At cafehound.com, we endeavor to locate the best coffee in the world. Over the last eight years we’ve happily watched as globally, the options available to the public have exponentially increased and the public’s general awareness of specialty coffee has deepened. Although we still believe that tracking down the best coffee in the world is central to our mission, we recently decided to dip our toes into the area of recommending specific coffee(s) to coffee lovers based on a mixture of qualitative and empirical analysis.
In two posts (1 and 2) from 2015, we took verbal reviews of specialty coffees from the site coffeereview.com, and we employed various clustering algorithms to discover groupings of coffee (based on words used to describe them and other factors). This served as our initial foray into using Data Science on expert coffee reviews to improve our understanding of specialty coffee.
Over the past month, we’ve set out to improve upon that original work in order to empower java lovers to discover the perfect brew. Our years of cupping coffee and talking with experts have shown that – after a certain point – what constitutes a “good cup of coffee” is subjective and specific to the palette of the beholder.
With that in mind, cafehound.com chose to use a large, multiyear list of coffee reviews from Kenneth David’s coffeereview.com site to explore the relationship between the descriptions used to rate coffee aroma, flavor, aftertaste, body, acidity and finish. We hypothesized that there are distinct groupings of coffee based on their roast profile, body, and flavors that are relevant to informing consumer preferences in the overall marketplace. To clarify, a market segmentation based on a representative sample of surveyed consumer preferences may be more useful to marketing professionals, but that is outside of the scope of this post. Instead, we’re using the structure inferred from math and reviews of specific coffees to estimate categories of the potential “coffee experience.” These categories may provide coffee consumers with guideposts for exploring new specialty coffees.
Our results led to six broad categories of coffee that we’ve ordered from lightest to darkest roast (based on average Agtron ratings). Agtron ratings are a numerical representation of the consistency of the roast color (lower numbers indicate a darker roast <45, higher numbers indicate a lighter roast 50+). More than the roast determines the flavor profile and overall body of the coffee, which is why some of these segments may appear similar.
Initially, we bring this content to you via occasionally updated web pages. Depending on demand, we may scale our service to provide daily or weekly recommendation updates.
Using a barrage of adjectives like super-premium, unique, reserve and small-lot, Starbucks has just announced details regarding its new “premium coffee experience” store concept, as well as its flagship “small-batch” Roastery and Tasting Room, coming to Seattle’s Capitol Hill this winter.
The company says the new roastery will be a kind of interactive coffee museum and tasting room designed to showcase the company’s “small-lot” Reserve line of coffees. It will also be the flagship for Starbucks’ new store model, which will occupy some 100 locations in strategic markets throughout the globe over the next five years.
Adjectives abound, but if one phrase is an elephant in this particular room, it is “Third Wave,” one many around the high-end retail industry, including this blog, has avoided using for years. But it seems particularly apt here, as the company that embodies “Second Wave”-ness rolls out its new high-end, coffee-quality-focused brand.
Starbucks itself describes the new store concept as is a kind of higher rung in “customer experience segmentation,” part of the company’s retail “evolution.” Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz went so far as to describe the new roastery and tasting room as something that will revolutionize all of specialty coffee.
“Everything we have created and learned about coffee has led us to this moment,” he said. “The Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting room is a multi-sensory experience that will transform the future of specialty coffee. We plan to take this super premium experience to cities around the world, elevating the Starbucks experience not only through these stores but across our entire business.”
Here’s more from Starbucks on the new Seattle roastery:
A first-of-its-kind union for Starbucks of coffee theatre and manufacturing, this iconic Seattle destination will allow Starbucks to double its small-batch roasting capacity and grow its Starbucks Reserve® coffee presence from 800 to 1,500 stores worldwide, by the end of FY15. More than two years in development, this unprecedented experience will allow customers to engage with Starbucks passion for coffee in a 15,000 square-foot interactive retail environment devoted to beverage innovation and excellence.
In addition to the approximately 100 new premium stores, Starbucks is also unveiling new smaller-footprint and drive-through “Express” store models, where there will be a focus on quick service and developing Starbucks’ mobile ordering platform. These stores, the company says, will “address the increase in urbanization and decentralization of retail.”
Including its traditional retail stores, its premium stores and its express stores, Starbucks is on track to open some 1,550 outlets globally in 2014, and plans to open 1,600 in 2015, including 300 net new locations in the U.S.
A barista at Ritual Roasters in San Francisco pours hot coffee into Thermoses about to be shipped around the country. (Courtesy Thermos)
Last week, Thermos overnighted me a cup of hot coffee from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., to see if it could. It was a bald-faced PR stunt. It succeeded in both senses: The coffee was still hot by the time it reached me, and I am writing about it now.
Now you’ve been warned: This is an article about a PR stunt. It was, however, an extraordinary PR stunt—well-executed, conceptually simple, and bubbling with zeitgeist. And I accepted the hot coffee for reasons beyond my love of roasted arabica.
The stunt’s part of a larger contest (and context). In May, Thermos shipped 25 of its Facebook fans in the contiguous U.S. free coffee overnight from Ritual Coffee in San Francisco. This month, the second time it ran the contest, it chose a more midwestern provider: Spyhouse Coffee in Minneapolis.
Courtney Fehrenbacher, a marketing manager at Thermos, told me that the company hopes to re-run the contest every other month, at least until the end of the year. Altogether, Spyhouse will hand 35 of its steaming envoys over to FedEx to be distributed across the country.
But, dare I say, the stunt was about even more than Thermos, Spyhouse, the Stainless King, or the Iron Throne. It was about logistics.
As best as I can assemble it, here is the trajectory of the Stainless King and its erstwhile contents.
The coffee inside the Stainless King was Spyhouse’s Las Nubes roast: a coffee variety indigenous to Kenya and grown in El Salvador. The varietal was brought to El Salvador in the early 20th century when that country’s economy rested on its coffee production. This bean was grown on a similarly old farm, high-altitude land owned by the same family since the 1920s. (Or, at least, that’s the story Spyhouse tells.)
This bean, though. It was harvested sometime last winter before it entered its customary months of rest. Afterward, it was shipped to Spyhouse, which roasted the beans on July 21, 2014. It became the shop’s Las Nubes lot.
I presume it roasted those beans in the morning, because by the afternoon it was brewing the coffee. Around 4 p.m., the team got out their 10 Stainless Kings (designated for me and fellow members of the media) and filled them with Las Nubes, which they dripped. Then they put them in Thermos’s special packages—augmented with a bag of freshly roasted Las Nubes—and drove the boxes “about a quarter mile away” to the local FedEx facility.
According to a FedEx spokeswoman, the package was placed in a modified McDonnell Douglas DC-10, called an MD-10*. That plane’s a couple decades old, at least—McDonnell stopped making them in 1989—and FedEx owns more than anyone else. FedEx indisputably owns the largest private cargo fleet in the world, and, according to the trade journal Supply Chain, the fourth-largest aircraft fleet, period.
Perhaps the package was stopped and exchanged in one of FedEx’s global or national hubs, in Memphis, or Indianapolis. Eventually, though, it arrived in D.C. in the wee hours of the July 22. Unloaded from the plane, sorted, loaded onto a truck, and carried to The Atlantic’s office/cement island-fortress, the Watergate, it reached its destination at 7:21 a.m. The coffee had been roasted less than 24 hours before.
Of course, the coffee wouldn’t reach its final destination—my belly—for another hour or so. I got to work during the eight o’clock hour, hoping to intercept the Stainless King, and discovered Santa had already arrived.
With my colleague Adrienne, I unboxed the long-traveling liquid. Like Max’s dinner in Where the Wild Things Are, it was still hot.
Talking to Spyhouse’s founder and owner, Christian Johnson, I’ve been able to piece together the coffee’s temperature-history. Spyhouse uses water at exactly 203 degrees Fahrenheit to brew Las Nubes. Johnson estimates that by the time that liquid—now coffee—departs the brew shuttle, it’s between 175 and 180 degrees. Then it was capped, vacuum-sheathed, and sent on its way.
But still the conditions outside changed. “Depending on the exact placement of the package inside the aircraft, temperatures range from 40 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit during an average flight, with the average temperature being about 60 degrees,” a Fedex spokeswoman said of the Thermos’ cargo transit. And the pressure changed outside as well, rising to the equivalent of 8,000 feet above sea level.
It was about 72 degrees in the district as the package trundled through, and a few degrees cooler in my almost-refrigerated office. When we uncapped the Thermos, we measured its temperature to be 151 degrees.
“Wow. That’s amazing,” said Johnson, after I shared this heat conservation with him. “So really you only lost 25 degrees between when we capped the thermos to when you opened it.”
He added that the other factors involved in long-form transit—the altitude, the pressurization—shouldn’t have significantly affected the coffee’s taste. I think that sounds right. I found Las Nubes as described, similar to other El Salvadorean coffee I’ve had that didn’t migrate: acidic in a citrusy way, a little sweet.
According to Fehrenbacher, the idea for the contest came from an anecdote that Thermos’s president would tell. Once upon a time, the story went, a client had paid the company to regularly overnight coffee from across the country. (No one seems to remember just which client this was.) Why not see if they could recreate the story for marketing purposes?
The gimmickry of the stunt seemed to attract Johnson to the idea. But when he spoke to me, he obligingly remarked too on the pop-cultural power of Thermos. He and the other baristas carried Thermos-made lunch boxes as kids; they respected Thermos as a stalwart American product. Now, they were proud to partner with the company for the contest.
And Thermos is an enviable tool for that reason. It embodies “do one thing well”in the world of beverage receptacles. People buy it because they want something that does what a Thermos does—and every time, without fail, without system reboots or lag, it dispatches this task admirably. (Though if I have one quarrel with the Stainless King, its top cap was sometimes very, very hard to screw off.)
Talking to Thermos and Spyhouse, I was struck by the image at the top of this post: A Ritual roster, pierced and bearded, pouring single-origin coffee into that most mainstream of food receptacles: the Thermos. It’s more than urban-meets-rural: It’s the new dream of artisanal, ethical food preparation meeting the old dream of mass-produced American plenty.
It reminds me of the most recent product of K-Hole, a kind of art collective that mocks corporate trends-casting reports by issuing its own. K-Hole calls the aesthetic that gives rise to artisanal coffee “Mass Indie”:
Mass Indie ditched the Alternative preoccupation with evading sameness and focused on celebrating difference instead. […] Whether you’re soft grunge, pastel goth, or pale, you can shop at Forever 21.
But as Mass Indie becomes mass-er, it starts to hit snags. “Individuality was once the path to personal freedom—a way to lead life on your own terms,” says K-Hole’s report. “But the terms keep getting more and more specific, making us more and more isolated.” Each product, slightly different and catering to a slightly different audience, winds up isolating people in islands of taste and difference:
Feast.ly, Fast.ly, Vid.ly, Vend.ly, Ming.ly, Mob.ly: each provides a specific service, finetuned to a specific user need, brought to life by a specific entrepreneurial urge. They’re all targeting different audiences, but the general public can’t remember who’s who.
As Mass Indie approaches cultural domination, its elites flee. They’re alone on their perfectly curated and indecipherable islands of taste. They instead embrace—and please, please, do not stop reading when you encounter this word—normcore.
Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness. But instead of appropriating an aestheticized version of the mainstream, it just cops to the situation at hand. To be truly Normcore, you need to understand that there’s no such thing as normal. […]
Normcore seeks the freedom that comes with non-exclusivity. It finds liberation in being nothing special, and realizes that adaptability leads to belonging.
“If you live in the middle of nowhere,” Fehrenbacher told me, lauding her own company’s stunt, “you get to try some of the country’s best coffee.” Thermos has already shipped hot coffee to central Florida, northern Michigan, and (of course) New York City.
Looking at that picture of the bearded barista and the line of identical Thermoses, I thought, what could be more normcore than this?
But there’s something that enables all of this, from my supping of the coffee to your reading this now: the global supply chain. The ability to fling ingredients and products from coast-to-coast and continent-to-continent makes not only Thermos’s contest but Spyhouse’s very business possible. It’s the supply chain that moves coffee beans from El Salvador to Minneapolis, where they can be roasted and sipped in days. It’s the supply chain—in the form of FedEx, which, remember, has the world’s fourth largest collection of aircraft—that performs the final stunt of getting coffee around the lower 48 in half a day.
Behind every ingredients list stand the movers and shippers of our world: each, like FedEx, possessing a private army of execution. I accepted Thermos’s coffee contest because it seemed a spectacle of logistics. But every single day of our lives is already that.
* This post originally described the plane which shipped the Thermos as a DC-10. It is properly an MD-10: a DC-10 modified by FedEx to have a larger cockpit and different hull. We regret the error.
Yesterday, Starbucks officially arrived in Colombia.
After years of keeping the multinational specialty coffee powerhouse at bay, Juan Valdez will no longer be able to avoid battling Starbucks in its native market of Colombia. Starbucks, after being challenged by Juan Valdez in the US market in the early 2000s, and trying its own marketing foray into now defunct specialty coffee concept (15th Avenue Coffee), has launched its first retail coffee bar in Bogota, Colombia.
Instead of running from what many perceive as its strongest asset, the Starbucks brand, Starbucks is fully featuring its logo outside of this centrally located destination. Perhaps after completing decent market research, Starbucks realized that many in the growing global middle class aspire to an affluent lifestyle characterized by iPhone ownership, Starbucks specialty drinks, Coach products, and other premium brands. One of the most attainable products accessible to any income bracket is a simple cup of coffee and a snack. Juan Valdez, with its elegantly designed retails stores, has long taken advantage of growing wealth and a cultural disposition towards public life –of which the coffee shop culture plays a role. Since 2002, Juan Valdez retail locations have represented a place where folks can meet for business, for spending time with old friends and family, or on a date. It is seen as hip for younger generations while also as respectable and safe by older generations. It is also a source of national pride.
In reality, Colombia has been ripe for the arrival of Starbucks for a decade, but the terms of that arrival have constantly evolved. This is emphasized in the version of Starbucks launched in Bogota, which is clearly meant to improve upon the Juan Valdez concept. They are aiming higher in terms of premium status, and likely want to differentiate Starbucks from Juan Valdez along those lines. In the short-term, it is likely that Starbucks will focus its Colombia expansion on only the most desirable, high-end, urban locations in order to solidly establish the luxury brand concept. It remains to be seen whether they creep down the price continuum to “Starbucks Express” and kiosk locations in a market that is already saturated with Oma and Juan Valdez competitors. There is nothing economical or middle class feeling about the Parque de la 93 location of the new Starbucks. Although a fairly small, quaint and stylish area, it is essentially a mashup of Georgetown DC and Central Park West NY (Embassy Row clientele mixed with the wealthiest from the nearby financial district).
The Bogota cafe makes use of locally sourced wood, antique- and hammered-brass light fixtures and sells Colombian-inspired food such as cheese sticks and croissants with a sauce similar to dulce de leche. Source: Starbucks Corp. via Bloomberg
No doubt, there may some Starbucks clients that struggle internally with whether to support their homegrown hero, Juan Valdez. Although, in the end, it appears that the Federation (Federación Nacional de Cafeteros) ensured local growers would benefit regardless of the new competitor– Starbucks in Colombia claims to source 100% of the coffee used in Colombia from Colombian growers. Starbucks’ unambiguous strategy to rapidly expand in Colombia, Brazil and throughout the region, could negatively impact the bottom line for Procafecol S.A., the parent company of Juan Valdez stores. In fact it could be devastating for an enterprise that claims to be preparing for an IPO and has struggled in its attempts to expand in the US and abroad.
For more pictures and the official press release from Starbucks, click here.
In 2006 I returned to the DC/VA area from Colombia with a newfound passion for specialty coffee and a serious cafe-dweller pattern of living only to be extremely disappointed with what the DC/MD/VA area had to offer. I said to myself, it is a no brainer that this region of the country has a tremendous of per capita spending power and that people here would pounce on the opportunity to have something unique in the food and beverage industry. I thought the region was especially well suited for specialty coffee.
Although such an observation was so clear to me at the time, I had no knowledge of the specialty coffee industry beyond what I had discovered in Colombia over the course of a couple of weeks visiting farms and talking with producers. I was in no way suited to open a coffee shop nor interested in doing so.
So – when this post began as a draft in August 2009 – reminiscing as I drove through DC I could see my observation was not lost on others in the coffee retail industry. Caribou Coffee shops are located in new places throughout the city, Peregrine Espresso launched in 2008, Chinatown Coffee Co. opened in July 2009, Mid-City Caffe, Big Bear Cafe and more all claim DC as their home now.
The growth in coffee shop improvement has not been lacking. Names such as Murky, Peregrine, Big Bear, Tryst and others have made sure of that. Caribou’s growth has been impressive too. Even a fellow in Manassas Virginia started his own line of retail coffee called Hondo Coffee. The coffee is sourced only from one community in Honduras and is sold pre-ground in flimsy packaging that is its only protection from the heat and humidity of DC/VA summers – as he pushes the majority of his sales at local farmer’s markets.
August 2010 – So what is lacking from the DC market?
As far as I can tell it appears to have a serious shortage of local high quality roasters. The best coffee in the DC/VA/MD area is roasted elsewhere.
I would understand if one couldn’t find a good roaster in DC proper given the high rents for real estate and the potential difficulties getting a permit for the exhaust that comes from an industrial roaster but, this does not explain why the artisan roasters I have come across thus far in Maryland and Virginia have failed to meet the mark of quality, consistency and marketability that is required to survive and prosper in the specialty coffee industry.
Counter Culture cleans up in the Mid-Atlantic region (in terms of selling to high-end specialty coffee shops) and Intelligentsia has successfully convinced the high-end restaurant industry (i.e. Farmers & Fishers) to offer patrons a quality cup of java at a place where everything else on the menu is exquisite. For now, Counter Culture has a relative stronghold on the region because people seem to believe that North Carolina is local enough AND they have a strong network of local-ish cuppings and trainings to attract local coffee shops/geeks into their network and identify them with their brand.
This business strategy is quite interesting and it will be exciting to watch the DC/VA/MD roaster market adapt to this pent up demand over the course of the next months. Until then, I’m open to any suggestions of DC/MD/VA roasters willing to part with samples for review by Cafe Hound.
2010 is upon us and what began as a graduation gift idea between professor and scholar has now evolved into a means of stimulating interest in the specialty coffee industry and in its entire supply chain –
– from farm level decision makers who must decide how to react to how global climate change is impacting their growing season and yields;
– to cooperatives who must decide how to integrate IT solutions into their business processes;
– farmers who must choose between numerous certification choices;
– exporters who must decide what price is a ‘fair’ one at which to sell their prized beans;
– importers who must navigate an increasingly competitive specialty coffee market;
– specialty roasters who must communicate their value proposition to a growing market segment;
– shops trying to differentiate their brand and product from the Starbucks baseline and from other shops claiming to provide the ‘gourmet’ experience;
– to end-consumers who seek clarity and consistency of quality despite all of the contingencies that must occur before the latte art is disturbed by the first sip.
Cafehound.com was launched early this fall as an online medium for Krislert Samphantharak and Matthew Maher to communicate and share their knowledge and experience with each other more than anything else. It began as an incremental journey to explore various portions of the supply chain in detail and encourage participation and collaboration with some of the major actors in the specialty coffee industry. Before long, Café Hound was able to secure interviews with roasters, importers, shop owners, professional baristas, farmers and people involved on the academic/research end of the soft commodities market. Given the very positive response that the website has received and as a consequence of very promising content in the future, Café Hound has decided to begin institutionalizing some processes.
1. Custom blend releases on occasion to generate publicity and raise funds for charity
2. Regular café reviews spanning the globe with occasional guest postings from our friends and associates abroad
3. Spotlight pieces that investigate particular segments of the supply chain with specific attention to farmers, importers and roasters.
4. Academic themed reviews of literature empirically evaluating aspects of the soft commodities market, especially coffee and specialty coffee
5. Newsletter updates
6. Creating a non-profit organization to provide a legal basis for managing funds and further enhancing our ability to provide value to entrepreneurial agricultural producers and children in the developing world.