Two points of entry into the original taste of coffee, two generations of roaster-retailers


I just finished spending 4 days in Portland, Oregon and am now visiting family in northern Washington State. While I was in Portland I hung out at Stumptown and at owner Duane Sorenson's wonderful new bakery, called Roman Candle, whose world-class pastries are now found at both the bakery and Stumptown stores.

I tasted a bunch of coffees at Stumptown, and the stand-out among several impressive coffees was this Ethiopia Chelbassa Yergacheffe, a reference-standard coffee of a caliber I haven't tasted in many years. When I got home I had a mail order from Peet's awaiting me that included several pounds of their limited edition Ethiopia Queen City, a full-throttle Harrar that's just as classic as the Yergacheffe, though obviously the processing of the bean and the roast could hardly be more different.

Tasting these two great coffees offers the opportunity for several reflections that feel timely to me, especially given what I've seen going on with roasting, particularly, where I'm seeing more and more production roasts that are actually too light for cupping, let alone sale to consumers, while fully-developed classic full city roasts have become hard to find. To be clear, I'm not talking about Stumptown here, which has sourcing capabilities and precision in their roasting that put them head-and-shoulders above most smaller players.

First, some specifics about these particular coffees. I bought the Chelbassa at the original Stumptown store on SE Division Street. It was roast-dated four days prior to my purchase, in a 12 ounce plain tin tie bag, and it cost $16.50 for 12 ounces, or $21.92 per pound. The Peet's was $15.95 for a full pound, roasted to order, vacuum packaged and nitrogen back-flushed, to order, in a Fresco valve bag, with free shipping due to the promotion going on at the time.

The roast on the Yergacheffe is classic City - probably in the high 70's on the Agtron scale. The Harrar meanwhile is full-on Peet's deep roast....an educated guess would put the Agtron number (all of these are for ground, by the way) in the high 30's to low 40's.

The Peet's, roasted on July 11th and opened on the 23rd, was, unsurprisingly, the fresher of the two coffees, and would of course have remained so unopened for another 8 weeks or so. That might seem irrelevant, but the more sophisticated packaging enabled me to order more of a rare coffee than I otherwise would have been able to use, which certainly benefited both Peet's and me.

The Stumptown Yergacheffe is dazzlingly aromatic, with notes of lemon, jasmine and lavender and mouthwatering acidity. It's at its best in a vacuum pot or perhaps better paper filter drip, to mute the screaming acidity a bit.

The Peet's Queen City is just as aromatic, but we're talking blueberry, chocolate, matured Virginia and Latakia pipe tobacco and a shelf full of Asian spices. The roast calls for Aeropress or French Press, or a commercial espresso machine for the truly daring.

These two coffee types - manicured washed and well-chosen natural - of Ethiopian coffee, together, represent the original taste of coffee altogether, from the Motherland. They deserve a lot of respect - reverence, even - from coffee professionals and connoisseurs alike.

I liked both coffees equally, but I can only think of a handful of coffee professionals I know who are capable of appreciating both of these coffees at their respective degrees of roast. Savvy consumers could certainly appreciate both coffees, but good luck to them finding them, as washed Ethiopians in the style of the Stumptown coffee here (though admittedly not at its quality level) are now commonplace among Third Wave roasters, while great  naturals like the Peet's Harrar are exceedingly hard to find.

As a consumer now rather than a green coffee buyer who gets to take home the best for free, I feel obliged also to draw your attention to the big difference in price, which pertains not just to these two coffees but to coffees in general at top Third Wave roasters vs. all other sources of whole bean coffee. The Stumptown coffee is over 25% more expensive than the Peet's, which in addition to being cheaper is far better  (and much more expensively) packaged, and undergoes 5-7% more shrink during roasting. A Kenya Auction lot from Stumptown from the same visit was $22.50 for 12 ounces - nearly $30 per pound, while a pound of Peet's Kenya Auction Lot bought at the same time as the Ethiopian was $16.95, and the two coffees were of roughly equivalent quality.

To give credit where it's due, the use of Grain Pro packaging and expedited shipment, especially of African coffees, is a very real and tangible improvement in quality that Stumptown and other top Third Wave roasters deserve credit for helping to make happen, and it costs money. Nevertheless, that improvement certainly doesn't mean that the overall quality of coffee being bought at Third Wave places is better than what Peet's, Illy and several other sizable companies have been doing for decades.

More microlots, more marketing, farm travel and the like cost serious  money, but so does packaging coffee so that it stays fresh for months rather than days and brewing it properly in precisely-calibrated drip equipment in-store (as Peet's does and today's Third Wave folks generally don't). Whole bean freshness and precision brewing of all the coffee (not just espresso shots and latte art) are a vital part of getting the quality the farmer worked hard to achieve into the cup of the consumer who pays the bills. Total quality - not just that of incoming green - and value-for-money spent are also decisively important. So, too, is having a reasonable number of coffees to choose from, and there were exactly seven single origin coffees (four washed Centrals, 2 washed East Africans and one Indonesian) at the store I shopped in in Portland, vs. 12 at Peet's representing all three great growing regions and the full range of washed, semi-washed and natural processing methods.

Having bent over backward to give credit where it's due to Peet's I'll end by saying that the overall experience at Stumptown is far more enjoyable and of a piece. Stumptown is asking - and answering - the question "is it as good as the coffee?" - about architecture, brewing equipment, pastry, serve ware, training, education and everything else going on in the store carefully and in the affirmative, which results in a sense of trust in an ongoing commitment to excellence and continuous improvement that Peet's had decades ago and has long since lost in pretty much every area other than buying, roasting and in-store brewing. Here's hoping Stumptown can keep it simple and great as they grow, and that more diversity in origins and roasts come to pass as the Third Wave evolves.




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