integrated thinking

I recently helped a long-time friend (not in the coffee business) with his initial dive into the world of home espresso.

After taking him through some basic training - he commented to me that he didn't expect making coffee to be such an "intellectual pursuit." I asked him what he meant and he replied (and I'm paraphrasing from flawed memory) something like:

I thought that making espresso would be more like an art - with a lot of self-expression going on. But it's not really like that. It's also not like science - because it's really about producing something that tastes good (an inherently subjective goal). It requires right brain and left brain thinking.

He's an engineer by training - who ended up working in marketing for Apple. It should have been no shock that he was producing decent espresso quite quickly given this and his comment above.

So... the Art v Science argument (schism?) has been a long-standing situation in coffee (pro and amateur). But after talking to my friend, I realized that both are false choices. The reality is that it's neither.

Making great coffee is a craft in the truest sense of the word. Keeping this in mind is likely to be a simple trick for determining what really is important and what is not.



I love reading people bitching about the poor quality of espresso they get in coffee bars.

I went to one of the top coffee bars in NYC last week and the espresso I got was terrible. I'm no longer going to coffee bars because I can make better coffee at home.

Some simple logic here...

How did you determine that it was one of the "top coffee bars"? Logic would indicate that it might not be. The reality is that massive percentage of "top" coffee business (according to the interwebs) are total crap.

Every barista (no matter how good they are) pulls a crap shot now and then. Did you try a second shot? If not... logic would indicate you should have.

Just because you got a bad coffee (perhaps an anomaly or perhaps it's a bad coffee business) doesn't mean all coffee bars are bad. This isn't even a logic issue. It's a reason issue.

At the end of the day I can't help but wonder if you're going into coffee bars looking for an opportunity to validate your decision to spend thousands of dollars on coffee equipment for your home and/or get a nice ego stroke (rather than looking to learn about coffee).


VST basket clown show

I'm not going into details.
Feel free to do a search on the internet if you want to understand.

But rather than emailing all sorts of people... I'm just posting this statement here.

I am not interested in talking to you about how these baskets suck and why you are right in your opinion.
I am not interested in talking to you about how these baskets are revolutionary and why you are right in this opinion.
I am most certainly not interested in talking to you about how those who disagree with you are idiots or are slandering you or are mean and unpleasant.

Do not email me about this.
Do not call me about this.
Do not stop me on the street and talk to me about this.
Comments to this post that attempt to engage in discussion about this goat rodeo will be deleted.

Updated: I'm ashamed of some of you.


Stumptown Steps Up

I wrote a post about the investment that Stumptown recently raised back a week or so ago.

No... that's not the honest truth.

I wrote a post a week or so ago about how the response to the Stumptown news from within the coffee community illustrated perfectly many of the reasons that I no longer worked in coffee - and which in general took the coffee profession to task for its lack of professionalism and seriousness in business.

But that's another whole topic -- cause I decided it was the wrong thing and the wrong point.
So I decided to wait - and to see what shook out from all this.

So now I have an idea of what people are saying, have said (and probably are going to say). I think I see how this has played out. And I'm going to share my thoughts.

I have a somewhat unique perspective on this deal.
  1. I used to work at Stumptown.
  2. I used to work at a Corporate Venture Fund.
  3. I'm a serial entrepreneur who has started multiple (externally funded) companies (two of which were sold to other companies).
So, I think I have a perspective that might be worth hearing.

Now, first, I need to put a few caveats first (just to be clear)...

  1. I am not writing this based on any sort of "insider information" on the deal. My relationship with TSG is purely second hand, and while I'm still a friend of many folks at Stumptown (including Duane) and a fan of the company and its coffee I'm neither involved with the company nor involved in the deal in any way. In fact, my guess is Duane and the Stumptown family are going to probably wish I'd not said anything.
  2. This is purely my opinion based on the points listed above under Perspective. In other words - I'm writing this as pure speculation (like everything else written in this thread -- and for that matter in the various press pieces covering this deal to date).

For me, there are two key things about this deal.

First - this is a huge validation for the high-end sector of the speciality coffee market. The fact that a fund like TSG is making a bet on Stumptown at this time says that they see significant potential for growth in the whole sector. This sector has long been ignored not just in the investment world (of course) but in the larger coffee world as well (the "less than 2% of the market" comment has been made a million times). For the other companies that have also been building the space, and for consumers of high-end coffees, this is great news. Sadly - as far as I know this has not be covered in the press. Given that it should be the main story, that makes me both sad and frustrated.

Second - that being said, there is one group of people out there who should be very nervous about this deal. And no... it's not Stumptown customers or Stumptown employees. It's competitors of Stumptown. In looking at the stated and rumored goals (open more retail locations in NYC, open business in Chicago, open business in SF) you can model this out to mean that (if successful) Stumptown will be at least doubling the volume of green coffee they are buying within 24 months. Where is that coffee going to come from? From other high-end roasters. And who will they be selling the roasted coffee to? That's right - customers of other roasters. And who will be working in these new roasteries and new retail locations? Yeah... you get the idea. Combining Stumptown's brand, relationships and expertise with a whole big stack of new capital... yeah, if I were running a competitor I'd be nervous.

Now... after talking to folks and reading all the crazy shit that's been out there - there are a couple things that I feel like I need to comment on. Again... these are just my opinions. But... well... I think I'm probably more right than most people.

  • the idea that Duane is going to "cash out" and leave in a year or two is something that only someone who doesn't know him could ever come up with. The man has no hobbies. His entire life is coffee and Stumptown. He truly loves what he does - and he loves Stumptown. In the time I worked at Stumptown he never took a vacation longer than a 3 day weekend that I can remember. There is absolutely no way that he would (or perhaps could) do something else (and that includes not working). As a result, I feel like we can absolutely assume that his motivation was something other than "cashing out" -- which fundamentally changes the structure and tenor of the deal (given that it changes the motivation).
  • everything I hear says that Stumptown was doing better financially than it ever had before. In other words, financial hardship (another common motivator for capitalization deals like this) was not the driver.
  • given this, I have to assume that the motivation was in fact capitalization for growth and opportunity. This makes sense to me. Duane used to always say he wanted to bring great coffee to everyone in the world who loved things that taste good.
  • now, while it's entirely possible that TSG was talking to other roasters in order to pursue a roll-up strategy, it's perhaps more likely that this was simply a pricing and competition exercise for TSG. I know it sounds sleazy but many serious investors do it. I've done it. Yeah... it causes bad feelings if the companies that are not the investment target take things personally and feel like they were either used or jilted in the process. That's life. That's business.
  • as noted at the start, my relationship with TSG is purely second hand (I have friends who know them, who are at companies that have worked with them or co-invested, etc). That said, once I heard about the deal I asked around and came back with 100% positive responses. And - just to be clear - in the PE world that is not common. In fact, an associate I know at one of the most highly regarded early stage VC funds said that TSG was his dream gig. And the reputation that Alex Panos had amongst these folks was equally impressive.
  • so... Very good investment firm puts money into thriving growing private company because that company wants to grow rapidly in an expanding new market. Pretty damn common, yeah? And I think we can at this point say that the usual rules, metrics and models of a deal like that probably also apply to this particular deal, okay?

To be frank, I'm kind of shocked that Stumptown was able to scale as it did without investment. As far as I know, they were the largest high-end speciality coffee company that didn't have outside investment. I'm guessing that this exact success was one of the main reasons TSG was so attracted to them.

Of course, the deal is also a validation of Stumptown. And that is an important point. No good investors are going to put money into a company based on its success and then destroy what has made it successful.

The vast majority of people have no idea what Private Equity or Venture Capital are, how they work, what the goals are, what the motivations are, or what the people working in those fields are like. They are sharing opinion based on a combination of ignorance and misinformation. To compound matters... they tend to have an automatic and innate distrust or dislike of these investors and take the results of ignorance and misinformation and filter through this distrust / dislike. Investors like this are professionals. They're not stupid.

Given all that I have walked you through above, I think we can assume that the thinking behind this deal is simple.
    Stumptown has kicked ass to date
    It has done so with no external capitalization (straight bootstrapping)
    The entire market sector is primed to grow over the next 5-7 years
    Stumptown is best positioned to take advantage of that
    Let's accelerate Stumptown's growth to take advantage of these circumstances.
    This will result in Stumptown being the dominant player in a newly expanded market sector at the end of this time period.
    To do this, let's use external capital (investment) in order to massively expand Stumptown's geographic footprint.

At least... that's my perspective and (unfounded and speculative) opinion.

Oh... also... I used to write for the NYTimes.
I believe strongly in journalistic ethics.
Suffice it to say that there are people who have been involved in the coverage of this "story" who should not only be ashamed but should not ever be considered in any way "journalists" of any sort.


new baskets

So everyone is excited about the news baskets hitting the market, in particular the VST baskets that are coming with the new LM Strada.

I have been testing the various prototypes of this basket as well as the new baskets from Espresso Parts.

I now have production versions and will continue to evaluate.

My first observations are:
- both produce noticeably better clarity in the cup,
- both enable FAR better consistency cup to cup
- the Strada baskets require slight changes to dose and grind size (reducing both) for optimal results
- the EP baskets seem to be better at handling coffees that respond best to updosing (while the Strada baskets seem better with coffees that require down-dosing)

I'm loving both - but am very glad that I have each.


espresso - bastard stepchild of US coffee?

A quick message to the folks working at and running the high end, quality focused craft coffee companies in the US.

I know that a lot of you think espresso is "over".
I know that the cool new thing is the V60. Or is it the Aeropress? Wait... syphon? Well... let's just say that brewed coffee is the new hotness for you all.
I get it.

But here is the thing...
Your customers still drink espresso.
Some of us (shocking I know) actually prefer espresso to brewed coffee.

So the fact that some of you are either ignoring your espresso or half-assing your espresso pretty much sucks.
It's unprofessional and it is disrespectful of your customers.

We want good espresso.

Espresso in the US has, in my opinion, declined in quality over the last 2 years. There are exceptions, of course, but in general I can conclusively say that the espresso I've tasted over the last 6 months (from many of the "best" roasters in the United States) is worse than it was 2 years ago.

Don't be lazy.
Don't be selfish.
Make good espresso.


first photos

first day with the GS

So this morning was my first day with the incredible Espressoparts La Marzocco GS.

After the epic with the electrician, Kyle from Ritual was kind enough to assist with an install last night -- which turned out to be a good thing given some complications in programming the controller.

So this morning I (finally) had a chance to make espresso with the machine. I will write up more complete thoughts next week after I live with the machine a bit more - and have some photos to share - but I thought I'd share initial impressions now.

First -- I truly do have the dream home setup. It's insane and unbelievable and I have to periodically shake my head. My luck... it's ridiculous. I'm undeserving. Truly.

Second -- I'm having to remember how to make espresso on a commercial machine. For all of this being a smaller one-group machine, it's still a true commercial piece of equipment.

Third -- I had one of the best shots of Stumptown Hairbender I've had in a very long time. Incredible coating and viscous mouthfeel, lovely cherry chocolate stonefruit flavours. Stunning finish and aftertaste.

Fourth -- there are some things that the Italians do very well - and this machine demonstrates that. Producing very high quality espresso is dramatically easier than it was with the Monster Mia (which was one of the easier machines to work on already).

Fifth -- there are some things that Italians are mystifyingly bad at. Why the hot water spout is out to the side of the machine (where it doesn't drain into the drip tray) is truly bizarre. And steaming milk with this wand is both challenging and exciting.

Sixth -- goddamn do Terry Z and his Espressoparts crew do a good job. While this GS is an "authentic" piece of gear, it's so cleverly updated and restored that it keeps all this was good and wonderful while modernizing what needs to be improved -- and does so in a manner that is cool, functional and gorgeous all at once.

I think I'm in love.


Oh... It's ON

Stumptown opens shop in Chicago.

That's right folks... the pride of Portland is going straight into Intelligentsia's backyard.

Who wins?

We do.

That's right... you know that this means Intelli is going to step it up. Their coffee will get better, their green will get better, their roasting will get better... And you have to know that Stumptown is going to be bringing their A game.

I'm so incredibly envious. The coffee lovers in Chicago are going to have it so good! Damn.

Things to ponder:
  1. Will Intelli Chicago be able to keep their best employees?
  2. Will Stumptown's indy punk rock vibe sell in the midwest?
  3. Will Intelli open in Portland?
  4. Will Stumptown go for a beer and wine license?
  5. Will Intelli try to better leverage Ecco now?
  6. Will Stumptown be Stumptown without bike messengers?
  7. Who will Alinea use?
Break out the popcorn.
This is going to be fucking EPIC!!!


it arrives

I am the luckiest person in the world.

For many reasons.

Today just brought me another reason.

One of the greatest people in the coffee business (Terry Z of Espressoparts) - who also built out the Monster Mia I've been using for the past few years - is world renowned for his work with vintage espresso machines. I've admired these gorgeous restorations and rebuilds for years now.

And now I have one in my kitchen.

I adore everything about this machine.
The classic 70s Italian design... the orange and brown color scheme... the skateboard wheels...

It's one of the greatest espresso machines (the La Marzocco GS), and thanks to Terry and his Merry (mad)Men - this one is comparable to the most modern machines now.

Check out the gorgeous portafilter handle.


It's a total stunner - and it's actually (reasonably) practical for the home.

I said it had been modernized, right?

Clean and pro...

I've said it before and I'll say it again... Espressoparts does fucking AMAZING work.

The electrician arrives on Saturday.
I cannot WAIT for Sunday morning.


Coffee Common

This is a hugely important step for the coffee industry and I am so incredibly happy about it happening.

What am I talking about?

Go check out Coffee Common.

Stumptown. Intelligentsia. Square Mile. Counter Culture. George Howell. And on. And on. I mean... just look at that list!

I've long decried the lack of collaboration in the industry. I've pointed out time and time again that a rising sea raises ALL boats. I've tried to explain that a common voice about coffee issues and consumer education would leave the coffee companies that are trying to do the right thing less vulnerable to the misinformation spread by the other (cynical and unethical) coffee companies.

And for the longest time none of the leading companies were willing to even consider the idea. They saw this as a competitive issue.

But now... it's happening.
And I am so incredibly happy about this.
Brent... Tim... Sean... Stephen and Brian. Thank you!
Duane, Doug, James, George, Peter and all the other leaders within the various coffee companies involved. Thank you!

Coffee consumers. Coffee professionals.
Get involved with this. Read it. Explore it.
And celebrate it.

This could be the start of something special.


Bye-bye Anfim

So, the demo Anfim is boxed up and about to be shipped away.

And this morning was my first morning with the Robur back on the counter.

As a result, this gives me a chance to revisit my Anfim vs Robur at home thoughts.

To sum it up simply... if I had to recommend one of the two to a home barista I would absolutely recommend the Anfim. It's simply easier to work with and wastes far less coffee than the Robur. In fact, the only real negative of the Anfim for the home (as compared to the Robur) is that there are some coffees that I was never able to get optimal shots with. The stepped grinder adjustment meant that there were three times where the ideal extraction fell between steps.

Of course... both of these grinders are obscene overkill for the home. But if you're the kind of person who thinks too much is just the right amount - then I'd seriously suggest the new Anfim over the Robur.



Rather than doing a retrospective analysis of 2010 (too obvious and there are people better than me at doing this), or doing a set of predictions for 2011 (my ego isn't THAT big) - I'm instead going to share my hopes for coffee in 2011.

I'm going to structure this quite simply...

What I hope happens with coffee in 2011

1 - Better focus on customer experience

2 - A move away from elitism

3 - Better consistency

4 - The pendulum swings on espresso

Customer Experience

If, as a semi-outsider, I were to rank the perceived focus for top US (artisan) coffee companies, it would look something like:
  1. Volume of sales
  2. Green bean purchasing and management
  3. Marketing (coolness, buzz, brand, etc)
  4. Preparing coffee the right way
  5. Roasting
We now have a situation where customer experience is (depending on the company) anywhere from inconsistent to terrible. I've been to retail locations for almost all the top US coffee businesses. I've literally never had a "great" customer experience. In any of them. Ever.

At this point the customer experience almost always lags so far behind the quality of the coffee that it's insulting to the coffee. Seriously.

Folks... we need to fix this. Let's start by trying to understand who our actual customers are. Then we should probably figure out what they want from us. And what kind of experience they hope to have. Then we can determine what kind of experience they're actually getting - where the big gaps and failures (on our part) are - and can take steps to solve the problems.

But, to do so, one thing has to change first. Note the above "... big gaps and failures (on our part)." Right now we blame the customers. Always. And that's fucked up. Until we fix this - we can't fix anything else.


Coffee has always had a problem with elitism. It's an industry that - to many - seems driven by not only the need to be considered "elite" but also by the need to constantly redefine the criteria by which one is considered elite. This results in tiers of greater and greater elitism and a junior high school clique behavior that is at best irritating and at worst highly destructive.

This elitism creates some of the customer experience problems that coffee has (similar to the behavior you get from the clerks at a vinyl record store). But it also creates problems within the coffee industry. It's distracting, it creates unneeded conflict. It's just lame. You aren't really that fucking cool.


The lack of consistency in coffee is increasingly troubling for me. At this point in time, customers of the best US coffee companies shouldn't be getting dramatically different roasts of the same coffee on subsequent days. Two back to back shots of the same espresso shouldn't taste like completely different coffees. In some ways I think consistency has actually gone down in the last year or two for the top companies.

What I'd really like to see is not the above minimum level of consistency, but actual consistency at a higher level. I'd like to see these coffee companies have consistently good coffee across all coffees and all roasts over time. I'd like to see them buying consistently good green. And I'd like to see coffee prepared to consistent standards and quality (at least within their own business) across all coffees and all staff.

This is where the commodity speciality coffee companies are killing the artisan ones. Sure, Peet's coffee is usually not good. But it is 100% consistent in how it's not good. If you know how you like it - it will always be that way.


Life is all about watching the pendulum swing - and go past it's optimal point. By overshooting again and again we get a better idea of accurate targeting.

This is true with coffee as well. And right now, the pendulum has swung too far when it comes to espresso. We can see the obvious drivers (a return to brewed coffee, single origin espresso, better equipment, baristas becoming roasters / green bean buyers, etc) but what's important is to look at the results. I'd honestly say that (for the top coffee companies in the US) the espresso over all has become less pleasurable over the last 2 years. It's become more interesting, for sure, but it's not as enjoyable.

It would be worthwhile I think to start reconsidering desired flavour profile in creating espresso. The current models (particularly the "nothing but sweet and tart" model) seem to rarely produce espresso that is actually something you'd enjoy drinking every day.

So... those are my hopes.
Do I think we're going to do any of them or see any of them being addressed?

I have no idea - but I can dream now can't I.