Appreciating Peet's

The approach to roasting that I chose for Allegro Coffee when I first had  carte blanche to do so (in 1993) was a synthesis of the classic full city style pioneered by Freed, Teller & Freeds, Schapira's and Pannikin and brought to perfection by The Coffee Connection, and the deep (misunderstood as merely dark) style I learned during the early days at Starbucks, which of course came from Peet's.

In theintervening years there have of course been many changes, but one thing that has remained constant at Peet's that I want to draw your attention to is a tremendous fidelity to green coffee and roasting standards despite huge growth and some pretty seismic changes in their business, what with going public, going private again, a fitful expansion process mostly in venues in which they have little control of product quality, management changes, etc.

These days to experience Peet's at its best you have be a knowledgeable mail order customer. The in-store experience, while better than Starbucks by a country mile, isn't what it used to be except in very limited areas. Their drip coffee brewing is absolutely state-of-the-art, but what's on offer is just as likely to be a boneheaded choice like French Roast as it is to be something exquisite like Ethopia Super Natural. Godawful milk drinks (what would Mr. Peet have thought of Pumpkin Chai Latte?) are heavily promoted, and you can't buy a brewer worthy of their coffee (other than a plunger pot) or anything worth drinking it out of.

Needless to say, for those like me that remember many years of exquisite handmade cups at Vine Street and the sure knowledge that any non-coffee item on offer, from Richard Donnely dark chocolate laced with Peet's Arabian Mocha Java to June Taylor preserves, would surely meet Jerry Baldwin's product sourcing criteria ("Is it as good as the coffee'?) today's retail experience is but a shadow of former greatness.

On the mail order side though, they still roast your coffee to order, and hey, you get a full pound, properly packaged in a Fresco valve bag, for much less than 12 ounces of stale single origin city roast at your local Third Wave outlet. You also get - again in sharp contrast - a truly representative selection of country-of-origin flavors, from a reliably superb Guatemalan Antigua to deeply fruited Kenya, real Yemen Mocha and perhaps best of all the full range of Indonesian classics, from reference-standard Sumatra to semi-aged and exquisitely complex Sulawesi.

You'll have to buy the Aeropress that best suits these coffees (or your Clever Dripper, Technivorm, Bonavita, and your Baratza grinder, etc.) elsewhere, but you'll have nothing to complain about when you taste the coffees, provided (if all you've been drinking is light roasts) you give your palate a week or more of steady exposure to recalibrate itself to the roast style.

For newcomers I'd recommend sticking to Peet's African and Indonesian selections at first, since the virtues of their roast style are more easily perceived in these dramatic coffees. This is a style that puts body and depth in the foreground and relegates acidity to a supporting role. It's port rather than still wine, so to speak, though when I think of the style I always remember Peet's roastmaster emeritus Jim Reynolds and his admiration of Ridge single-vinyard Zinfindels and 23 year old Guatemalan Ron Zacapa, both of which seem to me like perfect analogues to the Peet's coffee style.

These are coffees that while excellent brewed drip really come into their own through pressurized brewing methods, from Aeropress to French Press to commercial-grade espresso machine. The differences between the coffees are just as vivid as you'll find in lighter roasts of the same beans, albeit with less aromatic complexity (but far deeper body).

For those who can summon some level of appreciation for this roast style but who wonder why all the coffees have traditionally been roasted so thoroughly, I will also offer this fading memory from a former Starbucks insider's perspective (and as the tea buyer for Starbucks back when it was a place for full leaf Hao Ya A Keemun and Namring Darjeeling instead of Tazo teabag swill): remember the importance of tea at Peet's. Mr. Peet was just as serious about tea as he was about coffee, and to this day the company does a superb job with its tea sourcing and devotes resources to tea that far outstrip its position in the overall sales.

What does this have to do with coffee? Well for an employee just as for the most discriminating customers there's usually a progression from the coarse (French Roast vs. Folger's) to the subtle (the sublime balance of a Guatemalan Antigua vs. the wild fruit of a natural Ethiopian Harrar), and tea offers a whole different order of subtlety and a far gentler caffeine "ramp up" than coffee. Another way to put this is that the real connoisseurs among both employees and consumers are most often both coffee and tea drinkers - and you can afford to have all of your coffees be plush and rich when you can so easily get your acidity and aroma "fix" from first flush Darjeelings, lemony Nuwara Eliya Ceylons and so on.

These days I buy my tea from Upton but I've been enjoying an Aeropress of Peet's on many a morning over the past six months. Ethiopian Queen City (a fancy name for what was in fact a classic Harrar), a string of great Kenya auction lots, Arabian Mocha Java that thanks to upgraded Java (and despite so-so Yemen) is better than ever, Sulawesi and Aged Sumatra that are as good as an I've had in 40 years of drinking Peet's. Hat's off to Peet's coffee and tea buyers and roasting team (and with the ever-present faint hope that they take over the place one day and make everything else just as good as the coffee).

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