This article originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Edible Phoenix.
The barista pulls an espresso shot, the last of the day, with the same meticulous attention he used when he pulled the first one that morning. He measures the beans, whirls them in a burr grinder and tamps down the fine brown powder with a bit of brute force. He slides the pod into position, yanks it to the right and places a demitasse cup underneath the spigot to catch the liquid gold.
During the 25 seconds it takes to extract the shot, does he think about the tiny plot of land in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, or the sliver of hillside in the shrinking rainforests of Sumatra where the Arabica beans were grown? Does he ponder the wildly fluctuating commodities market in New York where coffee is traded and where pennies on the pound can have rippling effects from farm to cup?
The specialty coffee market is grappling with sustainability, organic certifications, shade-grown and bird-friendly designations, fair trade practices and what these mean to the gourmet cup of Joe. And there’s an even bigger elephant in the room for the industry: the pinched economy.
Getting coffee into a cup is a long and winding road. Multiple sets of hands touch coffee from plant to coffee drinker: the farmer, the exporter, the importer, the roaster and the barista. For a commodity that’s trading on the wholesale exchange at around $1.40 a pound these days, coffee is a complex elixir, with a history steeped in political strife since its discovery in Ethiopia circa 800 A.D.
There’s no way to neatly package the state of the coffee industry into a few pages. Instead, we’ll introduce you to the hands (some local, some not) that bring the magical beans to market. We’ll start at the cup and follow the trail back to the farm.
The Perfect Blend
It’s hard to imagine now, but the Valley wasn’t inundated with coffeehouses in 1992, when Jonathan Shrednick and his wife, Kimberly, moved to Arizona after graduating from Johnson & Wales University. They fell in love with the idea of a coffeehouse, but felt something was missing from the haunts they frequented near their Camelback Corridor home.
The coffeehouses there, including the behemoth Starbucks, just weren’t getting it right. At least not in the way the Shrednicks envisioned a coffeehouse should operate: by emotionally providing a sense of community and physically providing a superior cup of coffee.
In 1997, the couple wrote a business plan for their ideal coffeehouse and shopped for a location. Three years later they opened Jolta Java on the southwest corner of Scottsdale Road and Acoma. The name Jolta Java isn’t just a catchy phrase—the Shrednicks pump 1½ ounces into every shot, 50 percent more than most coffeehouses.
The economy has impacted 7-year-old Jolta Java. Shrednick says several businesses in the nearby Air Park have gone belly-up, specifically in the real estate, mortgage and financial sectors, taking with them a significant chunk of his shop’s customer base.
He’s not too worried, though. Coffee is historically cyclical and he’s optimistic that his coffee sales will recover. “We are,” he says slyly, “addicted to our caffeine.” And it is difficult to settle for a lowly cup of brackish brown water if you are accustomed to the complexity of a specialty cup of java.
How did Shrednick learn about gourmet coffee? “I didn’t, really,” he says rather bluntly.
As he was opening Jolta Java, he met Hannah Romberg, owner of Espressions Coffee Roastery. He tapped Romberg, who has been roasting coffee in the Valley for nearly 20 years, to help craft his coffee menu, including developing custom blends such as the house Kind Grind.
Romberg says it took several attempts to create the right blend—perhaps Shrednick is a bit pickier about coffee than he professes. The winning blend was a mix of Celebes Kalossi from Indonesia, African Tanzanian Peaberry and French Roast (a three-bean blend in and of itself).
“We were going for a balanced cup that would fit with his [food] menu,” Romberg says. “We get smoothness and chocolate properties from the Indonesian, toasted marshmallow and caramelized sugar notes along with brightness and vibrancy in the Tanzanian and the French Roast adds depth and backbone,” she says.
Romancing the Bean
Talking coffee with Romberg isn’t much different than discussing grape characteristics with a winemaker. She spends most of her time on the consulting side, advising clients on all aspects of coffee service, from custom blends to equipment. Her Espressions Roastery supplies wholesale coffee to several top Valley restaurants (Cowboy Ciao), independent coffeehouses (Orange Table), local food companies (Fairytale Brownies) and all A. J.’s Fine Foods stores.
On any given morning at the roastery, you can find roast master Chip Koger and roaster-in-training Mitch Montgomery splitting open burlap sacks of green coffee beans from all regions of the coffee-growing belt, roughly from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn. The warehouse is stocked with beans from Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Kenya, Sumatra and Kauai, just to name a few.
Espressions’ towering, custom-built Italian Trabattoni roaster roasts up to 30 kilos (66 pounds) at a time. Although the orange behemoth is fully automated, it’s man, not machine, that ultimately determines the quality. Roasting beans requires listening, smelling and visually checking for signs of the perfect roast. Art trumps science.
Beans churn in the rotating fire drum at varying temperatures (336° to 415° F.) for 15 to 20 minutes, depending upon ambient conditions, particular bean characteristics and specific roast profiles. After 10 to 12 minutes, the beans start to crackle, expanding as they lose moisture. A second, pronounced crack a couple minutes later cues the roaster to check for visual signs, including comparing the beans’ color to samples of “ideally” roasted beans.
Once the roast master decides the beans are the optimal color, he turns a crank and hot, toasty beans spill into a wide, shallow pan with a perforated bottom and rotating arm to quickly cool the beans. The air fills with the heady aroma of warm coffee.
Down on the Farm
Espressions buys coffee from several sources, but the bulk of its purchases come from Royal Coffee, a green bean importer based near San Francisco. Royal Coffee’s Alex Mason has worked with Romberg for more than a decade. On paper he’s a trader, pulling and pushing coffee through the system. His degree in economics comes into play as he juggles the tasks of finding the world’s best coffees, negotiating sales contracts and then, in turn, selling the beans to his roster of 1,700 specialty coffee roasters.
Mason’s mastery of the Spanish language (his mother is Cuban/Mexican) dictates his Latin America area of specialty, although he’s traveled to Africa and Indonesia as well. He spends several weeks a year on coffee sojourns, trekking into the highlands of the coffee regions to meet exporters, co-op members and individual farmers.
“The most rewarding part of my job is meeting with farmers,” Mason says. “When I make a decision to buy from a certain community, it changes people’s lives on the ground. They know I will find a home for good coffee.”
Mason recalls a trip to Zaragoza, a small village of less than 400 outside of Itundujia in Oaxaca, Mexico. A coffee farmer, honored to have Mason visit his farm, invited him into his home and served him humble chicken soup.
“There’s no greater meal a person from the central highlands of Latin America can feed you,” Mason says since chickens are scarce in this remote village, the people are poor and the whole community shares one water spigot.
Mason says he pays the farmers a fair—even good—price, and bristles at the notion that organic or fair-trade designations are the only socially responsible avenues for the coffee market.
“Just because a farmer isn’t designated organic or fair-trade doesn’t mean he doesn’t take care of his land or his workers,” he says.
Mason believes that some individual farmers take even better care of their land than farmers who have joined a co-op, which requires a modest investment and concessions of control, or those farmers wealthy enough to buy organic certification.
“I know some farmers who are too poor to buy pesticides and chemical fertilizers, so I know their beans are organic, but they just can’t afford to go through the certification,” he says.
Unfortunately, those farmers don’t get the price premium associated with the organic designation, and so Mason feels especially committed to finding markets for these beans.
At the end of the day, coffee is an agricultural product with a tangled history of bringing joy and creating conflict. While that next shot of espresso is extracted, there’s plenty to contemplate: Did the barista grind and tamp the beans fine enough? Did the roast master halt the roasting at the optimum color? Did the beans come from a bird-friendly habitat? Was the farmer fairly compensated? Does this one cup of Joe really make a difference to more than just me and you? Good questions for a conversation—over a cup of coffee, of course.
(This article first appeared in Edible Phoenix, Fall 2008, picture was taken by the author.)