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.
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.
Sightglass Coffee Bar & Roastery has already garnered a lot of attention even though they just opened the kiosk three months ago and the “real” coffee bar and roastery are still under construction. It is located in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood on 7th Street at Falsom– a short walk from BART Civic Center station.
I visited Sightglass in the morning of a weekday. At first, I was a bit disappointed that the cafe seemed to be closed and there was construction inside the building. A second later, I smelt strong coffee aroma coming from inside so I kept walking down to what was once a driveway to a warehouse. Finally, I spotted the coffee kiosk inside the garage gate.
Sightglass is owned and run by the two brothers who are also the roasters, and apparently the contractors and constructors, of this coffee bar. They were originally from the Pacific Northwest so coffee is in their blood. They helped start Four Barrel Coffee in the Mission, and before that worked at Blue Bottle (which we reviewed here). People from Blue Bottle also help the brothers set up their new cafe. Jared also worked together with Eileen Hassi, the owner of Ritual Coffee, back while they both were in Seattle. All of these confirmed what Eileen told me during an interview with her that the gourmet coffee industry in San Francisco had a healthy “friendly competition.”
I enjoyed my latte while watching Justin and Jared working and supervising the construction of their new coffee bar. Right now they use coffee beans from Verve Coffee Roaster in Santa Cruz, CA, but plan to roast their own beans in a month. (I already spotted a Probat roaster there.) With their past roasting experience at Blue Bottle among other places, the quality of the beans they will offer is likely guaranteed.
I had a conversation with Justin who shared with me their vision. According to him, the building was a paint warehouse so it has gigantic size as compared to the usual neighborhood coffee houses. The ceiling is high and the place is very airy. They will have a mezzanine that people can sit and enjoy their drink. The coffee bar will be in the back while the roasting area will be in the front. They plan to have seating area around the roaster as well. They hope that the construction should be done in a few months. And I am looking forward to going check out the place and tasting their own roasted coffee soon.
Local 123 is a new cafe in Berkeley, CA. Even though it has been open for just five months, this coffee house has attracted great reviews. I visited Local 123 during the day on Saturday. The location is a bit far from the campus so either you have to walk quite far or you can take a bus to University and San Pablo.
Local 123 uses coffee beans from Flying Goat Coffee in Healdsburg (near Santa Rosa), CA. The beans are generally medium mild roasted. For espresso drinks, the default beans are Flying Goat’s espresso blend No. 9, but they are also available with single origins upon request. When I visited the cafe, the featured single origin was Costa Rica Puente Tarrazu. For drip coffee, Local 123 offers several single origin beans for you to choose. Then they freshly grind your beans and make your drip coffee cup-by-cup. I find this attention to quality as a big plus. I ordered latte as usual. My drink was prepared by Frieda, who was also a co-owner of Local 123 along with her sister-in-law. The latte was beautiful. It was mild and taste great. Frieda was friendly and attentive to the coffee she brewed.
Local 123 has minimal decoration with some artworks on the wall. The cafe is clean. It seems to be famous for people who come with their laptops or books and spend time working while enjoying their drinks. The cafe offers free wifi throughout but also has the “wifi-free” area that encourages conversations among customers. There is also outdoor seating area in the back. They also have selected homemade pastry, sandwiches, and salad available. And they make jams from locally-grown fruits. The only problem that some customers may have is that this cafe takes cash only and do not accept credit cards. There is an ATM machine nearby however.
Overall, Local 123 is also a lovely neighborhood cafe that not only provides good coffee but also pays a lot of attention to sustainability and local community. (Big kudos on that!) As some of the reviews on the internet proclaim, if you are in Berkeley and don’t want to travel to San Francisco to get Blue Bottle coffee, Local 123 is the place that you will unlikely to get disappointed. So far, I do agree with them.
Over the past six weeks, we have enjoyed unofficially blogging on cafehound.com and have seen the development of the blog and its traffic from visitors “accidentally” coming to our blog. It has been a pleasure to offer diverse information accessible on our blog. Today, we take another important step and officially introduce to you cafehound.com.
What you will find on our blog is random but hopefully informative. As the blog’s name suggests, we are Cafe Hound. We search for the best coffee the world can offer. In Cafe Hounding section, you can read our reviews of cafes from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Coming soon, we will add reviews of coffee houses outside the US. We are also proud to present to you the exclusive interviews of “Who Is Who” in specialty coffee industry. We are honored to have Chuck Patton (founder and owner of Bird Rock Cafe Roasters in La Jolla, California) as our inaugural feature in this interview section. To be added to the list of fame are Eileen Hassi (founder and owner of Ritual Coffee in San Francisco), Michael McGuire (owner and roaster of K-Bay Caffe in Homer, Alaska), Timothy Castle (founder and CEO of Castle & Company, Santa Monica, California), and Karen Cebreros (founder and CEO of Elan Organic, San Diego, California).
Cafe Hound is not only the place you can get reviews and knowledge about your neighborhood cafes. We carefully select and present to you interesting news and upcoming events in coffee industry. Moreover, with our expertise in economics, finance, international relations, and public policy, we devote a section of the blog to analytical and educational issues related to every stage of specialty coffee production– from crop to cup, or from beans to brew. Currently, we proudly review an interesting article by Christopher Bacon of the University of California, Santa Cruz, on how organic, Fair-Trade, eco-friendly coffee could potentially help poor farmers in developing economies get out of poverty. Our main objective is to present to you the cutting-edge academic research on coffee-related issues in a non-academic language. Stay tuned for more of these geeky but exciting posts.
You may want to ask yourself why we, as an academic economist and a policy expert, fell in love with coffee and decided to devote our time to this blog. We have explained it all in the About the Hounds section. For those who have known us before, this section will give you eye-opening stories of the “dark” (but creamy and aromatic) side of our lives. We hope it entertains you and answers your curiosity.
You may also want to know what we expect from this blog. Well, first and foremost, we view this blog as our way to get us exposed to more people in the coffee industry. This is not only those working in the industry itself, but also those who are frequent customers of coffee houses and share our passion in great coffee. Please come join us in our journey to search for the best coffee. Please suggest to us where we should go “cafe hounding.” If you have favorite neighborhood coffee houses, feel free to share with us.
Finally, we realize there are several blogs and discussion boards out there covering coffee and cafes. Many of them are fantastic and comprehensive. By no means do we view our blog as their competitor. Instead, we think that our blog will offer something different, and provide you with both casual and more formal, semi-academic knowledge. The Cafe Hounding section does not rate the cafes (like yelp or other restaurant rating websites) but rather presents you with objective reviews of coffee houses that we carefully select. Most of them are mentioned by local coffee geeks as the “best in town” cafes or employ baristas who have made it to the final round of national or international competitions. The Interviews section gives you behind-the-scene stories about people in your neighborhood cafes and others in the industry that you may not have known before. Finally, the coffee.edu section takes advantage of our strengths and expertise in our main professions as an academic economist and a policy expert. It is very educational in a strict academic sense, i.e. very nerdy, but hopefully is exciting for those readers who are interested in more than just the taste and aroma of coffee.
And with this introduction, we officially proudly present to you… cafehound.com.