Origin Stories: Where Coffee Comes From

Few commodities are as ubiquitous across so many cultures as coffee.  So, even though I drink it only rarely, and Sarah only occasionally, when we had the opportunity to learn from Cincinnati coffee experts about it's origin, we took advantage.  This is our 2nd "origin story" (after flour), and we were lucky that our hosts, Les Stoneham and Chuck Pfahler, were very generous with their time and information, so we have a lot to share.

We've split things up into 5 sections in case you'd like to skip ahead, and there is an awesome slideshow of photos by Sarah and Jonathan Miano at the very bottom:
  1. The People & Their Passion - working together so you've got access to great stuff 
  2. The Process - from the tree to your local shop
  3. The Final Product - what ends up in your cup (or cake or recipe, I suppose)
  4. The Sales & Distribution - an important step you don't read as much about
  5. The Last Tidbit - a final nugget of information as we come to a close
And now, without further ado, coffee!

The People & Their Passion

We did the homework for this blog on 2 separate trips - the first was a visit to 1801 Mills, followed by a jaunt over to La Terza Coffee (here on Facebook, including a great video about their process).  Les Stoneham was our awesome tour guide, answering all of our questions thoughtfully and thoroughly.

1801 Mills is also the home to the The Espresso Guild - a non-profit organization that does barista training, consulting, machines/equipment, and more. We came to this Norwood location to see and hear about the process of getting coffee to your cup.  The three "experts" of the Espresso Guild are Les, Larry Bourgeois (also the visionary behind 1801 Mills, and who used to be at Old Saint George in Clifton), and Chuck Pfahler (of La Terza).  You'll hear the most about Les and Chuck, because while we did briefly meet Larry, we talked to these two the most.

It was immediately apparent that these guys are not kidding around about coffee.  When we walked in, there was an espresso machine set up about 10 feet from the entrance, with a dozen or two used coffee cups laying about.  Two local baristas, Courtney and Logan, were busy making coffee.  More accurately, they were practicing (yes, practicing).  They were heading off to the Great Lakes Barista Competition in Milwaukee the next day.  With a panel of judges drinking, and technical judges too, the winners move on to the United States Barista Championship and each have a "signature drink" with ingredients like fig balsamic reduction or roasted beet juice.  Later we learned that last year for Ohio, Les placed 1st, Courtney was 2nd, and Logan was 3rd.

Les got into this 6 years ago when he started working on Rohs Street Cafe, and simply "didn't want to make a bad cup of coffee."  Then, he was connected to Guatemala because a friend from the University of Cincinnati was there doing mission work, and "going to origin is a barista pilgrimage."  At about the same time Rohs Street was opening, Chuck's La Terza Artisan Coffee Roasterie was getting off the ground as well.  Les and Chuck started working together, going to specialty coffee shows and learning about all aspects of the process.  The following year, Chuck and Les went down to tour some fair trade places - that's how the relationship began with La Armonia Hermosa, the farmer's cooperative in Guatemala whose coffee Deeper Roots Development imports and La Terza now roasts. 

Originally, there was just 1 farmer working with Deeper Roots to get coffee to the states, but now there are about 20.  The farms are located near Antigua, Guatemala, in a small town with about 20,000 people called Santa Maria de Jesus.  Folks there speak and dress Mayan and are blessed with amazing land - 6,000 ft. above sea level, volcanic soil, even better than famed Antiguan.  Les says they truly lucked out that where they had their initial connections turned out to be a place that could produce such amazing coffee.  He chuckled a bit at their good fortune as he tells us he didn't know this originally.

While Les was working at Rohs Street, Chuck was perfecting his roasting skills at La Terza.  Les was anxious to hand over Rohs Street and start roasting and learn that part of the process, and its now been 4 years that he has been working for Chuck.  They're not quite interchangeable yet - Les still consults Chuck sometimes - but they are both clearly very good at what they do.

Both Les and Chuck credit Larry with exposing them to something larger - bringing his 30-plus years of experience and nationwide perspective.  Larry is also instrumental to the idea of building "third places" - community gathering spots where creativity and ideas (and often, coffee) flow.  Read more about this part of their vision at HabitatForCommunity.org.  But, Les, Chuck, and Larry all clearly care deeply about what they do, about the communities they are a part of.  Throughout our conversations, they consistently reiterated the importance of the people and places their work and passion is intertwined with.

Chuck is a born and bred Cincinnatian, and says he loves the people here in the city.  Les is from north of Columbus, but has been here in the area for many years now.  They said their approach is that they are artists with a legit craft.  They want to bring the uniqueness from each coffee, and to do justice to the producers because they deeply respect them and want to be respectful of their work (their consistent focus on doing right by the producers reminded me of this fascinating TED talk by Dan Barber on foie gras).   For both men, working with coffee is a labor of love - and they feel privileged to do what they do.  Chuck told us about working at a cubicle farm - he did customer service for P&G and didn't walk away satisfied.  Now that he's been successful with La Terza, he doesn't want to be a mega-roaster, he wants to stay connected to his customers and his community.

These are good people who should be applauded for pursuing their passions in Cincinnati!

The Process

La Terza gets coffee from all over the world, but we'll be tracking La Armonia Hermosa from tree to cup. To give you a sense of scale, the first year Deeper Roots and La Terza brought coffee from farms in Guatemala, they moved 1,000 pounds - much of it in brought by UC students and other travelers in small increments.  Now, they're up to 10,000 pounds arriving by boat.  Here's how it works.

Farmers pick the coffee tree's fruit in Guatemala.  What happens next makes a big difference in terms of the amount of money that the farmer makes.  Until Les and Chuck came along, the fruit was sold to coyotes (middlemen/exporters), who then took it from there to the valley where the mills are located.  With no virtually no value add, the farmer's make very little - between 10 and 20 cents per pound.

The relationship makes all the difference for the farmers.  Together, the folks in Cincinnati and Guatemala worked to figure out how they could go from just one shop to a much bigger opportunity.  Now, the farmer's can improve their take by 400%.  But back to that coffee fruit - it is about to undergo "wet processing."

First, the berries are removed using a depulper, while the discarded fruit is then broken down to use for fertilizer or compost.  Fermentation in large barrels of water happens after the depulping, and takes about 1-2 days - closely followed by a washing of the coffee beans.  And finally, the beans are turned into what is called pergamino, after they are thoroughly dried (which takes somewhere between several days out in the sun, being turned many times a day for even drying, or a day if the producer has a drying machine).  Just before exporting, the parchment layer left on the bean is removed and beans are finally sorted for size and quality by hand or machine.  It is the resulting "green coffee" that is typically sent overseas to the roaster, and it is fairly stable at this point.  Producers can fetch about $3 a pound for high quality green coffee.

Les is working right now to ensure that as many steps of this process are happening directly as possible.  In Santa Maria de Jesus, things are moving past one farmer with a vision to now having an organization of 20.  And, they are very close to starting construction on building a mill with a bicycle powered depulper (become Les' Facebook friend and then you can check out his videos, including one of the bicycle powered depulper).

Because the folks in Guatemala are working with Deeper Roots and La Terza without any middlemen, they are participating in what is now known as direct tradeMany people believe that direct trade is an important next step beyond fair trade, which started in the 1940s, expanded in Europe in the 60's, and became a widespread phenomenon by the 90's in the US.  Fair trade requires certification, and some people believe that prices paid to producers haven't gone up enough in proportion to profits (the best resource on the pros and cons of fair trade is probably Joseph Stiglitz' Fair Trade for All).  The direct trade method was trademarked in 2006 by Chicago's Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, which also happens to be what Les thinks is some of the highest quality coffee in the country.  Direct trade is now happening in both large and small ways around the world, and La Terza is proud to be part of the growth of the model.  But, Les is clear to point out his opinion that "that 'direct-trade' can be good and fruitful but also destructive and manipulative as a marketing term with no proper certifications or ability for transparency to consumers.  Others in the area are quick to jump on the direct trade term in other ways."

La Terza, and an increasing number of roasters, are interested in both a good product and the fact that it is done well.  The good product is actually necessary to truly break the cycle of poverty in Guatemala, and in much of the rest of the developing world that sells to developed countries, because otherwise the demand will not exist for the product at the price needed.  This is the core work of Deeper Roots Development - breaking the cycle.  USAID does some solid coffee development projects, and there are hundreds of different approaches, many of which are essentially basic microfinance and sustainability, like Heifer International or Grameen Bank.

So, now the coffee has made it to the United States.  It is likely sitting in burplap bags (although some coffee is now coming in GrainPro bags to preserve freshness) that let it breathe.  When Sarah and I arrive at La Terza's space on Colerain Avenue in Northside, we see a few dozen such bags as we walk in the door.  The beans will get used in 6 weeks, although the La Armonia Hermosa is warehoused there for the whole year.  Chuck and Les will now take the beans and start the roasting process.

Chuck uses Google Calendar to keep track of the whole process of when to roast what beans.  A bigger day would be 20 batches (taking 5-6 hours), and on a Friday they'll do more like 8 batches.  The whole operation is a balance between time and temperature.  About 6 years ago, Chuck started out roasting with a hot air popcorn maker with a thermometer on top, and believe it or not, developed the flavor profile that La Terza still uses today.  As Chuck put it, he "nailed it."

The coffee roaster itself that La Terza uses is a model they've had for 4 years that is made by Ambex - a company based in Florida and whose parts are built mostly in the USA but also in Turkey.  Chuck had to get a fan custom built in Turkey a while back, so he's got his eye on a new roaster that costs about $25,000 and, most importantly, has all parts available.  As Chuck puts it, "I can't afford down time."  Here's how the process works:

1.  The roaster has a preheat temperature, and is designed to hold the coffee at the top.  Shrinkage will occur when the beans are roasted - they'll lose 25% of the raw product.

2.  It works like a dryer - a drum tumbles the beans as it rotates over a gas flame.  It is the agitation and heat that roast the coffee.  Managing the heat is vital.  Different beans are roasted at different temperatures, so while Chuck and Les know intuitively now what temperatures to start at, the process can vary by 30-40 seconds and 30-40 degrees depending on the bean.  The range overall is about the same - "first crack" (the point at which beans visibly expand and pop) is at 371-380 degrees, then "second crack" varies.  Those are the two key points, and there is no one way to get to those points - this is what separates different roasters and their profile.  After the right temperature is reached, the beans are spit out and ready for cooling.

How to best heat the beans is a topic of much debate.  Some people use drum roasters that heat with infrared or convection, others use a fluid bed or air roasting method.  My favorite quote of Chuck's from the day may have been "my palate prefers what I get off the Whirley Pop versus what I get off the hot air corn popper."  It's understandable if you missed it, that is some highly technical jargon.  Seriously though, there are a lot of discussion boards and forums online about which is the best way to roast a coffee bean, and Chuck was legitimately excited when he found the sweet spot that is his roasting profile.  In fact, it's "sort of a trade secret, and I don't want to just give that away."  It took over 12 months so that Les could match Chuck's quality, and now it's no problem.

3.  Here, the beans are cooling as they're being turned.  The hot air is being sucked out by the pipe (spewing coffee smell goodness onto Colerain Avenue).  It's cooling, but it's still cooking, just like meat even after it's out of the oven.  As the coffee is cooling, we watched Chuck pick it up in his hands consistently and then smell it - he told us he was making sure that there is a certain sweetness to the aroma of the coffee that lets him know it has been roasted correctly.  "Really, I know," he says, "I don't need to smell it.  It's part of my enjoyment."  But, even a roaster as confident as Chuck does make mistakes - probably under 5% of the time though, and its usually a problem related to time management.  While roasting, they're also weighing, packaging, and preparing for the next batch.

4.  After the beans come out, they got into a bucket.  The beans shouldn't be too dark - most places they would be very dark though.  Darkness equates to a loss of sweetness, kind of like the way a lightly browned marshmallow is perfection but when you get impatient you end up with a crispy mess!  Finally, the beans are measured and packaged.  One whole batch takes12-13 mins (they like to do 4 batches an hour), and while they could technically do 18 pounds, 15 is about what they like to do.

After being roasted, beans are always shipped within the day.  Orders are put in one day, then it's out in the shop the next.  After a week the coffee bean has changed, and at 14 days Chuck says "I don't like to drink it."  If you're not a regular drinker, you should only order based on what you consume - don't let coffee sit in your freezer or cupboard for a long time.  Chuck and Les both laugh as they say that "then after a while you'll become a fiend and want more," and I can't help but smile and wonder if I'll be a regular coffee drinker someday soon.

Now, jump down to The Sales and Distribution if you want to know where to get some of this great stuff!

The Final Product

After the whole process is complete, you've got a final product.  So now comes the fun part, actually making and drinking a coffee.

As Les puts it, "some baristas have a rock star mentality, but they only do 10% of the work - it's really about how do baristas not screw this up."  Hopefully, they won't make too many mistakes, because The Espresso Guild does training on a quarterly basis for La Terza baristas and offers training and classes for the rest of us too.  Many baristas around town have some serious machinery to help them get their espressos and cappuccinos just right.  The Espresso Guild has a Rancilio at $590, and other options ranging up to $15,000.  And beyond the machine, there is the grinder - Les notes that "baristas have a special relationship with their grinders."  In fact, most baristas takes their own grinder to the US Barista Championship.  But making a perfect cup of coffee is most certainly an art form that requires skill and practice.  Here's an article about the winner of the USBC - he's now won two years in a row.

Aside from espresso, if you just want a great cup of single brew coffee (and don't want to spend beaucoup bucks on a Clover), Les and Chuck were excited to tell us about sharing the love of the hario dripper, something you will likely see popping up around town at coffee shops as they work to provide a top notch cup of coffee for customers.  When ordered, the dripper would "get the attention a customer gets on an espresso."  Nobody in Cincinnati does it yet except Dojo Gelato.

When Sarah and I were talking with Les and Chuck while we talked about La Terza, we sampled coffee from Sulawesi (an island in Indonesia) that La Terza hadn't had in before.  We thought it was delicious.  And now it's available to the public, so enjoy!

The Sales & Distribution

There's one last piece of the puzzle that we're happy to share with you - some information about the sale and distribution process for La Terza.  Most of their clients are around here, but they are also shipping to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Detroit - they even have a customer in California.  With no advertising, it is all word of mouth, and this coffee is really getting around.  They occasionally do espresso tastings for "espresso nuts," and they pay attention to many of the same terms as at a wine tasting: aroma, acidity, mouth feel, body, finish, and more (and I'm told it involves spitting too).  But most coffee tastings are for brewed coffee.
In Cincinnati, you can get La Terza coffee at the following: Rohs Street Cafe, Taza, Coffee Shop on Madison, and a couple of items at Sidewinder.  You can also visit La Terza directly, and some folks do that.  Just email Chuck ahead of time to make sure he'll be there. 

Les tells us that their are very few really good coffee places in town, and that Cincinnati is still behind the big coffee centers, "but not as far behind as we were 10 years ago."  Also, there's not a lot of difference between most shops in town.  Seven Hills Coffee is the biggest roaster in town, while Coffee Emporium and Tazza Mia use their own in house roasters.

Les says that he is confident Rohs Street makes the best coffee in Cincinnati, and that as a result real aficionados do seek it out. Intelligentsia in Chicago is next closest best coffee, and that's the best in the country - so there's a real gem on Rohs Street in Clifton by just about any standard.

As far as the distribution goes, Chuck started out be selling to local shops, then "stumbled into wholesaling."  For the first 4 years he was working another full-time job, but now this is what he does Monday through Friday.  He's busier in the summer because he does about 5 farmers' markets.  Wyoming people tracked him down years ago, and now many are regulars.  Chuck loves interacting with customers at the markets, and they're important because they offer a place for "people to buy locally and people who care about quality - my target audience," he says.

So, how do they choose the coffee they roast and distribute?  Well, it depends in part on the demand, and of course, what is available.  Apparently in Louisville right now, everyone is in to Ethiopian, which Les described as "like a training coffee" because "it hits you over the head with flavors."  But, in general they need to pick a range of options.  In Cincinnati, there is definitely a groupthink going on - "this is the way we did it in the late 80's and early 90's, so that's the way we'll keep doing it."  Some shops have a hard time getting past that.

The importers that sell coffee to Chuck are also key.  Chuck says "I know my importers palates are good," and it's very much a relationship-based process.  They meet at shows and Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) events, and if what they say and what you get match, then they are legit.  Importers are the ones who do most of the visits, because a small business like La Terza can't afford to fly all over the world.  There are vastly larger quantities, which can lead to larger margins, for the importers so that they can visit everywhere, and good ones will even have origin trips.

The Last Tidbit

There is one other small story that we simply must share.  Long before we came to 1801 Mills, or talked with Les, Chuck, or Larry, we'd heard rumblings of an espresso machine in Norwood that had been blessed by the Pope.  Well, we're here to set the record straight.  The Espresso Guild does have an amazing Victoria Arduino collector's edition of which only 100 were made on the company's 100 year anniversary.  It normally costs $20,000, but they got it for cost.  In fact, the first one was given to Pope, and their machine was not blessed!

If you've made it this far, thanks for reading what turned out to be much, much more than an average blog post at Amateur Foodies!  We'd love to hear your thoughts if you'd like to comment below.

Something tells me wine people would disagree, but Les told us that coffee has more complexity than wine.  He's emphatic that "it's all in the aromatics!"  And even after all we learned, I'm excited to delve deeper into the intricacies that make this fascinating drink a connector across the globe.  Plus, if your experience is anything like ours, now that you're more informed about coffee, the info starts showing up in other places.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Rohs definitely has the best coffee in the city!