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Saturday, November 29, 2003


where does your coffee dollar go, part ii

long-time readers know i often ask this rhetorical question to focus attention on how little of your expensive chain coffee drink goes to embattled coffee farmers.

today the ny times lays it out for you -- but misses the real issue, as usual. the article re-hashs old news: that the brilliant colombian president uribe's (a yoga student and well as a member of a coffee family) plan to open juan valdez coffeeshops is about to bear fruit here in nyc.

illustrating the article is a crucial breakdown of where the coffee dollar goes (actually, the coffee US$3.75!), provided by my dear friends at the scaa.

you get the US$0.03 for the farmer; the US$0.18 for the roasters & importers; the US$0.07 for the paper cup; the US$0.40 for milk (more on that in a second!); the US$2.82 for rent, marketing, labor, investment costs; the US$0.25 for coffeeshop owner profit. but what they leave out is a crucial component: sugar.

it is that omission that lies at the heart of the article's -- and perhaps the industry's -- oversight of what seems like a bigger connection.

i love the coffee industry. but despite being the world's second most widely traded commodity, many coffee people just don't seem to see the dead horse on the table.

that cup: coffee, milk, sugar, which is how most people drink it. . . think carefully dear readers and you will see how it could serve as the signal marker for the nation's whole agricultural policy.

and how it is now balanced -- a weird mix of support along with a market devoted to brutal price and quality suppression -- to rip off consumers, the "third-world," and the coffee industry itself.

yup, despite its size and predominance of truly major multinational firms, the coffee industry at all levels seems totally disadvantaged by the very structure of our farm plans.

i think one can argue that all coffee participants are getting hosed, especially us coffee-loving consumers, but we don't seem to notice.

the coffee industry is consumed -- and rightly to a great extent -- by the impact of the current world-price depression known as the coffee crisis. by omitting sugar from the equation the industry itself appears to show that they may be misunderstanding a key problem in the coffee-dollar question: american agriculture support programs.

the entire agriculture policy of the u.s.a. is basically set to support a few crucial lobbies: wheat, dairy, sugar, cotton. despite all of the current administration's discussion of free trade and globalization, these receive enormous protection.

notice that coffee isn't there, although the u.s.a. grows coffee in kona and puerto rico, and is the world's major consuming nation.

let's go back to sugar. the times does, amusingly,
mention sugar supports in an editorial today
. as i understand it from speaking to coffeeshop owners and roaster-retailers, the coffee dollar should include about half a penny, perhaps three-quarters, for sugar.

without the supports that would fall apparently to about a seventh of a penny. those copper fragments don't seem like much until you realize how much coffee americans drink. then it adds up quick, which is one reason why the fanjul family is now more powerful than the rockefellers could ever have dreamed of being.

now let's look at the milk. the article says that of the US$3.75, US$0.40 goes for milk. ouch! well, that shouldn't surprise anyone who's been to the grocery store this autumn and seen how much milk has risen.

and how much does the u.s.a. offer the dairy industry in support? under the so-called "freedom to farm" act, dairy supports were to have been eliminated.

but these things die hard: a farmer's group, while complaining about reduced support, estimated the government would still end up paying US$330 million to prop up milk producers in 2003 under the so-called "m.i.l.c." program.

yup, it's welfare for cows. look, i'm not against american farmers. i was born in a farm town in kansas.

but sometimes you have to tell the truth a little bit, hmm? and the truth is, despite the reduction of dairy support, we still pay enough to cows to call ourselves practical hindus.

farmers' incomes are down; the government's still doling out support; and i'm paying more for milk than ever! this is insane, yes? who is benefitting here?

i don't have to keep going on like this, do i? the direction should be obvious. it's not that i'm calling for the coffee industry to dive in and fight for its share of pork.

although, since that's the way the current administration does business, maybe it should. . .it's that consumers particularly should understand the sharp edge of farm policy is currently sticking us where we keep our wallets.

those readers who are interested in ideas such as fair trade don't even have to go so far. it's not only a question of justice to people in the third-world; although that of course is important. it's your own weekly grocery bill.

or your daily cup of coffee. . . i personally have no idea why the so-called "big four" coffee roasters who sell most supermarkert brand x coffees -- the multinationals nestle, p&g, sara lee, kraft -- don't grumble about the agricultural supports. maybe they make up for it in their other business areas.

but consumers, regional roasters, roaster-retailers, and independent coffeeshop owners should be howling like rabid wolves. we are in the exact same position as the struggling coffee farmer, aren't we?

harmed by a set of economic policies devised by whom to benefit whom? the coffee farmer gets the macro end of the globalized pool cue in the kidneys, in terms of the commodity market system (the coffee crisis), while the consumer gets the small end in the ear, in terms of farm subsidies.

the specialty coffee industry is at work on an alternate market, with alternate auction systems, and the so-called "q" contract. this should help those coffee farmers who are devoted to producing quality.

but how should we consumers and coffeeshop owners, stuck with inflated prices for milk and sugar, react? what should we be doing?

please note that this isn't an anti-capitalist rant, so spare me your free-market hate mail. because i am a believer in free trade and globalization -- only with a level playing field, and with honest, transparent rules.

but do think about it, dear readers: pour yourself a lovely hot cup of your favorite single origin or blend, and take a little ponder!

or should you find this too heavy, then hop over to this lovely article by one of my new favorite people (thanks, marshall!).

i have no idea who you are, beautiful simran bhargava, but i know exactly who you are! you love coffee just as much as we here at bccy do; clearly you have the heart of an scaa consumer member.

and finally, for you long-suffering bread fans who feel like recently you've received short shrift, an article on the american scholar of the baguette, dr. kaplan. . .by our beloved deborah baldwin, who put us scaa consumer members on the front page of the times last july!

posted by fortune elkins | 10:41 AM | top | link to this |


Friday, November 28, 2003


weep for your chocolate; more on pros & yoga

yes my friends: weep for your european chocolate. in the past those of us in north america could confidently rely on the quality of most european chocolate.

we knew that due to strict national laws, most european chocolates would be high-quality, pure chocolate, with little or no lecithin or vegetable oils, and only real vanilla, real sugar. it would have to contain an accurate percentage of its chocolate amount.

but multi-nationals have lobbied the bureaucrats in the e.u. and a new standard takes effect that significantly lowers the quality of what now can be called and sold as chocolate in europe. as a result, consumers are going to have to scan european chocolate labels with more care.

the once-fine european chocolate we consumers have prized now could be filled with soybean oil, not real cocoa butter, and wonderful substances like the new c*spraydex, an "enzymatic conversion of starch" used to replace pure cane sugar.

thanks, cargill. it's what we really needed around here. not.

we all know that the e.u. bureaucracy is filled with corruption, fraud, and abuse. it makes me cynically wonder what elaborate quid pro quo, if any, went down to help this new regulation along. . .lord knows the spanish and italians did everything they could to stop it, first trying to ban the sale of these inferior "chocolates" and then battling in the e.u. court.

i think what this means is that in the short-term, these lower-quality "choco-products" flood the market at low prices, forcing those manufacturers who really would rather maintain quality to compete on price, and thus cut corners. we will pay inflated euro-import prices for reduced-quality products here in north america.

in the long-run, it will hopefully create a greater market here in north america for local artisan chocolatiers who maintain quality and insist on using real chocolate. assuming they can get their hands on it. . .but these products will be expensive!

in happier news, more pro sports figures are discovering the benefits of yoga. . .

posted by fortune elkins | 9:06 AM | top | link to this |


Thursday, November 27, 2003


phoning it in to the counterculture

yesterday i had the greatest experience: a phone-in cupping with all the awesome people from counterculture. we were tasting their holiday blend. they had the ability to cup the component coffees -- i just had the blend itself.

so i set up my little 3 cups, ground some coffee, boiled the water, and slurped and spit along with them via speakerphone from my own kitchen at home. this was such a blast; i wouldn't have thought it would be so effective long-distance. but it was so great we talked about getting webcams and doing it regularly.

they are redoing their website in january, and after that i think it would be awesome to have massive online cuppings via net meeting, speakerphone, webcam, all that. would you readers be interested? if so comment below, and i'll try to put one together for everyone. . .

the final scores for the blend ranged from i believe 82 to 90. i gave it an 85! what thrilled me about this coffee was that i had already had it for a couple of days. when it was brand-new, i thought i detected a little leather in the aroma, which gave me a bit o' pause.

but by today the coffee was a few days older, and that component in the blend seemed to have faded a bit. the coffee peter et al were using was about 12 hours old.

what i thought was really interesting was that when one of the counterculture people was tasting the component coffees, they themselves noted a "leather strap" feeling! aha! the light bulb went off over my head. . . .

here are my cupping scores for this coffee using the form in scaa chief ted lingle's cupping handbook, which is all i had around:

fragrance/aroma: 8
acidity: 3.5
flavor: 7
body: 6
aftertaste: 8
cuppers points: 2.5 (i liked it better now than when it was
absolutely brand new!)
plus 50!

i would describe this coffee as a light vienna roast, but peter g., the roaster, said it was their full city. i believe he told me the whole-bean agtron value was 47.

i would describe this coffee as sweet, with a low-medium acidity, as well as a sweet spice fragrance (a mix of green and black cardamom; this is a way to say there was something spicy but a little powdery about it; cindy chang described it as "like paperwhite narcissus flowers.").

when i broke the crust and did my thing, i immediately got a big malty/cereal note, with bakers chocolate, and some black currant in the aftertaste.

it was amazing to me how what was apparently in the individual component coffees got modified by the blending process. it was definitely a case of the whole being greater than the parts. . .

after the cupping, peter sent me the low-down on the component coffees. his email descriptions are so great, i'm just popping 'em in:

'Organic Mexico Pluma "Hidalgo"

From the famous Pluma growing region in Oaxaca, Mexico comes a coffee of remarkable depth and character. Shade grown, organically produced and certified Fair Trade, our Mexico Pluma has it all: a deep body, smooth, fruity flavor, and a big, full aroma. This is a great example of the magnificent coffees we now see, at long last, coming from Mexico.

Sustainable farming techniques and quality practices produce coffees of real distinction, and coffee roasters like us are glad to pay the farmers a big premium for these fine coffees. This creates even more incentive for quality, and special coffees like this are the happy result.

The La Trinidad Co-op, a collection of about 350 family farmers, produces this wonderful coffee in Naranjas, Oaxaca, where the warm morning sun and cool afternoon rains produce hard beans of rare sweetness and balance. When we visited the town, we were surprised to find the coffee sun-drying on the rooftops!

A brilliant and drinkable coffee, this is the perfect choice to enjoy with breakfast or during a long Saturday morning. This year's crop has a beautiful fruity note, reminiscent of sweet grape and coffee blossom.

Organic Timor "Maubesse"

Southeast of Java, in the Indonesian archipelago, lies the island of Timor. Ideally situated for coffee cultivation, Timor's climate and rich soil create coffees which, at their best, are world-class examples of the classic Java type. Timor is unique in the coffee world: farmers in Timor have traditionally shunned modern farming techniques, instead opting for traditional, sustainable practices.

This has made the island ideal for Organic coffee production, and Timor has really made the most of this. A huge proportion of the Timorese crop is Certified Organic.

Timor coffees also are unique in their quality. During a time when quality levels in many of the Pacific coffee growing regions were decreasing, Timor embarked on a very successful mission of improving coffee quality. Today, the classic, clean, full, spicy taste which once characterized the finest Estate-grown Javas is only available from Timor.

In 1999, in a dramatic political referendum, East Timor declared its independence. In May, 2002, it was officially recognized as an independent state by the United Nations. Its new government is democratically-run, and hopeful for a great future.

This organic coffee is at once sweet and spicy, with toasty aromas and a nutty aftertaste. Some acidity and a good body make it a perfect coffee for blending, especially with African coffees.

Organic Nicaragua Matagalpa "San Ramon"

In 1993 the Durham - San Ramon Sister Communities project began as an attempt to build awareness, friendship, and cooperation between San Ramon, Nicaragua and Durham, North Carolina. The project focuses on ways to exchange ideas, information, and resources between our community and a struggling coffee-growing community.

One of the initial goals of the project was to promote the region's coffee and help provide a market for it. For years, we have participated in this project by roasting coffee grown in San Ramon and sold in Durham.

San Ramon is near the city of Matagalpa, the capital of what is considered to be one of the finest coffee growing regions in Nicaragua. The region's coffees can be spectacular: lush notes of fruit and spice peeking through a sweet, soft body.

In the spring of 2000, at the invitation of the Sister Communities Project, we visited San Ramon and saw a world of potential. A number of small organic farmers had organized into a co-op, and some were doing the incredible amount of hard work it takes to produce a spectacular coffee.

So we got involved, and over the past few years we have continued to visit, interact, and do our part to give the feedback the farmer needs to produce great coffee. Most of all, we committed to buying great coffees if the farmers produced them. This year, the relationship paid off.

We cupped the coffee of each of the 33 organic producers in San Ramon. Of these, 10 lots stood out as magnificent Nicaraguan coffees. These 10 lots come together to make our Nicaragua San Ramon coffee this year. Here's a list of the farmers names, we are so very proud of their coffee and want to thank them each for their hard work:

Cafe San Ramon Producers 2003
Henry Mendoza, Hector Davila, Francisco Escobar Corea, Felix A. Davila, Carmelo Lopez Diaz, Pedro Valenzuela Mata, Francisco Rivera Castillo, Pedro Haslam, Hamilton Rivera, and the Yucul neighborhood farming group. '

thanks again to the counterculture folks! i have to repeat, this kind of experience is one of the benefits of being an scaa consumer member. . .

posted by fortune elkins | 11:58 AM | top | link to this |


Wednesday, November 26, 2003


life with the cafetiére

making coffee in the french press — properly called the cafetiére — is still one of the most popular methods used today. in fact, i think it's gaining in popularity, as so many movies and tv shows now take care to place them in stylish kitchen sets to demonstrate how cool the protagonists are supposed to be.

but i get a lot of questions about it, so i'm just going to take this moment for a french press core dump. brace yourselves for the plunge.

the method has many advantages. for the most part, good presses are relatively inexpensive, nothing mechanical or electrical to fail. the popular bodum presses even now offer models with polycarbonate cylinders so you don't have to worry about breaking or chipping.

the high-style more expensive alessi presses seem to sell well too. if you want to get more features, there are insulated presses to retain heat, presses with a built-in heating element. . .all that.

this brewing method really highlights the body of any coffee, which to my mind is a plus, since body is one of the elements of coffee i most enjoy. of course, the drawback is that unless you are careful with your grind and technique, you might get a few grounds in your cup.

at my office, i do use the dread "whirly-blade" grinder, simply because a larger, more unfamiliar grinder would probably cause my employers to look at me more askance than they already do! you can make good press coffee with this grinder.

but it's really preferable to use a decent burr grinder. good burr grinders, like the saeco 2002 i have at home, grind more evenly. the more even the coffee particles are, of course, the more even the extraction. that means you'll get better tasting coffee, even when you're grinding coarse for the press.

another important component for great press coffee is correct water temperature. i keep a taylor instant-read stick thermometer around for determining this. i know most people have one of these at home nowadays.

the best water temperature for press coffee is between 195 to 205 degrees f. usually, press instructions say simply to use "water off the boil." i find this leads a lot of people to use too-cold water; they inadvertently let it sit too long.

remember, the water loses a lot of heat as you pour it through the air into the press. if in doubt, wield your thermometer!

practically, i find that if you turn the heat off the boiling water and get your ducks in a row, the water will be right temperature in a minute. many people wonder about that temperature range tho'!

some experts say that darker-roasted coffees taste better with water towards the cooler end; lighter roasts, higher. this is something you should experiment with for your own taste.

fill the french press no higher than the bottom of the top metal collar; you need room to press the screen down without splashing water out and burning your hand. 205 degree water is truly hot water! be careful; don't overfill.

and when you press, press slowly and evenly. . .if you have difficulty pressing, you've ground a little too fine. just draw the plunger up again, and press down again.

what are the other important implements for french press brewing, after the press itself, a good grinder, and a thermometer? they are but three: a wooden chopstick, an inexpensive timer, and a thermos.

the timer is obvious, i hope: you should let your coffee steep between 3 and 4 minutes. again, this you can adjust to your personal taste. the wooden chopstick is for stirring. stirring or turbulence is crucial in coffee brewing.

stir to ensure all the coffee is evenly wet and to promote better extraction. the thermos is for decanting the coffee. after the coffee has finished steeping/brewing, you want to get it away from the grounds.

if left in the press, the coffee will continue to interact with the grounds, which makes the coffee more bitter. so pour your coffee off into a thermos, if you can.

finally let's talk about the coffee itself. you always want to use the freshest coffee possible, and you want to grind it just before you use it, while the water is on the verge of boiling.

one of the great things about fresh coffee is that it blooms. when the hot water hits the freshly ground fresh coffee, the coffee releases a lot of natural carbon dioxide.

this is good — it proves the coffee is fresh. and so the coffee creates a lovely, moussy foam that shines with delicious coffee oils.

but very fresh coffee can bloom like a shaken champagne bottle! massive overflow! so pour the water in slowly and stir with your wooden chopstick to keep the bloom under control.

let the coffee steep a minute or two and then stir again. if you look closely, you'll see that very light particles of coffee may have been trapped at the top of the bloom. stirring helps get these pieces back into the liquid so you get better extraction.

now we have to address what seems in my experience to be the most common problem people new to the press have: how much coffee to use?

fortunately, there is one simple answer that will always give you excellent coffee: multiply the size of your french press by 0.057. this is the weight of the coffee you should be using. it's an easy piece of math if you have a calculator, and you only have to do it once, ever.

just take the result of this little calculation and weigh out the coffee properly. almost everyone has a little kitchen scale nowadays; use it for this once, and then you'll be able to eyeball it for ever after.

i know, you think i'm insane when i say this. most people are used to hearing fairly useless answers to this crucial question, such as 2 tablespoons per 5 or 6 ounces water. but tablespoons are far from consistent in size, and most people wonder why 5? why 6? which should i choose?

other recommendations are just plain wrong. recently someone recommended 8.5 grams of coffee per 4 oz. of water. this is not a correct ratio; few people would enjoy this coffee, and most would call it unpalatably strong. but you will more often see ratios that result in coffee that's too weak, that looks like herb tea.

fortunately, we have science on our side here. scaa chief ted lingle has famously put together a fantastic tool, a veritable secret weapon, the coffee brewing control chart (excel 2000 format), that explains exactly how much coffee to use for how much water every time. in the center it has a shaded area that shows optimum flavor.

this area goes from about 47.5 grams of coffee per liter of water to 65 grams per liter, depending on how strong you like your coffee. but that's a bit complicated to figure out in the morning, right?

since the common bodum french presses come in only 5 sizes, it's possible for me to tell you definitely how much coffee to use in each one for perfection. of course, it's your taste, and so after you've tried the recipe, you can vary it a bit to suit you.

but this should totally take the guesswork out of it. here goes, in press size / coffee weight:

12 usa fl. oz. / 0.7 usa oz.
16 usa fl. oz. / 0.9 usa oz.
17 usa fl. oz. / 1.0 usa oz.
32 usa fl. oz. / 1.8 usa oz.
48 usa fl. oz. / 2.7 usa oz.

i've rounded the figures off a tad for ease of use. if you're unsure how large your press is, pour water into it up to the bottom of the top metal collar. measure that amount.

don't always believe what the box tells you: measure it once yourself! you may find the smaller presses hold a little less water than the stated size.

as i've said, once you've done this, you'll always be able to remember the amount. and you'll be amazed at how great your coffee tastes once you have:

  1. the right amount of coffee,
  2. the right water temperature,
  3. stirred correctly,
  4. steeped for the right amount of time,
  5. and poured the coffee into a thermos away from the used grounds after pressing.

need i add that if you were an scaa consumer member, you would learn all this cool stuff and more?

posted by fortune elkins | 7:21 AM | top | link to this |


Tuesday, November 25, 2003


holiday blend, part ii

"surrounded by coffee-lovers from as far afield as baltimore and bulgaria, the coffee farmer luiz norberto paschoal removes the frothy top off one last cup of espresso with a theatrical slurp."

despite the cheery opening, this is actually a serious article on the coffee crisis. however, if it was a real coffee cupping, i doubt the farmer was slurping from a cup of brewed espresso!

as long-time readers know, we here at bccy are committed to celebrating every great holiday with a chocolate tradition. and today is a great holiday, a chocolate holiday -- the end of ramadan, eid-al-fitr.

people visit each other and give gifts, which of course includes chocolate, often in candies made with almonds, cashews, and raisins, dates or other dried fruits.

i suggest everyone today celebrate this holiday by giving yourself or someone else a bar of high-quality dark chocolate! a weiss mendiant bar would be perfect: delicious 64% dark chocolate with a mix of nuts and raisins. . .

i'll be eating mine this afternoon with a cup of david haddock's counterculture holiday blend.

this is a vienna roast, rich, with a fragrance of sweet spices, a nice bakers chocolate aroma with a hint of something else -- almost a little leathery, maybe! the roast mutes the brightness. . .

i take it with a tablespoon of light cream and a pinch of turbinado sugar. yummy.

posted by fortune elkins | 7:16 AM | top | link to this |


Monday, November 24, 2003


coffee tourism's chic

the brazilian government is funding a study of 200,000 doctors to see if there is a link between heart disease and coffee consumption.

large-scale studies are always good, so hey why not? but i think that there already exist a significant number of studies that point in the direction the brazilians want to go.

it's true: there are a lot of coffee and caffeine health myths that are holding back coffee consumption. yet there are other barriers to breach as well, especially that of quality. once we are convinced that coffee is healthy, we then need coffee that tastes good!

too many consumers still don't know the joys of high-quality specialty coffee. oh first-time or infrequent readers! i suggest you try the coffee from your local independent coffeehouse or roaster-retailer. you'll never go back to that supermarket brand in the can again!

and here's an exciting travel story about eco- and agro-tourism in colombia's coffee country. details found here.

and finally, great news: catholic relief supports fair-trade coffee with a new program! the lutherans and other church groups have been supporting various fair-trade programs for a while now. . .

posted by fortune elkins | 8:55 AM | top | link to this |


Sunday, November 23, 2003


holiday blend & just too sweet

long-time readers may remember the coffee heaven i shared not that long ago with david schoenholt. ah, he was a good sport. . .very supportive when he learned of my tragic loss of colorist. really, a gentleman.

well, i have temporarily found a new hairdresser at rumor, next to famed patisserie marquet (funny how that worked out, hmm?). so while wandering by, i stopped in to pick up a few of their handmade truffles.

alas -- too sweet. the truffles are smallish, which is good, and rolled in cocoa, also good. but the truffle itself was too sweet, too buttery: it lacked a strong, clear, dark chocolate flavor.

at US$40 a pound, i want a higher-quality chocolate and a more intense pure flavor.

on the upside, i want to give a huge bccy hug to the amazing altie and scaa consumer member marshall fuss, who went to a los angeles slow food fundraiser today and talked up the c-member program. he even gave out the sign-up forms!

now that's coffee evangelism! why can't i be more like marshall??

in other coffee news, i had the great opportunity to talk to rene van sint annaland of new zealand today. he's amazingly nice and sells the cult espresso machine, the reneka techno. . .


posted by fortune elkins | 6:12 PM | top | link to this |

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