly anyone willing to pay could buy as much complex, cocoa-y Guatemala Antigua as they could ever hope to sell. Buying that Guatemala, however, and combining it with other washed coffees and perhaps a bit of big, earthy coffee from Indonesia requires a certain amount of creativity – as well as a depth of knowledge about how flavors combine to create a stellar, differentiated taste.
BLENDING AT FUNDAMENTAL COFFEE COMPANY
Several years ago I spent about two years getting a Sommelier certificate from an internationally accredited organization called the ISG (International Sommelier Guild). The wine world is full of active and often arcane dialog on the merits of a mélange (blend) versus a single type of grape to showcase the taste of a place (terroir.) The one thing I recall vividly is that virtually everything is about blending in wine from grapes permitted in certain regional AOC’s like Chateauneuf- du- Pape to the specific parcels of land within a given vineyard even growing the same grape. Blending is about balancing specific attributes achieving a harmonious balance.
However, we’re here to talk about coffee where interestingly enough, a similar discussion has been taking place for years. Most roasters offer both blends and unblended, single-origin coffees. This isn’t a right-or-wrong debate, or at least it probably shouldn’t be, given coffee’s long history.
So there are two important points I’d like to make on this subject. I feel strongly about these.
- Blending is not a copout. Many of the so-called “Third Wave” roasters all but apologize for even offering blends. (On one Web site, a roaster has a category called “Blends and Decaf” – clearly not an endorsement of blends!) The idea is out there that blending is just a trick to hide inferior beans and drive costs out of a finished product. While this may be true for some larger commercial roasters or even once-small national specialty coffee chains, at Fundamental, we blend to showcase great-tasting coffee and to highlight what the various origins contribute. We’re not building these blends with the hope that slipping in enough lower quality “coffee x” is fine because people just won’t notice. This philosophy of blending is insulting to me and astonishingly common in the industry.
- Some matches are made in hell. The other thing I’ve seen a lot of lately –most recently at the SCAA trade show this past April – is the practice of blending complex single-origin coffees --apparently based on the belief that there cannot be too much of a good thing, or perhaps the result of not following conventional wisdom. The result is blends that exist along a continuum of woe – at best confusing, and at worst, an insult to all the component coffees. One example of this is a natural Ethiopia with blueberry and cocoa notes blended with a middle-of-the-road Brazil, thought by many to be an important part of any good espresso blend. Each has its own merits, but together, they just don’t work.
To put it another way just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Yes, I might like the acidy bright notes of a Kenya coffee and I like the earthy spicy notes of a Sumatra but they don’t really taste good together. At least not to our palates. I know an Australian winemaker who sells a sparkling Shiraz/Cabernet blend. It’s a lovely example of people being too cute. Our blends lead with honesty and respect for the countries and farmers who participated in making them great coffees.