random retrospective

2011 in coffee... where do i start?

it was an "interesting" year to say the least.

so let's go through the various highlights, lowlights and "odd" lights from the year.

Trends of the Year

1. Light Roasts. Driven by a range of trends (young coffee professionals differentiating themselves from their mentors, re-adoption of brewed coffee among professionals, scandinavian roasters, ExtractMojo, etc.) 2011 was the year of the light roast. The good results are that fewer and fewer coffees taste like ash-trays and that roasters have less ability to hide inferior and defective beans. The bad results are that many roasters don't have the skills required to light roast coffees well and most of all that we are returning to the age when our messaging to consumers is all about roast degree (rather than flavour etc).

2. Business Investments and Scaling. Stumptown takes a huge chunk of cash from a PE firm in order to scale the business. Much back-biting and smack-talking follows. Then it becomes clear that a bunch of the shit-talking competitors have done the same. It is highly likely that 2012 will continue this trend and introduce a round of consolidation as well, where these capitalized larger artisan coffee businesses proceed to acquire smaller competitors to grow inorganically.

Innovations of the Year

1. VST baskets. These baskets introduced basket design as a serious component of espresso to the coffee world. The research done by the VST crew inspires dozens of others to start looking at the differences between baskets and effects on extraction. In 2012 we should see some additional work done that answers some of the now glaring and obvious questions that have been raised as a result. It is highly likely that we will see a far better understanding of espresso come out of this process - and a number of new baskets that give baristas a far better "quiver" to work with (as opposed to the obviously flawed "one size fits all" model we have at present).

2. EP Sproline groupscreen and screw. While everyone in coffee was talking about the VST baskets and (in some cases) were radically overstating the results of them -- no-one was talking about another new product that was equally innovative and effective. These precision parts also improved extraction and dramatically decreased cleaning and contamination challenges.

Lessons of the Year

1. Espresso and brewed coffee are different. We've gone through a series of massive shifts in the way we think of espresso. From a specific flavour profile beverage to just another method of preparing coffee. At this point it seems like the pendulum has swung too far and espressos are starting to taste simply like a heavily concentrated and reduced cupped coffee. As a result, the primary goal of a "good tasting" beverage seems to have been abandoned by the wayside. The two beverages are different, but should both taste good. They do not, however, need to taste "the same" (especially if "the same" in either case means "bad").

2. Working with growers yields great results. The quality of green coffee from top producers continues to improve - but more importantly, more and more producers are taking the leap to "top producer" status (by quality). In a very large percentage of cases, this leap has been fueled by a collaborative relationship between a roaster and a grower. This direct and collaborative relationship is the emerging model for creation of truly world-class coffees. I'm really happy that more and more roasters are investing in these relationships.

3. Online conversations about coffee are frustrating and largely counterproductive. I've walked away from all coffee websites at this point. Being involved in the discussions on these sites has made me incredibly jaded and cynical about all people involved in all parts of the coffee experience. I chose to disengage because I want to continue to love coffee. I would suggest others consider this if they find themselves starting to hate people who are passionate about coffee.

Hopes for Next Year

1. Fewer sour coffees. In 2011 I had three coffees that were entirely green in the center of the bean (literally unroasted). Two of these coffees came from "highly regarded" roasters. The majority of coffees I evaluated from US roasters in 2011 had between noticeable and severe sourness. When cupping with "taste" professionals (sommeliers etc) who are not coffee pros, the biggest complaint in 2011 was sourness in the cup.

2. More honesty in coffee. People in the coffee world need to stop saying that they like competitors' coffees when they actually dislike them. People in the coffee world need to stop keeping their mouths shut about Sumatran coffee and Monsooned coffees etc etc. Consumers take our dishonesty and our silence as truth and when less reputable coffee companies market negatives as positives, the consumers don't know better. Time to call bullshit on the... well.. bullshit.

3. Better customer service. For the fourth year in a row I hope that this year is the year that going to a good coffee bar in the US is a consistently good experience rather than simply a way for hipsters to judge you as lame and undeserving of their artistic and under-appreciated genius (and luxurious facial hair).

Espressos of the Year

1. Tim Wendelboe Honduras Cielito Lindo Espresso. Showing that a very light roast coffee can still be wonderfully balanced, complete, sweet, fully developed and not sour at all. A revelation.

2. Stumptown Guatemala Finca El Injerto Bourbon Espresso. Perfectly nuanced, balanced, flexible and layered. The first single origin espresso in my memory that I would consider replacing a blend with for "each and every day for the rest of my life" purposes.

Fails of the Year

1. Numerous undrinkable shots of espresso from well-regarded coffee bars. I threw out more shots of espresso from top coffee bars in 2011 than any year before. Quality of espresso served in the top coffee bars in the US seemed in my experience to decline from 2010 to 2011.

2. Numerous severely under-developed coffees. In part, the above "bad espresso" fail was due to the severely under-developed coffees that many baristas were having to work with. As the US coffee world adopted lighter roast coffees, many failed to understand that roasting lighter requires a different approach and profile for roasting. A huge percentage of coffees evaluated in 2011 were under-developed in the roast. Where this become seriously problematic was in espressos - where many coffees were actually impossible to prepare well as a result. I'm hoping that I don't taste a single espresso in 2012 that tastes like piping hot cranberry concentrate with a dash of lab grade citric acid as a topper.

3. Restaurant coffee. Another year where restaurant coffee sucked. Another year where I stupidly tried... again and again. Local favorites, Michelin starred places... all the coffee sucked.


James Hoffmann said...

Interesting to see your complaints about poor light roasting. Of the disappointing cups I had from the US in the last year, I think most of the roasting issues were still more on the dark side of thing than too light.

That said, I didn't have a staggering number of coffees from the US last year and I had some very good ones too.

Also - bit confused about your fondness for the Sproline screens. Unless they're radically different from the TX ones that shipped a while back I found them extremely problematic and requiring way more cleaning than a normal screen because coffee would start to clog the holes causing all sorts of problems.

chris said...

Thanks James.

I don't think we had any less over-roasted or mis-roasted (dark) coffee in the US in 2011 than in 2010. The US is still littered with burnt coffee. But amongst the "artisan" roasters in the US, the pendulum has swung dramatically the other direction in the last 18 months. I think most US roasters are, frankly, still trying to figure out how to roast lighter. So it's no shock that a lot of this coffee could be described as "works in progress" (if I were charitable).

I'm comparing the sproline screen and screw to the stock LM screen and screw. For me, there is absolutely no comparison. The latter took daily soaking to keep clean. The former requires just a rinse and wipe down post backflush (for me).

Gary Seeman, Ph.D. said...

Hello Chris:

Sorry you've walked away from the forums. Some of the exchanges there have been uncivilized. I wanted to convey my appreciation for the wisdom you've left behind for exploring great coffee and espresso. Although I sent you an invitation to our 2/11 South Bay gathering, reading this lets me know you've pulled back. Take care, and I hope you keep posting on your blog.

Gary Seeman

chris said...


Thanks a ton for your kind words!