Coffee Express

Providing great service to coffee houses and other specialty retailers in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana

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Espresso Roasts and Blends

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Decades ago, espresso coffee in the U.S. was more generic: dark roasted, and of unknown origin. In the late 1970s, Peet’s Coffee of San Francisco raised the quality level of the beans they were using; they didn’t view dark as a way to mask the poor flavor of inferior beans.

More recently, a trend has developed that has baristas brewing espressos with single origin coffees, and/or much more lightly roasted beans.

Leaving aside brew strengths for now, how do you go about determining your favorite espresso? Does that espresso shot have the character to hold up well if you want a cappuccino or latte?

When cafes are putting together a blend for espresso brewing, they understand that some coffees are tart, and some are softer. Using the espresso method of 130 psi, coffee beans are ground to allowed an enormous amount of the surface area of the bean to become exposed to the hot, pressurized water and steam. Intense flavors come through, and both the good and bad are revealed.

The West-coast coffee chains that grew in popularity in the 1980s & 1990s are hugely successful, and responsible in many ways for what’s called the “second wave” in coffee. Better quality, very darkly roasted coffee is now the norm for a majority of espresso, cappuccino, and latte drinkers. The “third wave” is easing up a bit on the roast, and using even higher quality coffees. Is there a certain standard flavor you expect from an espresso? Are you willing to take a walk along the cutting edge?

You can experiment by asking your favorite local cafe to pull a shot of medium, or full-city roasted beans – espresso ground, of course – and see what you think. Be prepared for the results though; this will be an entirely new (and hopefully fun) experience for your taste-buds!

Jamaican Blue Mountain

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Ian Fleming declares in Live and Let Die, (1954) “Blue Mountain Coffee, the most delicious in the world.”

It has been one of the most expensive coffees over the past 200 years, but is it really the most delicious? Like coffee from any producing country it can be wonderful, though the same rules apply: it must be carefully grown, harvested and processed. Then it needs to be properly roasted, ground and brewed just before serving. There can be both bad and good Jamaica Blue Mountain – despite the Jamaica Coffee Industry Board’s strict criteria for export grade.

Authentic Blue Mountain is grown in a demarcated area, just to the northeast of Kingston. It is steep terrain, rising from 2500 to 4500 feet above the Caribbean. There are no “Blends” or “Styles”, and the cost per pound is anywhere from $30.00 to $50.00. But, who says you have to buy a full pound? For around $10.00 you can brew a pot or two and see for yourself what all the fuss is about.

When I began roasting in 1982, Blue Mountain was unavailable in the United States. I was determined to offer it on our list, and made numerous trips to Jamaica. I shot a video in 1983 where an agriculture field expert describes the difference between Typica and Geisha, varieties that are currently in vogue. In 1984 or so, I was able to offer my customers pure Jamaican Blue Mountain, and I’ve been happy to supply it ever since.

While there are numerous coffees from around the world that exhibit arguably as good or better cup, there are few friends or relatives who wouldn’t be thrilled to receive some fresh, honest, Blue Mountain as a special gift.

It’s in the Cup

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While there are many aspects to running a coffee house, or a store selling coffee among its various products, the taste in the cup still rules. Finding what you like is a process filled with a sometimes confusing array of choices – each of which affects your end result.

 The green coffee bean, before roasters imprint their individual skills, sets the table for your entire experience. Where was it grown? How much individual care were the trees given? Which variety of Arabica tree: Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon, Typica, Geisha (among others)? The processing is another major factor: is this coffee natural – leaving the cherry on; semi-washed, or honey – partially washing off the mucilage; or fully washed, which is often fermented?

 Individual varieties versus blends pose a big decision for the coffee drinker.  Blends bring a wide, somewhat dependable swath of tastes, but are often less traceable, and sometimes less exciting. The roasters have a better ability to control the taste in the cup though, so blends are a popular choice.

When talking about individual types of coffee, the country of origin and region within the country, together with details such as variety of the coffee plant, elevation, and processing method, offer chances to explore more specific characteristics – which you may not get with a blend.

As roasters, our job is to select green beans we think taste great, and roast them to bring out the best in each bean. Whether we’re making a blend or roasting a nice Ethiopian, we try to “let the bean talk to us”, so we can bring you a most enjoyable cup of coffee.

Cup quality underlines all facets of selecting, brewing and enjoying. Stated again, the main variables are, green bean, roasting, packaging, grinding, and brewing. Cup quality can’t be pigeonholed into descriptions like “fresh roasted”, “gourmet”, or “artisan small-batch roasted”. Each step of the way demands the utmost care and focus. All participants in the growing, selecting, roasting, and brewing, contribute to cup quality. No one is left out.

Microlots

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The standard lot of coffee is around 250 bags, or 37,500 lbs. This is also a truckload, or an ocean container full. There are partial lots of more exotic types, but let’s zero in on what are known as microlots. 

You might ask, “What is your favorite coffee?” or, “Which country has the best coffee?” Tough questions with a simple answer. All coffee producing countries can have exquisite growths.

We’ve mentioned in previous posts that using the language of estates and farms is fuzzy business when talking coffee origins. Generally though, a microlot implies a very limited coffee from a single farm. Perhaps they have produced a few thousand pounds -25 bags let’s say- of a coffee they know produces a luxurious cup. On the other hand, maybe it’s from a larger farm, but they have singled out a particularly great bean. Either way, voila , a microlot!

While Coffee Express has always brought in coffees such as Wallenford Estate Jamaican, small-farm Hawaiian Konas, and microlot Cup of Excellence® winners, we have recently decided to expand our offerings. Besides our standard coffees, we keep on hand three to four additional choices. They can represent just about every producing region of the world. Prices vary based on availability, reputation, and other arbitrary influences. We will provide details about the production of the coffee, the farm, farmer, and cup qualities.

What we have on hand changes. If you fall in love with one, you will eventually have to go on to the next! Rest assured though, these are the most special coffees of the specialty coffee industry, and there will always be an exceptional selection from which to choose.

Trip to Cerrado, Minas Gerais, Brazil and Traceability

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Coffee Express received an invitation to join a select group of small, U.S. specialty roasters on a tour of the Cerrado coffee growing region in Brazil. The best thing I’ve done was to say yes.

In the wide world of specialty coffees, Brazil isn’t generally regarded in the same light as high grown, complex coffees such as Costa Rican or Kenyan. We’ve made good use of coffees from Brazil since we began roasting in the 1980s. However, it’s only recently that Brazil naturals – the traditional type, and the newer semi-pulped and fully washed – have come into favor. At their best Brazils bring smoothness, velvety subtle nut flavors, and hints of chocolate.

Cerrado is in the western part of the state of Minas Gerais, in the heart of Brazil’s coffee production, and grows a major portion of the crop. We visited four farms and three cooperatives in three days. Cooperatives process, bag and ship coffees. You can go to YouTube.com and type in Trip to Cerrado to see some home video of the trip.

Traceability

Even in a strictly delineated growing area, such as Antigua in Guatemala, Yirgacheffe in Ethiopia, or Blue Mountain in Jamaica, coffees from various farms are processed together. It’s rare that you can trace a coffee to its source. One of the reasons Brazil invited this group was to continue the dialogue of what the consumer market is looking for, and how producers can adapt. As large as Brazil’s coffee production is, they too are interested in singling out the best growths.

As I sit here finishing the article, I’m in New York attending the National Coffee Association’s annual Fall Educational Conference. Folks, the trend is certainly going to a further specialization of specialty. Microlots are taking hold. A microlot is generally from 20 to 90 bags of green coffee, traced to a farm, and to a processing mill. More detailed techniques are being developed at the farm and mill to answer the requirements of an increasingly sophisticated drinker. Check our current supply of microlots we plan to always have a few varieties on hand, and would love to help you find a retailer near you so you can try some of these wonderfully interesting coffees!

As The Roaster Turns

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It will be twenty-two years this August since I first came to work for Coffee Express, and so much has happened in the coffee world since then. You could say a lot of water has passed over the coffee grounds. First, specialty coffees emerged as the new status-quo, then organics hit the scene, and lately – due to a surge in interest about the traceability and origins of what we are eating and drinking – Microlots have become more popular. But some things don’t change, like the fragrance coming from opening the coffee bins first thing in the morning, the smell of fresh ground coffee, and the aroma of a freshly-brewed pot. 

I am privileged to have the opportunity to taste coffees from around the world, and discuss their nuances; things like how to get just the right grind, and what ratio of coffee-to-water is needed – both of which vary depending on whether you’re using a French press, drip brewer, percolator, preparing an espresso concoction, or trying out the new old craze – single-cup pour-overs.

Each morning Tom looks at the coffee market prices and tries to figure out what is going on out there. While that is happening, we (roasters & packagers) receive customers’ orders from the office. We prepare the boxes and bags needed for the day’s orders, and then we prepare a roast list and stage the green coffees as needed. Finally, we turn on and warm up the roasters, and get to the part that I like, roasting coffee.

Sight, sound and smell are essential to the roasting process. The gradual change in color and the crackle of the bean during expansion help in determining when the roast is getting close to done. Then – crunch time; that last few minutes as the coffee roast nears its completion. That’s when the skill of the roaster, dealing with all of these components, comes into play. Finally, the roast is stopped when the roaster is satisfied with his work.

Once the coffee is dropped into the cooler, it is just a matter of time before you are drinking a great cup of Mountain Country Coffee. Then we clean up and do it all over again (is it any wonder our mascot is the groundhog?).

It’s Time For New Crop Coffee!

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It’s finally springtime, signifying the end of winter, regeneration, new birth, and freshness! It is also the time when many countries freshly picked coffees start arriving here in the States. As you know, we at Coffee Express continually seek the best coffees available in the world, and we wait with great anticipation to get our roasting hands on these new arrivals.

Coffee is somewhat similar to wine and other annual crops in that each year’s product may not always have the same quality or taste. There are many different things that affect the flavor of coffees (even ones grown in the same region every season).

Weather is one of the major determining factors in the flavor of each harvest. Because weather is an uncontrollable force, it can seriously affect the crop yield in any given year. So, if Brazil, which grows almost 30% of the world’s total specialty coffee, has terrible weather during the growing season, farms are not able to produce as much as expected, causing supply and demand to get out of balance, leading to higher prices.

When we first received the new crop from Panama in late February of 2011, it was great. We found that it left a nice mild, slightly sweet, and long lingering taste. With Panama being the first arrival of the Central American new crop, we saw coffees from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and El Salvador quick succession. Harvesting of these coffees began in October with final pickings ending in March. Also shipping new crop coffee between March and July are the African countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Once the cherry is picked it can take up to four weeks to get the finished green bean ready for shipping. That is one reason why it takes from October until springtime to receive. Next, there are two main methods to process the cherry. First is the wet or “Washed” method. The fruit is pulped by machine, with remaining mucilage washed away with water. These coffees will generally have a higher acidity and clean flavors. In the Dry or “Natural” Method, the cherries are allowed to dry on the tree, or are laid out in the sun for three to four weeks. The acidity of the beans is reduced and the body and earthy flavors are increased.

We hope the new crops this year are as wonderful as they were last spring, and you are as eager as we are to receive and taste these new coffees.

Coffee the Commodity

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Did you know that Arabica coffee is traded in New York at the Intercontinental Exchange – the ICE? Our prices at Coffee Express are directly related to the price at which coffee is traded on the exchange. There are two markets for coffee: the cash -or “spot”- market, which is the price we would pay for green coffee if we purchased it (and wanted it shipped) today.The second is the futures market price. The futures market for commodities like coffee is used to help protect against the wild variations that occur due to speculation, and events such as bad weather.The quality of the coffee or percent of defects per 300 grams determines the premium or discount (differential) paid for green coffee. These classes of coffee are:

Class 1. Specialty Coffee – 0-5 defects.

Class 2. Premium Grade – 6-8 defects.

Class 3. Exchange Grade – 9-23 defects.

Class 4. Below Standard Grade – 24-86 defects.

Class 5. Off Grade – More than 86 defects.

Class 3 is the grade traded on the ICE. Class 1 and 2 demand premiums to the Class 3 price, whereas Class 4 and 5 coffees demand discounts.

“Specialty” really means the very best coffees a producing country has. The premiums paid for these top growths can be substantial.

Coffee Express monitors the coffee market daily and continually looks for the absolute best specialty coffees available in the world, at the relative lowest spot (and future) prices that we can get. Although we price according to market, quality is at the top of our list when purchasing green coffee.

Medium vs. Dark

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Previously, we discussed degrees of roasting and the 1990’s trend toward dark roasted coffees. In explaining the trend toward dark roasts, we mentioned American travel to Europe, the growing popularity of coffee houses, and other culinary phenomena, which gave rise – among some drinkers – to a preference for darker roasts.

For much of the Twentieth Century American coffee was a light roast. The Specialty Coffee Industry darkened things up, so these more contemporary coffees are roasted medium to dark. Whatever the roast, the various shades or degrees of roast challenge our tastes and preferences.

Does an ideal roast exist? Is it attainable? Some articles on coffee roasting describe a “sweet spot” for a given coffee – Guatemalan, for example – that the Roast Master looks for. Because taste is subjective, “sweet spots” are based on what that particular coffee roasting group deems best.

In mathematics, 2+2=4, but what is the optimal roast for that Guatemalan? Many Saudi Arabians think it is better very light, while for some residents of Seattle, the darker the better. It’s a fact that different types of coffee require more, or less, heat to develop good flavor, but the reality of the “sweet spot” is that whatever coffee you prefer becomes the perfect roast.

Here at Coffee Express we roast many varieties to a City, or Medium, roast. Our Full City Blend is a popular choice, as it pushes the roast temperature up a little, and “tames” some of the brightness high-quality coffees possess. We also have a wide selection of dark roasted blends including French Roast, Italian Roast, to round out our roasting styles.

Roasters Guild Annual Retreat

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The Specialty Coffee Association came together in 1984. At that time small specialty roasters and shop owners made up the membership. It didn’t take long for the trade group to grow to what it is today: a broad mix of roasters, both large and small, coffee shops of all sorts, and hundreds of allied members. Eleven years ago, a small group of specialty roasters once again felt they needed a trade group to better represent them, this time within the SCAA. They created the Roasters Guild. (The Barista Guild has a similar background).

The Guild, now numbering 450, holds a three-day retreat each summer to help strengthen craft specialty roasting. Because this year they located it in West Virginia, the first time east of the Mississippi, I joined and attended.

Probat Burns, US Roaster, Diedric, Giesen and Ambex had eight small roasters set up. The gathering of 150 coffee roasters was divided into twelve groups to compete, experiment, and learn; all within an atmosphere created to have fun. There were workshops built around a variety of topics as well: identifying defects in roasting, advanced sensory science, round table discussions, and the like. And lots of cupping.

The retreat was a terrific way to keep skills honed, as well as be in touch with roasters and practices from around the country (and a few other countries were represented!).

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